“Looking for my mother! On June 25 she was wounded in the leg in the city of Novodruzhesk in the Lysychansk region. She may be without documents, and unconscious.”; “Say, are there any more lists of evacuees from the Azot factory?”; “I need to travel urgently to Sievierodonetsk. Who’s going there?”
Every few minutes similar questions appear in Telegram groups of the city of Sievierodonetsk in the Luhansk province. On Saturday night, both the Ukrainian and the Russian forces allowed the Ukrainian army to withdraw finally from the city in the southeastern Donbas region.
Now, the industrial region of Sievierodonetsk, where battles had been raging until a few days ago, is under Russian control.
According to messages posted by the ruler of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, and according to statements by a representative of the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic of Luhansk,” quoted by the Russian News Agency Interfax, hundreds of civilians who had taken shelter in the Azot factory have been evacuated.
Azot (“nitrogen”), a chemical factory built in the 1950s, mainly produced fertilizer and, with about 8,000 workers, was a main source of livelihood in Sievierodonetsk, a city of some 100,000 residents. Like the Azovstal factory in Mariupol, it had shelters where civilians hid and where the military entrenched itself.
Kadyrov accused the military in Ukraine of holding the civilians in the factory as a “human shield” and not informing them of a “humanitarian corridor that the Russian and separatist forces had opened – to the area of the “People’s Republic.”
The fate of the soldiers who had entrenched themselves in the factory is not known at the moment. The Ukrainian General Staff has not yet responded to queries from Haaretz as to whether their forces had withdrawn from the factory in an orderly fashion or during fighting with the Russian and separatist forces, and whether any soldiers had been taken prisoner. The Russian side has not responded.
Meanwhile, residents who fled Sievierodonetsk continue to look for their relatives who had been hiding over the past few weeks in the Azot factory and are, according to reports, in the “People’s Republic of Luhansk.”
Boris (not his real name), who lives in one of the villages near Sievierodonetsk that fell to the Russians in the early days of the war, said in correspondence with Haaretz that about a month ago that Russian soldiers had tried to evacuate him to Russia by force.
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“They move among the houses and say: ‘Collect your things and get on the bus, there’s an evacuation. No one except soldiers must remain in the village.’” Boris said he did not obey the Russian soldiers. He remained in his home and the same day he left with a private driver he found. The driver took him into Russia and from there to the border with Latvia. Now he is in Europe and is trying to find his many relatives who remained behind and help them evacuate.
Like the other areas of fighting, in Sievierodonetsk there has been no electricity, civilian communication, gas or running water for two months now. Messages on the Telegram groups looking for relatives and help for evacuees reveal that many residents have been evacuated or left to areas controlled by the separatists or Russia.
Viktor Adrega, a priest from Sievierodonetsk, left the city on May 24 and was evacuated to the Ukrainian city of Dnipro. “The first bombardment of the city itself, the residential neighborhoods, was on February 28,” he says. “Since then there have been bombardments here and there every one or two days. Later they grew stronger until toward the end it was impossible to leave the cellar or the stairwell – it was too dangerous. The electricity and water were cut off for the last time on May 8. On May 9 the gas was cut off. Up until then, in the older neighborhoods they would cut off and restore [utilities] every few days. The new neighborhoods have had no heat or electricity since the middle of March.”
At the same time the infrastructure was destroyed, food also ran out in the city, says Adrega. The warehouses were bombed and the shops closed one after the other – some of them were bombarded and some ran out of products.
As opposed to Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk was not completely surrounded. Neither is the neighboring city of Lysychansk. It is separated from Sievierodonetsk by the Siversky Donets River, which is shallow enough to be crossed on foot and remains under Ukrainian control.
Many people did not leave Lysychansk even at the height of the battles, says Adrega. “Among the neighbors I spoke to, there were some whose mothers were confined to bed. They didn’t want to take them on a trip like that – they simply moved them to the cellar and they lay there. Some, like me, hoped for quiet. I thought that even if they took the city, we would live under occupation. No one thought that they would raze the city to the ground, that it would simply cease to exist. And there were some who waited for the Russians to come thinking everything would be fine. They didn’t hide it,” he says.
According to Adrega, Pro-Russian opinions were quite common in the city. “Back in 2014, people would call us “separadoneskiy” [freely translated – Donetsk of separatists],” he jokes, “because many people were waiting for Russia and saying: “Yes, we want to live together with Russia.”
Alexei Yudkevitz, a paramedic who has been helping the Ukrainian forces for the past few weeks in Lysychansk, spoke to Haaretz as he was on his way to Kyiv to get medicines. He was supposed to come back in a day or two to Lysychansk, where the infrastructure had also collapsed leaving the city with no water, electricity or gas.
“This is not my first war, but even people who have been in many wars before this say they’ve never seen or heard of a thing like this. They are bombarding and bombing the city as much as possible – aerial bombardment, cluster bombs – in every size and color,” says Yudkevitz, whose family lives in Israel, where he also lived for two years before deciding to return to Ukraine.
In Lysychansk itself, he says, there are no street battles, and the Ukrainian forces are in total control. Russian attempts to break through have been thwarted. In Lysychansk, as in Sievierodonetsk, there are many people who decided not to leave. “They think for some reason that a rocket won’t fall on them. But rockets are falling all the time, and we have to continually remove bodies from the rubble, and give medical assistance to people,” Yudkevitz says.
The city of Lysychansk is almost completely surrounded. The road to the nearest city under Ukrainian control, Bakhmut, is in the Russian sights. Yudkevitz was able to leave by that road, but the convoy in which he traveled had moved under fire.
Nevertheless, Yudkevitz remains optimistic. The city is not ringed, he says. “A ‘ring’ presumes some despair. We have good friends there, full of motivation. We have a lot of everything we need – there’s food, water and, of course, ammunition. So it’s true the city is surrounded and there’s no secure way to it, but the situation isn’t tragic.”