LISICHANSK, Ukraine – A mass grave at the end of this eastern Ukrainian city remains open. Dirt and weeds with yellow petals surround a pit full of a dozen corpse bags. They smell of death in the warm summer wind.
The dead were civilians killed in shelling in recent months in the cities of Lisichansk and Severodonetsk and the nearby town of Rubezhne. They are piled together because there are no relatives to ask for and bury their bodies.
Standing over the tomb, Pvt. Sergei Veklenko, 41, explained why the bodies were still found: “All our equipment that we had in the local inventory – excavators and everything else – was given to the army to dig trenches.
As the war passed in its fourth month and Ukrainian and Russian casualties rose to the thousands, it became clear that the trenches had also become graves for many soldiers.
Private Veklenko, a former police officer who joined the Ukrainian army when the war began, estimates that 300 people are buried in the mass grave. “We are burying people here who have died since April,” he said.
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The tomb is close to a number of hills that are now home to Ukrainian artillery positions defending the city. The howitzers fired and continued for most of Thursday morning.
The number of civilians killed in Lisichansk and Severodonetsk, two cities separated by the Seversky Donets River, is unknown. As Russia consolidates control in Severodonetsk and shifts its focus to neighboring Lisichansk, civilian casualties there will certainly increase unless Ukrainian forces withdraw.
On Thursday, local authorities said at least four people had been killed in a Russian air strike in Lisichansk. The attack happened in the morning, but it took several hours before the news was published in the official channels of Telegram, emphasizing the difficulty in reporting what is happening in the city.
Lisichansk, an industrial city with a pre-war population of 100,000, is largely cut off from the outside world, with no cell phones or electricity. Local authorities estimate that 40,000 people remain in the city, although there is no way to know the exact number.
Reasons for them to stay include the need to care for older relatives and in some cases even the reluctance to part with pets.
“Everyone doesn’t want to give up their house,” said a woman who left her home to receive supplies from a group of police and soldiers on Thursday. “How about cats and dogs?” What about the elders? So we’re sitting here. “
“You have to have a lot of money to evacuate, to pay rent,” she continued, citing only her first name, Luda. “And they do not allow pets in the apartments for rent. I have two dogs and two cats, how can I abandon them? It’s not an option to cry after them later. “
Two people in her neighborhood were killed in a shelling about a week ago, she said. They were buried in a nearby forest, and their graves were marked with a bunch of wilting flowers.
In Severodonetsk, about 500 civilians have taken refuge in a large chemical plant while fighting in parts of the city where Ukrainian forces still control. Authorities estimate that 10,000 civilians remain there.
Following the demolition of three bridges connecting the two cities, Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk have no easy escape routes. On Thursday, there were reports that Ukrainian troops who could cross the river were beginning to withdraw to protect Lisichansk, which is in a higher position.
One question remains for the troops and civilians in Lisichansk: What’s next?
A group of Ukrainian soldiers sheltering in the basement of a residential complex have expressed hope that the modern missile systems promised by the United States will arrive soon. The greater range of the missiles will allow them to hit the positions of Russian artillery. But by the time the weapons arrive, the soldiers said, Russian artillery would be ruthless.
“An hour feels like a whole day,” said one soldier.