'My grandson is in Denmark. My daughter is in Paris. I have lived my life already'

·6-min read
Ukrainians in Kramatorsk live every day in fear of invasion - AFP
Ukrainians in Kramatorsk live every day in fear of invasion - AFP

The sound of distant outgoing artillery rumbles daily through the deserted streets of the Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, not far from the fierce fighting around Severodonetsk.

Many people have already fled as the war crawls ever closer, but those refusing to leave grow increasingly anxious amid the thuds of shells.

Some have even been put off their knitting.

“I used to have a lot of hobbies, like sewing and knitting, but now in the circumstances my hands don’t want to do that. I have no inspiration,” Larissa said.

Her and Natalya, middle-aged neighbours who struck up a friendship after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, walk daily in the city’s beautiful Jubilee Park to pick berry leaves to make tea.

“We are collecting herbs and waiting for peace,” said Larissa, one of the last who do not want to abandon their homes as the Russian army closes in.

Women in a park in Kramatorsk, where blasts of artillery fire can be heard booming the distance - Julian Simmonds
Women in a park in Kramatorsk, where blasts of artillery fire can be heard booming the distance - Julian Simmonds

Last week they were joined by scattered elderly residents taking strolls past a towering Ukrainian flag that fluttered in the breeze. Others cast rods into the park’s muddy pond to catch fish to make soup. Anything to distract themselves from the thought of an impending invasion.

Russian forces are bearing down on their city, slowly but steadily, as they try to seize the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to achieve the “complete liberation” of the Donbas.

Russia now controls over 90 per cent of the Luhansk region, and almost the entire city of Severodonetsk, just 40 miles to the east of Kramatorsk, where Ukrainian forces are fiercely defending their last bastion at the Azot chemical plant.

Parts of the city resemble a war zone as Russian attacks continue - Anadolu
Parts of the city resemble a war zone as Russian attacks continue - Anadolu

The Russian goal of encircling Ukrainian troops defending the twin cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk is still some way off but Serhiy Haidai, Luhansk’s governor, on Tuesday described “catastrophic destruction” in civilian areas.

He said Russia had also used huge amounts of armaments to capture several settlements near the embattled cities, including the village of Toshkivka to the south.

The blasts of the encroaching battles can be heard in Kramatorsk. Artillery fire is already smashing nearby Bakhmut and Slovyansk, and the near constant wail of an air raid siren is a cruel reminder of what may be to come.

“It gets scary in the night when you hear the explosions and the sirens and the feeling of expecting something that might come here makes it really hard to endure,” said Larissa.

“It has become harder recently because the battlefield comes closer and closer to our hometown,” she said.

She added: “We are not leaving anywhere. This is our home, this is our land, and we will be here waiting for our heroes to liberate us and hopefully they will not let the Russians come and invade our city.”

But the mental stress of the constant soundtrack of war is taking its toll.

Men fish in the park in Kramatorsk in an attempt to keep up a sort of normalcy - Julian Simmonds
Men fish in the park in Kramatorsk in an attempt to keep up a sort of normalcy - Julian Simmonds

“It’s been hard recently. The city has not been shelled and bombed much but this siren is killing me. It’s going on for hours. It’s really hard to think,” said Ludmila, an elderly woman walking on one of the park’s patchwork of pathways.

Her eyes welled up when asked why she had not left.

“I sent my children away. My grandson works in Denmark. And my daughter is in Paris. They have their whole lives ahead of them and I have lived mine already. And where would I go? I don’t want to start over again.”

Only about 60,000 residents of once 215,000-strong Kramatorsk remain – some 70-75 percent of them elderly, according to city’s mayor, Oleksandr Goncharenko.

If Russia overtakes Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, many, including Mr Goncharenko, fear Kramatorsk, a strategic industrial town, may be next.

“Anything is possible. The situation can change at any time. Nobody is safe anywhere,” Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko conceded in an interview with the Telegraph.

Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko conceded Kramatorsk could be Russia's next target - Julian Simmonds
Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko conceded Kramatorsk could be Russia's next target - Julian Simmonds

“[Kramatorsk] could be the next target. The first target for the Russians is Severodonetsk. For both sides, it’s a political target. For us it’s politically important to protect and to hold the line there. For them it’s a principal question to occupy Severodonetsk,” he said.

“The first target is Luhansk, Severodonetsk, then the second target is Lysychansk, and I think only after that they would be more active in our direction,” he said.

It’s a terrifying thought given Russia’s current strategy of taking over towns and villages simply by destroying them.

“The Russians do not occupy cities or villages, they occupy territories,” said the mayor, explaining their tactic of first deploying rockets and air attacks, followed by long range artillery to push back Ukrainian forces.

“They do not think in any way about the infrastructure. For them it doesn’t matter what their target is because they do not think about possible future life in these cities or villages. For the Russians it is important to occupy territory, the administrative territory of Donetsk and Luhansk region.”

The doors and windows of the mayor’s office are protected by sandbags but the pristine white buildings framing the huge town square outside have so far been untouched by the war.

Mr Goncharenko said there had been no strikes on the city since early May, but it’s an uneasy calm.

On April 8, a total of 59 people were brutally killed and 110 injured in a Russian missile strike on the railway station as they waited to evacuate. Residential buildings and a school have also been damaged by shelling.

The city has long been in a precarious spot. In 2014, it was occupied for nearly three months by Russian-backed separatists during a standoff with Ukrainian armed forces.

For Mr Goncharenko, the only chance to relaunch peace talks is to stop Russian forces in their tracks, and the only possibility to do this is for the West to send long range weapons. It’s a refrain often repeated by the Ukrainian leadership but felt very acutely by those in closer proximity to Russian firepower.

“As long as we do not stop them and as long as the Russians feel they are successful, they are moving and coming closer. Without long distance artillery it’s impossible to stop them. We shoot 20km, they shoot 40km,” he said.

For now, his city is still functions - about one third of banks are still operating and shops are still open, although gas supplies have been cut off.

Nobody could have anticipated the new stresses of his job before February, but the mayor tries to stay upbeat.

“Thanks for coming!” he said. “Stay alive!”

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