An stricken Ukrainian city is emptying, and those left behind fear what comes next

Bestinau got that-

After the deadly strike at the train station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, those left behind are gloomy about the future: “We think we will be wiped off the face of the earth.”

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine – Two days after more than 50 people on the platforms were killed by a rocket attack, the only sounds at Kramatorsk train station on Sunday morning were a distant air raid siren and the rhythmic sweep of broken glass.

“The city is now dead,” said Tetiana, 50, a shopkeeper who worked next to the station when it was attacked when thousands of people tried to board trains to evacuate the eastern city, fearing it would soon be besieged by Russian troops.

Friday’s strike marked a horrific turn for the city after spending nearly eight years on the front lines of the country’s fight against Russian-backed separatists in the region known as Donbas.

The main lobby of the station was still filled with bloodstains and luggage on Sunday morning, as the burnt-out hulls of two sedans lay outside in the parking lot.

Tetiana, who refused to give her last name, was sure more deaths were on the way.

“We are surrounded. We understand that,” adds Tetiana, who has lived for 10 years in Kramatorsk, a city with a pre-war population of about 150,000 and once one of the industrial hearts of the Donbas. She said she would not be leaving because she has to take care of her 82-year-old mother, who is ill. But she knows more than ever the danger that entails.

“We think we’re going to disappear off the face of the earth,” she said.

She recalled ducking into a nearby market on Friday to take cover when the rocket hit the train station, with an estimated 2,000 people inside. A family seeking shelter in the market was nearly crushed by a piece of a falling roof that had been torn off in the explosion.

“There was screaming everywhere,” she said. “Nobody understood, cars were burning and people were running away.”

With Moscow’s decision to shift the focus of its war to eastern Ukraine, the people who remain in Kramatorsk fear they will soon be forgotten, like the residents of Kharkov and Mariupol, two other cities that have been relentlessly attacked by Russian troops. It feels like an attack here is inevitable: cutting off Kramatorsk would partially cut off Ukrainian forces fighting in the eastern breakaway regions where Russia is consolidating.

At the city’s main hospital, City Hospital 3, staff prepared for the kind of devastation that has hit other urban centers. Their stocks for mass trauma are ample, one doctor said. But, he added, many of the nurses have been evacuated and there has been a shortage of critical care physicians.

In Kramatorsk, residents have begun to crouch, preparing for a siege. Most of the small shops are closed, a few supermarkets remain open and the town square, once packed with people during these warm spring days, is virtually empty.

Just after noon on Sunday, Tetiana closed the small candy and coffee confectionery where she worked. It would be closed for the foreseeable future, as its main source of income, the train station’s passengers, had disappeared.

Still, maintenance workers in orange coats tried to clean around the wreckage of the strike: parts of the train station itself, people’s shoes, a sack of potatoes and broken glass. A pack of stray dogs, frequent visitors to the area around the station, limped around the rubble. The workers swept as much as they could until a water truck arrived and spit out the blood that had gathered at the outside entrance.

In the distance echoed the thump of artillery, barely loud enough to hear, but still easy to feel.

“We’re closing,” Tetiana said. “There’s no point. There are no people.”

Evacuation vehicles were still driving out of town, but not at the volume they had in the days before. One resident said buses sent from western Ukraine had already left unfilled. Those who stayed in Kramatorsk, many of them elderly residents, braced themselves for what might come: going without electricity, living in cold, damp basements, cooking on fire and enduring the horror of incoming artillery fire.

But on Sunday, Lidia, 65, and Valentyna, 72, best friends dressed in fine clothes, decided to leave their lifelong homes together. Both women refused to give their last names.

“After what happened at the train station, we can hear the explosions getting closer and closer,” Lidia said. Through tears, Valentyna added, “I can’t handle these sirens anymore.” Their destination, as with millions of other Ukrainians since Russia invaded on February 24, was somewhere vaguely west — just somewhere further away.

“We have to leave because we can’t take it anymore,” said Lidia.

Air raid sirens in Kramatorsk are not the terrifying, distant chorus you hear in the movies. They are in most cases just a loud single horn that seems inescapable both indoors and out. And if there is any sort of strike, the sirens usually come after that, too late, residents complained.

Kramatorsk and the neighboring but smaller city of Sloviansk are likely to be the first two cities to be attacked by the Russian forces able to recover in the region after their defeat and withdrawal from the vicinity of Kiev, the capital. For now, the Russian frontline is pulling like a jaw around the two cities.

Surrounding and cutting off Kramatorsk and Sloviansk would allow the Russians to isolate Ukrainian forces holding their old front lines in the two breakaway regions – a maneuver that, if successfully executed, would spell disaster for the Ukrainian military, as many of their powers are there.

Sergeant Andriy Mykyta, a soldier with the Ukraine Border Guard, was in Kramatorsk to try to avoid that fate.

“There will be serious fighting,” Sergeant Mykyta said. “This is a tactic of the Russians: they take cities as hostages.”

When he bought an energy drink and some snacks at one of the remaining open grocery stores in town on Sunday, the sergeant looked a lot like all other uniformed Ukrainian soldiers: a blue stripe on his arm, weathered boots and a pointy tattoo that sticks out. above his collar.

But he was in fact one of the most valuable members of the Ukrainian armed forces, being part of the select group quickly trained by NATO troops (a multi-day course that would last at least a month, he said) to learn some of the using more complicated weapons that helped push the Russian forces back: the Javelin and NLAW anti-tank systems.

But he downplayed the importance of the missile systems, saying, “These weapons are like a donut at the end of the day.” He said the real fight would come down to the side that could withstand the enemy’s artillery the longest and retain the will to fight.

“They have tanks and artillery, but their troops are demoralized,” he said.

Maria Budym, a 69-year-old resident of Kramatorsk, shook off the artillery and evacuations. She stayed. When Russia-backed separatists briefly held Kramatorsk in 2014, they were welcomed to the city by some of the pro-Russian population before being ousted by Ukrainian defenders, she said.

This time, she added, the Russians will have to deal with her.

“Only cowards and people already displaced by the war have fled the city,” she said, standing in a blue fleece sweater outside her hollowed-out Soviet-style apartment. “Our soldiers will defend this city until their last breath.”

In addition, Ms Budym added with anger in her eyes: “I have a pipe in my apartment. I’ll use it against anyone who comes through that door.”

Tyler Hicks reporting contributed.

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