Near Avdiivka, Ukraine – Lying on a hospital bed, Oleksandr insists that once he recovers from his injuries he will return to the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka — even if it falls to the Russians.
The 71-year-old is one of around a thousand residents to have stayed put in the mostly abandoned city, which has been devastated by Russian shelling.
But after being hit in the thigh by shrapnel as he entered his home, he had no choice but to evacuate.
“It was like a wave pushing me towards the entrance,” he told AFP, describing the moment he lost consciousness.
Oleksandr’s son was the first to help him after his injury, before he was taken by the “White Angels” — a police unit that evacuates people from Avdiivka and its surrounding villages.
Avdiivka has for almost a decade been a symbol of resistance for Ukraine, which has managed to cling on there despite a brief separatist takeover in 2014 and relentless attacks by Moscow’s army.
Evacuations from the city have accelerated since October 10, when the Russian army launched a massive assault with columns of tanks and armoured vehicles, intense artillery and aerial bombardments.
Although it has lost some ground on the outskirts, Ukraine says it is resisting and inflicting heavy losses on Russia.
Inside the city, already largely destroyed, “Russian attacks are constant,” Mayor Vitaliy Barabash told AFP on Tuesday.
The day before there had been 16 air strikes.
Drones are now a threat as well, he added.
“They fly over the city, looking to see where the smoke is coming from stoves inside the houses, and then attack right there,” Barabash said.
Around 100 people were evacuated from the city last week, the mayor said.
Just under 1,500 civilians have stayed in Avdiivka out of a pre-war population of 30,000.
As is often the case in cities, towns and villages near the frontlines, those who remain are “mostly the elderly, with nowhere else to go,” White Angel member Major Gennady Yudin, 47, told AFP.
“They say: ‘Our relatives are buried here, and we’ll be buried here as well.’”
Septuagenarian Oleksandr, who declined to give his last name, refuses to contemplate going somewhere else.
Asked what he plans to do once he has recovered, he replied, without hesitation: “I’ll go back to Avdiivka.”
Will he leave if the Russians capture the city?
“No, I won’t.”
Oleksandr is being treated at Myrnograd hospital, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Avdiivka.
He was evacuated with Pavel Fomenko, a 35-year-old who sustained light shrapnel wounds.
Fomenko too wants to return to Avdiivka.
“It’s better back home, I know my town … We’re used to everything, the bombings and the fact that there’s no electricity, water or gas,” he said.
Avdiivka lies 13 kilometers north of Donetsk, the capital of one of the four Ukrainian regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed last year.
Ukraine’s last remaining access road to the city runs alongside an imposing 340-hectare (840-acre) coking plant that once employed up to 4,000 people.
Production has been suspended for months due to frequent Russian bombardment, but threats to the plant are becoming ever more pressing.
Mayor Barabash says the plant’s owner, the Metinvest steel group, has decided to evacuate the last remaining workers who were there performing maintenance and security functions.
Russian soldiers have recently advanced on the village of Stepove, to the north of the plant.
Yudin and his colleague, 22-year-old Dmytro, recently evacuated the last two residents of the village: an elderly woman and her son.
Every day they drive in their white armored van along the last road to Avdiivka — “at full speed so as not to get shot at,” Yudin said.
“The risks are constant, it’s frightening,” he added.
The night before, he had dropped off another wounded man at Myrnograd.
Despite those risks, he and his team are also taking bread, water and pet food to those who refuse to leave Avdiivka.
“We cannot abandon people,” he said.
“They are our Ukrainian citizens.” AFP