BAKHMUT, UKRAINE (NYTIMES) – Ms Nina Zakharenko cried when she boarded a minibus evacuating civilians as the Russian army advanced toward the town where she went to college, met her husband and raised two daughters.
Ms Zakharenko is 72 now, and may be leaving the town forever.
“I can hold on, I can hold on,” she said, finding the strength to stop crying. “But Bakhmut was my only home.”
The Russian army is now on the outskirts of the town, Bakhmut, and ramping up its shelling. The attack is part of an inch-by-inch offensive into the province of Donetsk now that Luhansk, another province that Moscow has sought to capture in eastern Ukraine, fell over the weekend into Russia’s grasp.
The attacks on Bakhmut, a vital staging area for Ukrainian forces in recent weeks, mirror the creeping artillery tactic Russia used to seize the last two cities standing in Luhansk, driving out Ukrainian defenders – and nearly all the people.
At least half of the pre-invasion population of 6.1 million people in the two provinces – known collectively as the Donbas – have fled over the past months of fighting, Ukrainian officials and international aid groups say.
The flight by crowded train cars, packed highways and desperate overnight drives has left the two armies fighting over largely abandoned fields and streets, and Ukraine’s government facing the problem of millions without long-term homes.
Whoever prevails, one thing seems clear: Few people are likely to return to the Donbas anytime soon.
It is not just the obvious problem of ruined towns and destroyed factories. Even before the war, the industrial region was facing fading prospects. Now, whenever the fighting stops, its factories and coal mines are an unlikely engine for any revival.
Nearly five months of war has damaged the structures that keep cities working – factories, airports, railway stations – and obliterated residential buildings, schools, hospitals, churches and shopping malls.
Ukraine’s prime minister Denys Shmyhal told an international donors conference in Italy this week that more than a quarter-million people have registered homes as damaged or destroyed, and that the cost to rebuild was estimated at US$750 billion (S$1.05 trillion).
And the bombs continue to fall.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine warned the donors conference that the task of rebuilding the country would be “colossal.” Russia’s indiscriminate shelling is an attempt to destroy not just Ukraine but also the vision of a democratic Europe, he said by video link.
“This is Russia’s attack on everything that is of value to you and me,” Mr Zelensky said. “Therefore, the reconstruction of Ukraine is not a local project, not a project of one nation, but a joint task of the entire democratic world.”
On Tuesday (July 5), Russia’s shelling began intensifying in the Donetsk region, signifying that a new offensive might be starting, Ukrainian officials said.
In Sloviansk, one of the cities in Donetsk that lies in Russia’s path, Mayor Vadym Lyakh urged residents to flee, saying the city was now on the front lines.
“Artillery is already hitting the city,” he warned in an interview on Ukrainian television, saying that 40 houses had been destroyed by shelling the day before. In a Facebook post, he said that one person was killed Tuesday and seven others wounded in an attack on the city’s central market.
Rocket strikes on the city Tuesday suggested that a day after President Vladimir Putin ordered troops in Luhansk to rest, if they had truly done so, other parts of the Russian army were already on the move.
Military analysts believe Russia will next try to encircle the towns of Bakhmut, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
Mr Zelensky has vowed that Ukraine will recapture lost territory in the Donbas, and Ukrainian officials have held out hope for cutting Russian supply lines with new, long-range weaponry from the United States and European nations, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System.
Residents in the path of Russia’s advance aren’t waiting to find out whether the tide will turn. When night sets in, just one or two windows light up along entire streets through the region. Storefronts are boarded up. Town squares are empty.
To drive around the Donbas now is to see a land without people. Second and third lines of defensive trenches are cut across farm fields, but farmers rarely appear. Highways unfurl past abandoned towns and sprawling hulks of ruined factories.
In Bakhmut, a town of leafy streets and brick apartment buildings with a prewar population of about 100,000 people, the streets are empty. Wind rustles the poplar trees. Stray dogs mill about. A few military vehicles zip to and fro.
Moscow justified the invasion partly as an operation to protect Russian-speaking people in the Donbas, but only a tiny number of them have actually stuck around for the Russian army to arrive.
Those who remain are typically caring for ailing family members, are too poor to move or are trying to protect property. Some do support Russia, a group known as the zhduny, or the waiting ones.
Before the Russian invasion in February, about half the residents of the Donbas lived in Ukrainian-controlled areas, and half in two Russian-backed enclaves shorn off from Ukraine in 2014.
On the Russian side, officials said they intended to evacuate 700,000 people, though it is unclear how many actually left. On the Ukrainian side, the vast majority have fled. In the Donetsk region, 80 per cent of the pre-invasion population has left, regional officials say.
Communities near the front are eerie ghost towns.
Mr Pavlo Boreyko, who worked at a laboratory at a metals plant, said he saw no hope for Bakhmut, his hometown, and had decided to leave. “I am fed up with this city,” he said. “For years, we have been at the front line.”
But as Mr Boreyko was evacuating with his 90-year-old father, he started to cry when a realisation struck him: “I will have to bury Father not in his homeland.”
Mr Boreyko’s wife and two daughters were already waiting in western Ukraine. He carried only a few bags, leaving the family home behind to stand vacant alongside thousands of others in Bakhmut.
Those who remain live a tentative life.
Ms Svitlana Kravchenko, an activist who has supported Ukrainian culture in Bakhmut, shipped her collection of folk art, embroidered traditional clothing and most of her belongings to western Ukraine. “I packed all valuables in bags and sent them from Bakhmut,” she said.
Now she sits in her empty house, the walls devoid of art, listening to the artillery grow closer. She will leave if the city is about to fall, she said, but only at the very last minute.