Donetsk province, Ukraine — The sound of artillery blasts echoed far and wide in Ukraine’s war-torn east, yet it was the screams of children playing in the yard near the front line on a recent afternoon.
The scene of the dire choice that residents faced after President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a mandatory evacuation of the region later this week directed hundreds of thousands of citizens in eastern Ukraine to leave their homes.
“We could go on,” said Natasha, 46, a mother of six, speaking calmly over the noise of war. “But how do we make money? And I have kids to feed.”
Zelensky’s evacuation announcement is the most comprehensive government directive issued in the war so far, coming after months of relentless Russian bombings that destroyed infrastructure to deliver heat and electricity to eastern Ukraine. Having captured almost all of neighboring Luhansk, Russian forces are now intensifying their offensive in Donetsk province.
Fighting is also intensifying in the south of Ukraine, ahead of an expected Ukrainian offensive, and shelling has intensified in areas along the northern border.
In the southern city of Mykolaiv, which faced fierce Russian bombardment at the start of the offensive, officials said a hotel, a sports complex, two schools and several homes were destroyed by Russian shelling early on Sunday. Officials described it as the worst firefight ever – a remarkable assessment given the intensity the city had already endured.
Emergency teams running between the blast sites in Mykolaiv were still working to establish casualties, but one of Ukraine’s richest businessmen, Oleksiy Vadatursky, and his wife were said to be among the dead.
Mr. Wadatursky’s company, nibulone, which confirmed the deaths, has built storage facilities and other infrastructure needed for the export of grain. She was struck as the first shipment of grain since the start of the war, being loaded onto freighters at Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea after a month-long blockade.
It was unclear whether Mr Wadatursky was directly targeted or if he, like many other civilians killed by Russian bombs, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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Also on Sunday, Moscow accused Ukraine of being behind a drone attack on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in its occupied Crimea, and Ukrainian officials said there was growing evidence that a fatality was reported in a Russian penal colony last week. The detonation was ordered and carried out by Russian forces.
In Donetsk, Ukrainian officials said Mr Zelensky’s evacuation order this weekend was a bid to save civilian lives and free up valuable resources to escalate fighting.
“The sooner this is done, the more people who leave the Donetsk region now, the fewer people the Russian army will have time to kill,” Mr Zelensky said in his nightly address.
The directive is intended to give local authorities more time to relocate citizens, relieve pressure on distressed emergency workers and help the government overcome what is expected to become an intolerable crisis in the coming months.
Russia controls about 60 percent of Donetsk province, and Ukrainian officials have warned that Moscow will step up efforts to take the rest of the province as it moves forward with plans to annex parts of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said more than 200,000 people were needed to leave the region, warning that there would be no heat or gas supplies to Donetsk this winter due to the destruction of Russia’s gas pipelines. .
Hoping to ease the economic concerns of those reluctant to leave, Mr Zelensky said the government would help people logistically and financially. Natasha and her family are well aware of those financial concerns.
She and her husband, Oleh, 49, are the only couple with children who live in their village just a few miles from Russian posts in eastern Ukraine. Their dilemma reflects the precarious condition of families in rural Donetsk who cling to self-reliance, even when war threatens to overwhelm them.
The couple, who asked that their surname not be published to avoid retaliation, both lost their jobs when nearby factories closed with the start of the war five months earlier, and they have since struggled to make ends meet. are.
Government services in the area have largely ceased, and Natasha became the family’s main breadwinner when neighbors fled and left their home and dairy cows in her care. She wakes up every morning at 4:30 to milk the cows, and she taught herself to make sour cream and cheese, which she sells at a nearby town market.
But customers are dwindling as Russian rockets strike the area with increasing intensity. “We’ve had to manage from our own devices,” Natasha said.
The family has gone through the turmoil of war before. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists seized parts of Donetsk and their home was destroyed in fighting. The separatists had taken the family, along with their four children at that time, to Crimea. Later he was taken to Russia.
Some of her friends who were also evacuated remained in Russia and acquired Russian citizenship but Natasha and Oleh decided to return home, where the Red Cross helped rebuild their home.
“I wanted to eat sala and our own apricots,” she said. Sala, or lard, on a slice of bread is a favorite Ukrainian staple.
Natasha said that two more kids came along and from this fall, they are all going to school. But now the school is also closed.
“I don’t know how it will all be,” said Natasha. “The teacher called. She said she could teach them over the phone.”
Elsewhere, Moscow on Sunday accused Ukraine of being behind a makeshift drone attack on its naval headquarters in the Crimean-held port city of Sevastopol. The strike caused some degree of injuries and minimal damage, but it was deeply symbolic, approaching Russia’s Navy Day and forcing the cancellation of naval celebrations.
Ukraine’s military on Sunday denied responsibility for the drone strike, but also argued that Russian military facilities inside Crimea were legitimate targets. “We do not launch attacks on the territory of the Russian Federation,” it said. “Crimea is Ukraine.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was deemed illegal by most of the international community. Now, Moscow is taking steps to “referendum” on recently confiscated territory, which were driven by annexation of Crimea, and otherwise proceeding to assimilate the population.
Russian-appointed administrators have handed over Russian passports, cellphone numbers and set-top boxes for viewing Russian television. They have replaced the Ukrainian currency with the ruble, rerouted the Internet through Russian servers and arrested hundreds who resisted assimilation.
Also on Sunday, Ukrainian officials cited newly released satellite photos as further evidence that a deadly explosion in a Russian penal colony last week was not the result of a Ukrainian missile attack, as claimed by Russia. But the task of the Russian army is itself.
An explosion at a camp in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine killed at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, many considered national heroes, after being captured during a siege of a steelworks in the coastal city of Mariupol. Had gone.
Since the blast late Thursday, both sides have leveled allegations and counter allegations about the source of the blast. While the Russian Defense Ministry said on Sunday it would allow the International Committee for the Red Cross and the United Nations access to the penal colony, neither organization confirmed the claim.
The Red Cross said in a statement on Sunday that it had not received any confirmation from Russia that she would be allowed to travel. There was no immediate comment from the United Nations, which has said it is ready to send experts to investigate if agreed to by both sides.
Carlotta Gall from Donetsk and Erika Solomon from Berlin reported. Kamila Harbchuk contributed reporting from Donetsk.