Ukraine-Russia War Breaking News: Live Updates
SIEVIERODONETSK, Ukraine – A woman got out of the ambulance moaning, her hands covered in blood. Police medics lured her inside their first aid station as she called for help for her husband, who was lying in the ambulance.
“Please my God, let him live,” said the woman, Olha. “You can’t imagine what a person he is. He’s a golden person.”
But the stretcher-bearers have already withdrawn. Olha’s husband, Serhii, died at noon on Tuesday, another victim of the relentless barrage of artillery and fire that Russian forces rained down on this frontline town for three months.
Sievierodonetsk, a mining and industrial city, sits in the heart of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, putting it squarely in Moscow’s sights. Pushed back into the capital, Kyiv, Russian forces turned all their strength eastward, aiming to seize much of the territory next to the Russian border, albeit at great cost.
Sievierodonetsk is also strategically critical for the Ukrainians, and they have spent weeks defending it fiercely. Earlier this month, Russian forces suffered heavy casualties as they attempted to cross the nearby Seversky Donets River and consolidate their position.
In Sievierodonetsk, that has meant months of trauma as Moscow tries to surround the city and besiege it. Russian forces are now in place on three sides.
Traveling to Sievierodonetsk is perilous. To get here on Tuesday, a New York Times reporting team drove with a police escort through small villages and fields to avoid shelling from Russian positions, then sped across a single-lane bridge that is the only road remaining in the city.
The debris of the Russian bombardment lay in almost every street.
The rocket fins were sticking out of craters in the asphalt. A broken electricity pylon and cables were draped across the street. And burned-out cars, shredded by shrapnel and sometimes overturned, lay abandoned where an explosion had thrown them. A truck dangled precariously from the edge of a bridge.
For the Sievierodonetsk police, it was just another day.
Officers maintained a police presence in the town, as well as in the nearby town of Lysychansk, supplying the remaining residents, picking up the dead and injured and evacuating people away from the front line.
“Many of them were nothing, but when the war broke out they became heroes,” Luhansk region police chief Oleh Hryhorov said of his officers. “A lot of them stayed because they really understand it’s their duty.”
Although much of the region for which Chief Hryhorov is responsible has been seized by Russian forces, he has managed to maintain a headquarters in Sievierodonetsk and commands a force composed mainly of natives from the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk which Russia claims as its own. Many of them lost their homes eight years ago in the war in eastern Ukraine, and now they have lost everything a second time, he said.
As the Ukrainian army fights to defend the city, battling with artillery and tanks to repel Russian advances, the police have tried to meet the needs of the civilian population. Inside a warehouse, workers made lists of those who needed help and those who asked to be evacuated. A row of blankets on wooden pallets served as an aid station. In the yard, people filled buckets from a tank truck.
Meanwhile, the Russians have stepped up their shelling in recent days, and a new assault appears imminent, the police chief said.
Now even civilians who had chosen to stay home, rejecting previous offers to evacuate, are asking for help to get out, Chief Hryhorov said. The police take out 30 or 40 people a day.
The danger also mounts for its officers, who are more than 100 in the two colonies. On Tuesday, he held a meeting with his staff to strategize on what to do in the event of an encirclement by the Russians.
For now, they will stay put, he said, because there is no one else to support the population.
Of a pre-war population of 100,000, there are still thousands of people, many of whom live in basements and communal bomb shelters, others stay at home in apartments or small cottages in woods amidst gardens and tree-lined streets. Some are retired. Some do not have the means – or the inclination – to escape. Still others sympathize with the Russian government.
Many seemed simply overwhelmed by events.
As a team of officers unloaded food supplies for families in apartment buildings in the Old City, two women approached the police commander. They wanted to be evacuated, but they were caring for their mothers, who were both bedridden with strokes.
“I am without money, without pennies,” said Viktoriya, 49, crying. “I have no parents and nowhere to go.”
Viktoriya had been in contact with an American aid group that had offered to help when the town still had phone and internet connections, but, she said, they never came. Her mother, Valentina, is 87 and cannot walk, she said.
As she spoke, sniper fire whistled above her head. The police commander ducked and turned to look for the impact. But both women seemed oblivious to the gunshot, as well as explosions echoing nearby.
The second woman, Lyudmila, 52, said she lived in a fourth-floor apartment and didn’t dare go down to the basement when there was shelling because she couldn’t bear to leave her mother alone upstairs.
“I have to hand feed her,” she says. “We sit and feel fear and don’t know what to do.”
The building had already been hit once by a shell and an apartment had been partly burned.
“We won’t promise, but we will try,” the police chief said, responding to the women’s request to be evacuated.
Police teams rounded up those who want to leave in small groups and transported them to an assembly point, where they are then taken in an armored bus.
The operation is strewn with pitfalls and uncertainties, in particular the appearance of new bombardments which block any movement. But as teams gathered at police headquarters in Lysychansk to plan the next evacuation, they said the latest delay was caused by a group of evacuees themselves who demanded additional insurance.
Other officers cared for those for whom help was too late.
Three policemen, braving the shelling, left to collect and bury the dead in Lysychansk. They drove a white van to a house where a 65-year-old woman, whom neighbors called Grandma Masha, was lying in the yard on her back with her arms outstretched under a blanket. Her dog growled and barked from her kennel as officers placed her in a body bag and carried her on a stretcher.
Grandmother Masha had diabetes and the war made it difficult to get her medicine, her neighbor Lena, 39, said. Her son had left with his family and was unable to return when she fell ill, Lena said. Like most people interviewed for this article, she preferred to give only her first name, for security reasons.
“I didn’t want that to happen at all,” she said. “It’s a completely stupid war – but nobody asked my opinion.”
Police recovered another body, that of a 60-year-old man named Sasha who had lived in a small wooden house with an overgrown garden near a military base.
“There was shelling, and then he died,” said his neighbor and friend, Mikhail, 51, exasperated. “He said he felt bad, but where should we take him in case of an emergency?”
Sievierodonetsk has a hospital. But the only doctor there is caring for 30 patients, and he has been heavily bombed and is virtually inaccessible, townspeople said.
The officers drove to the cemetery on the outskirts of town and backed their van to a line of narrow trenches dug by a backhoe. They took the bags out of the van and threw them unceremoniously into the trench where there were already a dozen body bags.
They buried 150 civilians in three months, said the officer in charge, who gave only his first name, Daniel, 26. Only a few relatives were there to arrange the proper burials, with the rest going to mass graves.
“It’s very scary to get used to,” Chief Hryhorov said.
His way of handling war is to focus on one task at a time, he said.
“And tomorrow will be another day and there will be new tasks,” he said. “Probably, each of us should do what we have to, and the result will be a joint victory.”