LISICHANSK, Ukraine – The woman’s mission was simple: she went shopping and would not be deterred. Svetlana Zhivaga just had to cross a bridge.
But it wasn’t just a bridge. Residents who lived nearby said it was mined. Ukrainian soldiers have warned others that the bridge has been shelled and is likely to be shelled again. But last Friday morning, ma’am. The 54-year-old Zhivaga woke up shortly before sunrise, climbed the stairs and crossed what is currently one of the most dangerous rivers in the world.
“I’m actually a thrill seeker,” she said. Said Zhivaga.
The bridge, or what is left of it, covers about 250 feet of the Siversky Donets River, which separates the eastern Ukrainian cities of Lisichansk and Severodonetsk. It would have been completely impassable if it weren’t for a few stairs connecting the collapsed section to the road above.
In recent days, the three bridges connecting the two cities have been destroyed, Ukrainian authorities said, including Ms. Zhivaga Bridge, leaving Ukrainian forces almost blocked as they struggled to keep a shrinking pocket out of territory in Severodonetsk since the Russian invasion.
The area is a critical battlefield and the scene of some of the fiercest battles in the east. Russian forces recently crossed the Ukrainian front line south of Severodonetsk, prompting Ukraine to send reinforcements to the site to prevent the risk of encirclement. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said earlier this month that the fate of much of eastern Ukraine was being decided in the battle for the two cities.
The battle in Severodonetsk is street-to-street, while brutal artillery strikes – with black smoke rising from the blasts – are daily food on both sides of the river. The Russians control almost all of Severodonetsk.
The number of casualties among soldiers and civilians is unknown. There are thousands of local authorities.
But none of that seemed important to the lady. Zhivaga, whose fatalistic detachment from the battle raging around her, was common among those who still lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. Miss. Zhivaga’s trip to Severodonetsk focused on wanting to buy some chances. She did not know that there was a small morning market in her own city.
She also seemed confused about the risks, not realizing that some of the most brutal urban battles of the war had taken place in parallel with her shopping trip.
“What is it, what happened in Severodonetsk?” Mrs. Zhivaga asked, wearing leggings with flower dots and an almost red shirt decorated with flowers.
A reporter for The New York Times informed her that most of Severodonetsk was under Russian control.
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“Really, partly busy?” She replied, obviously indifferent and still enjoying her triumphant crossing of the bridge.
With Russian forces in most parts of Severodonetsk, the bridges connecting the two cities are strategically important. Without them, Ukrainian forces have a limited ability to withdraw to Lisichansk, which is in a higher position. There, soldiers began digging defensive fortifications and erecting suffocating points with destroyed vehicles in recent days in preparation for the impending Russian attack.
It was clear: the Ukrainians would try to hold the city.
Although the military is believed to have built a pontoon bridge somewhere along the river that could be used for evacuation, Ukrainian forces in both cities are approaching similar position to those who were trapped in the southern city of Mariupol.
Regional officials estimate that about 500 civilians, along with an unknown number of soldiers, are now trapped in the Azot chemical plant in the Severodonetsk industrial zone. On Friday, those officials said evacuation was almost impossible.
“Leaving the plant is possible only with a complete ceasefire,” District Governor Sergei Haidai told the Telegram on Friday.
Residents call the bridge Ms. Zhivaga crossed the Soda Bridge on Friday, after the now-defunct baking soda factory nearby. Built around 1970, the bridge is the southernmost link in Lisichansk with Severodonetsk.
“This is the last bridge left between the two cities,” said Alexander Voronenko, 46, a military policeman based in Lisichansk. “If someone can evacuate on their own, they can cross this bridge. But there is no mass evacuation. “
Devastated by Russian shells, the bridge, or what is left of it, is an obstacle to destruction, as if some invisible hand had tried to cut it off the face of the earth and ended it in half. The bank of the river around it is cratered. The trees are broken and charred. Pieces of ammunition covered the road, and the destroyed US-supplied Humvee, cut in half, is the only recognizable object on the bridge.
Miss. Zhivaga, a self-determined entrepreneur, walked the ruins around noon unhindered, with a shopping bag and purse beside her, her blue sandals strikingly contrasting with the debris around her. Returning from her shopping, she went down the stairs to the collapsed section and climbed a sheet of metal to cross a gap created by the collapse.
“No one stopped me,” she said, standing on Lisichansk’s side of the bridge. “The wars stopped me to say hello, that’s all. I was asked how to drive and whether the bridge works.
Miss. Zhivaga did not know whether she spoke to Ukrainian or Russian troops, but they spoke Russian. Its trading destination, Severodonetsk’s central market, is also entirely under Russian control.
Miss. Zhivaga’s ambivalence with the uniformed officers who stopped her during the 7-kilometer trip to Severodonetsk and back echoed in the neighborhood around the Soda Bridge, in the Chervona district of Lisichansk.
Residents there came under near constant fire as Russian forces – unable to see the bridge due to the hills on its east coast – fired artillery fire not only to destroy the crossing but also to ensure no one tried to. do cross it. This deliberate effort destroyed or damaged most buildings within a half-mile radius of the bridge.
But no one there seems to know who is doing this or why.
“It is not clear who is shelling this place,” said Svetlana, another woman who lives near the bridge. Like other residents, she declined to give her last name for security reasons. She did not evacuate, she said, because she had nowhere to go. This feeling is common among other Lisichansk residents who have been forced to retreat to their basements as their city burns around them and Russian forces approach.
“Who knows if they are Russians or Ukrainians?” Said Alexander, an older man who is repairing the windows at 18 Trudova Street, a brick house just a few hundred meters from the bridge.
But, added Valentina, another resident, “there is a slight break between 12 and 2.”
However, it was not clear whether these people cared or were flooded with Russian propaganda designed to sow doubt in the Ukrainian government. Russian disinformation there were corrupt residents in other districts of Lisichansk.
In those brief hours between shellings, residents near Soda Bridge seemed far more focused on spending their day and daily tasks focused on survival than on who won the war or who tried to kill them.
“You know, I just want a good life,” she said. Zhivaga said the bridge was now safely behind her and a shopping bag of apples and potatoes in hand. “I don’t know what they would give us – Ukrainians if they stay, or Russians if they come.
“So it’s all a matter for me.”