After the deadly strike at the train station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, those who remained are gloomy about the future: “We think we will be swept off the face of the earth.
KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Two days after more than 50 people were killed on its platforms by a missile strike, the only sounds at Kramatorsk station on Sunday morning were a distant air raid siren and the rhythmic sweep of broken glass .
“The city is dead now,” said Tetiana, 50, a shopkeeper who worked next to the station when she was attacked as thousands of people tried to board trains to evacuate the eastern city, fearing soon be besieged by Russian forces.
Friday’s strike was a horrific turning point for the city after nearly eight years near the frontline of the country’s fight against Russian-backed separatists in the region known as Donbass.
The station’s main concourse was still filled with streaks of blood and luggage on Sunday morning, with the burnt-out carcasses of two sedans lying in the parking lot outside.
Tetiana, who declined to give her surname, was sure more deaths were on the way.
“We are surrounded. We understand that,” added Tetiana, who has lived for 10 years in Kramatorsk, a pre-war city of around 150,000 people and once one of the industrial heartlands of Donbass. She said she wouldn’t leave because she has to take care of her 82-year-old mother, who is sick. But she knows more than ever the danger that this entails.
“We think we will be swept off the face of the earth,” she said.
She recalled ducking inside a nearby market on Friday for cover when the missile hit the station, with what she estimated at 2,000 people inside. A family who had taken refuge with her in the market were almost crushed by a piece of roof which collapsed and was torn off by the explosion.
“There were screams everywhere,” she said. “No one could understand anything, cars were burning and people were running.”
With Moscow’s decision to shift the focus of its war to eastern Ukraine, people who remain in Kramatorsk fear they will soon be bombed into oblivion, like residents of Kharkiv and Mariupol, two other cities that were ruthlessly assailed by Russian forces. Seems like an assault here is inevitable: cutting Kramatorsk would partially cut off Ukrainian forces fighting in the eastern breakaway regions where Russia is consolidating.
At the city’s main hospital, City Hospital 3, staff braced for the kind of destruction that swept through other city centers. Their mass trauma supplies are sufficient, a doctor said. But, he added, many nurses evacuated and there was a shortage of doctors in intensive care.
In Kramatorsk, residents began to retreat, preparing for a siege. Most small shops have been closed, a few grocery stores remain open and the town square, once bustling with people on those warm spring days, is virtually empty.
Just after noon on Sunday, Tetiana closed the small candy and coffee shop where she worked. It would be closed for the foreseeable future, as its main source of income, station passengers, had disappeared.
Still, cleaners in orange vests tried to clean around the wreckage of the strike: parts of the station itself, people’s shoes, a sack of potatoes and broken glass. A pack of stray dogs, frequent visitors around the station, limped around the rubble. Workers swept where they could until a tanker truck arrived, dousing the blood that had pooled near the outside entrance.
In the distance, the thud of artillery echoed, barely loud enough to be heard but still easily felt.
“We are closing,” Tetiana said. “There is no interest. There is no one.”
Evacuation vehicles were still leaving town, but not at the volume they had in previous days. A resident said buses sent from western Ukraine were already leaving empty. Those staying in Kramatorsk, many of whom were older residents, braced themselves for what lay ahead: managing without electricity, living in cold, damp basements, cooking over fires, and enduring the terror of incoming artillery fire. .
But on Sunday, Lidia, 65, and Valentyna, 72, dear friends, dressed up in nice clothes and decided to leave their forever homes together. Both women declined to give their surnames.
“After what happened at the station, we can hear the explosions getting closer and closer,” Lidia said. Through tears, Valentyna added, “I can’t take these sirens anymore.” Their destination, like millions of other Ukrainians since the invasion of Russia on February 24, was somewhere vaguely to the west – just anywhere further.
“We have to leave because we can’t take it anymore,” Lidia said.
The air raid sirens in Kramatorsk aren’t the distant, haunting chorus you hear in the movies. They are, in most cases, just one loud horn that seems unmistakable, whether indoors or outdoors. And if any kind of strike occurs, the sirens usually come afterwards, too late, residents complain.
Kramatorsk and the nearby, but smaller, town of Sloviansk are likely to be the first two towns to be attacked by any Russian forces able to reconstitute themselves in the region after their defeat and withdrawal from the vicinity of kyiv, the capital. For now, the Russian front line traces like a jawbone around the two cities.
Surrounding and cutting off Kramatorsk and Sloviansk would allow the Russians to isolate Ukrainian forces maintaining their former front lines in the two breakaway regions – a maneuver, if carried out, that would spell disaster for the Ukrainian military, as a much of their strengths are there.
sergeant. Andriy Mykyta, a soldier of the Ukrainian border guards, was in Kramatorsk to try to avoid this fate.
“There will be a serious fight,” Sergeant Mykyta said. “It’s a Russian tactic: they’re taking cities hostage.”
On Sunday, while shopping for an energy drink and some snacks at one of the city’s remaining open grocery stores, the sergeant looked a lot like every other Ukrainian serviceman in uniform: a blue band on his arm, weathered boots and a protruding jagged tattoo above his collar.
But he was, in fact, one of the most valuable members of the Ukrainian armed forces, part of the core group that was quickly trained by NATO forces (a multi-day course that was supposed to last at least a month , he said) to use some of the more complicated weapons that were helping to repel Russian forces: the Javelin and NLAW anti-tank systems.
But he downplayed the importance of the missile systems, saying, “These weapons are like a donut at the end of the day.” He said the real fight would come to whoever could resist his enemy’s artillery the longest and who retained the will to fight.
“They have tanks and artillery, but their troops are demoralized,” he said.
Maria Budym, a 69-year-old Kramatorsk resident, ignored the artillery and evacuations. She stayed. When Russian-backed separatists briefly held Kramatorsk in 2014, they were welcomed into the city by pro-Russian sections of the population before being driven out by Ukrainian defenders, she said.
This time, she added, the Russians will have to deal with her.
“Only cowards and people already displaced by the war fled the city,” she said, standing in a blue fleece sweater outside her hollowed-out Soviet-style apartment. “Our soldiers will defend this city until their last breath.”
Moreover, Ms. Budym added, with anger in her eyes: “I have a pipe in my apartment. I will use it on anyone who walks through that door.
Tyler Hicks contributed report.