A Ukrainian city is vacant, and the rest are scared What’s next

After the deadly attack at the train station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, those who remained were heartbroken about the future: “We thought we were going to be wiped off the face of the earth.”

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine – Two days after more than 50 people were killed on its platform by a missile attack, the only sound at the Kramatorsk station on Sunday morning was the remote sirens of the air raid and rhythmically sweep broken glass.

“The town is dead now,” said Tetiana, 50, a shop owner who was working next to the station when it was attacked as thousands of people tried to board trains to evacuate the eastern city, out of fear. it will soon be surrounded by Russian troops.

Friday’s strike was a terrifying turning point for the city after nearly eight years near the country’s front lines against Russian-backed separatists in the region known as the Donbas.

The main lobby of the station was still covered with blood and luggage stains on Sunday morning, with the burned crates of two sedans lying in the parking area outside.

Tetiana, who refused to give her last name, was certain that more deaths were coming.

“We are under siege. We get it,” adds Tetiana, who has lived for 10 years in Kramatorsk, a city with a pre-war population of about 150,000 and once one of the industrial hearts of Donbas. She said she wouldn’t leave because she had to take care of her 82-year-old mother, who was ailing. But she knows more than ever the danger it brings.

“We thought we were going to get swept out of the ground,” she said.

She recalls retreating inside a nearby market on Friday to take cover when the rocket hit the train station, with what she estimates was 2,000 people inside. A family staying with her at the market was nearly crushed by a portion of the roof that had fallen off in the explosion.

“There were screams everywhere,” she said. “Nobody can understand a thing, cars are on fire and people are running.”

With Moscow’s decision to shift the focus of the war to eastern Ukraine, those who remained in Kramatorsk feared that they would soon sink into oblivion, like those in Kharkiv and Mariupol, two other cities that had been attacked by Russian forces. ruthless work. It feels like an attack here is inevitable: Cutting off Kramatorsk would cut off part of the Ukrainian forces fighting in the eastern separatist regions where Russia is consolidating.

At the city’s main hospital, City Hospital 3, staff members are preparing for the kind of devastation that has swept through other urban centers. One doctor said the supplies for their mass trauma were plentiful. However, he added, many nurses have evacuated and there is a shortage of critical care doctors.

In Kramatorsk, residents had begun to gather down, preparing for a siege. Most of the small shops were closed, some grocery stores remained open and the town square, once packed with people on these warm spring days, was completely empty.

Just after noon on Sunday, Tetiana closed the small confectionery and coffee shop where she worked. It will close in the near future, as its main source of income, train station passengers, has disappeared.

However, maintenance workers in orange shirts still managed to clean up around the wreckage from the strike: parts of the train station, people’s shoes, a bag of potatoes and broken glass. A pack of feral dogs, frequent visitors to the area around the station, limped around the wreckage. The workers swept where they could until a water truck arrived, sucking the blood out of the exterior entrances.

In the distance, the sound of firecrackers resounded, barely audible but still easy to feel.

“We’re closing,” said Tetiana. “There’s no point. There’s no person at all.”

Evacuation vehicles are still leaving the city, but not in the same volume as in previous days. One resident said that buses sent from western Ukraine were not delivered. Those in Kramatorsk, many of them elderly residents, are preparing for what lies ahead: working without electricity, living in damp cellars, cooking on fire and endured the horrors of artillery fire.

But on Sunday, Lidia, 65, and Valentyna, 72, close friends, dressed up and decided to leave their lifelong home. Both women refused to give their last names.

“After what happened at the station, we could hear the explosions getting closer and closer,” Lidia said. In tears, Valentyna added, “I can’t hear these whistles anymore.” Their destination, as with millions of other Ukrainians since the Russian invasion on February 24, is somewhere very vaguely to the west – anywhere further.

“We needed to leave because we couldn’t take it anymore,” Lidia said.

The Kramatorsk air raid sirens aren’t the hauntingly distant chorus you hear in the movies. In most cases, they’re just a loud whistle that seems inevitable, indoors or out. And if any form of strike occurs, the sirens often arrive later, too late, residents complain.

Kramatorsk and the neighboring, but smaller city of Sloviansk, are likely to be the first two cities that will be attacked by any Russian forces able to rebuild in the area following the defeat and retreat from the capital, Kyiv. Currently, the Russian front line is like a jaw around two cities.

Encircling and cutting off Kramatorsk and Sloviansk would allow the Russians to isolate the Ukrainian forces holding their former frontlines in the two breakaway regions – a maneuver that, if successfully implemented, would mean was a disaster for the Ukrainian military, as well as most of their forces there.

Sgt. Andriy Mykyta, a soldier in Ukraine’s border guard, was in Kramatorsk trying to overcome that fate.

“There will be a serious fight,” said Sergeant Mykyta. “This is a Russian tactic: They take cities hostage.”

On Sunday, as he bought energy drinks and some snacks from one of the remaining open grocery stores in the city, the sergeant looked like every other uniformed Ukrainian soldier: a blue stripe. on his arm, his boots have weathered and a jagged tattoo protrudes. above his collar.

But in reality, he is one of the most valuable members of Ukraine’s armed forces, part of a rapidly selected group that is trained by NATO forces (a course lasting several days is given to him). is to last at least a month, he said. ) to use some of the more sophisticated weapons that are helping to repel Russian forces: the Javelin and NLAW anti-tank systems.

But he downplayed the importance of the missile system, saying, “These weapons are like a donut at the end of the day.” He said that the real battle will be on the side that can withstand the enemy’s artillery the longest and the side that retains the will to fight.

“They have tanks and artillery, but their army is demoralized,” he said.

Maria Budym, a 69-year-old resident of Kramatorsk, balked at artillery and evacuations. She stayed. When Russian-backed separatists briefly held Kramatorsk in 2014, they were welcomed to the city by a number of pro-Russian residents before being driven out by Ukrainian security forces, she said.

This time, she added, the Russians will have to deal with her.

“Only cowards and those displaced by the war run from the city,” she said, standing in a blue fleece pullover in front of her empty Soviet-style apartment. “Our soldiers will defend this city until their last breath.”

Besides, Ms. Budym added, with an angry look: “I have a tube in my apartment. I would use it for whoever gets in that door. “

Tyler Hicks contribution report.

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