Between the loud thuds of artillery shells landing a few blocks away, dozens of people emerged from a communal shelter in this eastern Ukrainian city Saturday to receive packets of food from a red armored van crewed by a group of volunteers.
It was the first aid they had seen in months.
Lysychansk, an industrial city with a prewar population of around 100,000, is quickly becoming the focal point of Russia’s slow and methodical advance in Ukraine’s east. Russian forces have seized most of the neighboring city of Sievierodonetsk after weeks of vicious street fighting and artillery duels. Lysychansk lies just across the Seversky Donets River and will likely be the next city the Russian army will try to capture.
Though much of Lysychansk has been evacuated, many residents remain. They are staying put as the enemy draws near for many of the same reasons voiced by people who have refused to leave other towns and cities in Ukraine since Russia invaded in late February: a lack of money, nowhere to go, fear of looting and the need to care for disabled or elderly relatives.
But in Lysychansk, a city in Ukraine’s resource-rich and predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas region, the complaint that the Ukrainian government has abandoned them to the advancing Russian forces is also present. It is a narrative harped on by Moscow’s propagandists.
“Your Kyiv government gave up on us,” said one older woman before she received a white bag of food from the back of the van. Her words echoed a Russian radio broadcast that aired for Lysychansk citizens, a recording of which one of the volunteers shared with a reporter.
For months, residents here have been cut off from cellphone networks because they were damaged by fighting, as well as from gas, water and electricity systems. They are bound to the daily routines that they must go through to survive — bringing water from nearby wells, building fires to cook food. Until about a month ago, they used to stand in line for days at a time at an aid center just to get bread, they said. Then the center was destroyed by a Russian missile.
One of the volunteers, Mykhailo Dobrishman, said it was his tenth trip to Lysychansk in recent weeks. The volunteers have a list of addresses from people outside the city who have asked them to find out whether their relatives in Lysychansk were still alive, he said.
“As we hand out the packs of food, we try to persuade them to evacuate,” he said. “There are 20 people who left requests for evacuation today. But it’s really hard to persuade others that we meet on our way, even if they are staying with small kids.”
One teenager at the shelter, who wore a yellow T-shirt and said her name was Victoria, tried to convince her mother to leave. The volunteers had told her that her boyfriend had asked them to evacuate her and that he was waiting for her in a safer region.
For 15 minutes, the mother and daughter debated in front of the industrial building used as a communal shelter, while several artillery shells whistled over their heads. Then they rushed to pack their belongings and to urge other relatives to join them.
In the street near the shelter there were freshly dug rectangular holes in the ground. “These are trenches,” Mr. Dobrishman said. “They are getting ready for the street fights.”
But some older neighbors said they believed the holes were graves for people expected to be killed by shelling.
It is unclear how many civilians have been killed or wounded in Lysychansk by Russian bombardments. A few houses away from the shelter, a man nearly lost his leg after a shell landed in his yard, residents said.
Not far from the shelter was a Soviet-style apartment block occupied by Ukrainian soldiers. The troops’ vehicles were parked underneath the tree-lined alleyway to avoid detection from Russian drones overhead.
Outside the building, a military doctor named Sergiy, who had arrived in Lysychansk a few days earlier with a Ukrainian unit, said they were bracing for an assault. “We’ll do everything possible so that Russians don’t capture the city,” he said calmly, declining to give his last name for security reasons.
Having served in different frontline cities of Ukraine since the beginning of invasion, the doctor said he could not explain why so many people chose to stay in a city that has been shelled incessantly for weeks.
“People are riding bicycles here, children are running around,” he said. “Maybe they don’t evacuate because they are waiting for the other side to come.”
Luda, 52, an energetic woman who had emerged from the communal shelter, where about 50 people were staying, said she was resolved to remain.
“This is our Ukrainian land where we were born and spent our lives,” she said. “This is my land. And whoever comes to take it, will die here.”
Vyacheslav Yatsenko contributed reporting.