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‘Everything is gone’: Eastern Ukraine residents say Russia is wiping their towns off the map

Under constant, heavy shelling, thousands of civilians in Ukraine’s east have been confined to the tenuous safety of basements and garden cellars for weeks or months. Time spent in the open means exposing oneself to weapons of war that figuratively and literally tear people apart.

Life under Russian assault is measured in minutes, steps and millimeters; the difference between life and death here has narrowed to a sliver. Those who try to flee do so at great risk to their personal safety; some interviewed by POLITICO during a week of reporting along the frontline described being forced to dash down contested roads while under fire or crawl through fields littered with landmines.

Others, like Tykhomirova, are too fragile to leave under their own power. Many more lack the means, whether money or a vehicle, to flee. Though disenchanted with the Ukrainian government for what some say is a lack of respect and attention paid to the eastern regions, almost no one wants to take their chance with the Russians.

Thousands have died while contemplating their meager options.

To be precise, between Feb. 24 and May 30, at least 4,149 civilians were killed, including 267 children, according to the U.N. Human Rights Office. The true numbers of civilian casualties are much higher but can’t yet be fully counted because of active fighting and lack of access to areas under the control of Russian forces, the organization added.

The deaths bring the total number of civilians killed as a result of Russian military aggression in Ukraine to more than 7,500 over the course of eight years. Prior to Feb. 24, 3,404 civilians had been killed in the war in the Donbas, which broke out in April 2014. A vast majority of those casualties occurred in the first nine months of the war, when the fighting was at its peak. Several ceasefire agreements that never fully materialized kept the fighting at a simmer, with each side trading pot shots from well-worn trenches.

Lyman, a once-quiet town surrounded by a forested nature reserve and the bone-white chalk mountains, was once home to 20,000 residents — more than 43 percent of which were ethnic Russians, according to local data — until people began spilling out in recent weeks. It had largely avoided hostilities, save for some street fighting with automatic rifles and grenade launchers in 2014.

Now it’s synonymous with Russia’s brutal new military campaign in the Donbas, demolished homes and shattered lives.

“We can never go back. There is nothing left there for us,” cried a woman brought to the Raihorodok staging area carrying several bags of clothing and possessions, her two young children in tow. “They are bombing everything. Our city is dying.”

Her husband interjected: “No, the city is already dead.”

The family, who declined to be identified, said their home had been partially destroyed in mid-May. They spent nearly two weeks living in a neighbor’s basement with little food and water, no toilet, electricity and gas until Holtsyev and the other rescuers came to pick them up. Everything they had to begin their new lives fit into four duffel bags. Asked about what they would do next and where they would go, the husband tried to speak but no words came out of his mouth; he just shook his head and shrugged.

Days later, on May 27, Russian forces declared Lyman captured.

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