The Desperate Lives Inside Ukraine’s “Dead Cities”

The Desperate Lives Inside Ukraine’s “Dead Cities”

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At the Lysychansk school, Yura grumbled, “Let’s fucking move”—whether to Vlad or to Ben, it was difficult to say.

The abbreviation R.T.I. refers to a rubber factory that opened in the mid-sixties to produce hoses and conveyor belts for coal mines. The adjacent neighborhood was constructed to accommodate the plant’s eight thousand workers, along with their families. In the following decades, an array of similar facilities turned Lysychansk into an industrial-manufacturing hub. The rubber plant continued operating after the collapse of the Soviet Union but shut down in 2010, because of mismanagement, corruption, and the global financial crisis. Since then, Lysychansk had struggled with many of the same difficulties afflicting factory towns around the world: poverty, urban blight, and alcohol and drug abuse.

In 2014, separatists occupied Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, but Ukrainian forces soon pushed them back some thirty miles, where they entrenched themselves for the next eight years. The simmering conflict deterred investment and development in the region, exacerbating its economic plight. The area’s other major employer, the coal industry, suffered as poorly maintained mines collapsed, flooded, and closed. If the assault on Kyiv featured the grotesque spectacle of wanton violence against an ancient cultural landmark turned modern cosmopolis, the tragedy of Lysychansk has consisted of multiplying the woes of a little-known city that was already marginalized and in distress. This was particularly true in R.T.I.

The road to R.T.I. dropped steeply toward the Siverskyi Donets River, then proceeded along a set of railroad tracks into a grid of brutalist apartment towers. Both lanes were gouged with mortar holes, their splash patterns fanning across the pavement. At mills and warehouses, Ukrainian soldiers fortified trenches and fired deafening cannons toward Severodonetsk. Yura parked outside a five-story residential building that looked uninhabited.

No sooner had he and Vlad opened the rear doors of the van than people started streaming out. Most were women. In February, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, had announced a general mobilization, and many men had been conscripted; others may have joined the separatists. But the gender imbalance was also connected to factors unrelated to the war. Some men had succumbed to health complications related to their labor in the factories and the mines, and a number of women, when I asked about their husbands, answered brusquely, “He drank.” Vlad had responded likewise when asked about his father.

“I’ve been fainting from hunger,” a woman told him now. “How is no one else coming here? We haven’t eaten in a week.”

“I’m just a volunteer. I don’t know the answers to these questions.”

“We’re people, not beasts,” the woman said.

Her left arm ended above the elbow. She’d lost it in 1972, at the rubber plant, when a steel roller grabbed her hand. Before the war, she’d received a monthly pension of a hundred and twenty dollars; now, like all the other retirees in Lysychansk, she was unable to withdraw the payments. A rocket had cracked the walls of her building. She crossed herself and said, “It’s still there, sticking through the roof. We don’t know when it will explode.”

Another woman said, “Our apartment has been shelled three fucking times. My mother’s eighty-two. She has no more diapers. I want to get the hell out of here, but she has dementia.”

While Yura and Vlad were unloading boxes from the van, something loud screamed down and detonated nearby—once, twice. Everyone hurried inside. There was no basement, so we all crammed into the stairwell as a third explosion rocked the building. During the ensuing silence, one of the women quipped, “Well, we’re used to this.”

“Don’t joke,” Yura snapped. He was peering out the doorway, with Ben standing at his side. “This is how it started in Severodonetsk,” he warned. “Soon you’ll all be begging us to come and get you. But it will be too late—we won’t be able to.”

“You can get them evacuated!” Yura shouted. “There are weapons across the river that will wipe R.T.I. off the face of the earth.”

“No, no,” the women mumbled, shaking their heads.

Another shell landed and a woman sitting on the steps, gripping a cane, began to whimper. “You’re scaring the grandmothers,” someone told Yura.

But this was his intention. “I was one of the last to leave,” he went on. “You can’t imagine it. Women screaming, children screaming. Total hysteria—and you can’t do anything. Bam! Bam! All day long. It’s not random, it’s systematic. They focus on a zone, and no one is left alive.”

Taking out his phone, he offered to show them photographs.

“We’ve already seen.”

“You haven’t seen enough. There were no police, no rescuers, no medics. . . . And you’re making jokes? Fuck.” Noticing someone outside, he said, “Here’s another old fool. We’ll be picking up pieces of people like this.”

For a while, the women seemed chastened by Yura’s diatribe, or, anyway, uninterested in provoking him. But then, after a few minutes, one of them said firmly, “At least we’re home. Who needs us out there without money? Apartments in Dnipro are six thousand hryvnias”—about two hundred dollars—“a month. How can we pay that? I understand what you’re telling us, but you can’t save everyone.”

We stopped at four more buildings before the van was empty. Each had between thirty and fifty tenants, including children and infants. R.T.I. teemed with vegetation, and in front of some apartments women brewed tea with the blossoms of linden trees (a traditional remedy for anxiety), using improvised camp stoves made of cinder block and scrap metal. Others scavenged for edible plants and berries, or gathered branches for burning. Everywhere we went, residents told Yura about more places where people were in dire need: the geriatric, the disabled, the mentally ill.

Vlad had saved the last box for his grandparents, who lived nearby, in a house perilously close to the river. When his grandmother Tatyana answered the door, she burst into tears and embraced him. They were tears of relief: she had feared that we were members of the Ukrainian artillery team that was positioned at the end of their short dirt lane. Soldiers had come by several times, Tatyana explained, asking to hide their vehicles in the driveway or to shelter in the living room.

“We can’t get any sleep,” she said. “Things are whistling over our roof all night long.”

“You need to leave,” Vlad told her.

“What about the dog and the cat?”

“It’s better to go before something happens. I can take you.”

Vlad’s grandfather Ivan appeared. A former coal miner, he exuded the vestigial fatigue of a lifetime of toil. “Go where?” he said. His voice was soft but adamant. “We’re not going anywhere. They’ll take everything if we leave. And our garden . . .”

In the back yard, Ivan showed us rows of onions, cucumbers, garlic, peppers, potatoes, and strawberries. A bathtub contained water from a local well. He and Tatyana limited their trips there: a Russian shell had recently killed two of their neighbors in the vicinity. Part of the garden burst with roses. Ivan snipped off half a dozen of the flowers—holding the clippers with four fingers, having lost one in the mine—and gave them to his grandson.

A garage across the street had been flattened. A metal gate still hung on its hinges. Across it someone had written in chalk, “haircuts, manicures, pedicures, perms, highlights, eyebrow tinting.”

A woman in a lime-green dress emerged, wearing sandals that displayed hot-pink toenails. She’d been a hairdresser before the war. When her salon closed, she’d tried to work from home. A rocket had exploded on her property. As she showed me around the debris, she spoke with a breathless, disjointed urgency that, like the advertisement on her gate, seemed off. At a certain point, she exhorted me not to film her, because she did not want any fines for operating a business without the proper paperwork.

“Do you get many customers?” I asked.

Across the river, we could hear the methodical decimation of Severodonetsk. “Not these days,” she said.

The Ukrainian-controlled corridor between Lysychansk and Bakhmut resembled the neck of an hourglass, with the two cities as the bulbs. Because the corridor was narrowing by the day and might be pinched off at any moment, we spent each night in the relative safety of Bakhmut. A few shops were still open there, and, crucially, a snack stand had continued serving hot sandwiches. In the afternoons, soldiers lined up at the window, buying meals to take back to the front. Haggard and filthy, they looked like travellers from a distant world. One man removed his shirt and adjusted the bandages that were wrapped around his torso. All of the soldiers had carabiners clipped onto the backs of their flak jackets, to enable extraction from trenches by rope.

Their vehicles were in no better shape than they were. One day, a Volkswagen van pulled up with a shattered windshield, no sliding door, and shrapnel gashes across its hood. “Luckily, I was driving fast,” a thirty-three-year-old soldier named Mykhailo told me. He spoke flawless English and said that he had fought in the suburbs of Kyiv. The combat in the Donbas, however, was unique. “None of us has seen anything like this,” he said. According to Mykhailo, the Ukrainians were so overwhelmingly outgunned that they seldom fired their heavy weapons, for fear of betraying their locations. “We send two, three shells, and they send seventy. You can’t move. You just sit in the trench while they shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. They don’t stop.” The Russian arsenal has included thermite munitions, which rain down thousands of burning chemical pellets capable of melting steel, and thermobaric weapons, which release a cloud of fuel that a subsequent charge ignites, creating a vacuum of vaporizing heat and pressure.

The asymmetry could be confusing for soldiers like Mykhailo, who knew that the United States had committed more than five and a half billion dollars in military aid to Ukraine. Recent shipments had included M777 howitzers, which could hit a target with high precision from twenty-five miles away, and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or himars, whose two-hundred-pound warheads had double that range. But these systems had been slow to arrive in the Donbas, and their operation required special training once they did. Neither Mykhailo nor any other soldiers I met had seen an M777 or a himars. “Maybe they’re somewhere,” Mykhailo said, shrugging.

The mission of most Ukrainian units was straightforward: weather the blitz and hold the line. Often, that meant dying. According to Zelensky, up to six hundred Ukrainian troops were being killed or wounded each day in the Donbas. A medic at a military hospital in Bakhmut told me that she and her team had been receiving between fifty and a hundred patients a day. “We’re in Hell,” the medic said, matter-of-factly. She added that she had become numb to the butchery, and now treated with mechanical detachment everything from gruesome burns to traumatic amputations. Indeed, she spoke with a peculiar remoteness that lifted only when she recalled a gravely injured soldier who, squeezing her hand, had asked, “Do you think they knew where they were sending us?”

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