Updated June 22, 2022 at 4:40 p.m. EDT|Published June 22, 2022 at 1:03 p.m. EDT
LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine — With Russian forces massed just across the river, Valentina Danko leaned over a pool of candlelight and wrote letters to her children. They had left months ago, but she chose to stay in her hometown and has lived in a dark school basement for 116 days.
“Everything is fine with me,” she wrote, her pen scratching quietly across the paper amid the coughs of other poor and elderly residents now directly in the path of the Russian military’s gruesome march across eastern Ukraine.
With its twin city of Severodonetsk now almost fully in Russian hands, Lysychansk appears to be next in Moscow’s campaign to take control of all of the eastern Donbas region. The mayor of Severodonetsk said as many as 8,000 people are still holed up in his city, while others have been transported to Russian-held areas.
Fighting also continues elsewhere. In the Black Sea on Tuesday, Ukraine said it inflicted “significant losses” in an attack on Russian-occupied Snake Island. Russia has been fortifying the island to secure its defenses in the area, where a naval blockade is preventing Ukrainian grain exports.
But the main thrust of Russia’s advances is here, and Lysychansk is bracing itself.
Officials said they are preparing to seal the city to everyone but military and humanitarian rescue missions. Soldiers are digging trenches around key intersections, moving tanks into position and camouflaging them with branches, blocking the rubble-filled streets with wrecked cars and tree trunks. Bursts of automatic rifle fire crackle in the distance. On Tuesday, the military checkpoint leading into the city was destroyed in a massive explosion.
On Wednesday, Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk region military administration, said Ukraine had lost control over three nearby villages to the south, as Russia tightened the noose around Lysychansk. Ukrainian officials said their outgunned and outmanned military may not be able to defeat the Russians completely here, but they can at least slow them.
“People with small guns cannot fight people with this much artillery,” said Lt. Andrei Bilous of the Kyiv Territorial Defense Battalion, a platoon commander whose weary unit was regrouping outside of Lysychansk after suffering heavy losses.
“We need high-precision weapons, high-precision artillery, air defenses to have a chance of winning this war,” he said, as he and his gaunt troops smoked beneath tree cover, scanning the sky for Russian drones.
Lysychansk is now mainly a ghost town, where much of the activity is the groan and grind of military vehicles moving into position for a last stand as smoke billows up from the skyline of Severodonetsk, an ominous sign of the Russian artillery blitz to come.
Most people have been evacuated, but the last holdouts in the school basement plan to ride out whatever is ahead. Danko, a 70-year-old widow, said she stayed because she has nowhere to go. She would be taking someone else’s bed if she joined her son in an overcrowded apartment in the western part of the country. And she has a cat she tries to feed when the shelling is not too bad.
So she spends Lysychansk’s last days as a free Ukrainian city, if that is what comes, under the single lightbulb of this cavernous basement, sleeping on eight school chairs pushed together and lined with blankets. She has grown close to the others in the gloom, even if not all of them fully support Ukraine. (A chalk “Z” on the shelter door suggests the possible pro-Russian sentiment among the group.)
“We are not mole people,” she said. “We are still human beings.”
They keep busy writing their letters. Volunteers have been coming every few days to bring emergency food and water. They collect the letters and carry them out through the risky gantlet of checkpoints and artillery batteries and even incoming shelling, like couriers in an old war movie.
Internet service in Lysychansk was cut off more than month ago, but when the volunteers reach a place with service, they take pictures of the letters and send them via Telegram to their intended recipients. In Danko’s case, that’s her son and daughter — and her great-grandson. They reply the same way, and the volunteers show Danko the responses on their phones when they return.
Danko said the letters help her cope with the mounting anxiety, even though the digital workaround leaves her no paper letter to reread on nights when the shelling is particularly bad.
“It is my only connection to my family,” Danko said, suddenly tearing up in the candlelight. “I don’t know if I will see them again.”
Now, with a Russian onslaught expected at any moment, even that connection is gone.
As the clock ticked, the last few residents scuttled between their basements and emergency food-distribution points during the increasingly brief pauses in Russian shelling.
“It’s getting closer and louder every day,” said Julia Vasilyseva, who brought her three children and a friend to the fire station in hopes of catching one of the last evacuation buses. “The rockets have become like rainfall, it is constant.”
One of her companions, 16-year-old Anya Navmova, had been in Lysychansk for school when the fighting cut her off from her family in a town about 80 miles away in Russian-held territory. At first, she and her mother texted every day. But for months now, nothing. “I don’t even know if she is alive.”
In the line to collect water, people ignored the steady boom-boom-boom of outgoing Ukrainian artillery. But when a sharp whistle split the air overhead, every person ducked — even children have learned the sound of incoming rounds. An explosion rocked the ground a few blocks north. “Two hundred meters?” someone muttered, straightening up and getting back in line.
The police station around the corner had been hit a few days earlier, but now it had been hit again. A flipped-over truck was ablaze next to a wide impact crater less than 20 yards from the station’s front door. Police said the blast caused injuries, but they declined to give details.
Inside, officers worked behind sandbags and broken windows. They are obliged to stay as long as some residents cannot or will not evacuate.
“We look at the same maps; we know the situation around the city,” said Maxim, a duty officer who declined to give his last name because he was not authorized to talk to the media. “But if any of our people are here, we will be here.”
He described a city being squeezed out of normality, its basic functions failing one by one as Russian pressure builds. The water and gas networks have been shattered. The fire department no longer tries to fight the daily structural fires unless lives are endangered, including the city’s now-gutted Cultural Center.
Officials are overwhelmed by all the death. They have created a mass grave on the outskirts of town. But police no longer transfer bodies there because the route has become too dangerous.
“Some people bury their relatives in front of their house and don’t even tell us,” he said.
A small group of volunteers was still offering to transfer bodies to the mass grave, five narrow trenches at the weedy edge of the city cemetery. There, only some of the bodies had actually been buried, leaving dozens of body bags exposed to the sun and flies, and the air thick with decay. About 300 people have been placed there, Maxim estimated.
Nearby, parallel rows of trenches sat open and empty, ready to accept more of the city’s dead.
Heidi Levine in Lysychansk and Amy Cheng in Seoul contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Grain shipments from Ukraine are gathering pace under the agreement hammered out by Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations in July. Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports had sent food prices soaring and raised fears of more hunger in the Middle East and Africa. At least 18 ships, including loads of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, have departed.
The fight: The conflict on the ground grinds on as Russia uses its advantage in heavy artillery to pummel Ukrainian forces, which have sometimes been able to put up stiff resistance. In the south, Ukrainian hopes rest on liberating the Russia-occupied Kherson region, and ultimately Crimea, seized by Russia in 2014. Fears of a disaster at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station remain as both sides accuse each other of shelling it.