‘My mom says the town is in ruins’ Relatives fear for Lyman’s remaining residents as Russia claims control of strategic Donbas hub
For several days now, Russian forces have been trying to capture Lyman — a strategic railway hub in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Russia is seeking to gain a foothold in Lyman in the hopes of pushing its offensive towards the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. Russian troops began storming Lyman on May 24, and Denis Pushilin — the head of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) — claimed full control of the town on the morning of May 27. In turn, Ukrainian officials said that Lyman is “mostly controlled” by Russian troops and fighting is ongoing. To find out what life is like for Lyman’s remaining residents, Meduza spoke to their relatives who left the town before it came under occupation.
Nataliya’s mother and stepfather are still in Lyman
We expected the war to happen sooner or later. But we thought that it would start with the Donetsk region. It turned out to be [war] everywhere, so my husband and I decided to leave. His parents came with us. This was in early March. We hardly took anything with us — we thought we’d be back in a month.
My mother stayed there. It’s perhaps a typical story for our region: my mother is one of those who was holding out for all this. Mom wanted Lyman to be part of the “DNR.” Mom wants to [join] Russia. So she decided to stay there.
Until the beginning of May, the situation there was more or less [okay]. Then Russian troops began to advance and shells started hitting Lyman. At first, my mom didn’t plan to hide in the basement, she didn’t stock up on food: my brother serves in the DNR [forces] and he told her that [capturing the Lyman] would take a day or two, and everything would be fine. So my mom and stepfather didn’t act in a responsible manner. They didn’t expect there to be such heavy fighting.
When everything started in early May, they moved to the basement. The Russian army started to get closer and widespread shelling started. The town is divided into two parts: on the larger, northern side there are private homes, and on the southern side there are multi-storey buildings. My mother and stepfather live on the southern side. Now, they are in the basement of a five-storey building, they’re down there almost all the time. There’s no light, nothing. They cook outdoors whenever possible — sometimes it’s not. They have to build a fire, heat up water, this takes a lot of time, and they’re frightened.
They only have cell service when mom goes up to the fifth floor. We spoke on the phone twice [on May 26]. Around 2:00 p.m., a shell hit their neighbor’s [apartment] and they were afraid the whole building would go up in flames. But they ended up with a huge hole where a wall and window used to be. The shell didn’t detonate.
The neighbor lived alone, his family left. He wasn’t home [when the shell hit], although he was staying in his place on the fifth floor most of the time. People didn’t want to leave because they didn’t think anyone needed us, no one was waiting for us anywhere. Many feared that [their apartments] would be looted and stayed because of that. Those who were holding out for the Russian army stayed, too. Some of them eventually stopped holding out hope. In our building, out of 60 apartments about 15–20 [people] stayed. Mostly people over 50. There isn’t a single undamaged building in the district.
We spoke [to my mother] around five o’clock in the evening. We talked for a long time, 10–15 minutes. Mom called and said that Russian troops entered the district half an hour ago — our district, the southern side. Our town is divided by a railway track and they [the Russian troops] had been trying to cross from one side of this railway junction to the other for three days. My friends told me this, as did my friends’ parents and my mom — they all live in the south.
As the [Russians] entered [the district] the assault stopped. It became calm in the south. For the first time in a long time, people were able to go outside, to cook food and eat dinner outside of the basement. Shells were no longer flying at them.
The last time my mom called me was around 9:00 o’clock in the evening. They had finished dinner [with their neighbors] and were sitting outside. [Meanwhile, Russian] soldiers had begun opening locked apartments. [They said] everyone’s documents would be checked tomorrow.
My mother didn’t expect [the shelling] at all. She was convinced that everything would go smoothly and peacefully. [When it all started] my mother got very scared. I was shocked: my mom’s a very confident person, she always comforts everyone. And here she was with her voice trembling. I was more afraid for her than ever. She was hysterical when the heavy shelling started.
My mom didn’t really interact with Ukrainian troops, because she was especially friendly toward them. Nevertheless, the military came every day and brought large volumes of humanitarian aid. When I was leaving [Lyman], I left my cat behind — in the end he was brought to me in central Ukraine through soldiers in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
My mom hasn’t stopped holding out for [Russian troops] because she believes that they were shelled by the Ukrainian army. Here’s a perfect example: the neighbor’s apartment was shelled from the northern side, when the Ukrainian army was no longer there. A shell can’t go around a building — [it] was fired towards the Ukrainian army. But when I told this to my mom, she was evasive: “The main thing is that we’re alive, property isn’t important.”
But at one point she told me, out of desperation, that she already hates everyone: both the Russian army and the Ukrainian army. “I just want this to stop,” [she said].
Name changed. Anna’s relatives are still in Lyman.
I’m from Lyman, many of my friends and relatives are there. [When Russia invaded] I was in Kyiv — I was woken up in the morning with the words: “The war has begun.”
We did everything in our power to try and get my grandmother and grandfather out of Lyman. It wasn’t easy, because they’re 75 years old. When you’ve lived in your country your whole life, close to your own people, and suddenly you’re told: “Move to another country 2,000 kilometers away,” it’s a difficult task.
My grandmother said that everything would be fine: “We’ll sit in the basement, no one will hurt us.” But of course I couldn’t [leave them there]. My grandparents left in early April, on the sixth, and the active phase [of the fighting] began sometime in early May. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised. We’re from the Donbas, there’s been war there since 2014. For us, it was a shock when it started in Kyiv.
My other relatives — my grandmother’s sister and her family — left a week ago. They had been in a basement the entire time, they only went above ground to get some fresh air and cook food over a fire. Their house was completely destroyed the day after they left. The neighbors said that there wasn’t even a trace of the house left. My relatives wanted their neighbors to look after their house, but now there’s nothing to look after.
We couldn’t get my boyfriend’s grandmother out: she can’t walk. It wasn’t even a question: his grandparents said they weren’t going anywhere. All this time, to this day, they’ve been sitting in a basement.
Our troops brought generators to the courtyards of the large highrises. They brought a bagful of pasta and the entire building came outside to cook it. They divided it up so there was enough for everyone to have a plate.
I think that it’s some kind of miracle that we’re still in touch, because many haven’t been able to reach each other for a month. My boyfriend somehow manages to get through [to his grandparents] every day. Perhaps they catch the signal because they’re on a hill. We call them every day, we hear [only] snippets of sentences, but [this means] they’re alive.
When we call, they say that everything is okay, it’s calm. I think they’re trying not to traumatize us and keep us from asking them: “Why don’t we get you out?”. But then they let slip that, for example, a [shell] hit the bathhouse in the yard. Things aren’t calm. In Kyiv, I heard explosions that were at a distance of 20 kilometers [or 12 miles] it’s terribly frightening. At that moment, you think that this is your last explosion. But I can’t imagine what it’s like when [a shell] flies into your courtyard and your bathhouse is shattered.
When we called yesterday or the day before [May 24 or 25] his grandmother and grandfather weren’t in the basement, but they were in a house close to it — just in case they had to run. But everything seemed to have calmed down, because they [Russian troops] had already entered [the town].
Our town is divided into two parts: the northern part and the southern part. They [Russian troops] entered from the north. Now they’re already in the south. [The Ukrainian authorities] said there were unconfirmed reports that the town had been surrendered. But this is confirmed, because we have people there and they said that [Russian] troops are walking around town checking documents.
Name changed. Oksana’s parents are still in Lyman.
[My husband and I] left in mid-March. On [March] 23, a rocket hit our house and we were left homeless. My parents stayed in Lyman. At the beginning of the war smartphones couldn’t get a signal, but my parents had a push-button phone that could somehow receive calls. We got through on the fiftieth try. Now service has gotten better, sometimes my mom can call [me] herself. The last time I spoke with my mom was [on May 26].
My parents live on the northern side of town, the Russians entered [that area] the other day. The southern side has been under particularly heavy shelling [recently]. Although there’s shooting everywhere. My mom says the town is in ruins, everything is on fire. My parent’s neighbor was blown up [by a shell]. They gathered the pieces [of his body] in a bag and buried it under an apple tree in the courtyard.
They rarely leave the basement, mostly to make food. People have been living there for two months now, without electricity, water, or heat. People set up bricks on the street to build a fire. Those who have a generator bring it to [the others] so they can charge their phones.
The food they cook over the fires is leftover from before the war, because everything has closed: the shops, the pharmacies. Those who had their own livestock, like chickens, killed them and ate them. This is on the northern side. In the south, there are only apartment buildings, they don’t keep livestock there — they only have provisions from before the war.
There hasn’t been any looting or rape where my mother lives, people there haven’t been touched yet. But they were told to wear white armbands to show that they’re civilians.
Volunteers used to look for people, they evacuated the disabled, the elderly, and the paralyzed. Now they can no longer come [and help], because the town isn’t under Ukrainian control. There are no more evacuations.
Translation by Eilish Hart