‘People are surviving however they can’ Donbas residents describe life in three cities where Russia is slowly wresting control
As the battle for the Donbas rages on, Russian forces continue to make gains. They’ve seized Lyman, destroyed much of Sievierodonetsk, and are currently advancing on Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and Lysychansk, which are currently still under Ukrainian control. Meduza spoke to residents of these cities about what life looks like right now — and how they’re preparing for the Russian army’s invasion.
29 years old, volunteer at the charity organization Angels of Salvation; previously worked at a lumber processing plant
[At the start of the war,] my coworkers and I decided to help people from Volnovakha [a city in the south-west of the Donetsk region]. We store diesel fuel and gasoline for our equipment at our workplace, and we had diesel-powered minibusses, so we decided to get a team together and evacuate people. One thing led to another, and now we have over 60 people working with us. We have two bases: one in Slovyansk and one in Dnipro. We evacuate people and deliver humanitarian aid [throughout Ukraine’s territory].
As of right now, we’ve brought in almost a thousand metric tons of humanitarian aid and evacuated over 19 thousand people. There are evacuations every day. It’s difficult, it’s grinding, but it continues. It’s dangerous. There’s shelling. Nobody’s under any illusions about it. This is anger, death, evil, and war.
I’ve been in Dnipro for a month now, or something like that — I’ve lost count. My dad is in Sloviansk with another part of the team. He’s not leaving, because that would bring all of our work to an end. I’m locating resources [in Dnipro]: fuel, groceries, and hygiene products.
Overall, life in Sloviansk isn’t so different [from before the war]. People are more anxious, things are riskier, but everything’s generally the same as it was a month ago. I do think that half of the city has left since the start of the war, though. We’re preparing for the worst. We’re moving our humanitarian aid base to Kramatorsk, the neighboring city — it’s further [from the conflict zone].
How has life changed in the city? Nothing is working. There’s no gas. In some places, there’s no water, either, and there have been power outages. On May 29, there was no electricity all day, but they’ve since restored it. We went an entire day without water, too. Right now, it’s there, but not in every district — although we had problems [with water] before the war, too.
In general, everyday life has just gotten more difficult. The shelling is sporadic, but it happens. There’s constant stress. Planes, helicopters, and missiles flying around. You can’t be certain you’ll be around tomorrow — you can’t even be certain you’ll make it through today.
There’s absolute poverty, because there’s no work. Even if there was work, it’s difficult to buy anything. The stores are basically all closed; some of them open when they get new grocery shipments. People buy things with cash at the markets. Everyone has started subsistence farming.
People have stocked up; they show up in droves to get humanitarian aid. They call hotlines and sign up for food. There isn’t as much aid as we need, but it does come. There are, of course, some lowlifes who sign up for aid three times and prevent others from getting any. God will judge them.
The comparisons to 2014 are just not accurate. Are you kidding me? That was just the warm-up — it wasn’t even the appetizer. We now have more people dying in a day that in those entire eight years — and that includes both soldiers and civilians.
If [Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] had happened then, it would have worked out just like Putin was hoping for this time. But he committed a grave mistake: he gave us those eight years. There are pro-Russian people in Sloviansk, but much fewer. 2014 was a totally different picture. We were pro Ukraine, and [after the city was taken over by the self-proclaimed DNR,] we had to leave. After the liberation, we came back and started volunteering: we rebuilt buildings, restored the heating, and helped with food.
I feel like shit [when I think about the possibility of Russian troops capturing Sloviansk]. But there’s feeling bad, and then there’s “Alright, I’ll just go kill myself,” right? And I don’t feel like that — we’re working! I’m a believer: if it’s God’s will, we’ll survive this. And if it’s God’s will for us to die, that’s what will happen.
I speak Russian, I have Russian roots — from Samara — but I identify as a Ukrainian. And if I find a weapon in my hands and a Russian soldier nearby tomorrow, I won’t hesitate for a single moment. This is my country. It’s none of the Russian Federation’s business where we go or what organizations we enter or don’t enter. No matter what language we speak. Great Britain doesn’t harass the U.S. just because they share a language. That would look stupid, wouldn’t it?
I have no ill will towards Russia or the Russian people. At the very least, I differentiate between “the Russian authorities” and “the Russian people.” I wish all decent people peace and goodness. And to all the indecent people, I wish them either reeducation and repentance, or a one-way ticket, as they say.
45 years old, a kindergarten teacher
Sometimes people write that there are very few people left in Kramatorsk, and that the city looks like a ghost. That’s not true. If you go to the market, the ATM, or the humanitarian aid distribution point [in Kramatorsk], you’ll see that there are actually a lot of people still in the city. But that’s only from eight in the morning until about three or four in the afternoon. Then everybody goes home and life starts to fade a little. Because the stores only work until four, so there’s no place for anyone to go [in the evenings].
The stores have all of the groceries we need, but the prices, of course, have gone up significantly since the war began. There are medicine shortages — you have to stand in line sometimes. But we find solutions — you can get it sent by mail from other cities. They also give out humanitarian aid, but there’s a wait. On May 29, there was a problem with electricity — something was damaged somewhere. But they’ve restored it. We also have water right now. There’s no gas, so I cook on an electric stove or with a slow-cooker.
On February 24, we were awakened by explosions. They were shelling the Kramatorsk airfield — there were three powerful explosions. We turned on the TV and went on the Internet. How did we take it? It was very painful, very worrisome, and very hurtful and unexpected. Even though there’d been talk of it [war breaking out] the whole time, you see, we didn’t believe it until the very end. Of course it was a shock. Nobody thought this would all last so long. Nobody was counting on that.
Sirens are constantly going off in the city. The bombings aren’t every day, but every two or three weeks, a missile lands somewhere in the city. There have been [civilian] victims. When they shelled our railroad station, it was just so awful! About 60 people died — so many of them children, so many people left disabled.
On May 5, a missile landed right in the courtyard outside our building. Our beautiful, green courtyard in a residential neighborhood. There’s a playground in the middle of the courtyard and a district heating substation at the end. During Soviet times, the substation supplied our hot water. Since the hot water stopped being centrally supplied, it’s just been standing there. A missile hit the substation, and the two buildings [including mine] to its left and right, naturally, were severely damaged. At that moment, we were at home — we lived on the second floor. The windows and the interior doors in our apartment were all completely broken. Thank God there were no casualties.
After that happened, my son went to live with friends in central Ukraine. He’s 23 — he’ll be 24 soon. For a long time, he didn’t want to leave — didn’t want to abandon us — but we ultimately insisted that he go.
My husband and I don’t want to leave. My mom is elderly and lives with us, and we buried my dad on February 18. Evacuation is very hard for older people. My husband’s parents, also elderly, are here too. He can’t leave them behind. He’s trying to get me to go to our son or anywhere else, but we’ve lived together for 25 years; I can’t just go. I’m not ready to take that step.
I’ve spent my whole life here [in Kramatorsk]. [Before the war,] I was a kindergarten teacher. Right now, the kindergartens are closed, but they still give us our paycheck and support us. After our building was shelled, we moved to a private area. We probably [need to do] something in the courtyard here, but honestly, there’s nothing we want to do. We only have enough energy for cooking, eating, and washing up. We don’t lift a finger to do anything else. We monitor the news — less through the television, more on the Internet.
In 2014, things were much quieter. At that point, we were occupied territory; there were Russian troops here. I can’t say anything bad about [the Russian troops that were here then]. Maybe [they did something] to someone somewhere, but as far as me, my family, and people I know, [nothing]. They were just in the city and took over the city executive committee.
Of course we wanted our guys to come back — we’re Ukrainians who live in Ukraine, after all. They finally did, thank God. Yes, it was scary. But back then, we just didn’t understand how scary it would get this year.
Everyone’s staying positive, of course. Everyone’s hoping. But the fact that [Russia troops] are coming, and that the front line is already close, is intimidating. Still, we want to believe things will work out. There’s constant fear and anxiety. You used to be able to hear the banging sounds far away; now they’re much closer. I don’t even want to think about the possibility [of Russian troops capturing Kramatorsk]. It’s scarier right now if a rocket hits. Meanwhile… I don’t even want to think about those things.
What are they liberating us from? They’re liberating us from our homes, our jobs, our customs, our lifestyles, and our plans. That’s what they’re liberating us from, do you understand?
We were just living, working, and striving to achieve something in this life. We worked, we earned, and we invested — some people in apartments, some people in education, and some people in businesses. We did everything we could. And now we feel powerless. We’ve been completely deprived of the right to make our own decisions. It’s very scary.
57 years old, previously worked at a school
I came to Lviv on April 1. [In Lysychansk,] I still have acquaintances looking after my apartment. According to the bits of information I’ve gotten from my neighbors from Lysychansk, most people have left. The only ones left are the old people who stayed behind out of stubbornness or fear, the people who don’t have anyone to pick them up, and the separatists who are waiting on their “liberators” — and there are more than a few of them.
Everyone left slowly. But the more bombs they dropped, the more people left every day. Sit down, close your eyes, and imagine you have to leave in an hour. You have to pack a few bags, grab your favorite cat, and leave. Probably for a long time, and maybe forever. For the second time (I’m a two-time transplant). After two remodels. After decorating two homes.
Until 2018, I lived in the city of Kirovsk, in the Luhansk region, with my parents (since 2014, I’ve buried both my mother and my father). Now, that’s part of the so-called LNR. It’s basically been a dictatorship the entire time. I was just waiting for the territory to return [to Ukrainian control].
[I made the decision to leave Lysychansk after the start of the war along] with my neighbors. In the rubber plant district, where I lived, the water shut off in early March; they told us it’s going to be that way until the fighting is over. The State Emergency Service and the water service company have been bringing in water. There hasn’t been any power since March 3. We were only able to charge our phones thanks to some kind souls who have generators. We used gas to warm up — we’d turn it on in the kitchen. But it was shut off several times, too.
It became clear that things were only going to get worse. Mobile service had already started disappearing. There was no food for sale. A lot of the stores had closed and their owners had left. They started bringing in food from Sieverodonetsk and selling it for exorbitant prices, cash only. My neighbor, thankfully, lent me food — and that’s how I survived.
After several days of non-stop shelling, which destroyed the building next door to us and shook ours so hard that we [and our neighbors] thought it was the end, we decided that life was more precious than any walls, remodel, or furniture. We left the city under fire. We lay on the ground at the bus stop where everyone was waiting for the evacuation bus. With three transfers, with the train windows closed at night (for camouflage), and with numerous stops to avoid shelling. I had to learn to sleep again, after I lost the ability because of the shelling.
As far as I know, there’s currently no phone service in the city or any way to communicate with people there. But fragments of information do occasionally make it out. People are cooking food over bonfires. They’ve gotten some humanitarian aid shipments, but there’s a problem with that right now. [Before I left,] the problem was that they were bombing the humanitarian aid centers, as well as the fact that communication with [the city of] Bakhmut, where the aid comes from, is difficult. People survive however they can. But the center is doing worst of all; the rubber plant district is currently a bit quieter. Though I don't know what it’s been like in the last three or four days.
The only person who needed this war was Putler, but he’ll answer for everything he’s doing. And the Russians who have supported this regime [will answer]. But decent, thoughtful people — of whom there are only a few — will suffer as well. [This war] is a genocide; it’s deliberate and brutal. It’s going to end with Russia’s collapse.
If the war continues to be drawn out, I’ll continue to live and to believe in our victory. If we win before the winter, I’ll go home.
Translation by Sam Breazeale