Severodonetsk, Ukraine – A woman got out of the ambulance, sobbing, her hands stained with blood. Police paramedics pulled her into the first aid station, where she pleaded for help to her husband, who was lying in the ambulance.
The woman said to her: “Please, God, let him live.” “You cannot imagine what a person is. He is a golden person.”
But the stretcher bearers were already standing. And Sarhi, Ola’s husband, died on Tuesday afternoon, another victim A relentless barrage of artillery fire and fire Russian forces have rained down this frontline town for three months.
A mining and industrial city, Severodonetsk is located in the heart of the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, placing it squarely at the junction of Moscow. Having been rejected in the capital Kyiv, the Russian forces directed their entire force eastward, with the aim of capturing a large part of the lands adjacent to the Russian frontier, although this came at a certain cost to them.
Sievierodonetsk is strategically critical to the Ukrainians as well, and they have spent weeks defending it fiercely. Earlier this month, Russian forces They suffered heavy losses while trying to cross the nearby Seversky Donets and consolidate their position.
In Sievierodonetsk, this meant months of shock as Moscow attempts to encircle and lay siege to the city. Russian forces are now present on three sides.
Traveling to Severodonetsk is risky. To get here on Tuesday, a New York Times news team escorted by police drove through villages and small fields to avoid shell fire from Russian positions, then sped across a one-lane bridge which is the only road left into town.
The wreckage of the Russian bombing was scattered on almost every street.
Rocket fins are suspended from holes in the asphalt. A power pole and broken cables appeared across the street. Burnt out cars, ripped to shrapnel and sometimes overturned, were deserted wherever an explosion threw them. A truck hung precariously on the side of the bridge.
For the Severodonetsk police officers, it was just another day.
The officers maintained a police presence in the town, as well as in the neighboring city of Lysichansk, where they ran in supplies for the remaining townspeople, transported the dead and wounded, and evacuated people away from the front line.
“A lot of them were nobody, but when the war began they became heroes,” Luhansk region police chief Ole Hryhorov said of his officers. “A lot of them stayed because they really understand that it’s their duty.”
Although Russian forces captured a large part of the area for which Chief Hryhorov was in charge, he was able to maintain a headquarters in Severodonetsk, and command a force consisting mainly of indigenous people in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk that Russia claims. king. He said many of them lost their homes eight years ago in the war in eastern Ukraine, and now they’ve lost everything a second time.
While the Ukrainian army fights to defend the city, and fights with artillery and tanks to repel the Russian advance, the police force has tried to meet the needs of the civilian population. Inside one of the warehouses, workers made lists of those who need help and those who seek evacuation. A row of blankets on wooden pallets served as a first aid post. In the courtyard, people filled buckets from a water tank.
All the while, the Russians have increased their bombing in the past few days, the police chief said, and a new attack appears imminent.
Now even civilians who chose to stay home, and rejected previous offers of evacuation, are asking for help getting out, President Hryhorov said. The police are taking out 30 or 40 people a day.
The danger to his officers, who number more than 100 in the two settlements, is also growing. On Tuesday, he held a meeting with his staff to strategize what to do in the event of a Russian encirclement.
He said they will stay where they are for now because there is no one else to support the people.
Of the antebellum population of 100,000, thousands of people still stood, many living in basements and communal shelters, while others stayed home in apartments or small wooden huts amid gardens and tree-lined streets. Some of them are retired. Some lack the means – or the desire – to escape. Still others sympathize with the Russian government.
It seemed that events overwhelmed many.
When a team of officers unloaded food supplies for families at apartment complexes in the old part of town, two women approached the police chief. They wanted to be evacuated, but they were taking care of their mothers, both of whom were bedridden from strokes.
“I’m without money, without pennies,” said Victoria, 49, starting to cry. “I have no relatives and nowhere to go.”
Victoria was in contact with an American help group that offered help when the town still had phone and internet connections, but, she said, she never came. She said that her mother, Valentina, is 87 years old and cannot walk.
As she spoke, the sniper’s fire whistled nearby. The police chief bowed and swung around to look for impact. But the two women seemed oblivious to the bullets, as well as the sound of explosions nearby.
The second woman, Lyudmila, 52, said that she lived in an apartment on the fourth floor and did not dare go downstairs when there was a bombing because she could not bear to leave her mother upstairs alone.
“I have to feed her by hand,” she said. “We sit and get scared and don’t know what to do.”
The apartment building was hit once by a shell, and one of the apartments was partially burned.
“We will not return, but we will try,” the police chief said in response to the request to evacuate the women.
Police teams collect those who want to leave in small groups and take them to the assembly point, where they are then transported in an armored bus.
The process is riddled with pitfalls and uncertainties, not the least of which is the start of a new bombardment that impedes any movement. But as teams gathered at police headquarters in Lysichansk to plan the next evacuation, they said the latest delay was caused by a group of evacuees themselves who were demanding additional safeguards.
Other officers were taking care of those whose assistance had been delayed.
Three police officers, braving shell fire, set out to collect and bury the dead in Lyschansk. They drove a white truck into a house where a 65-year-old woman, whose neighbors called Grandma Masha, lay on her back in the yard, her arms outstretched under a blanket. Her dog growled and barked from his house as officers put him in a body bag and carried her on a stretcher.
Her neighbor, Lina, 39, said that Grandma Masha had diabetes, and the war had made it difficult to get medicine. Her son had left with his family, and was unable to return when she fell ill, Lina said. Like most of the people interviewed for this article, she preferred to mention her first name only for security reasons.
“I absolutely didn’t want this to happen,” she stated. “It’s a totally stupid war – but no one asked for my opinion.”
Police officers collected another body of a 60-year-old man named Sasha who was living in a small wooden house with an overgrown garden near a military base.
“There was a shell and then he died,” said his neighbor and friend Mikhail, 51, angrily. “He said he’s feeling sick, but where do we take him in an emergency?”
In Severodonetsk there is a hospital. But the only doctor there takes care of 30 patients, and he’s been so bombarded and nearly inaccessible, the townspeople said.
Police officers drove to the cemetery on the outskirts of town and installed their truck in a row of narrow trenches dug by a backhoe. They took the bags out of the truck and unceremoniously dumped them into the trench where there were already 10 or more body bags.
The officer in charge said they buried 150 civilians in three months, only giving his first name, Daniel, 26. Only a few relatives were around to arrange proper burials, while the rest went to mass graves.
“It’s too scary to get used to,” said President Hryhorov.
His way of dealing with war, he said, is to focus on one task at a time.
“Tomorrow will be another day and there will be some new missions,” he said. “It is possible that each of us will do what we must, and the result will be a common victory.”