Ukraine war: Eastern residents brace for Russian advance

  • By James Waterhouse
  • BBC Ukraine correspondent in the Donetsk region

Image source, BBC/XAVIER VAN PEVENAEGE

Image caption,

Residents of the Donetsk region, like Mariya, realize that they must flee the approaching Russian troops

In eastern Ukraine, the tide of this war has not only changed; it’s coming soon too.

“We know what’s going to happen,” says Mariya as she packs up the TV in her flat in Kostyantynivka. She has it delivered to Kiev before she makes the trip there with her son.

‘We’re tired all day [and suffer] mood swings and panic attacks. It’s constantly depressing and we’re scared.”

In February, Russia captured the strategic city of Avdiivka. Since then, the invaders have advanced further west, capturing several villages.

Ukraine says its forces are “holding fast.” But Russian forces are now attacking in five areas along the 1,100km front line.

And it is here in the eastern region of Donetsk that Ukraine’s defenders will be most tested.

People in cities like Pokrovsk, Kostjantynivka and Kramatorsk are now facing a fast-approaching front line and even occupation.

Mariya and her mother Tetyana find it increasingly difficult as the Russians get closer.

Image source, BBC/XAVIER VAN PEVENAEGE

Image caption,

Tetyana refuses to leave Kostyantynivka. “I’ve already left twice, what’s the point?” she says

Their city is littered with signs of the impending threat, 20 miles away.

Almost every street has a damaged building. Workers replace the gold panels of a church after they were blown away by a rocket attack on the neighboring train station, now destroyed.

Fear fills the cold air in this city, once part of the industrial heart of the former Soviet Union. Russia is slowly destroying Ukraine’s cities as it tries to take them. That is what is most feared here.

Mariya explains that her mother Tetyana remains, but she is confident that she will eventually follow her.

“I’ve already left twice, what’s the point?” says a defiant Tetyana from her apartment around the corner. She gives us slippers to wear in her house, which explains why it is spotless.

“It’s scary everywhere. The whole country is on fire.”

Her eyes become moist. It’s one thing to live in your house for as long as possible, but it’s another thing entirely to risk death or Russian occupation.

While all of Ukraine is a war zone, the Donetsk region – along with four others – is a battlefield. As you weave through the dense forest and vast, rugged terrain, you always feel like you’re approaching the coal face of this conflict.

Image source, BBC/Hanna Chornous

Image caption,

Kostjantynivka train station, once a key frontline junction, was hit by a Russian missile in February

You can hear heavy fire up to 40 km away, so the distant sound of artillery is constant. From one vantage point you can see the erosion of Ukrainian territory.

Plumes of smoke are billowing from the direction of Avdiivka, a city Russia recently captured, and Horlivka, which it has controlled since 2014.

Russia is using its size, air superiority and greater munitions reserves to advance, at a time when Western military aid to Ukraine is running out or being held back by domestic politics.

Nearby is a wide valley with several reservoirs. It is this natural landscape that Ukraine says will allow its forces to “stabilize” the front line.

Perhaps, after chaotic withdrawals in the past, Ukrainian generals are willing to temporarily cede territory in the hope that it can be liberated in the long term.

On the other side of the front line is a small minority of people labeled as “Zhdun” by Ukrainians. It is a derogatory word meaning ‘waiters’, referring to those who are pro-Russian and waiting to be occupied.

It does not apply to anyone who ignores offers to evacuate. Some simply refuse to leave their homes and have become accustomed to the constant danger.

Valeriy is not one of them. After his house in the village of Toretsk was almost shot at twice, he takes his belongings and grandson Denys to a collection point.

Image source, BBC/XAVIER VAN PEVENAEGE

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Valeriy (left) and his grandson Denys left Toretsk with the help of the Ukrainian police evacuation team White Angels

With the Russians only three miles away, their neighbors wish them well but still refuse to leave. The pair then get into an armored police vehicle.

“I have already lived my life,” says the 67-year-old at the other end of his journey in Kostyantynivka. “But I have to save the little one.”

“I worked in the mines for 20 years, so I’m not afraid of anything, but I am worried about him,” he adds.

Denys, who is 14, nods approvingly. “My last boyfriend left three weeks ago,” he says.

Evacuation from frontline settlements is mandatory for families with children. Despite this, fifteen children still live in Toretsk.

Anton Pron from the White Angels police evacuation team, which helps people evacuate from frontline towns, tells us the situation is worsening every day.

“There is constant shelling and artillery,” he says. ‘Enemy aviation is constantly operating. The Russians only drop bombs on residential homes.’

Today, the train station in the nearby city of Kramatorsk is the last stop for arriving troops and increasingly for departing civilians laden with bags.

Image source, BBC/XAVIER VAN PEVENAEGE

Image caption,

Freight wagons are lined up on the platforms of Kramatorsk station to provide cover against Russian attacks

The distant rumble of artillery serves as a sobering welcome or reason to leave. Couples hold each other for a long time on a platform flanked by freight trains that provide protection in case of a missile attack.

At least 61 people died here in 2022. Traces of shrapnel still litter the pavement.

We meet Alla, who is waiting for her train to Kiev. “A year ago we thought we would get help from the West and that our counter-offensive would work, but not anymore,” she says.

“People used to believe, but now they don’t.”

Ukraine hopes that its eastern territories will one day be a safe place to live again. At this time it is unclear where these departing passengers will return.

Should the Russian invaders gain momentum in the Donetsk region, the question of where they will stop will become increasingly difficult to answer.

Additional reporting by Hanna Chornous and Scarlett Barter

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