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Lysychansk holdouts await end to Donbas attacks

Mykola Berdnyk
May 28, 2022

Lysychansk is in the small remaining area of the Luhansk region that Ukrainian forces still control. The Russian army has almost destroyed the town, but DW met some of the residents still holding out there.

A woman and her dog waiting for evacuation from Lysychansk
Waiting for evacuation from LysychanskImage: Mykola Berdnyk/DW

Heading into the Ukrainian city of Lysychansk, it is best to drive at high speed. Don't worry — no one is issuing speeding tickets on the road that leads into this city. Driving too slowly risks another kind of punishment: one meted out by a Russian soldier's gun. The Russian military is battling to control this stretch, running from the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut into Lysychansk, at any cost.

The route is called the "road of life" because it leads away from the fighting and allows humanitarian goods into this small area of eastern Ukraine still controlled by national forces. Russia's goal is to cut off Lysychansk and the neighboring city of Sievierodonetsk from the rest of the country. 

The bridge over the Seversky Donets River was destroyed.
The bridge over the Seversky Donets River was destroyedImage: Mykola Berdnyk/DW

The ghostly streets of Lysychansk, which was known for its industry and for being home to about 100,000 people before Russia started this war, are reminiscent of the images of Pripyat, the city near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant — after the reactor exploded. The difference is that Pripyat, while empty, was still standing. In Lysychansk there are bullet- and bomb-damaged stores and apartment buildings on every corner. 

No power, water

The air raid sirens heard daily around Ukraine, from Kramatorsk to Lviv, have long since fallen silent here. There's no electricity in Lysychansk anymore to power the sirens.

The city is continuously pounded with artillery, and explosives could land anywhere, at any time. Without sirens, the only warnings are the explosions, which come when it's too late to seek shelter. So the only rule here now is that when you hear the whistling sound of an incoming missile or a nearby explosion, lie down on the ground at once. 

Destroyed builings in Lysychansk
Lysychansk has been under heavy Russian bombardmentImage: Mykola Berdnyk/DW

The only place in Lysychansk that's still busy is the center that provides humanitarian aid. A few elderly people are inside the building and standing out front. Some are waiting for a bus that will evacuate them, others are looking for drinking water. Power, water and gas no longer function here, and the mobile phone network has also stopped working.

Vira Pavlivna had waited hours for the truck with drinking water, which delivers every two or three days. "It's very frightening, this thundering always above us," the 75-year-old said. "It's really not much of a life anymore. We sit in cellars and only go outside occasionally during the day."

An infographic shows eastern Ukraine, including the "road of life" and separatist territory

Fear of occupation

Like most of Lysychansk's remaining locals, Pavlivna prefers not to talk openly about politics. Everyone fears punishment should the city eventually be taken over by Russia.

"They'll execute me," Pavlivna joked, "so I don't go on babbling." She began to cry. "Who will take care of my cat then?" she said. "It's my children's cat."

Pavlivna's children left the city and went west to Dnipro, but they couldn't convince their mother to evacuate with them. "How am I supposed to live there on my pension?" she asked. "If I rented a flat, what would I have left?"

Buildings bearing marks or attacks by Russia
Damaged buildings line Lysychansk streets nowImage: Mykola Berdnyk/DW

There are still about 20,000 people left in Lysychansk and 12,000-13,000 in Sievierodonetsk, on the other side of the Seversky Donets River, which has been under far heavier bombardment. An accurate count is impossible, local authorities and volunteers say, because no one knows how many civilians are still hiding in their cellars.

'When there's light'

Most of the remaining people are pensioners. But, in one air raid shelter, we unexpectedly met some children. One of them, a boy no older than 5, kept offering us sweets from out of the humanitarian aid packages. After three months in this cellar, the children were pleased to see any visitors at all.

"We draw and we do our homework," a little girl said. Her eyes are irritated from being in the dark.

"When there's light, we will have maths and Ukrainian lessons again," a boy said. The children said their parents decided against evacuating because they were not sure where it might be safe.

Boy and girl sit on blankets on the floor, supplies and a candle burning in the background
Children still in Lysychansk have been living in a cellarImage: Mykola Berdnyk/DW

The thousands of civilians still remaining in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk are almost totally dependent on deliveries of aid. If groceries are available, they are only sold for cash, which is hard to get because the bank machines no longer work with the power out.

It is becoming more difficult to bring aid into the city as truck drivers are afraid of coming under fire from Russians. Though the "road of life" isn't controlled by Russia, there are saboteurs. An alternative route into the city is risky because it is partially unpaved and difficult to drive.

Evacuation options reduced

The options for feeding people in Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk — or evacuating them from them — are evaporating, said the governor of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai. "For three months, we've been trying to convince people to leave because the Russians will destroy these towns," he said. "This is an evacuation," he added, "not a deportation though."

Haidai said it was still possible to leave the area. "Even if just 10 people asked to be evacuated, we would try and get them out because they're our people. They are Ukrainians," he added.

Older people outside the aid center in Lysychansk
Lysychansk's aid center is among the few places with overt signs of civilian lifeImage: Mykola Berdnyk/DW

At the moment, only a few dozen residents can be evacuated from Luhansk's towns and villages every few days. We meet a small group of would-be evacuees at the humanitarian aid center in Lysychansk. Most of them are waiting for the bus inside the building. The volunteers at the center said they were afraid that larger crowds out on the street might draw artillery fire from the Russians.

Still holding out

Several people stood on the street anyway. They came originally from a smaller town called Bilohorivka, where there has been fierce fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian armies. The people barely reacted to the constant thunder of explosions and guns. "It's actually comparatively quiet here in Lysychansk," one man told us.

Asked why they had only now decided to evacuate, a pensioner named Halyna replied that they had thought the fighting might pass by their small town. "But now we're afraid," she said. "We want to live."

Destroyed cars in Lysychansk
Lysychansk is one of the last towns controlled by Ukraine Image: Mykola Berdnyk/DW

Before Halyna lay the dangerous journey toward Bakhmut. The people who remain in Lysychansk will have to endure the endless bombardment and the ever-worsening lack of food and water. It is possible that they will also eventually have to deal with Russian occupation.

Still, some of them haven't lost their optimism. One woman who left a bomb shelter to get some fresh air said she had a message for Ukrainian soldiers.

"Tell our boys to chase everyone here to hell," she said. "Our defenders will protect us." She added: "This is my Donbas. I was born here. And everything will be just fine."

This article was originally written in Ukrainian.

Ukrainian forces under pressure to pull out of Severdonetsk: DW's Rebecca Ritters reports