KRAMATORSK (AP) – Burnt-out cars and splintered trees smoulder in the aftermath of a missile strike on Kramatorsk, a city in eastern Ukraine. A body lies on the ground, covered by a sheet. Wounded residents sit dazed and covered in blood. A crater has been gouged in the centre of a once-calm, sunlit courtyard.
Across the beleaguered city, Valerii Ilchenko sits under the shade of the trees, working on a crossword puzzle. The 70-year-old widower now has difficulty walking, and this daily ritual in the fresh air gets him through the day.
Just last week, the governor of Donetsk province urged its 350,000 remaining residents to move to safer places in western Ukraine. But like many other civilians who have come under fire in the nearly five-month-old war, Ilchenko has no intention of leaving – no matter how close the fighting gets.
“I don’t have anywhere to go and don’t want to either. What would I do there? Here at least I can sit on the bench, I can watch TV,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in his one-room apartment where he lives alone.
Moscow and Kyiv are battling for control of the Donbas, a fertile and industrial region in eastern Ukraine where a conflict with Russia-backed separatists has raged since 2014. In recent weeks, Russia has made significant gains and is poised to fully occupy Luhansk province, which along with Donetsk province makes up the region. Attacks on key cities like Kramatorsk and Sloviansk have increased dramatically, killing and wounding scores of civilians weekly.
Since the war began, Ilchenko has been unable to call his son and grandson, who live in Moscow. Although he is still somewhat self-sufficient, Ilchenko is nearly immobile. Volunteers make sure he gets regular deliveries of bread, water and cigarettes; neighbours call in from time to time.
The windows of his apartment were blown out in an earlier attack. As he spoke, an air raid siren wailed. But Ilchenko smiled and shrugged.
“Where would I run to when the sirens start? I have no basement, so where? In this building, we all stay right here,” he said.
In urging the evacuation, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said it would allow the Ukrainian army to better defend towns, adding that about 80 per cent of the region had departed by Monday.
“Once there are less people, we will be able to concentrate more on our enemy,” Kyrylenko said, adding that shelling had intensified and was “very chaotic.”
Observers say Sloviansk and Kramatorsk could end up like Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, cities now under Russian control after bombardment so ferocious that they are practically uninhabitable.
“It will be more severe this time – people should leave,” Kyrylenko said.
Yet for many, the urge to stay is strong, because they are retirees or have incomes so low that they fear they cannot support themselves away from what Kyrylenko called their “comfort zone.”
Others worry they won’t be welcome in western Ukraine – a concern based on a perception that some of their countrymen resent the predominantly Russian-speaking easterners and blame them for the war.
A few harbour pro-Moscow sympathies – either from nostalgia for their Soviet past or from watching Russian state TV. Still others don’t believe their lives will change significantly under a Russian or a Ukrainian flag.
Sloviansk Mayor Vadym Liakh told AP that whatever the motivations are for those who stay, “we see that when their homes are ruined, having only the slippers on their feet with one plastic bag, they leave. They do not think about the money”.
Like Ilchenko, Maria Savon has no plans to leave Kramatorsk. Waiting in line for food under a blinding sun, the 85-year-old is a stooped and fragile figure. When she speaks, however, her high voices rings out across the square.
“Why should I leave? Where one is born, one must die. This is our land. We are not needed there, from time immemorial. Old people, as far as I know, even ask for their native earth before they die,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Savon said she wants to live in a country ruled by Ukrainians – not Russians – but she also is suspicious of the West. She wants President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to cut ties with Europe and the United States (US) President Joe Biden, and agree to a cease-fire with Moscow.
Her feelings illustrate the complexity of public opinion in the Donbas.
“I’ll tell you honestly, I feel sorry for the young people, the young men who are dying. I would take that Zelenskyy and tear him apart, along with Biden, with America, with all those fascists,” she said.
A retiree fishing on the Kazennyi Torets River said he loves his hometown but is too old to fight.
“Of course, it would be a shame to leave. Without the apartment, what would I leave my children? We will wait until this ends,” said the man, who identified himself only as Viktor for fear of reprisal.
Then there are those like 38-year-old Lena Ravlis – both terrified to stay and terrified to go.
“Of course it is very dangerous here, but the road out is very dangerous too,” she said, citing the horrific attack in April on Kramatorsk’s train station that killed 59 civilians and wounded over 100, including children.
Still, as Russian troops march west, a steady flow of people are leaving towns caught in the crosshairs of war. Hundreds depart daily on a train from Pokrovsk. Liakh, the Sloviansk mayor, said they are given food and places to stay in western Ukraine and can register for compensation.
One woman who asked to be identified only by her first name, Olena, also for security reasons, said that when she fled Sloviansk last week with her small child, she was shocked by the destruction.
“We waited too long. But finally I decided to save my child and myself. They were shelling us with every weapon in existence,” she said.
The streets of Kramatorsk are eerily quiet. Most shops have closed and the last working cafes are boarded up. This once-vibrant city with a pre-war population of about 150,000 is mostly empty in anticipation of the Russian advance.
Ilchenko said he sometimes feels lonely. “It’s bad when the blues gets you, and then other times it’s fine,” he said sadly.
A former soldier in the Soviet army, he’s furious at the Russians and wants them “expelled as soon as possible”.
As Ilchenko spoke, his neighbour, also a solo pensioner, got ready to cook potatoes for lunch on a makeshift outdoor stove since there is no cooking gas in the district. Another woman lives on the building’s top floor.
“That’s it, the rest are gone,” Ilchenko said.
“Let them leave. It’s better than getting bombed,” he added. “I only wish they knew where they were going. What if it’s the same there as it is here? You can run from the bombs. But bombs are bombs, they don’t pick and choose.”