PAKHMUTT, Ukraine – Nina Zakharenko cried as she boarded a minibus to evacuate civilians as the Russian army advanced toward the city where she attended university, met her husband and raised her two daughters.
Mrs. Zakharenko is 72 years old now, and may be leaving town for good.
“I can hold on, I can hold on,” she said, finding the strength to stop crying. But Bakhmut was my only home.
The Russian army is now on the outskirts of the town of Bakhmut, and is intensifying its bombardment. The attack is part of Shubra’s assault on Donetsk province now that Luhansk province, another province Moscow has sought to control in eastern Ukraine, has fallen over the weekend to Russia.
The attacks on Bakhmut, a vital staging area for Ukrainian forces in recent weeks, reflect the creeping artillery tactic used by Russia to seize the last two standing towns of Luhansk, driving out the Ukrainian defenders – and almost everyone else.
At least half of the pre-invasion population of 6.1 million people in the two provinces – known collectively as Donbass – have fled the past months of fighting, Ukrainian officials and international aid groups said. Left by crowded railroad cars, crowded highways and desperate overnight trips, the two armies fight over largely deserted fields and streets, and the Ukrainian government faces the problem of millions without long-term homes.
Regardless of who wins, one thing seems clear: Few people are likely to return to Donbass anytime soon. It is not the obvious problem of destroyed cities and factories. Even before the war, the industrial zone was facing dim prospects. Now, whenever the fighting stops, its factories and coal mines become an unlikely driver for any recovery.
The war, which lasted nearly five months, destroyed the structures that keep cities functioning – factories, airports, railway stations – and destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, churches, and shopping malls. Ukraine’s prime minister, Denis Shmyal, said at an international donor conference in Italy this week that more than a quarter of a million people had registered homes as damaged or destroyed, and that the cost of rebuilding Estimated at 750 billion dollars.
The bombs are still falling.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned the donor conference that the task of rebuilding the country would be “enormous.” He said via a video link that the indiscriminate Russian bombing is not only an attempt to destroy Ukraine, but also to destroy Europe’s democratic vision.
“This is Russia’s attack on everything of value to you and me,” said Mr. Zelensky. “Therefore, the reconstruction of Ukraine is not a domestic project, not a one-state project, but a common task of the entire democratic world.”
Ukrainian officials said that Russian bombing began to intensify in the Donetsk region on Tuesday, a sign that a new offensive may begin. In Sloviansk, a Donetsk city on the road to Russia, Mayor Vadim Lyach urged residents to flee, saying the city was now on the front lines.
A better understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian war
He warned in an interview on Ukrainian television that “the artillery is already hitting the city,” saying that 40 houses had been destroyed by the bombing the previous day. He said in a Facebook post that one person was killed on Tuesday and seven others were wounded in an attack on the city’s central market.
The missile strikes on the city on Tuesday indicated that a day after President Vladimir Putin ordered troops in Luhansk to rest, if they did, other parts of the Russian military were already on the move. Military analysts believe that Russia will then try to encircle the cities of Bakhmut, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.
Mr. Zelensky pledged that Ukraine would regain the lost territories in the Donbass, and Ukrainian officials hoped to cut Russian supply lines with new, long-range weapons from the United States and European countries, such as the High Mobility Missile System. .
On Tuesday, Ukraine said it used one of its rocket launchers to strike an munitions depot in Dibrevny, about 40 miles from Russian lines, a sign that Ukrainian tactics are evolving.
But whether the Ukrainian forces, having suffered heavy losses in some places and endured weeks of bombardment, can follow up the long-range strikes with counterattacks is deeply questionable. For now, well-armed Ukrainian forces are retreating on the rolling plains, withdrawing from towns and villages in a brutal slow-moving battle that, Ukrainian officials said, sometimes kill 100 to 200 soldiers a day.
Residents standing in the way of Russia’s advance are not waiting to see if the tide will turn. When night falls, only one or two windows are illuminated along entire streets across the district. Storefronts stepped up. The town squares are empty.
Driving around Donbass now is to see a land without humans. The second and third lines of defensive trenches cut through the agricultural fields, but cultivators rarely appeared. Highways dotted through deserted cities and sprawling blocks of ruined factories.
In Bakhmut, a town with leafy streets and brick apartment buildings, which had a pre-war population of about 100,000, the streets are empty. Wind rustle on poplar trees. Stray dog grinder. A few military vehicles scurry back and forth.
Moscow justified the invasion in part as an operation to protect the Russian-speaking people of the Donbass, but only a small number of them actually held out until the Russian army arrived. Those who remained tend to care for sick family members, who are too poor to move around or try to protect property. Some support Russia, a group known as zhduny, or waiting.
Before the Russian invasion in February, about half of Donbass lived in areas controlled by Ukraine, and half in two Russian-backed enclaves that broke away from Ukraine in 2014.
On the Russian side, officials said they intended to evacuate 700,000 people, though it was unclear how many had actually left. On the Ukrainian side, the vast majority fled. In the Donetsk region, 80 percent of the population left before the invasion, regional officials say.
The communities near the front are scary ghost towns. Pavlo Boriko, who worked in a lab at a metallurgical plant, said that he saw no hope in his hometown of Bakhmut, and decided to leave. “I’m tired of this city,” he said. “For years, we’ve been on the front lines.”
But as Mr. Boriko was leaving with his 90-year-old father, he began to cry when he realized: “I will have to bury my father not in his homeland.”
Mr. Boriko’s wife and two daughters were already waiting in western Ukraine. He carried only a few bags, leaving the family home vacant behind along with thousands of others in Bakhmut.
Those who remain live temporary lives.
Svetlana Kravchenko, an activist who supported Ukrainian culture in Bakhmut, shipped her collection of folk art, traditional embroidered clothing, and most of her possessions to western Ukraine. “I packed all the valuables in bags and sent them from Bakhmut,” she said.
Now she sits in her empty house, the walls bare of art, and listens to the artillery approaching. She said she would leave if the city was about to fall, but only at the last moment.
Most of the companies are closed, but not that of Ihor Feshchenko – whose business is the installation of windows. His family left but he stayed on to make money installing plywood on the windows, either before or after they crashed.
“The best advertisement for me is the bombing,” he said.
The terrifying explosions drove more and more people away, and when they were leaving they ask Mr. Vishchenko to close their windows. “Once the city was bombed at night, I received dozens of phone calls in the morning,” he said.
When Oleksiy Ovchinikov, 43, a children’s choreographer, finally decided to leave, he entered his dance studio, called Grace, for the last time to pick up furniture and equipment. It was already stacked in a pile ready to move.
The driver ordered to load a car to the capital, Kyiv, where he moved his studio. Then he looked at the pictures he had left on the walls, for whomever he might find there, of children dressed in bright costumes and dancing in parades.
“They all left,” he said of the students.
The photos included a black and white photo of a little girl dancing and smiling for the camera.
Mr. Ovchinikov turned off the light and closed the door.
Contribute to reporting Carlotta Gal from Sloviansk, Ukraine; bengali shashank And the Matthew Mbok Big from London; Nick Cumming Bruce from Geneva; And the Dan Belevskyfrom Quebec,