Severodonetsk is at the heart of the battle for the Donbas. Ukraine’s troops are trying to hold the line, but Russian forces are entering the city. Streetfights are raging. President Zelensky said that Russia destroyed the city’s infrastructure and damaged 90 percent of its buildings. At least 1,500 residents have been killed. For Meduza Elena Dreval and Konstantin Skvortsov spoke with three locals who escaped the city.

oekraine severodonetsk kleuterschoolRussian artillery fire hit a Kindergarten in Severodonetsk

by Elena Dreval and Konstantin Skvortsov

Stanislav Shvabo 

Volunteer from Severodonetsk, age 32

I was born in Severodonetsk and lived there all my life. I live in the suburb of Syrotyne. In mid-March, Ukrainian forces started going around our settlement — they said it would be best for us to leave. 

My girlfriend’s parents live next door and at a family meeting that same evening, we made the decision to leave. My parents and I didn’t want to go, but we decided not to split up. At that point we didn’t have electricity or gas, and there were problems with provisions. We went to [neighouring] Slovyansk, where we had the opportunity to stay, [but] then we decided to stay in Dnipro, where I set up a base for trips home. 

I started volunteering when I was still in Severodonetsk. We, a company of volunteers, took mini buses and delivered humanitarian aid to bomb shelters, and evacuated residents. The evacuations stopped in late April — those who wanted to leave the city had already done so. Now the only ones left there are those who have nowhere to go — elderly and disabled people who just physically cannot leave. 

The only ones left are elderly and disabled people who have nowhere to go

Our last trip to the city was on May 22. Getting there was very difficult and dangerous. One of the two bridges to Severodonetsk from Lysychansk was blown up. The second bridge is intact, but it was badly damaged and is constantly under fire. When [Russian troops] see a convoy the shelling starts; whether it’s a military or civilian convoy doesn’t matter. We were really worried — there have been cases where volunteers were fired upon. 

lysychansk bridge destroyedThe bridge between Severodonetsk and Lysychansk was destroyed by the Russians (picture Telegram Sergyi Gayday)

In the end, we managed to get into the city. The first thing we had to do was stop in to see the [Ukrainian] troops — we gave them gasoline and some food. While we were standing and talking with them, their position came under mortar fire, but the shells missed.

Then we drove around the city to hand out food, fuel, and other humanitarian aid. But as soon as we got to the first address, they started bombing the entire quarter of the old city, where we were. They fired without stopping, things were constantly catching fire, whistling overhead, the whole city was in smoke. We weren’t able to visit even half of the 20 addresses on our list. We were supposed to pick up five cats [from one house], but we couldn’t get through.

When we visited the city two or three weeks ago, you could still see people walking around with grocery bags, riding their bikes. Soldiers were running around. But when we arrived [on May 22] we saw an empty city, no one was leaving the shelters. You don’t see people at all. It won’t end well for the city. We now have our own Mariupol. 

At first, they [the Russian troops] tried to bomb infrastructure, like gas lines and power stations, but now they’re destroying the entire city. Eyewitnesses told me that they’ll drive tanks up to a nine-storey building and just open fire on it. 

The [Ukrainian] troops I spoke with said that 'there’s few of us left, and nothing special to fight with'. They’re managing to hold back the Russian army, but morale there clearly isn’t high. Who knows how long they’ll last, but I can’t really blame them. There’s no need to stay there as cannon fodder and die heroically. Now I have no hope that it will be possible to defend the city. 

I won’t return to my home under Russian occupation. If the war were to end right now, maybe I’d go back to Severodonetsk, although I understand that this city will be dead for a couple years. Even after 2014, when we didn’t even have five percent of the destruction [there is now], the city took a long time to recover and come back to life. The city began to live a normal life just before this war. And now I don’t know if it will be possible to restore it at all. 

oekraine severodonetsk gayday 2Destruction in Severodonetsk (picture  Sergiy Gayday)

Yulia

Nurse

We were doing fine before the war. Great, as I now realize.

It was a very happy life, because we lived in peace and tranquility. And what our friends and relatives from Russia say about [the Ukrainian authorities] somehow infringing upon us isn’t true. We lived and were happy, we made plans for the future. And now the 'liberators' came and 'liberated' us from all the good things there were in our lives. They ruined, or rather, want to ruin our lives. 

No one believed a war would start. And then the shelling of [Severodonetsk] began [on February 28]. Everyone started rushing around the hospital corridors in a panic. [My] children were at home, but my colleagues and I couldn’t leave [work] because we had patients. We were allowed to go home in the evening, and the children and I spent the night in a cold, creepy bomb shelter. We just sat there — we didn’t know whether to leave and be killed by some kind of mine, or just freeze there. The war hadn’t just started in my country — it had come to our city.

We lived and were happy and now the 'liberators' came to 'liberate' us and ruined our lives

The entire time it seemed like we were in some kind of bad dream. They [the Russian army] shelled schoolscathedralskindergartens, and our hospital, where patients were lying [in their beds].

We were very afraid that our city would be taken. I simply said that I wouldn’t go from a bomb shelter to the 'Russian world' [Russky mir - the euphemistic term the Russians use for their 'sphere of influence outside of Russia - ed.] or any other world. So we decided that we had to leave. We left the city on May 16. We were lucky, we escaped. We understood that it’s better to live anywhere else, just not in some kind of “DNR” or “LNR” [the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” in the Donbas].

At first, people [in Severodonetsk] didn’t want to evacuate. But with each day everything became more and more difficult. People started to realize that they had to leave. It was already very risky, people came under fire. Now it’s mostly elderly people there, who are either afraid [to leave] or have lived there all their lives and it’s [too] hard for them to start over from scratch. Some don’t want to leave their elderly parents. Others are simply terrified of leaving the bomb shelter. 

oekraine severodonetsk sergyi gaydaySergyi Gayday, Ukrainian head of the Luhansk military administration in Severodonetsk

For a while there was cell service in the city, then it repeatedly disappeared. Right now there’s no service, water, or gas.

At first, my family and I went to Western Ukraine. [There was no] aid as such — only the people in the village where we lived helped [us]. But we weren’t looking for help, we wanted to work. We had to go to Kyiv [to find] work. My husband already got a job as a driver, but I can’t [work] yet, because I’m afraid to leave my children home alone.

Everyone [in Russia] is to blame for our civilians dying, our children dying, and our country being destroyed.

I have a friend who lives in Moscow. We were writing to each other [and] I said: “Well you see, Russia attacked us.” She replied: “Well no, Ukraine and America attacked, and Ukraine bombed the Donbas for eight years.” I wanted to say: “Well show [me] the destruction done to the Donbas in eight years and how much destruction Russia has done in these three months.”

Why won’t you let us live in our country? And how come your children can peacefully go to school and play with their toys, while my children are forced to roam? I think those who came here, those who kept silent, and those who support the war are [all] to blame. Everyone is to blame for what’s happening, for our civilians dying, our children dying, and our country being destroyed.

oekraine severedonetsk church picture eparkhiaChrist Nativity Cathedral in Severodonetsk was bombed (picture Eparkhia)

Marina

Economist, age 27

I was born and raised in Severodonetsk, it’s my hometown. I know every inch of it. After high school, I moved to Kyiv to study and stayed here. I rarely went home to see my parents. Now I regret not calling very often and almost never visiting. I’m very worried that my parents are already dead. I’m scared to even think about it.

I’ve already gotten used to the explosions. I’ve gotten used to running to the subway when there’s an air raid alert. When the Russians retreated from Kyiv I cried from happiness. Because I don’t need saving from my own country. My whole life is here. And I don’t want to leave or live under occupation.

I learned that Severodonetsk had been encircled by the Russian army from the news. I wasn’t able to get through to my mother for a long time. I’ll always remember her words: “Everything’s fine, we’re hiding in a bomb shelter, the cat is with us.”

For a long time you could leave the city safely. The government provided buses, but I wasn’t able to persuade my parents. I begged them to come [stay] with me. They also cried and said that they couldn’t leave their home, that they don’t know how to live in another city. 

At the same time, my parents told me that the city was already destroyed, that everything is black from the explosions. That it’s no longer the same Severodonetsk where I grew up. My mom said that they’re shooting from two sides — hitting residential buildings, people. She said that leaving the bomb shelter was just plain scary. I kept trying to persuade them to evacuate, but they’re old. For them, leaving is something inconceivable.

And then the city finally lost service. I can’t get through to my parents. I monitor the lists of the deceased on social media constantly. I don’t know what’s worse — seeing your parents on these lists or finding out that the city has been taken, that the Russian army is there, and they can do just about anything to your relatives. 

I contacted the volunteers, now they’re helping me with the search remotely. As soon as I find out their exact location I’ll get them out. There are no longer any buses. You can only leave by car. There are risks — you could come under fire. But I pray every day that everything will be all right.

I don’t want to say anything bad, because I understand that there are people in Russia who did not want this either. I’ll just say that I wouldn’t wish for anyone to be looking for their parents like this, knowing that your city has turned into another Mariupol. 

This article was published by Meduza.