Donbas, Ukraine: The residents of a crisis-stricken village are determined to stay

But Nikolaevna and her husband refuse to leave.

Like so many people here, they have nowhere to go and no means to support themselves, Nikolaevna said. She has been told that it costs $ 300 just to get to Bakhmut, the nearest town under full Ukrainian control.

“We do not even have that [a] liters of gasoline. And our property, “Nikolaevna told CNN as he collapsed and sobbed before pushing,” We’ve been working our whole lives for this. “

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Down the road from what used to be Nikolaevna’s home, Aleksandr Prokopenko helps evacuate the inhabitants of the ruined village.

Prokopenko is from Popasna and used to work as a manager in a gas company. Now he spends his days in his old Zhiguli car, taking the dangerous drive across the Donbas to rescue people from his battle-torn hometown.

Russian soldiers have already entered Popasna, which has experienced some of the toughest fighting in the region.

Prokopenko picks up Vladimir, who is waiting to be evacuated along with his sick father, Anatoly. His mother, Anatoly’s wife, was killed by shrapnel from a grenade two days earlier. They buried her the next day.

Like many others in Ukraine, Vladimir does not want his full name published for security reasons.

With the constant blow of artillery in the distance, Prokopenko loads their few belongings and helps Anatoly into the car. A neighbor watching the CNN team shouts from the window to show the world what the Russians have done.

Vladimir helps guide his father Anatoly with the help of a neighbor.  He buried his mother the day before.

“I love my city and I can not leave it. I can not leave people here. Someone has to help people,” Prokopenko told CNN.

While many of the buses evacuating civilians have signs that say “children” or “evacuation,” Prokopenko said it is not worth the hassle to tag his car.

“Russians do not look at this, it makes no difference to them, children or evacuations or anything else. They fire everything. School buses, red cross convoys, everything that moves,” he said.

Aleksandr Prokopenko sets out from Bakhmut to rescue residents near his hometown, which has become a battlefield in the village of Popasna.

‘Everyone is scared’

The Donbas region has already endured eight years of war, with Ukrainian forces fighting Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

When air raid sirens moan, which is often the case, most people continue to do their business. The constant boom of artillery has become part of the everyday soundtrack.

But with Russian troops now penetrating several cities as part of a massive new offensive, the fighting has escalated dramatically.

Russian forces aim to secure the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions that make up the Donbas. Parts of them have been under separatist control since 2014, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to recognize these regions as independent was seen as an opening salute to his war against Ukraine.

As the fighting intensifies, thousands of civilians find themselves stuck in small towns.

When driving into the Donbas region, almost all traffic moves in the opposite direction. Ambulances and evacuation buses navigate the potholed roads to ferry people to safety.

Checkpoints have appeared at intervals of a few kilometers. Ukrainian forces can be seen digging trenches along the roadside.

But there is little relief for those who reach Bakhmut, a city that remains under Ukrainian control.

Its central space is largely empty. A handful of people are queuing up to take money out of the ATM. Leaning against a fence, two elderly men observe the site.

Anatoly Vunyak, one of the two, has sent her family away from the city. He plans to sit outside.

“I’m 75, what would I go for? I’m too old to hide. I worked so hard for 12 years as a driver in the North to buy my house,” he said. “Yes, we are afraid. Who is not afraid? Find me someone who is not afraid. Everyone is afraid.”

When asked about the situation, the other of the two men, Yuri, shrugs.

“It’s bright and sunny,” he said crookedly. “We’re alive.”

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Nearby, 38-year-old Vera is on her way to see her mother and bring her freshly cut tulips. Her 10-year-old son Valery is tough next to her on his bike. He goes to school online, but the internet is incoherent.

Vera said on Monday she heard Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s announcement that the Russian offensive in the Donbas had begun. She said she fears she will soon have to leave Bakhmut – but her mother, who is in a wheelchair, cannot easily escape.

While a steady stream of down can be heard in the distance, Vera tilts her head to listen.

“We try to listen and hear how far away it is, but now it has become far away. For now we sit, wait and read the news,” she said.

After the treacherous journey out of Popasna, Prokopenko hands over Anatoly and Vladimir to a dormitory for the displaced. The first five nights are free. Then they are on their own.

The roads leading in and around the village of Popasna are eerily quiet as the fighting intensifies.

In a cold, draughty room, a few dozen beds are scattered around. Anatoly collapses on one and coughs of exertion.

Next door, another couple rescued by Prokopenko regrets that their apartment in Popasna was destroyed in the fighting. But unlike most Ukrainians, they do not blame Putin.

“All our stuff, everything was on fire. It’s a nightmare. Thank you, America, that brought us weapons. It’s a horror, it’s a nightmare,” the woman said.

It is not an uncommon view in some parts of eastern Ukraine. Russian is the primary language here and many watch Russian television with its relentless propaganda.

“Putin wants to find a peaceful solution,” the woman’s husband added.

Prokopenko looked visibly frustrated beyond what they said.

“Do not spread these tales. He came with weapons and attacked our country. Did we attack Russia? Please do not tell this bulls ** t to the whole world,” he told them.

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