POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — On the morning of Day 142 of the war in Ukraine, the mayor of a community nearing the front line stands in sneakers and a blazer near the soldier’s new grave.
Apart from the gravedigger, Ruslan Trebushkin is the last to throw dirt on the coffin, which had been closed. He worries about what’s left of the body, about what the war has taken away. This is his 10th military funeral since the Russian invasion in February. The funeral was televised to give recognition to the soldiers until the recruiting office and the families demanded that they be stopped “for reasons of humanity”, he said. It had become too much.
Here, in the path of the Russian invasion, the city of Pokrovsk and other communities in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine are living at war every day. There’s the obvious conflict, with tanks and ambulances winding along the area’s patched two-lane roads and smoke billowing beyond fields of sunflowers.
And then there are the personal battles, the internal front lines.
Even as the mayor lays a handful of roses on the grave and comforts the mother who moans: “My son, why have you abandoned me? he struggles with a responsibility few residents have likely considered.
He must be ready when the army orders the remaining residents to leave, and as mayor he will be among the last to leave. The uncertainty is bewildering: the upheaval could happen in “a week, a month, two months, depending on the frontline movement”, he says. Yet he is calm.
At noon on Day 142 of the War in Ukraine, a humanitarian coordinator from the town of Selydove surveys the Soviet-era Palace of Culture as dozens of residents pick up plastic bags containing food rations.
Zitta Topilina says the relief effort has served thousands of people, some of whom have fled Russian-occupied areas such as the port of Mariupol. She thinks the stories of people fleeing “the other side” were terrifying enough to sway any residents who might have sympathized with Russia with nostalgia.
She is one of thousands of Donetsk residents who are being urged by authorities to evacuate while they can. Unlike many people, she has a relative elsewhere in Ukraine who can accommodate her. But she can’t bring herself to go.
“I’m 61 and they say you can’t plant old trees anywhere else,” she says. “I belong here, and many others too. We believe that Ukraine is ours, and we are going to die here.
In a quiet side room of the Palace of Culture, sunlight filtering through drawn pink curtains, the war makes her cry. It takes Ukrainian youth, she says. Once the old ones die out, “there will be nothing”.
But she must put such thoughts aside and help those who are waiting.
On the afternoon of Day 142 of the War in Ukraine, soldiers drive to a gas station in the town of Konstantinovka in a van riddled with bullets. The rear windows are gone. The exhaust system is broken. A plastic skull is placed on the windshield, facing the road.
During all the days of cluster bombs and other dangers he faces on an undisclosed front line, one of the soldiers, Roman, wearing sunglasses and leather mittens, is cheerful. On his cell phone, he shows pictures of a blast crater with a soccer ball placed inside. “For perspective,” he says.
Perspective also comes with the folded ring hanging from its keychain. It’s his wife’s. At home there are four young children, all under the age of 10.
Roman hopes to keep the war away from them. “I wish they were safe,” he says.
He thinks the support from the West is helping. But he and his buddies need more so they can go home for good.
“I would like a peaceful sky above our heads,” he said before climbing back into the van to return to the front. “That’s it.”
On the evening of Day 142 of the war in Ukraine, a man stands at the counter of a closed restaurant in the city of Kramatorsk. Bjork is playing on the speakers.
Bohdan believes this is one of three restaurants still in operation in a city that was once home to more than 150,000 people. He says he believes it is better to be here than to sit at home, doing nothing but listening to the artillery fire.
Several times he almost ran away. He was left speechless for two days after more than 50 people were killed at the station in an attack in April. A client, a soldier, asked him why he is still there.
Bohdan’s grandmother and father do not want to leave. And his grandfather is essentially missing after his village near Lyman – around 40 kilometers (25 miles) away – was overrun by Russian forces in April. Bodhan has not been able to reach him since a phone call shortly before the Russians arrived. The last thing his grandfather said was that he had to stock up on wood and other supplies to survive.
Bodhan wonders what will happen if his own town is also taken.
He said he believed in Ukrainian forces, but “I’m worried about this place.”
A few minutes later, less than a kilometer from the restaurant, the last Russian rocket attack digs a crater on the Place de la Paix.
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