Live updates: Ukrainians flee treacherous route as Russia contemplates new attack

After the deadly attack on the train station in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, those who remained are gloomy about the future: “We think we will be wiped off the face of the earth.”

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — Two days after more than 50 people were killed on their platforms by a missile strike, the only sounds at the Kramatorsk train station Sunday morning were a distant air-raid siren and the rhythmic sweep of broken glasses.

“The city is dead now,” said Tetiana, 50, a shopkeeper who was working next to the station when she was attacked as thousands tried to board trains to evacuate the eastern city, fearing it would soon be besieged by Russian forces. .

Friday’s strike was a shocking turn for the city after nearly eight years of being close to the front lines of the country’s fight against Russian-backed separatists in the region known as Donbas.

The station’s main concourse was still littered with blood and luggage on Sunday morning, with the burned-out hulls of two sedans dumped in the parking area outside.

Tetiana, who declined to give her last name, was sure more deaths were on the way.

“We are being surrounded. We get it,” added Tetiana, who has lived for 10 years in Kramatorsk, a city with a population of around 150,000 people before the war and once one of the industrial heartlands of the Donbas. She said that she would not leave because she must take care of her 82-year-old mother, who is ill. But she knows more than ever the danger that this entails.

“We think we will be wiped off the face of the earth,” he said.

He recalled crouching inside a nearby market on Friday for cover when the missile hit the train station, estimating 2,000 people inside. A family sheltering with her in the market was nearly crushed by a piece of a roof that collapsed and was severed in the blast.

“There was screaming everywhere,” he said. “No one could understand anything, cars were burning and people were running.”

With Moscow’s decision to shift the focus of its war to eastern Ukraine, those who remain in Kramatorsk fear they will soon be bombed into oblivion, like the residents of Kharkiv and Mariupol, two other cities that have been mercilessly raided by Russian forces. An assault here seems unavoidable: isolating Kramatorsk would partly isolate Ukrainian forces fighting in breakaway regions to the east where Russia is consolidating.

At the city’s main hospital, City Hospital 3, staff were preparing for the kind of destruction that has occurred in other urban centers. Their mass trauma supplies are ample, one doctor said. But, he added, many of the nurses have evacuated and there was a shortage of intensive care doctors.

In Kramatorsk, residents have begun to take shelter, preparing for a siege. Most small shops have closed, some grocery stores remain open, and the town square, once teeming with people during these warm spring days, is nearly empty.

After noon on Sunday, Tetiana closed the small sweets and coffee shop where she worked. She would be closed for the foreseeable future, as her main source of income, train station passengers, was gone.

Still, maintenance workers in orange vests tried to clean up the remains of the strike: parts of the train station itself, people’s shoes, a bag of chips and broken glass. A pack of stray dogs, frequent visitors to the area around the station, limped through the rubble. Workers swept where they could until a tanker truck arrived, which hosed off the blood that had pooled on the outside entrance.

In the distance, the thud of artillery reverberated, barely loud enough to hear but still easily felt.

“We are closing,” Tetiana said. “Has no sense. There are no people.

Evacuation vehicles continued to leave the city but not at the volume they had in the previous days. One resident said that buses sent from western Ukraine were already leaving empty. Those who remained in Kramatorsk, many of them older residents, braced themselves for what lay ahead: coping with no electricity, living in dank cellars, cooking over fires and enduring the terror of shellfire.

But on Sunday, Lidia, 65, and Valentyna, 72, dear friends, dressed up in pretty clothes and decided to leave their lifelong homes together. Both women declined to provide their last names.

“After what happened at the train station, we can hear the explosions closer and closer,” Lidia said. Through tears, Valentina added: “I can’t handle these sirens anymore.” His destiny, like that of millions of other Ukrainians since Russia invaded on February 24, lay vaguely to the west, somewhere farther afield.

“We have to leave because we can’t take it anymore,” Lidia said.

The air raid sirens in Kramatorsk are not the distant, haunting chorus you hear in the movies. They are, in most cases, just a loud speaker that seems inescapable, whether indoors or outdoors. And if there is some kind of strike, the sirens usually come later, too late, neighbors complain.

Kramatorsk and the neighboring but smaller city of Sloviansk are likely to be the first two cities to be attacked by Russian forces that may reconstitute in the region after their defeat and withdrawal from the outskirts of kyiv, the capital. For now, the Russian front line is drawn like a jaw around the two cities.

Surrounding and isolating Kramatorsk and Sloviansk would allow the Russians to cut off Ukrainian forces holding their former front lines in the two breakaway regions, a move that, if carried out successfully, would spell disaster for the Ukrainian military, as much of his forces are there.

Sergeant Andriy Mykyta, a Ukrainian border guard soldier, was in Kramatorsk to try to avoid that fate.

Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

“There will be a serious fight,” Sergeant Mykyta said. “This is a tactic of the Russians: they take cities hostage.”

On Sunday, buying an energy drink and some snacks at one of the remaining open grocery stores in town, the sergeant looked much like any other uniformed Ukrainian service member: a blue stripe down his arm, worn boots, and a jagged tattoo sticking out. above his neck.

But he was, in fact, one of the most valuable members of the Ukrainian armed forces, part of the select group that was quickly trained by NATO forces (a multi-day course that was supposed to last at least a month, he said). ). ) to use some of the more complicated weapons that were helping push back Russian forces: the Javelin and NLAW anti-tank systems.

But he downplayed the importance of missile systems, saying: “These weapons are like a donut at the end of the day.” He said the real fight would come down to whichever side could withstand their enemy’s artillery the longest and maintain the will to fight.

“They have tanks and artillery, but their troops are demoralized,” he said.

Maria Budym, a 69-year-old resident of Kramatorsk, shrugged off the artillery and the evacuations. she stayed When Russian-backed separatists briefly occupied Kramatorsk in 2014, some of the pro-Russian population welcomed them to the city before Ukrainian defenders drove them out, she said.

This time, he added, the Russians will have to deal with it.

“Only cowards and people who were already displaced by the war have fled the city,” he said, standing in a blue wool sweater outside his Soviet-style apartment. “Our soldiers will defend this city until their last breath.”

Furthermore, Ms. Budym added, with anger in her eyes: “I have a pipe in my apartment. I’ll use it on whoever walks through that door.

Tyler Hicks contributed report.

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