‘I worry about this place’: A day in Ukraine’s Donetsk

POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — On the morning of Day 142 of the war in Ukraine, the mayor of a community slipping closer to the front line stands in sneakers and blazer near the newest soldier’s grave.

Aside from the gravedigger, Ruslan Trebushkin is the last to toss dirt on the casket, which had been closed. He worries how much of the body was left, how much the war took away. This is his 10th military funeral since Russia’s invasion in February. Funerals were televised to give the soldiers recognition until the recruitment office and families asked to stop it “for humanity reasons,” he says. It had become too much.

Here, in the path of Russia’s invasion, the city of Pokrovsk and other emptying communities in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region live every day at war. There’s the obvious conflict, with tanks and ambulances snaking along the region’s patched two-lane roads and smoke rising beyond sunflower fields.

And then there are the personal battles, the internal front lines.

Even as the mayor places a handful of roses at the grave and comforts the mother who wailed, “My son, why did you abandon me?” he wrestles with a responsibility that few residents have likely contemplated.

He must be ready when the military orders the remaining residents to leave, and as mayor he would be among the last to go. The uncertainty is unnerving: The upheaval could happen in “a week, a month, two months, depending on the front line movement,” he says. Yet, he is calm.

At midday of Day 142 of the war in Ukraine, a humanitarian coordinator in the city of Selydove paces in the echoing, Soviet-era Palace of Culture as scores of residents pick up plastic bags containing food rations.

Zitta Topilina says the relief effort has served thousands of people, including some who have fled Russian-occupied areas such as the port of Mariupol. She believes the stories from people escaping “the other side” have been terrifying enough to sway any residents who might have sympathized with Russia out of nostalgia.

She is one of the thousands of Donetsk residents who are being urged by authorities to evacuate while they can. Unlike many people, she has a relative elsewhere in Ukraine who is able to host her. But she can’t bring herself to go.

“I am 61, and they say you cannot plant old trees somewhere else,” she says. “I belong here, and so do many other people. We believe that Ukraine is ours, and we are going to die here.”

In a quiet side room of the Palace of Culture, with sunlight filtering through the drawn pink curtains, the war brings her to tears. It is taking Ukraine’s youth, she says. Once the old die out, “there will be nothing.”

But she must put such thoughts aside and help the people waiting.

On the afternoon of Day 142 of the war in Ukraine, soldiers roll up to a gas station in the city of Konstantinovka in a bullet-riddled van. The back windows are gone. The exhaust system is broken. A plastic skull sits on the windshield, facing the road.

For all the days of cluster bombs and other dangers he experiences on an undisclosed front line, one of the soldiers, Roman, in sunglasses and fingerless leather gloves, is playful. On his mobile phone, he shows photos of a blast crater with a football placed inside it. “For perspective,” he says.

Perspective also comes with the bent ring hanging from his keychain. It is his wife’s. At home are four small children, all under 10.

Roman hopes to keep the war far from them. “I would like them to be safe,” he says.

He believes support from the West is helping. But he and his buddies need more so they can return home for good.

“I would like a peaceful sky over our heads,” he says before piling back into the van to return to the front. “That’s it.”

On the evening of Day 142 of the war in Ukraine, a man stands at the counter in a boarded-up restaurant in the city of Kramatorsk. Bjork is playing on the speakers.

Bohdan thinks his is one of just three restaurants still operating in a city once home to more than 150,000 people. He says he believes it’s better to be here than sitting at home, doing little but listening to artillery fire.

Several times he has almost fled. He was speechless for two days after more than 50 people were killed at the train station in an April attack. One customer, a soldier, asked him why he’s still here.

Bohdan’s grandmother and father don’t want to leave. And his grandfather is essentially missing after his village near Lyman — just roughly 40 kilometers (25 miles) away — was overtaken by Russian forces in April. Bodhan hasn’t been able to reach him since a phone call shortly before the Russians arrived. The last thing his grandfather said was that he needed to stock up on wood and other supplies to survive.

Bodhan wonders what will happen if his own city is taken too.

He said he believes in the Ukrainian forces, but “I worry about this place.”

Minutes later, less than a kilometer away from the restaurant, Russia’s latest rocket attack carves a crater in the Square of Peace.

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