Russia sever ties with beleaguered eastern Ukraine
An information-starved Ukrainian coal miner thought he could reason with the Russian forces blocking the last good road out of his war-torn town on the Eastern Front.
Artyom Ivasenko was nearly killed the last time he drove south to stock up on food and medicine for his father and others living in the basement of his home in Lysychansk, the target of relentless shelling .
And that was when the last paved road to places under slightly less fire was still technically under the control of Ukrainian troops.
But Russian tanks trying to seal off the last pocket of resistance in the smaller of the warzone’s two regions shoved the way this week.
A Ukrainian counteroffensive has turned the highway into a fiery battlefield that marks the limits of the Western-backed government’s eastern reach in the fourth month of war.
Ivasenko was unaware of any of these details because Lysychansk and its battle-torn neighbor Severodonetsk have been without electricity and any means of communication for weeks.
“All I know is what I see,” the 34-year-old said under the glow of a generator-powered light bulb in his airless basement.
“And what I saw were shells exploding 10 or 15 meters from my truck the last time I drove down this road.”
Ivasenko turned away briefly to soothe his ailing father, moaning on the basement corner bed.
A couple of smiling grandmothers brought soup they had cooked over an open fire to the shrapnel-strewn yard.
Ivasenko seemed slightly overwhelmed by the prospect of having to go out of town for more supplies, no matter who was controlling the road.
“If the Russians are there, I will tell them that I am getting help for people who are about to die,” he said.
“Anyone should see this as a legitimate reason to let me through. And if they kill me, they kill me.
– ‘Everything for food’ –
Russia has made the encirclement of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk its main objective in the current wave of fighting.
With clashes along the frontline route, Russia is poised to cordon off the Twin Cities and refocus its forces on a deeper push into the war zone.
The only remaining link between the industrial centers and the rest of Ukraine is a dusty country road that even tanks and military trucks with huge tires struggle to navigate more than a pace.
Oleksandr Kozyr constantly worries about the small road.
The harassed chief of the main aid distribution center in Lysychansk faces a daily onslaught of anguished and hungry people whose last supplies are exhausted.
“People are ready to risk everything to get food and water,” the 33-year-old said in a tired voice.
“They are so psychologically depressed that they are no longer afraid. All they care about is finding food.”
– ‘Run under the shells’ –
The Kozyr sandbag distribution center is partially in ruins following a mortar attack that destroyed surrounding buildings this week.
Her stairwell leads to a basement crowded with dozens of families who have been living on cement floors in the dark for nearly three months.
Many will probably stay there for several more weeks or months because of the cut off road.
It is increasingly difficult to know who will supply their food and medical needs in the future.
Kozyr is done caring for a distraught woman worried about her sick mother and sits down to recount a scene that has haunted him for a day.
“Some firefighters were handing out water and were bombed. They jumped for cover but the people waiting for the water didn’t care,” he recalls.
“They kept chasing after them under the shells. They needed water so badly,” he said.
More mortar shots rattled his cardboard-covered window.
“Things have gotten a lot more difficult the last few days,” he sighed.
– Stuck in the front –
The twin industrial cities had a combined population of 200,000 before the war.
Aid workers believe that at least 20,000 people are still hiding in basements in Lysychansk. Few dare to guess how many might be trapped in the raging hell of Severodonetsk.
Pensioner Yevgenia Mykhno and her husband had just been rescued from Severodonetsk by a volunteer who took advantage of a moment of calm to rush in and drag out the first people he saw on the street.
The stunned-looking couple now stood in a Lysychansk square without any belongings or a clear idea of the course of the war.
“I don’t really know what we can do if the main road has been cut off,” the 67-year-old said.
“We can’t go back and we can’t go out,” she said.
“We can stay here and wait,” her husband Oleksandr added with a tired smile. “We know how to do this.”