The war returns to Donbas

Paweł Pieniążek from Kramatorsk – 04/08/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

CORRESPONDENCE FROM PAWEŁ PIENIĄŻEK: Eight years ago, the war started right here, in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Today, anyone that can is trying to evacuate from these cities.

It is just before noon on Friday, April 8. Bodies lie near the train station in the Donbas city of Kramatorsk from which an evacuation of Donetsk oblast residents has been taking place for many days. Streaks of blood are visible here and there.

A woman passes by. She is in tears, looking for her loved ones. Lyudmila, a pensioner, was at the station when a rocket launched from a Tochka-U system hit. Her husband, Volodymyr, had just gone to the bathroom and was hit by shrapnel.

Now the two of them are sitting on a bus. One that is supposed to take people from Kramatorsk, because the evacuation trains have been paused. In recent days, the tracks leading from Donbas towards the Kharkiv Oblast have come under fire several times. No one knows how much longer the trains will run.

Volodymyr was bandaged up immediately after the attack. It is already completely soaked with blood. “No, there’s no point in going to the hospital,” he says calmly. “I’ll take care of everything on arrival.”

Volodymyr and his wife Lyudmila want to leave Kramatorsk as soon as possible after what they’ve experienced. The shrapnel in his leg and the oozing blood are not enough to stop them. He says he has already been bandaged and there will be no further discussion. He’s going somewhere far from home, somewhere deep into Ukraine.

Bracelets

Almost in the center of the square in front of the station lies the body of the rocket, with the phrase “for the children” spray-painted on it. What the Russian soldier who wrote it meant is unknown. He probably figured it would be revenge for the missiles that also hit cities controlled by Russians and separatists. This particular rocket with the inscription “for the children” killed — according to preliminary information — 39 people, including four children. About 100 people sustained injuries, many severe, including the loss of limbs.

The body of the girl — maybe a few or a dozen years old, it is impossible to tell — has already been placed on foil, covered with a white sheet. Fragments of clothing stick out from under it: jeans, a light jacket, and bracelets. As military medics lift the sheet to transfer the body to the car, which is already crammed with corpses up to the roof, the men struggle to hold back tears.

They know that it’s just the beginning. Two cities — Kramatorsk with a population of 150,000 and the neighboring Slovyansk with 110,000 inhabitants — are now threatened by another much more terrible version of the current war: a new Russian offensive aimed at conquering the entire Donbas.

As luck would have it, the Donetsk war began in these two cities exactly eight years ago, in April 2014.

Not quite precise weaponry

A few days before the Russians fired on this station, the roar of a jet engine was has heard flying over Kramatorsk in the night. Then there was a loud explosion. 38-year-old Vitaly had earlier gone to sleep in the hallway, where it is safer. He did so because he was awakened by the sound of a siren warning against an air attack. Now awakaned again, he ascertained that the whole apartment building was moving and the mirrors were shaking. He ran out onto the balcony and saw a glow. He didn’t know where exactly it hit.

It was only in the morning that he found out that a bomb had fallen on the school he had attended years ago. The bomb made a huge crater in the ground which quickly filled with water from broken pipes. It destroyed the building structure where the sports hall and canteen were located, leaving only rubble. Fortunately, no one was inside that night.

In the morning, Vitaly came to see the damage with his own eyes. He tried to remember which classrooms he had taken lessons in, but he couldn’t think very clearly.

“Russia is crazy,” says Vitaly.

About the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, he only speaks impersonally: “he”.

“He’s just crazy. He says they use precision weapons. So where, suka, is that precision?“ his voice rose.

The Russian pilot might have wanted to hit the adjacent police station.

Russia marches on Donbas

The Ukrainian authorities estimate that after withdrawing Russian troops from the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy oblasts, the main goal of the Kremlin should be an offensive on Kharkiv and above all on Donbas.

“The enemy is gathering all possible strike forces to achieve at least some tactical and strategic success in the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts,” Pavlo Kyrylenko, chairman of the Donetsk Regional Military Administration, admitted in an interview.

This was also one of the initial goals of — as the Kremlin calls it — the “special operation” launched on February 24, 2022: the capture of Donbas. And as with other goals, the Russians have not yet achieved it.

“The situation is difficult. There is continuous fire, and clashes along the demarcation line,” says Kyrylenko. “Many towns along it are in ruins.”

The “demarcation line”: this is the official name for the de facto front line in Donbas.

At the end of the first week of April, the situation looks like this: the Russians are attacking from the city of Izium in Kharkiv Oblast to the north (some 40 kilometers north of Slovyansk), as well as from the south. The goal is clear: they are trying to surround the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, which have been under the control of Ukraine since 2014, and to encircle the Ukrainian forces fighting there. They are in turn trying to break Ukrainian positions along the demarcation line (front) from the east in the vicinity of Popasna in the Luhansk region, and near Avdiivka & Mar’inka in the Donetsk region.

It is because of this threat that Ukrainian authorities have been calling for the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to evacuate deep into Ukraine for the past several weeks. The aim is to reduce the number of possible casualties among the civilian population, as well as to facilitate the operations of their own armed forces.

Road into the unknown

The inhabitants of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, neighboring cities, have been gradually leaving them since February 24 — since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. Recent days, however, have been panicked. The cause is the calls by the authorities (now taken more seriously), difficulties in everyday life and the slowly approaching sound of artillery barrages. And also, probably, the scenes from Bucza and other cities from which the Russians have withdrawn, leaving behind the graves and bodies of killed civilians.

Shop windows have been boarded up with plywood. Large signs are visible on the few that are still operating: “Open”. Their shelves grow more empty every day, although food prices have risen significantly. Top-shelf products that people cannot afford usually remain. Bread appears from time to time.

Most of the store owners plan to close them in the coming days, as soon as they sell the remaining stock. Products that are not popular today, as well as equipment (e.g. self-service checkouts), are being transported away. Banks have closed almost all their branches and only individual ATMs are in operation, now crowded with people. Bicycles are gaining popularity, because lines of cars stretch in front of the few operating gas stations.

Recently, many people have been waiting for the possibility of evacuation at railway stations, especially in Kramatorsk. Mainly women, children and older men.

A few days ago, 61-year-old Nina with her 35-year-old daughter Anastasia and three grandchildren (the youngest girl is one year old) were waiting for a train from Slovyansk to Uzhhorod in western Ukraine, more than 1,100 kilometers from Slovyansk. They took one suitcase and one bag in which they put away clothes and food for the children.

“We haven’t arranged anything. We do not even know if we will be able to get on the train,” said Anastasia and pointed to the stroller with the baby. “We don’t even know when this train will arrive.”

As we talked, the air-raid alarm siren wailed without pause, but no one paid any attention to it. These alarms are so common that people are already used to them.

It is precisely this journey into the unknown, the uncertainty and the prospect of starting all over again that keep many Donbas residents from evacuating. Especially the elderly, who have rarely or even never left their oblast. Some are also staying for the sake of sick or infirm family members.

“I don’t want to leave, but what are we supposed to do, where can we hide? I have to save the children!” Anastasia said.

Her husband stayed behind in Slovyansk.

This is a more terrible war

Back eight years ago, in April 2014, after the protests in Kyiv’s Maidan and the annexation of Crimea, local separatists and Russians arriving from the Russian Federation occupied Slovyansk, as well as Kramatorsk and several other cities.

This gave rise to the establishment of two unrecognized republics subordinated to Russia in the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. For almost three months Slovyansk, being the headquarters of anti-Ukrainian armed groups, became the main site of conflict. It was quickly surrounded by Ukrainian forces. There were fierce battles, during which mainly the outskirts of Slovyansk were affected. The city was withering and after being blockaded it began to run out of almost everything, including water, electricity and gas. Finally on July 5, 2014, Ukrainian troops regained control of the city. Its inhabitants for a long time afterward continued to live with the uncertainty that the conflict would again return to their homes.

Nevertheless, Anastasia and Nina remained in Slovyansk this whole time. They did not think that — despite the gunfire and fighting, despite the difficulties with procurement of everyday items — the situation was serious enough to leave. Now they are leaving Slovyansk before the fighting even reaches the city.

The belief that it may be worse than in 2014 is based on what is happening in other parts of Ukraine — like say those that are after all located not so far from Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, such as Mariupol in the south of the oblast, which has been under siege for over a month; a large part of the city has already been destroyed. The exact numbers of civilian casualties in Mariupol are not known, but could be in the thousands.

Nina has friends in Izium, which has been fiercely fought over and is now controlled by the Russians. “They told me that there they wipe everything off the face of the earth,” she concurs. “That is why we take the children, leave the house and go with almost nothing. There is no one left on our street.”

According to the data of the Ukrainian authorities in Izium from the beginning of April, 80 percent of the buildings there have been destroyed, and the Russians seem to be using a scorched earth tactic — destroying everything so that there is no means by which to defend and nothing to fight for.

“People”

Only part of the city’s inhabitants leave the city by train. Others leave them in their own cars. Hand-written signs: “Children”, “People” or “Evacuation” are often stuck to the windows. Others wait for buses to take away residents. Some of them leave from the Good News Evangelical Church in Slovyansk.

Yevhen, 42, has been associated with the Church for over two decades. Now he is one of the volunteers.

He himself is already an internal refugee: at the end of summer 2014, he along with his wife and three children left Khartsyz’k in the Donetsk Oblast, which has since found itself in the territory controlled by the unrecognized republic. They fled when, in nearby Ilovais’k, regular Russian troops and separatists were gradually surrounding Ukrainian forces. At the time, in August 2014, the fighting for Ilovais’k was one of the most terrible battles of that year. They also decided the course of the war then, because they stopped the Ukrainian offensive and deprived Kyiv of the possibility of regaining these territories for the next few years — although earlier, in July 2014, it seemed to be within reach.

Yevhen came to Slovyansk because — like in Khartsyz’k — there was an Evangelical church here, and, he emphasizes, its proximity is very important to him. At the time Slovyansk was once again controlled by Kyiv. And the Church transported people out of the cities under fire.

It was because of this experience that everyone knew what to do on February 24. As soon as the situation in Donbas worsened again, they began to help other people leave the most dangerous towns.

Recently, Yevhen and other volunteers thus helped the inhabitants of cities under fire in the Luhansk oblast. Now more and more people from Slovyansk itself are asking for help.

Hope

30-year-old Anastasia and 28-year-old Dmytro sit on a church bench with their three children; the oldest is 10 years old. They are waiting for a bus to Dnipro, the capital of the neighboring Dnipropetrovsk region. “We want to go anywhere. I have no exact plans for now. The most important thing is to get the children out. The strikes are getting closer and closer, and I can’t take it anymore,” says Anastasia.

She adds that after 2014 they already have experience: they know what war means. And this one is even more terrible than the one eight years ago.

Dmytro left Luhansk then, which is not controlled by Kyiv to this day. “This is the second time that I am leaving with the hope that I will return soon. It didn’t happen last time. I really want this time to be different,” he admits.

Fierce fighting took place in Luhansk eight years ago. Dmytro lived through it once, now he has no intention of experiencing anything like it a second time. So I do not want to delay evacuating — sometimes one day’s delay may decide whether a route is still passable.

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