Inside a dystopian retirement village left over from Russia’s war of attrition
Lysychansk, Ukraine — Lysychansk is a ghost town. Just miles from the invading Russian forces, the eastern mining communityThe industrial heart of once had 100,000 inhabitants. A tiny fraction of these residents remain, along with those unable or unwilling to escape and survive amidst the ruins.
Thewas relentless. A steady jackhammer of mortars, artillery and airstrikes is eroding the crescent-shaped front line of Ukrainian resistance in the Donbas region.
A main road leads to the town. Piles of dirt and rocks, piled up at regular intervals to slow down Russian armor, force vehicles to zigzag across the tracks. Mangled cars with shrapnel-riddled windshields litter the side of the road.
Our Ukrainian special forces escort led the way as we approached the city, stopping at checkpoints to facilitate the passage of our convoy. We were promised a tour of the most damaged places, and it didn’t take long to find them.
At the end of a tree-lined road, a commercial building was upended. Corrugated iron and insulation were strewn across the road like confetti. Walking as if lost in the rubble was Dmytro, a freelancer, now jobless and trapped.
“There’s constant shooting,” he said. “You live in a powder keg.”
When there are bombardments, he hides at home.
“Walls help,” he said unenthusiastically, before conceding that no place is really safe. “I saw the size of the missiles. It is impossible to hide from it.”
Farther on, at a blasted crossroads strewn with glass and shrapnel, stands the carcass of what was once a cafe. The veranda where residents would once have sat with cappuccinos, watching the world go by, was dotted with blackened fire extinguishers. Proof perhaps of a doomed rescue attempt.
Further into the city, we found further evidence of Russia’s indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas: a residential building, pock-marked and burned, empty window frames gaping like missing teeth.
Elderly men and women worked at the edge of a water-filled crater dug deep into the ground at the foot of the building’s now exposed foundations. A Russian plane recently dropped its deadly cargo here, hitting the basement entrance where people were sheltering. The door, once at ground level, was left hanging five feet from the wall. The door had disappeared.
But the crater and the fractured pipeline inside offer some sort of consolation: much-needed water for the toilets. Residents took turns rushing into the pit to dunk plastic buckets.
We saw 63-year-old former coal miner Vladimir come out of the hole. His mother recently had surgery and, at 84, needs him there. So there is no escape—and, he says, no life.
” What a life ? he asked rhetorically, putting down his buckets. “We stay in the basements. Somehow we cook. We are scared. Everything is destroyed.” Anyone young enough to leave Lysychansk has already left, either to safety in towns farther west or, if male and of fighting age, where the army needs them.
Walking the streets, it looked like some sort of dystopian retirement village. An elderly couple walked hand in hand on a sidewalk lined with broken glass. A man in a cap and sweater pushed his bike up a hill, offering a cheerful “zdravstvuyte!” (hello) by the way.
The spring morning, cloudless and warm under blue skies, could almost have been called pleasant were it not for the artillery fire. The fizzing arc of their trajectory was clearly audible before they crashed into a nearby hill with thuds. Vladimir’s neighbor, Ludmilla, bucket in hand, told us about the moment the missile hit her neighborhood.
“I was home,” she said. “Everything was shaking.”
The whiplash of an outgoing mortar suddenly ricocheted off the walls of neighboring apartments as we spoke. She barely flinched.
“I kind of got used to it,” she said. “I came to fetch water. What can I do ?
But she won’t leave.
“I have nowhere to go,” the 65-year-old told us. “Where would I go? I am an old woman. Who needs me?
Ludmilla said she feared rockets and bombs, but was resigned to her fate if the Ukrainian defenses crumbled. If the Russians come, she says, they’ll kill her first anyway: Being a vocal Ukrainian patriot in a region full of pro-Russians has always been difficult. Now, that could prove deadly.
But there can still be hope. On the outskirts of town, overlooking the site of another Russian airstrike – this one clearly off target, hitting a wooded edge abutting a farmer’s field – Special Forces Commander Oleksandr told us why.
Despite the endless shelling, he said, his forces held the line as heavy weapons supplied by the United States poured into the area.
“Their tactic is just to level everything,” he said of Vladimir Putin’s forces. “They don’t need people, they just need territory.”
He said the Russians cannot fight – and will not win – face to face in an infantry battle, so for now it remains a war of attrition, fought from a distance with heavy artillery.
“They can’t do anything but bomb everything,” he said, cradling his AK-47. “They are not the second [best] army in the world, they are fake. They stand in the same place. They’re not moving anywhere.”
Oleksandr said the Russian soldiers were neither “morally nor physically” capable of leading the fight against the Ukrainians.
With that, the interview ended, and we were back in our cars and heading for the only road out of Lysychansk.