BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) — Chunks of thick, twisted metal and wood splinters lie among the swings and slides in the playground outside a bombed-out school. Some streets away, a yellow bathtub dangles over the void left when part of an apartment building collapsed in a bombing.
The eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut has been coming under increasing bombardment in Russia's war, particularly over the last week, local officials and residents say, as Russian forces try to press forward in an effort to encircle and capture the key city of Sieverodonetsk to the northeast.
Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian forces in the Donbas for eight years and hold large swaths of territory. Sieverodonetsk and neighboring cities are the only part of the Donbas’ Luhansk region still under Ukrainian government control.
Most of Bakhmut’s population has already fled, and more are leaving every day. Evacuation minibuses run mainly by volunteers shuttle back and forth, sometimes even during bombardments, to get people out.
“Now it’s a question of saving the children,” said Olga Hordiyenko, 51, as she stood in a playground on Tuesday near her apartment building. “The Russians are shelling us, so there’s this burning issue to get the children out of here.”
Ignoring the repeated background sounds of shelling, her three grandchildren, girls ages 7, 9 and 11, focused on learning dance moves from a video on their mother’s mobile phone.
Hordiyenko and her daughter Anna Dyachenko, 28, wanted to leave on Tuesday but there was no room on the bus for them, they said. Instead, they would be leaving on Wednesday, heading to western Ukraine initially and then abroad to relatives.
“People say it’s time to go, and we’re happy to leave,” Dyachenko said. But they still fear they will have nothing to come home to once the war is over.
“Here we have our apartment, our house,” she said. “Everything will be smashed and destroyed.”
With a pre-war population of around 85,000, there are now around 30,000 people left, Bakhmut City Council Secretary Ganna Petrieynko-Poluhina said. While authorities are encouraging more people to leave, some are hesitant, she said.
“Life is the most important thing for a person. But people are tied to their homes, to what they remember,” Petrieynko-Poluhina said. “Every day we see that shelling happens more often, and people leave. We would like that more people leave.”
The shelling has increased in recent days, and it’s becoming harder to get humanitarian aid into the town, she said. As if to prove her point, the thudding of artillery reverberated, and the city council staff headed toward the bomb shelter.
Strikes in Bakhmut have hit everything from apartment blocks to dormitories, houses and even schools.
“It was a usual school, children studied, then there was a bomb,” said local resident Olena Kryvobok as she walked around a playing field and children’s playground just outside what was left of the school. Students’ notebooks lie tattered in the grass, a child’s drawing still pinned to the wall of what used to be a classroom.
“I don’t even know what to say, because I have so much indignation, so many emotions,” Kryvobok said, adding that it was pure luck that there had been no children in the playing field when the bomb struck.
“In one moment, everything crashed,” she said. “I don’t know, it is horror.”
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Elena Becatoros, The Associated Press