“It’s the second month since Russia used all possible ammunition to shell the Luhansk region. Now they are gathering equipment, mobilizing conscripts … The battle here [will] be the fiercest,” the governor of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Gaidai, told me when we met recently in eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s intentions are clear: the Kremlin calls its war against Ukraine the “special operation to free Donbas”. It wants some real gains to present at home before the anniversary of Russia’s victory in the second world war, on 9 May. After Russian troops failed to beat the Ukrainian military and occupy Kyiv and major towns like Kharkiv, Moscow is concentrating on taking the parts of the Donbas that remain in Ukrainian hands.
Up to 2.5 million people live in the unoccupied Donbas, Moscow claims. The territory had already suffered drastically since the start of this war, particularly in the south. “Ninety per cent of Mariupol cannot be rebuilt. Up to 5,000 civilians might [have been] killed during the siege that started on 1 March. There are still up to 120,000 remaining there. Another town of Volnovakha, north of Mariupol, is basically swept away,” said Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region. Kyrlenko is 35 years old and was born in Donetsk. He’s a former prosecutor, and is now on the death list in the occupied territory. He has ceased any contact with family members in the Donbas, and has not returned home for eight years.
In the Luhansk region, the Ukrainian military now controls just three major industrial towns. The most populous, the administrative capital Severodonetsk, continues to be heavily bombed. I spent a few hours there recently, and could hear the constant sound of explosions. Few people had proper mobile connections or electricity.
Roman Vodianyk, the chief doctor of the biggest and now only hospital in Severodonetsk, is able to speak on the phone thanks to a satellite internet connection that has been provided to key facilities. Vodianyk’s office is full of medicine, but he needs surgeons and more insulin. In a town where 100,000 people lived, up to 30,000 remain. I met Vodianyk recently, and walked through a modern facility many regional hospitals would envy. Yet the oxygen cylinders brought two months ago were hit by the shells, and one of the departments was seriously damaged. Vodianyk revealed that his own home had been demolished.
Patients lay in hospital beds in the corridors, but not because the hospital was full. People were afraid to be near the windows. I met a woman called Lyuba, who survived the attacks a few hours before my visit. Rescue workers had taken her from the debris of her house. Yana, 45, an English teacher, wasn’t so lucky. She had been hiding in the basement with her 18-year-old son, Nikita (who has autism), since the winter. Yana decided to go home and collect some lighter clothes for spring. A shell hit her and Nikita on the street. He lost his hand, and his mother died. When I met Nikita in the hospital, his other hand did not leave that of his grandmother Larysa.
Governor Kyrylenko has urged locals to leave the Donetsk region. He is uneasily preparing the region for a colossal assault. His aim is not to show heroism, but preserve lives. His colleague from Luhansk regrets that many people only realized they had to evacuate once their neighbour’s homes had been destroyed. The Ukrainian authorities are cautious about publicizing places where people have evacuated to, afraid that mass gatherings could be attacked. Kyrylenko told me about the lessons learned over the past months, and what the Donbas was doing to prepare for new assaults. As supermarkets and warehouses have been targeted, more food will be delivered and stored in different facilities. Evacuation convoys will be split into smaller groups, after the first convoy of 50 evacuation buses sent to Mariupol was bombed (20 vehicles were demolished).
In my native city, Kyiv, I have been distracted by graphic images from Bucha and Irpin. These are middle-class, suburban areas on the outskirts of the city. Many of my colleagues and friends live there. I’ve look at photos of a mass grave and read testimonies of rape and torture. I’ve gazed at a photo of him, an elderly man who was shot on his bicycle, and listened to a description of mutilated bodies in a local morgue. I’ve reported on the war in eastern Ukraine for eight years, focusing on civilian casualties and human rights violations. But we have never seen anything compared with this.
After the Bucha massacre, it feels like we have to change the way we treat this war. Before, we tried to figure out Russia’s military strategy, to be better prepared. But a case of snuff in a village near Kharkiv, the mines in a botanic garden in Trostyanetsand shooting men with tied hands in peaceful suburbs of Kyiv – these actions do not make any sense, aside from a desire to punish Ukrainians. Gaidai, the governor of Luhansk, used to be a professional crisis manager. When I asked him about Severodonetsk, where he was born, he raised. “I feel pain because these bastards are shelling everything: hospitals, kindergartens. We have recently reconstructed a swimming pool. My mother taught me to swim there. Was that swimming pool guilty of anything?” He wipes his tears. “I cannot look at my mobile without [seeing] requests for help. It’s the concentration of pain.”
On 24 February both Gadai and Kyrelynko told me they received calls from Russia urging them to take the other side. “It was before the phrase ‘Russian warship go fuck yourself’. I didn’t know such an eloquent way to answer, so I blocked the number,” Kyrylenko recalls. Later, both received death threats. Numerous mayors and civic servants in the Ukrainian Donbas and their families have also received threats.
The concern is that the west, and those who want to broker any deal with Russia, will be tempted to let Vladimir Putin take the Donbas. This could be an exit strategy that would allow him to save face.
After the horrors in Bucha, I am terrified for what could happen to the people in the Donbas who have demonstrated loyalty to the Ukrainian state for the past eight years. It’s not just bureaucrats and the military: locals worked for Ukrainian businesses and taught in Ukrainian schools. Before leaving the Donbas, I rushed to see my friend, who I had first met eight years ago during a reporting trip. He has developed a successful greengrocer business. He sent his wife and daughter to western Ukraine but remains in the territory to care for his business from him. I gave him a hug, and insisted that he needed to finish what he was doing and leave. After Bucha, there is no other choice for Ukraine but to fight for the Donbas. The battle may be brutal and long.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism