Battle of Donbass: Ukrainians face tough choices as war approaches

The noise of war is constant in the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, with artillery and rocket duels on the northern horizon. And even though Gennadi Borishpol is not easily frightened, he knows his hometown is one of the next targets of Russia’s march into Donbass.

“It’s been much stronger these days,” says Mr Borishpol, a former firefighter who was a first responder to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. “Every other day there’s incoming shelling.”

Why we wrote this

Even in times of war, the desire to defend and protect one’s home is strong. As Russian troops close in on the eastern town of Bakhmut, many residents are reluctant to leave the only life they have ever known.

For now, he stays put, reluctant to flee the birthplace of his father and grandfather and leave behind the hostel he runs for displaced people. But like its neighbours, it grapples with resignation, patience and the need for courage every day more evident as the potential for an all-out assault looms.

“It has become the same as Syria: it’s not a war, just a massacre,” says Liudmila Krylyshkina, a retired chief engineer. But she stays put. Her friend refused to go and she was afraid to go alone.

Serhii Sobolev, an evacuation driver, says that since late June the number of people in his van and others has increased from a handful to hundreds.

“The buses are full every day,” he says.

Bakhmut, Ukraine

Gennadi Borishpol does not scare easily. But he knows his hometown of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine is among the next targets of Russia’s march into Donbass.

The noise of war is constant, with artillery and rocket duels on the northern horizon. Explosions of outgoing Ukrainian bullets erupt from within the city; incoming fire is mounting, including a Tuesday night strike that officials say left one civilian dead.

“You can hear it – the frontline is coming,” said Mr Borishpol, a former firefighter who was among the first responders to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

Why we wrote this

Even in times of war, the desire to defend and protect one’s home is strong. As Russian troops close in on the eastern town of Bakhmut, many residents are reluctant to leave the only life they have ever known.

But that was two weeks ago. Now Russia’s war has come much closer.

“It has been much stronger these days,” says Mr. Borishpol, reached by telephone on Wednesday. “Every two days there are shellings. One was last night. But still, at least, it’s not every day.

For now, he stays put, reluctant to flee the birthplace of his father and grandfather. Then there is his responsibility to others: he is in charge of a home where people displaced by war, including elderly people brought by neighbors from nearby villages, can find temporary shelter, food and shelter. bed.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

Retired senior engineer Liudmila Krylyshkina speaks about the challenges of life in wartime, as the Russian offensive to capture all of Ukraine’s Donbass region draws closer to the industrial city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on 24 June 2022.

Like many of his neighbors, he struggles with resignation, patience and the need for courage which is more evident every day. Some townspeople deny that war is coming – or that it is coming for them. But for those who recognize the potential for an all-out assault as well as a Russian occupation, tough decisions about whether to stay or leave their lives behind for an uncertain future weigh heavy. They are made even more complex by the ubiquitous Russian television news, which portrays Ukraine as the aggressive nation, even bombarding its own cities in a conspiratorial play for global sympathy.

a few kilometers away

Russian forces are within 10 miles of Bakhmut, by some estimates, although they have made little progress in recent days since President Vladimir Putin ordered a rest and regroup after capturing Severodonetsk and Lysyschansk in late June. Over the weekend, Bakhmut was hit by Russian incendiary munitions, which burned homes and civilian property. It was one of nearly a dozen cities Russia has targeted in the frontline arc of Donbass, an industrial heartland in eastern Ukraine that Russia is committed to capturing.

“It’s never too late to jump on one last bus with Ukrainian soldiers if they have to retreat,” Borishpol said. “Until then, this is my home and I believe in the power of the Ukrainian army.


THE SOURCE: Institute for the Study of Warfare and the AEI Critical Threats Project

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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Despite his calm demeanor, a woman sitting on the back steps of the hostel building reveals the tension, berating the Chernobyl veteran for talking to a foreign reporter.

“When the press arrives, the bombings arrive!” she shouts, before getting up angrily and going inside.

It’s a common refrain of paranoia in this Russian-speaking city, where “normality” has been redefined by the gnawing fear of encroaching conflict. Residents are all too aware of the violence elsewhere, which has left entire towns destroyed by weeks of bombardment.

“I think I should leave,” says Liudmila Krylyshkina, a retired chief engineer with three college degrees in finance and law. As she speaks in late June, the ominous sounds of war in the background are constant, like rolling thunder.

“We want to believe that everything will be fine. We are sure that the soldiers will protect us,” she said, pushing back her gray locks. “We have a strong spirit; they will not abandon us.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

A Ukrainian woman and a girl stand near a pharmacy closed to avoid shell damage, but marked as open, in Bakhmut, Ukraine June 26, 2022. The Russian capture of the city of Severodonetsk last week has raises the stakes in Bakhmut.

Bakhmut has been hit by Russian ammunition several times, but not yet consistently.

“These people who have been in places with active shelling, you can see it in their eyes,” says Ms Krylyshkina. “I never thought we would get to this point, where the war would come.

“It has become the same as Syria: it’s not a war, just killings, a massacre of people,” she said. “How can you imagine people just sleeping in their beds and getting killed? It’s super cruel.

Two weeks later, contacted by telephone, Ms Krylyshkina said she could not leave. Her friend refused to go and she was afraid to go alone. It is now an integral part of the hostel.

Doubts about who is telling the truth

Across town, in a park with a memorial marking the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl’s collapse, pensioner Nelly Rudenchyk sits on a bench in the shade of a purple plum tree and marvels at ” the beauty” of swallows flying around catching insects.

She lives alone, but says she can’t leave because “you need a pocket with a big wad of cash, and I don’t have any”. Although she has family in Poland, “they don’t need me there,” she says.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

Pensioner Nelly Rudenchyk sits in a park in Bakhmut, Ukraine on June 26, 2022. She is not convinced that Russia is responsible for the war, or that Russian troops have committed atrocities: ‘People are making up stuff themselves. I don’t know what’s going on.

She has in mind a Cold War song from the 1960s, which became well known in the Soviet Union, titled “Say, do the Russians want a war? He describes how sincere Russian intentions were misinterpreted by the West, which Rudenchyk says is happening today.

She doesn’t watch TV because of the “negative energy” it brings, and says she gets her information from those who might randomly sit next to her and talk. She doesn’t care if Russian troops take Bakhmut, because Russians and Ukrainians are “the same” and “someone put us in a fight.”

“I feel sorry for the children who were not evacuated; they start to stutter,” she says, her words disturbed by the frequent barking of dogs abandoned by those who fled. Yet she is not convinced that Russia is responsible for this war, or that Russian troops have committed the verified atrocities near Kyiv and on the battlefield since February.

“People make stuff up themselves,” Ms. Rudenchyk says, incredulous when asked about Russian actions. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Serhii Sobolev, an evacuation driver for a Ukrainian non-governmental organization called Help People, is fully aware of what is happening. By the end of June, his Bakhmut van had only half a dozen residents seeking safety in towns far to the west.

“Most of the people who stay, they sit and wait until the very last moment when the shells fall around them,” Sobolev said at the time.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor

Evacuation driver Serhii Sobolev, who works for the Ukrainian charity Help People, prepares to evacuate half a dozen residents on June 26, 2022. He says the number of people choosing to leave has increased as the sounds of war have come closer.

That balance has now shifted and the charity group delivered 50-60 tonnes of food, medicine and toiletries last week. Eight vehicles evacuated 300 people from Bakhmut and other towns in Donbass, including Soledar, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, where water, gas and electricity were cut off.

“Now more people are leaving. The buses are full every day, ”says Mr. Sobolev, reached by telephone on Wednesday.

Not among them Serhii Pogorelov, a municipal electrician, whose house was hit by several shrapnel from artillery fire. Rockets also slammed into two buildings a stone’s throw down the road, collapsing three floors of one and removing an entire corner of the other.

“This is our land; I was born here,” Mr. Pogorelov says, his fingers stained red from picking cherries. His wife works in a hospital and he installed the generator in the hostel for people displaced by war.

“No, we won’t change our minds about leaving,” he said. ” It’s my house. And we still have work to do. »

Oleksandr Naselenko supported the reporting of this story.

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