‘Soon there will be just death’: Russian shells flay away at hope in Ukraine’s frontline cities

<span>Liudmyla Alyokhina, 78, recovering from shrapnel wounds in the Kurakhove hospital.</span><span>Photograph: Jędrzej Nowicki/The Guardian</span>
Liudmyla Alyokhina, 78, recovering from shrapnel wounds in the Kurakhove hospital.Photograph: Jędrzej Nowicki/The Guardian

For the few residents remaining in Kurakhove, a city in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region just seven miles from the frontlines, the worst-case scenario was all too easy to envision.

Nearby towns and cities such as Avdiivka and Bakhmut had been razed to the ground before falling, their names now synonymous with the devastating tactics employed by the Russian army in the 28-month-long war.

“Russia destroyed my house, there is nothing to come back to,” said Liudmyla Alyokhina, 78, sitting on a bed in the Kurakhove hospital, bandages covering shrapnel wounds on her arms from a rocket strike. “I don’t know what I will do when I recover.”

It pained her to think that her son, a Ukrainian soldier who had been in Russian captivity since the beginning of the war, could one day return to a home that no longer existed.

Russia has for most of this year achieved only small tactical gains at huge cost at the eastern front – the last major breakthrough was the capture of Avdiivka in February – but Moscow’s troops have in the same period accelerated their assault on frontline Ukrainian cities in 2024 to a scale previously not seen, using a new weapon: glide bombs. The modified Soviet-era bombs are fitted with imported electronics that allow Russian warplanes to launch them at Ukraine from a safe distance.

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Russia’s creep towards Kurakhove also underlines a worrisome trend for Kyiv in the east as Ukrainian troops, outnumbered and outgunned, are under threat of being outflanked and losing control of the critical Pokrovsk-Kostyantynivka supply route.

A day after Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, Oleksandr Syrskyi, described the situation towards Pokrovsk as “complicated”, Ukrainian forces announced a withdrawal from parts of the strategically important eastern city of Chasiv Yar they had long fought to hold.

During a recent visit to Kurakhove by the Guardian, the air was filled with the relentless roar of shelling, which included at least one glide bomb and five artillery strikes on buildings.

Shops and restaurants were largely shuttered, the city instead filled with Ukrainian forces. The remaining civilians in Kurakhove were mostly those desperate to stay in their homes until the very end. Many among them, elderly and frail, displayed signs of trauma.

The local church was one of the few places that provided solace to some, with Father Ivan, standing near the altar, in high demand.

He had just returned from the city’s graveyard, where he had conducted a funeral service for two civilians killed in recent shelling.

His congregation was mostly elderly people and soldiers, Father Ivan said, the latter keeping him up to date with battlefield developments.

Like others, he said he often struggled with the daily question of whether to stay or go. “But I can’t leave. The doctors stay behind to care for the body; I am here for the soul,” he said.

A loud noise interrupted him – the sound of a glide bomb, which the priest seemed to largely ignore.

The bomb struck an empty field on the outskirts of the city, narrowly missing a home and igniting a large swath of land in flames.

In Kurakhove, there were murmurs of agreeing to an imperfect peace with Russia, reflecting the growing war fatigue and despair of those living near the front. According to a recent poll, the number of Ukrainians who believe that the war will end in a settlement is at a record 30%.

Not far from the city, the 148th Separate Artillery Brigade set up its base, moving into one of the many abandoned houses of a nearby village.

Standing next to a BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher neatly concealed among the trees with camouflage, a unit commander with the call sign Odesa pointed approvingly to two dozen shells affixed to the back of the car. The shells were new, he said, delivered as part of a recent initiative by the Czech Republic to ship hundreds of thousands of shells to the country.

“But it is nowhere near enough,” he lamented.

Another soldier, who went by the call sign Professor, said: “It is so frustrating, you see the Russians but you are told to preserve shells in case they attempt a breakthrough.” The unit had last fired a round weeks ago, he added.

Much of their time was instead spent indoors, where they had built a makeshift gym, seeking refuge from Russian drones. With Elon Musk’s Starlink device, the unit remains connected online, often glued to their phones for the latest news.

Professor, who worked as an engineer in the Kyiv metro before the full-scale invasion, proceeded to give a detailed account of the recent US presidential debate, which he had stayed up late to watch. “Joe Biden didn’t look great, to put it mildly,” he said, smiling.

Pokrovsk, 26 miles north of Kurakhove, serves as the initial point where refugees from surrounding towns gather before an evacuation train takes them west.

In a former school repurposed as a refugee centre, a family of five sat huddled in a makeshift room strewn with mattresses. The day before they had taken the perilous journey out of Toretsk, a nearby mining town, as Russian troops advanced to its outskirts.

The recent surge in Russian shelling had transformed their home town into a “dead city”, said Evgeniy Shintsov, 48, flanked by his wife and 18-year-old son Dmitry, as his grandmother Nadezhda lay beside them in silence.

Locals have also been urged to evacuate Pokrovsk, which was this month hit by a “double-tap” missile strike – in which two missiles hit the same spot half an hour apart – that killed five people and wounded 41 others.

The head of Pokrovsk’s military administration, Serhii Dobryak, sympathised with those who chose to stay. “We can see with our own eyes that the Russians only bring destruction with them. But it’s not easy to just leave your house and leave … and then go where exactly?

“Everyone prays that they don’t get it, until they do,” he shrugged.

Pacing up and down the garden and surveying the rubble of what had once been his house, Andrii Khuzhela was still trying to make sense of the double-tap attack he said his family had “miraculously” survived.

“Russia wants to wipe us from the map of the earth. There is no logic behind it,” he said.

An avid animal lover, seven of his parrots perished under the rubble, leaving the few colourful birds that survived to flutter for days among sunflower fields and bombed-out surroundings. Distressed cats and dogs also hide inside abandoned buildings.

Surrounded by a dozen goats, Serhii Rachenko sat on a concrete bench, watching his livestock graze at sunset. For three decades, he sold goat milk and cheese, handing out the rest to those in need. Now, he said, there was no one left to feed.

“I would go, but I can’t leave the goats behind,” he said. “But soon, there will be nothing left here, just death.”