Ukraine: in Severodonetsk, the last inhabitants live under the bombs

Strikes are heard in a nearby neighborhood. With each explosion, Maria hugs her son to her. Despite the bombardments, she does not want to leave Severodonetsk, the easternmost ghost town still held by the Ukrainian army.

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For about twenty minutes, brief whistles of rockets followed by explosions follow one another.

With her 6-year-old son Maxime, Maria stands in the front doorway at the back of a small building.

“There is no more electricity or water”, says the young woman, who lives there with her husband and her mother-in-law.

“But I prefer to stay here, at home. If we leave, where will we go? Those who leave, we take care of them for three days, and then after that nothing more, or else they live in apartments with a lot of people, ”she explains.

“The bombings? It’s always like that, ”she says, after a new explosion.

The front line with the pro-Russian separatist territories is very close. The city, of more than 100,000 inhabitants before the war, is almost emptied of its population.

About 400 civilians have been buried there since the start of the war, according to the Ukrainian governor of the Lugansk region, Sergei Gaïdaï.

On Wednesday, the weather was terrible: rain, cold, wind, low gray skies, dark clouds rolling by, water filling the potholes in the streets.

Not the ideal time for the big Russian offensive that the Ukrainians say is imminent, aimed at taking full control of Donbass, which Ukrainian forces and their pro-Russian separatist enemies have shared since 2014.

The positions have been frozen for several days. Only the artillery of each camp seems to be active.

In the wide rue des Chemistes, which runs from the city center to a wood beyond which are the Russian forces targeting the locality, a few civilians are caught doing their shopping.

At the sound of the knocks, they quicken their pace, hug the walls, their backs bent.



Yuri goes home quickly, a full plastic bag in each hand. He has just done some shopping in one of the few small stores still open.

“I feel like everyone else when there’s bombing, how can you feel normal?” he says nonstop.

A little further down the same street, the team of AFP journalists came across a 70-year-old man.

He walks beside a lady. “I’m looking for something to drink. This woman wants bread. But they don’t sell any,” grumbles the old man, also named Yuri.

Isn’t he afraid of the bombardments? “I’m scared, very scared, but I’m 70, so I don’t show it,” he says with a smile.

He would need medicine for his painful joints and leg.

But “there are no more doctors, no nurses, and all the pharmacies are closed”.

The governor called on residents to evacuate the Lugansk region, of which Severodonetsk is the capital.

A small yellow bus parks in front of the cultural center, a meeting place for people wanting to be evacuated.

Tamara Yakovenko, 61, came with her mother, 83. Four other people are waiting with them at the pick-up point.

“We have to leave (…) Here, we have to stay in the basement. It’s horrible. Every 10 or 15 minutes, there are bombings,” explains the sixty-year-old.

“We were receiving humanitarian aid, but now no one remembers us. Some try to cook outside on a wood fire… And boom, boom… everyone has to run back to the basement. All night until morning, there is no rest,” she says.

At the checkpoints at the entrance to the city, the Ukrainian soldiers put on their raincoats.

They are few in the city. At the corner of a building is stationed a light armored vehicle, covered with a camouflage net. A few soldiers are visible.

On the road west to Kramatorsk, there are no major troop movements visible.

We just come across a few empty troop transport vehicles or tank trucks heading towards the front.

According to the regional governor, the Russians are concentrating their forces near Rubizhne, less than 10 km north of Severodonetsk.

Last night, Rubizhne was the target of shelling throughout the night, according to a resident, whose house overlooks the two localities.

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