At Chasiv Yar, Artillery Echoes Down the Empty Boulevards
There are no children now, and the statue of Gorky is missing its head.
CHASIV YAR, Donbas — The approach to this small town is much like any other road in eastern Ukraine. It is winding, potholed, and covered in grit and gravel. Dirty snow melts on the shoulder, the last of the winter pack flowing back into the ground, turning unpaved areas into a sucking, clay-like mud.
Unlike that of many other towns throughout Ukraine, however, Chasiv Yar’s security and that of its residents hang on a knife’s edge. The town lies five miles southwest of Bakhmut, now the extreme frontline of Russia’s slow but grinding onslaught westward. The attack is relentless, though costly.
By some estimates, Russian forces lose 1,000 men for every 100 meters of ground gained. A single road links Chasiv Yar and Bakhmut. If Bakhmut falls to Russian forces, as seems to be likely, Chasiv Yar would be the next town to fall into the crosshairs of Russian guns.
The town is relatively compact, with a population of about 15,000 — a headcount that sank dramatically after the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February. Today, Chasiv Yar is an empty shell of its former self. Incessant Russian artillery barrages against the town have damaged most buildings.
Despite the nearness of danger, though, signs of life remain. Like many other towns near the front, the city set up a heating point, a warm, sheltered place where recently-arrived evacuees from Bakhmut and its surrounding environs can warm themselves, charge electronics, and drink something hot.
More than a year into Russia’s full-scale invasion, those who remain here now are forced to stay because they have no support system, no family, or lack the financial means to leave. A few stay because they are the caretakers of these destitute remainers. Many evacuees are in dire straits.
Shortly after I arrived at the heating point, a van screeched to a halt out front. Two volunteers wearing ballistic vests and helmets leaped out and gingerly helped a pair of elderly men to the building. One shuffled slowly with the help of a cane. The other relied on the volunteers on either side to carry him inside.
The heating point also serves as an ersatz first aid station. The heating point’s sole nurse, who declined to identify herself further than Elena, explained that she is one of the few medical staff in Chasiv Yar. Though there is one doctor, a general practitioner, there aren’t any specialists.
The result is that complicated cases are moved westward to towns, like Kramatorsk or Kostyantynivka. Elena stocks her consultation room with a meager inventory of basic medical supplies. Besides administering IV drips, treating minor wounds, and prescribing heart and blood pressure medication, there is relatively little Elena can do.
She is determined, though, to do what she can for Chasiv Yar’s remaining residents. This is out of a sense of responsibility to the town’s remaining residents. “My elderly father is still here,” she explains. He stubbornly refuses to leave — as does she. The few medical staff in Chasiv Yar — herself included, Elena says — “need to work here and feel like they are being helpful.”
Without work and an income, necessities for some of Chasiv Yar’s remaining residents are contingent on humanitarian aid deliveries, which are less than regular. Gennady, a 70-year-old retiree, explains that he and his wife hadn’t had electricity for about a month. They sustain themselves through humanitarian food aid and drink water they’ve boiled “from outside” with a wood-fueled fire.
Those with some cash to spare visit the town’s few remaining shops for what in peacetime would be basic foodstuffs but now are small luxuries. Tatiana, a 65-year-old shopkeeper near Chasiv Yar’s city center, explains that although her daily business volume now is low, it is relatively consistent.
Her small store has an advantage: it’s one of the few in town that stocks pet food, a necessity for remaining pet-owning residents. Along with canned goods, nuts, energy drinks, and frozen meat — foodstuffs that won’t expire quickly — her counter has a small selection of pig’s feet, pork chops, and a single mackerel.
Tatiana explains that bread is an unofficial marker of how many people are still in town. She orders “the same amount every day” from Kramatorsk, a mid-sized city to the west.
At the end of some days, some bread is unsold, a potentially morbid indication that some of her customers haven’t come to the shop — perhaps they’ve left, or maybe they’ve been affected by Russia’s shelling. Tatiana explains that the city owns the building, and rent is 4,000 Hryvnia a month, about $108. She hasn’t paid taxes recently and doesn’t know how she’ll come up with the rent.
For Tatiana, the most painful part of living so close to the front is not financial hardship but the small moments of everyday life, now interrupted. “Children used to come to my shop,” she says, pointing to colorfully packaged sweets behind the counter. “But now there are no children in Chasiv Yar.”
The cellphone signal at Chasiv Yar is, at best, feeble, and information about neighbors and friends travels by word-of-mouth. For now, Tatiana has no plans to leave. “We will leave if we get help with our cats,” she laughs, albeit with a full measure of seriousness. She cares for half a dozen cats, all of which she says are pregnant.
With Russian forces advancing in a pincer-like movement to the north and south of Bakhmut, the chances of a Ukrainian rout increase every day they do not withdraw west toward Chasiv Yar and high ground.
Chasiv Yar’s head of civilian and military administration, Sergey Chaus, explains that the town is in a period of stasis but could rapidly devolve in the coming days, a situation he describes in colorful language unfit for a family newspaper.
The staggered booms of Ukraine’s spectral, unseen artillery echo down the town’s frozen, empty boulevards. Incoming Russian artillery shells are differentiated from their outgoing Ukrainian counterparts by the harsh screams that rip through the air before impact.
Several such screams passed overhead while Chaus spoke, cutting him off and prompting a dash for the nearest available cover — a dark hole in the ground, the entrance to a subterranean bomb shelter. Some of Chasiv Yar’s Soviet-era apartment building basements can be quickly accessed from the street, and prominent signage indicates their availability as a shelter.
Though not reinforced to withstand direct artillery hits, they offer protection from the kinds of glancing shrapnel that could maim or kill and are a welcome sight. The shelling the day before was “heavy,” Mr. Chaus explains. A sizable barrage from a Russian Grad multiple rocket launcher rocks Chasiv Yar, though thankfully, there are no known casualties.
Evidence of the town’s anti-Russian sentiment is apparent in a statue of the famed Russian writer and Marxist communist, Maxim Gorky, next to a children’s park — decapitated in a neat line across the shoulders.
Gorky’s head is nowhere in sight. Mr. Chaus ruefully acknowledges there are some in Chasiv Yar whose loyalties lie closer to Moscow than Kyiv. “All those that are waiting for Russia [to liberate them], are waiting for what?” Mr. Chaus shrugs incredulously, shaking his head. “Liberation from a normal life?”
When asked about the approximate number of civilians that remain in the city, Mr. Chaus demurs, apparently unwilling to share exact numbers. For him, every life is valuable. “What I can say,” Mr. Chaus explains, “is if even ten people are in Chasiv Yar, it is a lot.”
“History repeats,” sighs Mr. Chaus, a native of eastern Ukraine. During World War II, his grandfather “ran from the [Soviet] Red Army” westward in search of safety. Now, those stuck in Chasiv Yar live in fear of the army to the east and are “suffering from the Russian army.”
Mr. Larson is a multimedia journalist based at Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict and politics, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.