By Horaci Garcia
BAKHMUT, Ukraine (Reuters) - Pensioner Mykhailo sits on a park bench in the east Ukrainian city of Bakhmut admiring two huge murals painted on the sides of adjacent apartment blocs.
One depicts a mother holding aloft a child. The other shows a man with a boy on his shoulders playing with a toy plane.
The murals, gifted to the city by Ukrainian artists in 2020, offer hope and solace for Mykhailo, 79, as Bakhmut is pounded by almost constant Russian bombardment.
"I come here, just to sit and breathe and think about life," he told Reuters, sitting in a peaked cap under a leafy tree. "(This mural) is all about freedom, and so calming at the same time, yes."
Many residents have left Bakhmut as Russian forces advanced. The city is one of the last Ukrainian strongholds in eastern Ukraine, and its fall would take Russia a step closer to establishing control over the entire Donbas area.
But Mykhailo, who declined to give his full name, has opted to stay in the city that was home to around 70,000 people before Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
"If you're scared, you shouldn't be here. Of what should I be afraid? I’m 79 years old. Guys, if we die, then that's how it is," he said.
Asked how long he would stay, he replied: "Until the victory... until the victory!"
Ukraine hopes to evacuate many more civilians from Donbas before winter, but residents can opt to stay by filling in a form declaring their intention to do so.
Eduard Skoryk, 30, who is helping evacuate people from Bakhmut, said shelling had intensified but that those remaining still hoped that the war "will somehow avoid them".
"Why did I decide to stay here?" said Serhii Vlasov, closing the iron gates of the market where he works. "You cannot run from the war. It will chase you. If you need to move to a new place, you need money. Many people who stay here have no money. To leave and settle in a new place, to rent a house there."
Viktoria Bulavintseva muses over the future as she sweeps leaves from the pavement in the deserted city centre.
She said Ukrainian soldiers had reassured her they would not let Russian forces into the city and is waiting for a Ukrainian counteroffensive.
"To be honest, I'm so badly waiting for the victory. I'm waiting for the counterattack. It was supposed to start in August," she said. "We can manage, just let the counterattack start as soon as possible. Kick them (the Russians) out from here, just kick them out already."
(Reporting by Horaci Garcia; Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)