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The last residents of a bitterly contested Ukrainian town – BBC News


  • By Jenny Hill
  • BBC News, Kyiv

Image caption,

Russia has launched a bloody assault on the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, pummelling it from the air

As Russian missiles shatter the town of Avdiivka, Hanna is desperate to escape. But her elderly mother refuses to leave.

“I can’t leave her,” Hanna tells us over the phone. “She said she wanted to sleep in her own bed. She’s 71 and has problems with her legs. If she stays alone, she can’t get water or wood for heating.”

Holed up precariously in a fifth floor flat, living under near constant bombardment and air strikes, they’re among the last remaining residents of Avdiivka.

This strategically important and fiercely contested town lies right on the front line in eastern Ukraine.

Most people have fled. There’s been fighting here since 2014, but since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of last February, the population has shrunk from more than 30,000 to just over 1,000.

Russia launched a major offensive on the town earlier this month and fighting has intensified in recent days. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation as “particularly tough”.

“Windows and doors are broken everywhere,” says Hanna. “With attacks every day, it’s difficult to fix them because they get broken again every day.”

The town is sometimes described as the gateway to the city of Donetsk, which has been occupied by Russia and its proxy forces since 2014. Taking Avdiivka – which lies close by – would allow them to push the front line back, making it harder for the Ukrainian forces to retake the territory.

To venture out to the last remaining shop in town, Hanna says, is to take life into your own hands.

“There are no places where you can hide in case of an attack… if you hear a whistle, you don’t have enough time to get to safety.”

That shop has since been destroyed.

Avdiivka’s residents now rely all the more on a facility known as a Point of Invincibility. You’ll find these government-built help stations all over this country; designed to provide food, warmth, power and refuge.

And, for some in Avdiivka, the Point of Invincibility is now home.

Maryna, a nurse in her 40s, volunteers at the facility and moved in after the doors and windows of her home were blown off in an attack.

But even in the relative safety of the basement, she says, she doesn’t get much sleep.

“Missiles are flying every night. Every day and every night. Too many of them.

Maryna’s grown-up son has fled Avdiivka. She hopes to follow soon.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Just over 1,000 civilians remain in Avdiivka, of a pre-war population numbering more than 30,000

Getting people out of the town is difficult and dangerous. A special police unit known as the White Angels leads the evacuations, though they sometimes find it hard to persuade people to leave.

Hennadiy Yudin, a member of the crew, says they brought 50 people to safety in the last week.

But the situation in the area has deteriorated significantly.

“There are constant attacks on the town and nearby villages. Launched from either artillery, multiple rocket launchers or aviation – guided aerial bombs, missiles. They attack the town and villages, houses where people live.”

As Maryna prepares for evacuation, she recalls Avdiivka before war broke out.

“There was a park, a boulevard. There were a lot of shops. We planted trees. It was very beautiful here. We had a cultural centre, a lot of festivals and celebrations.”

She hopes, one day, to return. But, sheltering in the devastation of her hometown, she fears there’ll be nothing left to come back to.

“There is no Avdiivka any more.”

Additional reporting by Hanna Tsyba, Anastasiia Levchenko and Scarlett Barter



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