Between the thump of artillery shells landing a few blocks away, dozens of people emerged from a communal shelter in this eastern Ukrainian town on Saturday to receive food packets from an armored pickup truck red led by a group of volunteers.
It was the first aid they had seen in months.
Lysychansk, an industrial city with a pre-war population of around 100,000, quickly became the focal point of Russia’s slow and methodical advance into eastern Ukraine. Russian forces have captured most of the nearby town of Sievierodonetsk after weeks of fierce street fighting and artillery duels. Lysychansk is just across the Seversky Donets River and will likely be the next town the Russian army tries to capture.
Although much of Lysychansk has been evacuated, many residents remain. They are staying put as the enemy closes in for many of the same reasons voiced by people who have refused to leave other cities in Ukraine since the Russian invasion in late February: lack of money, nowhere where to go, fear of looting and the need to care for disabled or elderly relatives.
But in Lysychansk, a town in Ukraine’s resource-rich and predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass region, the complaint that the Ukrainian government has abandoned them to advancing Russian forces is also present. This is a story repeated by propagandists in Moscow.
“Your government in Kyiv has abandoned us,” an elderly woman said before receiving a white bag of food from the back of the van. His words echoed a Russian radio program aired for the citizens of Lysychansk, one of whose volunteers shared with a reporter.
For months, residents here have been cut off from mobile phone networks because they were damaged by the fighting, as well as gas, water and electricity networks. They are tied to the daily routines they must follow to survive – bringing water from nearby wells, making fires for cooking. Until about a month ago, they used to queue for days at a help center just to get bread, they said. Then the center was destroyed by a Russian missile.
One of the volunteers, Mykhailo Dobrishman, said it was his tenth trip to Lysychansk in recent weeks. The volunteers have a list of addresses of people outside the city who have asked them if their relatives in Lysychansk are still alive, he said.
“As we distribute the food packets, we try to persuade them to evacuate,” he said. “There are 20 people who left evacuation requests today. But it’s really hard to persuade others we meet on our way, even if they are staying with young children.
A teenage girl at the shelter, who wore a yellow T-shirt and said her name was Victoria, tried to convince her mother to leave. The volunteers had told her that her boyfriend had asked them to evacuate her and that he was waiting for her in a safer area.
For 15 minutes, the mother and daughter struggled in front of the industrial building serving as a communal shelter, while several artillery shells whizzed above their heads. Then they rushed to pack their things and urge other parents to join them.
In the street near the shelter, there were freshly dug rectangular holes in the ground. “These are trenches,” Mr. Dobrishman said. “They are preparing for street fights.”
But some older neighbors said they believed the holes were graves for people who could be killed by shelling.
It is not known how many civilians were killed or injured in Lysychansk by Russian shelling. A few houses from the shelter, a man nearly lost his leg after a shell landed in his yard, residents said.
Not far from the shelter was a Soviet-style building occupied by Ukrainian soldiers. Troop vehicles were parked under the tree-lined driveway to avoid detection by Russian drones.
Outside the building, a military doctor named Sergiy, who had arrived in Lysychansk days earlier with a Ukrainian unit, said they were preparing for an assault. “We will do everything we can to ensure that the Russians do not take over the city,” he said calmly, declining to give his last name for security reasons.
Having served in different frontline towns in Ukraine since the start of the invasion, the doctor said he could not explain why so many chose to stay in a town that has been shelled incessantly for weeks .
“People ride bikes here, kids run everywhere,” he said. “Maybe they’re not evacuating because they’re waiting for the other side to come.”
Luda, 52, an energetic woman who had come out of the communal shelter, where around 50 people were staying, said she was determined to stay.
“This is our Ukrainian land where we were born and where we spent our lives,” she said. “It’s my land. And whoever comes to take it will die here.
Vyacheslav Yatsenko contributed reporting.