The horizon in Lysychansk is filled with plumes of smoke from shells that recently exploded.

As we drove into the city in eastern Ukraine, another has just landed and is belching choking black smoke from what appears to be the middle of a cluster of houses.

The streets look starkly devoid of life compared to the last time we were here just a day or two before.

It is shocking how quickly the situation has deteriorated. And that really says something about a city where life has been completely bleak for three months.

They have had no electricity or running water for most of that time and have had the daily torture of watching and hearing Russian troops bomb and blast their way into their twin city of Severodonetsk with an increasingly savage determination.

But somehow it seems to have gotten worse.

Civilians in Lysychansk like Yelena have been devastated by the conflict.

“We just want all of this to be over,” Yelena tells us as she sits on the step outside her apartment.

We tell them that there have been videos on the Internet purporting to show Chechen fighters in the center of Severodonetsk bragging about taking over the city.

The fighters were filmed smiling and waving at residents as they assured them that they had “liberated” the city.

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destroyed building

The people of Lysychansk know that they will be next. The Twin Cities are the last pocket of Lugansk province still under Ukrainian control.

Once they fall, the Russians will be able to claim control of half of the region known as the donbas in eastern Ukraine.

Oleh Hryhorov, the Lugansk police chief, has been leading a small team that has been helping to evacuate those desperate to get out of Severodonetsk.

Most of the routes are now impassable so they have been trying to get people out in small boats.

aid truck in which french journalist died
An unexploded missile in Lysychansk

“We have already destroyed two ships,” Oleh tells us. “Every time they see that we have another route, they shoot.”

He shows us the armored truck that had been used to evacuate people the day before.

The front windshield has a large hole where shrapnel from a shell pierced it.

A French journalist, Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff, who was there to cover the evacuations, was seriously injured by shrapnel and died.

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A flat that had been hit by a missile in Sloviansk
A flat that had been hit by a missile in Sloviansk

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Russian advance on Severodonetsk

Police believe the truck was deliberately targeted after “collaborators” alerted Russian forces.

They have arrested between 30 and 40 collaborators, say the police, who have directed rockets and missiles at their neighbors and fellow citizens.

“They are killers,” says Oleh. “This is not a war on the frontline, this is a war against the civilians and the city and they destroy all life.”

Crawfie vt.
Oleh and his fellow police officers insist that the Twin Cities will not be taken.

He says that Lysychansk is not safe now.

“I advise you not to be here,” he says. But once again, he and his fellow police officers insist that the Twin Cities will not be taken.

“We will not allow it. Our army will not allow it,” insists Oleh.

‘I just want peace,’ says Yudmela

But from where we’re standing, on top of the hill overlooking Severodonetsk, it’s hard to see how they’re going to hold out. Russian forces are now said to be in control of at least half of the city.

The Ukrainians seem unable to stop the Russians, who are advancing on three fronts in the Donbas.

They are pressing from the flanks in the south, east and from the north towards the city of Sloviansk, and there has been a dramatic increase in attacks in Sloviansk in the last 48 hours.

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On the front line with the 93rd Brigade

The windows and frames of our accommodation shook as the city was attacked during the night.

We stood at the back of the building and watched the red glow of the fire as houses and apartments burned and lives were turned upside down. In the morning, the impact was clearly extensive, destroying at least three apartment blocks.

Taking Sloviansk would be a huge symbolic victory for the Russians: It was first captured by pro-Kremlin fighters briefly in 2014, but then quickly recaptured by the Ukrainians.

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They don’t want to lose it again, but the overnight attacks are an indication of how savage this new battle in the Donbas is.

Many in Donbas are tired of the war. They don’t want a division, they just want the brutality to stop.

Yudmela tells us, “I just want peace. I just want them to leave us alone.”

But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon.

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