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Donbass, Ukraine: Residents of besieged village are determined to stay

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But Nikolaevna and her husband refuse to leave.

Like so many people here, they have nowhere to go and no way to support themselves, Nikolaevna said. He was told that it costs $300 just to get to Bakhmut, the nearest town under Ukrainian control.

“We don’t even have [a] liter of gasoline. And our property,” Nikolaevna told CNN, breaking down and sobbing before continuing, “We’ve worked our whole lives for this.”

Down the road from what was once Nikolaevna’s house, Aleksandr Prokopenko helps evacuate the residents of the destroyed village.

Prokopenko is from Popasna and worked as a manager in a gas company. Now he spends his days in his old Zhiguli car, making the dangerous crossing of the Donbass to save the people of his beleaguered hometown.

Russian soldiers have already entered Popasna, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the region.

Prokopenko picks up Vladimir, who is waiting to be evacuated with his sick father, Anatoly. His mother, Anatoly’s wife, had been killed by shrapnel two days earlier. They buried her the next day.

Like many others in Ukraine, Vladimir does not want his full name published for security reasons.

With the steady thump of artillery in the distance, Prokopenko packs their few things and helps Anatoly into the car. A neighbor, seeing the CNN crew, shouts out the window to show the world what the Russians have done.

Vladimir helps run his father Anatoly with help from a neighbor.  He buried his mother the day before.

“I love my city and I can’t leave it. I can’t leave people here. Someone has to help people,” Prokopenko told CNN.

While many of the buses evacuating civilians carry signs reading “children” or “evacuation,” Prokopenko said branding his car wasn’t worth the bother.

“The Russians don’t watch this, it makes no difference to them, the children or the evacuations or whatever. They bomb everything. School buses, Red Cross convoys, anything that moves,” he said. -he says.

Aleksandr Prokopenko sets out from Bakhmut to rescue the residents near his hometown which has become the battleground of the village of Popasna.

“Everyone is scared”

The Donbass region has already endured eight years of war, with Ukrainian forces battling Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

When the air raid sirens sound, which they often do, most people go about their business. The constant bangs of artillery have become part of the soundtrack of everyday life.

But with Russian troops now entering several towns in a massive new offensive, the fighting has escalated dramatically.

Russian forces aim to secure all of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions that form the Donbass. Some of them have been under separatist control since 2014 and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize these regions as independent was seen as an opening salvo in his war against Ukraine.

As the fighting intensifies, thousands of civilians find themselves trapped in small towns.

When entering the Donbass region, almost all traffic moves in the opposite direction. Ambulances and evacuation buses navigate the rutted roads to transport people to safety.

Checkpoints popped up every few miles. Ukrainian forces can be seen digging trenches along the road.

But there is little relief for those who reach Bakhmut, a city that remains under Ukrainian control.

Its central plaza is largely empty. A handful of people line up to withdraw cash from the ATM. Leaning against a fence, two older men watch the scene.

Anatoly Vunyak, one of the two, sent his family out of town. He plans to sit down.

“I’m 75, what would I look for? I’m too old to hide. I worked so hard for 12 years as a driver up north to buy my house,” he said. “Yes, we are afraid. Who is not afraid? Find me someone who isn’t afraid. Everyone is afraid.

Asked about the situation, the other of the two men, Yuri, shrugs.

“It’s bright and sunny,” he said wryly. “We are alive.”

Atrocities are piling up across Ukraine.  CNN witnessed some of the horrors.

Not far away, Vera, 38, is on her way to see her mother, bringing her freshly cut tulips. Her 10-year-old son, Valery, pedals next to her on his bike. He goes to school online, but the internet is spotty.

Vera said she heard Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s announcement on Monday of the start of the Russian offensive in Donbass. She said she fears she will have to leave Bakhmut soon – but her mother, who is in a wheelchair, cannot escape easily.

As a steady stream of thuds sound in the distance, Vera tilts her head to listen.

“We try to listen and hear how far away it is, but now it’s become far away. For now, we sit and wait and read the news,” she said.

After the perilous journey out of Popasna, Prokopenko deposits Anatoly and Vladimir in a dormitory for displaced persons. The first five nights are free. After that, they are alone.

The roads leading into and around the village of Popasna are eerily quiet, as fighting intensifies.

In a cold and drafty room, about twenty beds are scattered about. Anatoly collapses on one, coughing from the exertion.

Next door, another couple rescued by Prokopenko deplores the fact that their apartment in Popasna was destroyed in the fighting. But unlike most Ukrainians, they don’t blame Putin.

“All our stuff, everything was on fire. It’s a nightmare. Thank you, America who brought us guns. It’s a horror, it’s a nightmare,” the woman said.

This is not uncommon in parts of eastern Ukraine. Russian is the main language here and many watch Russian TV with its incessant propaganda.

“Putin wants to find a peaceful solution,” the woman’s husband added.

Prokopenko looked visibly frustrated with what they said.

“Don’t spread these fairy tales. He came with weapons and attacked our land. Did we attack Russia? Please don’t tell the whole world,” he told them. .

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