To get to Lysychansk and tell about the suffering there, you have to travel 55 kilometers on a road full of potholes, howitzer ditches and dry earth. The city in eastern Ukraine, like Sieverodonetsk, is already a martyr, riddled with the same scars as the city across the river: lifeless bodies by the roadside and bodies still alive in basements.
An aid caravan of aid workers, consisting of three vehicles, trundles through the countryside, past potholes on the T0513 highway from Bakhmut to Lysychansk caused by Russian army shells. Craters can also be seen in the villages of Blahodatne, Fedorovka and Sakko i Vantsetti – named after the Italian anarchists to whom the Soviet regime once dedicated a settlement in the Luhansk region.
They force the relief caravan to take detours and slow bumps across strips of grass where mines may be lurking. They are the deadly traps of the Donbass, which has probably been the most densely mined region in the world since 2014.
Andri, the German leader of this mini-caravan, says that the T0153 is the “second most dangerous road in the world”. The most dangerous lead through Soledar. This is not only mined, but also go along the front. From there, the Russians fire, sometimes with drones, at anything that moves. Also on humanitarian caravans and journalists.
Aid groups are formed locally in Ukraine – the big NGOs don’t go as far as the Donbass. Here, on the scorched earth on the banks of the Severskyi Donets River, a group of people have come together: Jerry from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who makes his living rescuing civilians from dangerous areas. Roma, a music student from Kyiv, Sharon, an American animal rights activist and Saphryn, a Japanese woman who grew up in Indonesia and is on site for a documentary about eastern Ukrainian refugees.
The small caravan drives briskly between private and military vehicles that had come under Russian fire, always from a distance. You pass forests that are pleasantly cool but don’t offer enough protection against the rockets. A burned-out tank comes towards her, pulled by a military transporter – only the hull of the tank remains.
A pink cloud rises from the small settlement of Seversk, the last before the actual target: a sign that the invaders have hit a chemical target. Further down is Lysychansk. There is a fire, black smoke rises from the burned-out houses in the center of the city.
The first people are waiting in the low wooden houses of the Vovchoyarivka settlement, where no foreigners have been seen since May 1st. The lady of the house has hidden in a tool shed in the yard: she is afraid that the helpers are a military column. When she finally comes out, she hugs everyone and takes the parcels of dough she was given to her hiding place. It continues.
On the outskirts of town, near a glass factory, rescuers took away a family of women who had asked to leave the area. The 59-year-old grandmother Ludmilla, Katerina, 36, Karina, 13, and finally little Veronika, just three years old. They are already standing by, with four plastic sports bags next to them. They run out of the house, get into a car and settle into the back seat.
Katerina, in an elegant black and white dress, says: “Since May we have been living in the corridor, far from the windows, the most protected space in the building. The Russians’ missed shots, which were actually supposed to hit the glass factory, land in our quarter. Instead, they often meet us. The Ukrainian soldiers are in the factory and they can bombard them non-stop for four hours.”
There are no civilians in the plant, unlike the Azot chemical plant in Sieverodonetsk – and yet they too are human shields. “Since May there have been dead and injured here again and again. It is hardly possible to go out, if only to bury them. We didn’t want to live in the dark like rats during the day, so we stay in the hallway during the day.”
Elder daughter Karina adds: “Every morning at ten o’clock the shelling starts. On May 19th I wrote in my diary that they would never stop. They took the school, the hospital, and then they shelled the whole city center and shops.”
Many families managed to flee before the siege of Lysychansk, and looters broke into their homes. “No, the Russians haven’t come this far, they were local thieves, hungry people.”
Since May 1 and the second attack – the Russians and pro-Russian separatists reached this part of Donbass immediately thanks to its proximity to the provincial capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk – there is no electricity, no gas and within a radius of 70 kilometers and hardly at all nor communication options.
A village is still burning on the Severskyi Donets river. Eight people have to be rescued from Vovchoyarivka, almost all of them are elderly. Then, at sunset, head back with the headlights off.
This article first appeared on La Repubblica. Translated from the Italian by Bettina Schneider.