Surviving among ruins: life in a Donbass city Ukraine says no longer exists
“God preserve you!” says an elderly Volnovakha resident to departing volunteers. She and her husband stand at the gate to the front yard of their suburban home holding simple provisions that have just been delivered to them. These include fresh bread, grains, tea, coffee, and medicine. A few hours later, on the way back, the volunteers’ car will return to an area with phone reception, and journalists will call the woman’s relatives in Russia to tell them she’s okay. This will be good news, as there have been no communication services in Volnovakha since fighting, once again, broke out there almost three weeks ago.
The city is approximately halfway between Mariupol and Donetsk in a region recognised by Russia as belonging to the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). According to Western media outlets, and the online Wikipedia resource, it no longer exists. Indeed, the latter currently carries its obituary, saying: "Volnovakha was a small city in Ukraine... before being destroyed during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the population of the city was 21,441."
According to local sources, Kiev's forces had built substantial military fortifications on the outskirts of Volnovakha. However, the long trenches and deep dugouts are intact, having been untouched by the DPR's offensive. This would appear to back up assertions that the Ukrainians retreated to the town proper, perhaps with a view to preventing their opponents from using artillery or calling in air strikes. Of course, this meant that residential areas of the city bore the brunt of the fighting.
A little way into the town, there is a large sculpture with “I ♡ VOLNOVAKHA” inscribed on it. On the heart between the two words, someone has spray-painted the letter Z, the symbol of Russia’s military operation. There is a ruined church next to the inscription. Apparently, it fell into decay and began to collapse a few years ago. The same cannot be said for the rest of the city. It is badly damaged, and this has just happened recently.
The first time I was in Volnovakha, the roads were littered with fallen trees and debris from buildings. Dead soldiers were still lying in some places, while destroyed military equipment and civilian cars crushed by tanks were evident every now and then. Over the next couple of days, the corpses were removed, the roads were cleared, and the burned tanks and armored personnel carriers were shifted to the side of the road. The DPR’s Ministry of Emergency Situations has already begun to work on repairing some of the buildings, but there is a lot of work to be done.
A significant proportion of the city’s private homes have burned down or been destroyed by explosions. There are traces of shrapnel everywhere. The rare house may still have its fence or window panes intact. Many windows are sealed with plastic or boarded up. The words “people live here” are often found on the gates written in chalk. You often meet abandoned dogs on the street – both large yard dogs and expensive pets.
Owners of houses can stoke a stove to warm up, fetch food from the cellar, and feed themselves for a while, but the inhabitants of multi-story buildings, of which there are many in Volnovakha, can’t do this. One block lined with five-story buildings at the other end of the city can only be reached by maneuvering from side to side because the dirt road still contains unexploded landmines. These are currently fenced off with pieces of plywood and marked with red rags, waiting to be cleared.
The apartment buildings are located a short distance from each other. They all have three entrances, and an improvised kitchen has been set up in front of each one. A kettle or a pot boils above a fire built within a circle of bricks. You can warm your hands by the fire. Among other humanitarian supplies, this district’s residents are especially happy with candles. Because of the cold, they have to live in the basements of their buildings, and the lack of electricity forces them to sit in the dark.
In one of the buildings, residents are trying to fix apartment windows as quickly as possible and hope for the arrival of spring. The battles for the city have left the basement uninhabitable. When a tank salvo hit the house, several floors collapsed, and the basement ceiling caved in. According to Vasily and Vladimir, who told this story, a Ukrainian tank opened fire on the building.
They unlock the basement, and we go down. Daylight illuminates the room through the collapsed ceiling. Everything is covered in concrete dust and littered with debris. During the attack, the residents made it to the exit in time and no one was killed, but three people were injured. Vasily says the building was attacked on the morning of March 11. The first two shots missed, but the third hit, leading to the destruction. Vladimir says the shells came from the direction of the hostel, which has a well-stocked bomb shelter, unlike residential buildings. The fighters of the Ukrainian Armed Forces occupied it themselves after driving its residents out, and several tanks, armored personnel carriers, and military Humvees were placed around the building.
“We put a grill on the street and were cooking meat with our grandchildren,” says Vasily. “Two soldiers with the Ukrainian National Guard passed by and began to rudely ask why I wasn’t fighting. I said something like, ‘How am I going to fight at my age? And here, in the basement, I have children with grandchildren. Do I have to leave them and go somewhere to die? For what? For what idea?’ The next day we were attacked.”
Vladimir confirms that the Ukrainian military treated the local population with hostility. “They had a commander in their unit who boasted that he was a veteran, a hero of the so-called ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (the official name of Ukraine’s military actions in the Donbass – RT). He said they were here to stay,” he asserts. The DPR troops who came to the city did not know that people were hiding in the basements, as the Ukrainian side had reported that they had already been evacuated, Vasily says. At the same time, he claims it was actually impossible or even dangerous to evacuate. Few people wanted to leave for territory controlled by Kiev, and the Ukrainian military forbade them from heading for Donbass’ pro-Russian republics. Vladimir also claims the Ukrainians deliberately shelled a nearby hospital in order to smoke people out.
Tatyana accompanies me to the hospital. She has also lived in Volnovakha most of her life. “They deliberately destroyed us. They needed the land. And then, it seems, the land was no longer needed, so they just beat us out of anger,” she says, pointing to holes blown into the hospital by shells and shrapnel-scarred asphalt. Then she takes me to the morgue, a small building that has also been noticeably damaged by shooting. The door turns out to be unlocked, and I see the morgue is completely filled with dead bodies. They lie in the corridor stacked up in two or three layers. According to Tatyana, the National Guard soldiers siphoned diesel fuel from the hospital’s generators, so all the old people who depended on artificial ventilation devices died. The Ukrainian military allegedly said they would “leave nothing” in Volnovakha if they were ousted by pro-Russian forces.
I can neither confirm nor disprove the reports of these alleged war crimes but, on the same day, I pass information about them to an expert from a public organization that deals with such incidents. The very next day, the testimony of Tatyana and her neighbors, as well as the hospital staff, was recorded by specialists. At the time of publication, no specific conclusions have been drawn.
Tall fir trees stand in the park at the entrance to the hospital. They were badly damaged by shrapnel. The whole yard is littered with spruce branches, large and small. On the road, people are mostly on bicycles. This is now the main means of transportation here. Tatyana insists that the Ukrainian military deliberately attacked civilians. “You understand, the whole of Volnovakha is one huge war crime. These are sadists. I do not know where the world is looking, or why it doesn’t want to see this!” she says. After hearing our conversation, an elderly man on a Soviet bicycle with a bag of groceries slows down. He says a National Guard patrol shot at him just for fun, for no apparent reason. As confirmation, he points to a bullet hole in his bicycle’s frame. I don’t have time to ask his name before he continues on his way.
There is a fresh grave a few meters from the entrance to one of the buildings. A homemade cross containing a surname, initials, and dates of birth and death has been placed right on top of a flowerbed there. This is the temporary burial place of a local resident who died in a huge fire that broke out in her apartment after a shell hit gas lines in her building. According to her neighbors, the woman was completely incinerated. Only her skull and a piece of her neck remained. It was decided that it was better to bury her remains than leave them lying in her apartment until the hostilities ended.
Nadezhda, one of her neighbors, takes me up to the third floor, where the apartment of the deceased is, or, more precisely, was. The explosion destroyed most of the interior walls, and the fire turned the living space into dusty ashes. Among the debris on the floor, broken dishes can be discerned, and a surviving porcelain figurine is visible – a Cossack in trousers and with a forelock. Going back down, I see that many other apartments have also been damaged. All were abandoned in a hurry. “Civilians lived here, there were no soldiers... now everyone lives in the basement,” Nadezhda says, almost crying.
Humanitarian missions, both official and volunteer, come to Volnovakha almost every day. But despite their help, basements at the beginning of spring are still very cold, so volunteers are trying to take out the sick, elderly, and children. The RT humanitarian project removed two wheelchair users from a private house. A minibus specially driven in for this took them to a medical facility in Donetsk. And volunteers moved 81-year-old Anatoly, Vladimir’s father, who spoke to us in the basement.
Anatoly takes a bag of warm clothes with him, as well as needed medicine. We set off for a village in Donetsk’s suburbs, where his sister and niece live. When the fighting broke out, they had invited their relatives from Volnovakha to move in with them, but this became impossible very quickly. On the way back, I notice that houses which had appeared abandoned just a couple of days ago are beginning to show signs of habitation again.
We stop in the city center near another hospital to drop off a box full of medicine and food. Doctors continue their work but lack sufficient supplies. Moreover, they have to work in the basement, as almost all of the windows in the building are broken. Entering it with volunteers, I notice an abundance of shell casings on the floor. There has been fighting here recently.
The silence is broken by an explosion somewhere nearby, and then another. A soldier from the military commandant’s office explains that it is the Ministry of Emergency Situations blowing up unexploded shells. A truck bearing the name of the same ministry is parked opposite us, loaded with the first batch of materials for repairing the buildings. While we are talking with the serviceman, a local resident approaches and informs him that he has found a machine gun in his yard. They leave together and soon return with the weapon. Judging by a sticker, it was thrown away by a fleeing Ukrainian soldier.
After a short stay at the hospital, we take Anatoly to the outskirts of Donetsk, making a big detour. His sister and niece cry with joy and invite us in for tea, but, when we refuse, they produce a gift: a frozen chicken. At sunset, news arrives: telephone communication will soon be restored in Volnovakha, and Anatoly will be able to hear from the relatives who remain there. In the meantime, the rumble of artillery can be heard in Donetsk, urban combat continues in Mariupol, and the front still divides families.