Wasteland warriors: The long, cruel summer on Ukraine’s eastern front

By Anthony Galloway and Kate Geraghty

The remains of a vehicle on a road in Lysychansk where smoke can be seen rising from the besieged city of Sievierodonetsk.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Kostyantynivka: Lidia Bezaltysha doesn’t bother going to the bunker of her apartment building anymore. She says if a missile doesn’t kill her, hunger will.

“We do not have anything to cook, anything to eat. Soon we will starve to death,” the Russian-speaking 78-year-old says from outside her Soviet-era apartment building, as she and daughter Ludmila boil a few potatoes in a makeshift camping kitchen. “We are dying of hunger.”

Lysychansk resident Lidia Bezaltysha cooks whatever she is given over a wood fire outside her home. Credit:Kate Geraghty

This is the industrial city of Lysychansk, once home to 100,000 people but now a wasteland on the front line of the war that has rocked the world.

There is no power, running water or telecommunications in the city, and a food distribution centre has just been obliterated in a Russian airstrike.

There is nowhere for Bezaltysha to go; her other daughter lives in Russia and she can’t go there.

“I can’t leave. I am 78 years old,” she says. “Who’s going to look after me?”

Just across the Siversky Donets River is the city of Sievierodonetsk, where the Russians have Ukrainian soldiers pinned down in an old chemical plant. Throughout the day, artillery flies between the two cities as Ukrainian and Russian soldiers hammer each other.

If Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk fall, Russian President Vladimir Putin will possess the industrial and agricultural heartland of the Luhansk region and a key supply route to march further west and south.

By the time the Russians capture these cities, there will be nothing left. Smoke billows from the ruins of the city across the river. All around us are bombed-out cars and buildings.

We have been escorted by the local police along narrow dirt roads into Lysychansk. They say we can only stay for a few hours. Ukrainian and Russian forces have been exchanging heavy artillery fire all morning and it is too dangerous to linger.

An unexploded missile on one of the main streets in Lysychansk.Credit:Kate Geraghty

In the fog of war, misinformation and confusion reigns. This city is split between those who feel patriotically part of Ukraine and those whose loyalties lie with Russia and the pro-Moscow separatists. But most of those who remain just want the carnage to stop.

The day before we arrive, the city’s grand Palace of Culture was bombed. A food charity had been distributing parcels from its halls. At least four people were killed, including some who had moved there for shelter from Sievierodonetsk.

The smouldering Palace of Culture, hit by a missile, is a Soviet-era landmark.Credit:Kate Geraghty

On a bright summer day, brothers Serhiy, 11, and Timosha, 8, ride their bikes past the smoking ruins of the Stalin-era building. These two war-weary boys have the grimy hands and faces of children who haven’t been able to wash for weeks on end. They act as if the war is normal, but the older brother says Ukraine will win.

Outside the smashed palace, Svitlana Vodolazska, 55, claims Ukrainian soldiers fired on the building. There is no evidence for this, but she says the Ukrainian soldiers carried out the attack as revenge for the locals not letting them use the building as a base.

Vodolazska says she is not afraid of the Russians taking over her city.

Svitlana Vodolazska claims the Ukrainians bombed the Palace in an act of revenge, but there is no evidence for this. Credit:Kate Geraghty

“I am almost Russian myself. I am not afraid of the Russian army,” she says. “I have many friends in Russia, I have relatives in Russia. So we have no fear. What is there to be afraid of? We’re all Slavs.”

She is nostalgic for the Soviet era, saying: “We lived peacefully in our beautiful Ukraine. Everything was good.”

Yuri Shyrokov, who endured weeks under attack by the Russians just across the river in Sievierodonetsk, doesn’t agree.

The jittery 43-year-old says he was the last volunteer left in the city, before fleeing, shirtless, across the river on May 30, taking only his pants and slippers.

For weeks before, he collected the wounded in his van between bouts of shelling. The hospital had been bombed, so he drove his makeshift ambulance to doctors operating out of bunkers.

It wasn’t his job to collect the dead, he says. They were buried in people’s yards once it got too hard to take them away.

Yuri Shyrokov fled Sievierodonetsk at the end of May clad only in his pants and slippers. Credit:Kate Geraghty

“There were no Ukrainian police left, only the military,” he says, as Russians encircled the city and levelled homes. “Chaotic shelling took place all the time. They completely blocked the district by artillery fire.”

Shyrokov does not know if he will ever be able to return.

“There’s no humanitarian aid at all. According to our information, they now evacuate people to Starobilsk – which means to the territory occupied by Russians.”

As we’re talking, incoming artillery whistles through the air. We fling ourselves to the ground and begin crawling, braced on our elbows. Fortunately, this one flies well over our head.

Three more strikes hit the city – we hear the whistle and then the bang – as a policeman suggests that we leave.

Days later, Russian forces break through defences near Lysychansk. Soon, they will be able to march in.

They call the main road out of Lysychansk the “road of life”, but right now it is too dangerous to use. This is because it is a key supply route between the two big eastern regions, Luhansk and Donetsk. If the Russians seize this route they can strike out at the rest of the region and take the entire Donbas.

Just 30 kilometres down another road is the city of Siversk. Many homes have been abandoned after weeks of constant shelling.

Liubov Nyzkorovna, 90, sits in a bunker all day. Her legs and arms were paralysed by a stroke, so she was brought here by relatives. Sitting in front of a mirror, her only view is of her frail self.

She survived World War II but says the current war in Ukraine is worse.

“Back then the shelling wasn’t as frightening as it is now. Now it all comes one after another, quick and fast, before the shells just fall here and there,” she says.

Liubov Nyzkorovna was brought to the basement by relatives after she was paralysed by a stroke. Credit:Kate Geraghty

Asked what her message is for the people responsible for the daily attacks on her city, she says: “I’d tell them to stop playing the fool, create peace, make peace with the people.”

She says she is “not for any side”.

“The soldiers should make peace with soldiers and the civilians with civilians. I want nothing more,” she adds.

Go 45 kilometres further east and you reach Sloviansk, the jewel in the crown for the Russian-backed separatists. The city of more than 100,000 people was the first city seized by the separatists in 2014, but Ukraine retook it within a few months.

Since the Russian invasion on February 24, the city has been battered by missiles and locals say only about 30,000 people remain.

One apartment building and a school that housed Ukrainian soldiers have been nearly completely destroyed, killing at least three people.

Elena Voitenko, 59, says there are only four people left in her building. She has no sympathy for the Russians or the separatists.

Her daughter, who lives in the separatist-controlled territory of Donetsk, is “like a zombie”, she says.

“They’re traitors and killers … They’re coming here to kill us,” she says. “This is a Russian-speaking city. This used to be a pro-Russian city in the past. It’s not any more.”

This apartment was destroyed by a missile strike but Lidia Svistunova sits here on a warm day because it has the best view. Credit:Kate Geraghty

Lidia Svistunova, 89, sits by the window in the fourth floor of the apartment where a soldier was killed in the missile attack. Body parts and bone fragments still lie spattered across the floor and walls.

Svistunova lives in one of the apartments across the hall, but it’s a better view of the city from here. She has been living in the building since it was built in 1965, but she doesn’t know where to go now. With no electricity or heating, she knows she can’t stay here in winter.

“If there’s another strike like this, there won’t be any Sloviansk left,” she says.

The brutality of this war is starting to take its toll on Ukrainian soldiers, who say they desperately need more heavy artillery and long-range missiles from Western nations.

In the opening weeks of the invasion, the soldiers were fuelled with adrenaline as, against all odds, they repelled the forces of their bigger and more powerful neighbour. Now they are resigned to the fact that this will be a long, drawn-out conflict. They still believe they will win – eventually – but the price is high.

One soldier, who doesn’t wish to give his name, says only six out of 29 men in his platoon survived a recent battle. He is recovering from an injury he sustained to his head and spine nine days ago after a tank shot at him.

“It is not the first time I have suffered an injury to the head, it’s the 14th,” he says.

He says Ukraine desperately needs more long-range artillery and anti-aircraft missiles.

“Russia’s helicopters and aircraft give us a lot of trouble. If the sky was closed, Moscow would be burnt to the ground by now,” he says.

Ukrainian soldiers such as Roman have so far held the back the Russian advance further south in the Donbas.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Further south in the towns of Pisky and Krasnohorivka, the Russians are trying to capture a key road to the strategic junction town of Pokrovsk. Through winding trenches, we are taken by Ukrainian troops to a frontline position. Russians and separatists are stationed only a few hundred metres away.

The commander of the unit, Simon Salatenko, says his soldiers have so far held off the Russian advance.

“Three days ago, there were huge artillery strikes. We kicked their arses. And after that, they are quiet,” he says. “And they’re going to be quiet for a couple of days.

“They need this road. After they capture Sievierodonetsk, maybe they will try to capture this road. They have failed twice and maybe they will try a third time.”

It is impossible to understand Russia’s invasion without going back to 2014, when the world let Putin annex Crimea and invade the Donbas with the help of Moscow-backed separatists. Ukrainian forces here have been locked in an eight-year war with Russians and the separatists.

But since Russia invaded on February 24, Moscow is no longer pretending its soldiers aren’t there, so its troops can unleash unprecedented levels of firepower.

Salatenko, a veteran of the eight-year Donbas wars, says he is prepared for a long conflict. He is scathing of those who call for a ceasefire, arguing history would only repeat itself. He says Putin was emboldened after 2014 and the world can’t let that happen again.

“If we have a ceasefire, in a couple of years it’s going to be the same – even more inhumanity. We just need to win this war … because they [Russia] are going to kill us all.”

One of his soldiers, Botnik, 48, rests in a bunker after an all-night shift on watch.

A month ago, a Grad missile fired by the enemy landed right next to his bed.

“It didn’t explode, so we were lucky,” Botnik says. “So we took the thing away and that was it.”

Zoya Shaposhnik stayed behind to care for her disabled husband, and has compassion for those suffering on both sides of the conflict. Credit:Kate Geraghty

Back in Krasnohorivka, 67-year-old Zoya Shaposhnik stays to care for her disabled husband. Their children live in Russia. There is a hole in the roof above them, from an artillery strike the day before.

“I only fell and was hit by some kind of shrapnel or something. When I rose up I saw the smoke, the roof caught fire,” she says. “During the last week these attacks are happening quite often. Our troops fire and the Russians answer.”

Civilians and soldiers on both sides suffer in this horrible war, she says.

“I have relatives on the opposite side. That is why I pity them both,” she says.

It’s proving difficult to create safe pathways to evacuate the wounded.

Many are rescued on a medical evacuation train out of Pokrovsk, organised by Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Viktor Teslenko, 57, lost his left arm when an artillery shell exploded next to his house in the village of Mykolaivka five days ago. He was on the balcony and couldn’t make it back before his arm was torn apart by flying shrapnel.

“There were no soldiers there, no military targets,” he says, as he boards the train with his wife Svitlana.

Pokrovsk station master Iryna Serdyuk, left, is comforted by a Medecins Sans Frontieres staffer. Credit:Kate Geraghty

As patients are loaded onto the train, the station’s manager Iryna Serdyuk, 57, is overcome with sadness and falls into the arms of one of the medical volunteers.

“I’ve been working here in this station for 33 years,” she says. “It is really sad to see all these wounded people arrive here. But what can I do except do what I must?”

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