‘Like living in a horror movie’: a city in Ukraine dying a slow death

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HULIAIPOLE, Ukraine — The shelling begins in earnest just before midnight, well after the skies have turned oily black, cell towers have been shut down and stray dogs have started barking late into the night.

There is no electricity or running water in Huliaipole. There is only darkness and long minutes of silence when the ticking of battery-operated wall clocks or the rasping of open gates in the cold wind are painstakingly scrutinized until the next explosion thumps somewhere nearby, windows rattling. And bones.

And then it happens again. And again. A high-pitched scream and then a boom. Sometimes the shells come closer. Or further away. They might stop altogether for a few hours. But it’s been the same routine for nearly a month in this city along the front lines in eastern Ukraine, with the same question every night: where will the next lands?

“It’s like living in a horror movie,” Ludmila Ivchenko, 64, said between tears, bundled up in her winter parka on Monday. She rocked back and forth, sitting next to the flame of an oil candle deep in the basement of the city hospital where she and her neighbors now live.

While Ukrainian cities like Kharkov and Mariupol are torn apart by heavy bombing, cruise missiles and infantry advances, Huliaipole, a city that once housed about 13,000 people, is dying a much slower death.

The city, about 90 miles northwest of Mariupol and on the edge of the Donbas region, would likely stand in the way of future Russian offensives in the east, where the Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday it would focus its operations. .

Strategically located at the intersection of major roads that cut through the eastern part of the country, Huliaipole is surrounded by a crescent of Russian and separatist forces who are perfectly content to shell the city rather than take it, probably because they don’t have the resources to do so yet, military analysts say.

The inhabitants of the shrinking enclave – now about 2,000 people – are caught in the middle of dueling artillery battles between Ukrainian and Russian troops as houses, apartments, markets, restaurants and health clinics are slowly destroyed and people are forced to flee, live underground or die. .

For those still around, the Huliaipole War started on March 2: the day the power went out. The water supply followed.

Surrounded by rolling wheat and sunflower fields and bisected by the Haichur River, Huliaipole looks and feels like a staple of the Soviet era: unassuming houses and low-slung apartment buildings with spacious tree-lined streets perfect for a bike ride in a different time.

On March 5, Russian troops briefly entered the city before being pushed back. The collection of abandoned half-destroyed stalls where people once sold vegetables and other goods is a strange reminder that this was once a real city. Now there is a patchwork of empty buildings with broken windows and missing roofs, inhabited more by stray dogs than by humans.

About a dozen civilians have been killed in the fighting, local officials said, including those who suffered heart attacks during the siege.

“There are shellings every day,” said Tetiana Plysenko, 61, a teacher in Huliaipole.

Every morning, people come out of their homes and shelters to assess the damage and call their neighbors to make sure they are still alive. Rumors are rife, as is misinformation. It is rumored that a resident was caught marking targets for the Russian army and was subsequently hanged. No one can really say whether it was true or not.

“We still cannot understand that this happened to us. We think we will go out tomorrow and everything will be as before,” said Mrs. Ivchenko from her basement shelter. “But there’s no way to go back.”

For now, Huliaipole is patrolled by a small contingent of Ukrainian territorial defense soldiers. The task of evacuating people and bringing in humanitarian aid falls to about 10 people in the city council. They’ve repurposed the city’s school buses to bring in food and water and take out those desperate to escape the shelling.

Sergiy Brovko, 57, a petite, wiry bus driver whose crow’s feet wrap around his head, spent less than a year taking children to school before war reached the city. Now Mr. Brovko drives his old Isuzu bus to the city of Zaporizhia and loads humanitarian aid: boxes of bread, cans of goulash and water. Then he makes the hour-long journey back to Huliaipole.

“I could never have imagined this,” Mr Brovko said Monday, as he headed to Huliaipole for his seventh flight there since the start of the war. He maneuvered his bus over the potholed roads common in the more rural areas of Ukraine, downshifting to near-standstill to navigate the larger craters left by overuse and decay.

“Not even in my nightmares.”

The road from Zaporizhzhya to Huliaipole starts out somewhat normal, except for the military checkpoints and concrete roadblocks. But the posters all over the city are a peculiar mix of things, indicating what life was like in the city not long ago and what lies now behind the gates of Zaporizhzhya: Between concert announcements and McDonald’s arches are billboards that inform passersby which part of a Russian tank to target with a Molotov cocktail.

As Mr. Brovko gets closer to Huliaipole, the traffic thins out. Small towns along the way seem eerily closed, almost like abandoned movie sets. Ukrainian checkpoints are manned by young and old men. Newly dug trenches zigzag away from the road, reinforced by freshly felled logs and machine gun positions. By the time Huliaipole comes into view, Mr. Brovko has passed several recently planted signs that read: MINES.

“I evacuated my parents yesterday,” he explained, pointing out that a house on their street had recently been hit by artillery fire. Just days ago, he said, he had to wait to enter Huliaipole, his bus loaded with nearly 500 pounds of potatoes, until the Russians finished shelling it.

On Monday evening, Mr. Brovko parked his bus on the outskirts of town and cycled back to his father-in-law’s house, where he would spend the night before loading his bus with evacuees the next morning. His neighbors had fled a week earlier, leaving their puppy behind, so the school bus driver turned evacuee transporter turned dog sitter fed the animal some bread before setting his alarm for 5:45 am and going to sleep.

Tuesday’s sunrise was bitterly cold. The shelling had stopped around 4 a.m. and rolled into another frontline hot spot in the distance. Boxes of milk, water, bread and other goods were unloaded from Mr. Brovko’s bus to a group of volunteers before he drove a few blocks to collect the day’s tranche of evacuees.

The 40 or so people would all be driven to Zaporizhzhya, where they would register as displaced persons. Some would be housed in dormitories and gymnasiums or with friends and family. Others would leave the country. More than four million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Of about a dozen people who boarded Mr. Brovko’s school bus, mostly women and children, they had the same reasons for leaving Huliaipole: the shelling got worse and closer. It was too much.

They quietly boarded the yellow school bus on Tuesday, some in tears. A woman said goodbye to her small toffee-colored dog Asya, because evacuees are not allowed to bring pets. Another woman, Valia, 60, took her granddaughter to reunite with the girl’s father before leaving southern Ukraine. When the granddaughter asked where they would live, the grandmother told a lie to reassure her.

“To Dubai,” Valia said, refusing to give her last name. “The sea is turquoise there.”

Not long after the buses left Huliaipole, the shelling resumed and continued throughout the day, said Kostiantyn Kopyl, 45, a surgeon at the hospital and member of the local territorial defense unit. Ukrainian troops fired back at night, and those who remained in the city did what they did every night: listened and waited for the next explosion.

“Everyone is still alive,” he reported.

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