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‘I can’t leave it’: The residents of an embattled Donbas village are determined to stay

By Clarissa Ward, Brent Swails and Scott McWhinnie, CNN

Galina Nikolaevna is weeping in the wreckage of her home in the village of Kamyshevakha in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Two days ago, a couple of Russian shells landed on the house and the garage, making it uninhabitable.

But Nikolaevna and her husband are refusing to leave.

Like so many people here, they have nowhere to go and no means to support themselves, Nikolaevna said. She has been told that it costs $300 just to get to Bakhmut, the nearest town under full Ukrainian control.

“We don’t even have [a] liter of gasoline. And our property,” Nikolaevna told CNN, breaking down and sobbing before pushing on: “We worked all our lives for this.”

This village, on the outskirts of Popasna in Luhansk, has been hit hard by artillery over the past days. People here are now completely cut off from basic services. Large buckets and troughs are laid out in front of the damaged building to collect the rainwater. A generator — the only means of power the residents have — hums noisily in the doorway.

Down the road from what used to be Nikolaevna’s home, Aleksandr Prokopenko is helping to evacuate residents of the destroyed village.

Prokopenko is from Popasna and used to work as a manager at a gas company. Now he spends his days in his old Zhiguli car, making the dangerous drive across the Donbas to rescue people from his embattled hometown.

Russian soldiers have already entered Popasna, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the region.

Prokopenko is picking up Vladimir, who is waiting to be evacuated with his sick father, Anatoly. His mother, Anatoly’s wife, was killed by shrapnel from a shell two days earlier. They buried her the next day.

Like many others in Ukraine, Vladimir doesn’t want his full name to be published for security reasons.

With the steady thud of artillery in the distance, Prokopenko loads up their few belongings and helps Anatoly into the car. A neighbor, seeing the CNN team, shouts from the window to show the world what the Russians have done.

“I love my town and I can’t leave it. I can’t leave the people here. Somebody needs to help people,” Prokopenko told CNN.

While many of the buses evacuating civilians have signs on them saying “children” or “evacuation,” Prokopenko said marking his car isn’t worth the effort.

“Russians don’t look at this, it makes no difference for them, children or evacuations or something else. They shell everything. School buses, red cross convoys, anything that moves,” he said.

‘Everyone is scared’

The Donbas region has already endured eight years of war, with Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

When air raid sirens wail, which is often, most people continue going about their business. The steady booms of artillery have become part of the soundtrack of daily life.

But with Russian troops now pushing into several towns as part of a massive new offensive, the fighting has escalated dramatically.

Russian forces are aiming to secure all of of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions that form the Donbas. Parts of them have been under separatist control since 2014 and the decision by the Russian President Vladimir Putin to recognize these regions as independent was seen as an opening salvo to his war on Ukraine.

As the fighting grows heavier, thousands of civilians find themselves pinned down in small towns.

Driving into the Donbas region, almost all the traffic is moving in the opposite direction. Ambulances and evacuation buses navigate the pot-holed roads to ferry people out to safety.

Checkpoints have sprung up every few miles. Ukrainian forces can be seen digging trenches along the roadside.

But there is little relief for those who reach Bakhmut, a city that remains under Ukrainian control.

Its central square is largely empty. A handful of people stand in line to take money out of the cash machine. Leaning against a fence, two older men are observing the scene.

Anatoly Vunyak, one of the two, has sent his family away from the city. He plans to sit it out.

“I’m 75, what would I go looking for? I am too old to hide myself. I worked so hard for 12 years as a driver in the north to buy my house,” he said. “Yes, we are scared. Who’s not scared? Find me someone who is not scared. Everyone is scared.”

When asked about the situation, the other of the two men, Yuri, shrugs.

“It’s bright and sunny,” he said wryly. “We are alive.”

Nearby, 38-year old Vera is on her way to see her mother, bringing her freshly cut tulips. Her 10-year-old son Valery is peddling alongside her on his bicycle. He goes to school online but the internet is patchy.

Vera said she heard Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky‘s announcement on Monday that the Russian offensive in Donbas had begun. She said she fears she will soon have to leave Bakhmut — but her mother, who is in a wheelchair, cannot flee easily.

As a steady stream of thuds can be heard in the distance, Vera tilts her head to listen.

“We try to listen and hear how far away it is but now it’s become far away. For now, we sit, we wait and read the news,” she said.

After the treacherous journey out of Popasna, Prokopenko drops off Anatoly and Vladimir at a dormitory for the displaced. The first five nights are free. After that, they are on their own.

In a cold, drafty room a couple of dozen beds are dotted around. Anatoly collapses onto one, coughing from the exertion.

Next door, another couple rescued by Prokopenko lament that their apartment in Popasna was destroyed in the fighting. But unlike most Ukrainians, they don’t blame Putin.

“All our stuff, everything was on fire. It’s a nightmare. Thank you, America who brought us weapons. It’s a horror, it’s a nightmare,” the woman said.

It’s not an uncommon view in some parts of eastern Ukraine. Russian is the primary language here and many watch Russian TV with its relentless propaganda.

“Putin wants to find a peaceful solution,” the woman’s husband added.

Prokopenko looked visibly frustrated with what they said.

“Don’t spread these fairytales. He came with weapons and attacked our land. Did we attack Russia? Please don’t tell this bulls**t to the whole world,” he told them.

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