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‘I wish I was dead’: Growing fear and no time to mourn inside the next city in Russia’s sights

The mass graves in the city of Lysychansk are an indication of the slaughter that’s gone on in the Donbas.

And the long freshly-dug, empty trenches are testament to where locals fear the war is headed in eastern Ukraine – and what terrors are yet to come.

The deaths are mounting up, the Russian troops are moving forward, and there seems to be little the Ukrainian forces can do to stop their onward march.

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74-year-old Katarina is taken out of the town by police. She's sobbing the whole way through her departure.
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74-year-old Katarina is taken out of the area by police. She’s sobbing the whole way through her departure.

Every day, the Luhansk area police are bringing fresh corpses here to join the pitiful and growing mountain of victims of this war.

“There are men, women, children….everyone is in there,” one of the policemen told us as we stood near the informal grave site.

There’s no time for mourning, no time for traditional goodbyes. There’s little formality at all.

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The latest tranche of victims – 14 of them – lay piled on top of each other, wrapped in white body bags, which are insufficient to disguise the stench of putrefying bodies.

“We are keeping everything on a database,” the chief of Luhansk police, Oleh Hryhorov, told us. He’s emotional about having to bury people in large numbers like this. But there’s no choice.

“We have to understand what it means not to bury people,” he explains. “It will lead to infection. They are bodies, and it’s warm (weather).”

Ukrainian troops heading away from Lysychansk
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Ukrainian troops heading away from Lysychansk

He says they painstakingly try to identify them and notify the relatives, so they can obtain a death certificate.

“With God’s will,” he continues, “the relatives will be able to know where their relatives are buried and bury them separately, properly later.”

When that is, nobody at this stage knows. But it doesn’t seem anytime soon.

The people and police of Lysychansk can see and hear the pounding that is being visited on nearby Severodonetsk, their twin city, which is now the focus of Russian military action.

Severodonetsk and Lysychansk map

Huge plumes of black smoke are billowing out of the centre of the city. All routes into and out of the city are impassable at the moment and under constant shelling. There are reports of Russian troops inside the city walls and shooting at civilians and aid workers.

Those in Lysychansk are looking on nervously. They know they will be next. The Russians will be coming for them too.

The city is already pitted with the scars of shelling and rockets. Broken shops, toppled homes, roads with craters and power lines down. The humanitarian hub set up has been hit in the last few days, as well as dozens of civilian homes.

Georgiy Bystrov, who is a surgeon, shows us the banks of unpacked masks that have been donated
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Georgiy Bystrov, who is a surgeon, shows us the banks of unpacked masks that have been donated

The aid workers are tense and worried when we speak to them. Georgiy Bystrov, who is a surgeon, shows us the banks of unpacked masks that have been donated, and takes us to see boxes and boxes of syringes.

“What use is all this to us,” he says plaintively. “We have no hospital, no medics, no medicines.” I ask him if he’s given up hope. He admonishes me. “You ask me that question knowing the answer,” he says. “You saw what happened in Rubizhne city. You saw what happened there.”

Read more:
Shelling intensifies in the Donbas region as Russian soldiers try to encircle key cities
Fear, suspicion and split loyalties in the city where situation is spiralling out of control

Less than a week ago, the Russian military took control of Rubizhne, just a few miles further north, in the same Luhansk area, and the head of the state administration Serhiy Haidai said Russian troops had utterly destroyed it.

There are no surviving buildings there, he said. Now the people of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk fear the same is going to happen to them.

Police coax Katerina out of her home so they can take her to a place of relative safety
Image:
Police coax Katarina out of her home so they can take her to a place of relative safety

We watch as the police chief and his men try to coax 74-year-old Katarina to come with them, so they can be taken out of the city to a relatively safer place beyond. She’s sobbing the whole way through her departure.

“Why do I have to go?” she asks. “Where will I go? What will I do?”

She and her husband, who is 84 and suffering from dementia, have been coping on their own with little to eat and no electricity or water. The police officers try to reassure her that she’ll be looked after.

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She gathers several plastic bags. This is all they have left from a lifetime of work and living here now.

“My parents lived through the occupation,” she says, weeping. “It was nothing as terrible as this. I wish I was dead.”

Alex Crawford’s team in Ukraine are cameraman Jake Britton, and producers Chris Cunningham, Artem Lysak, Nick Davenport and Misha Cherniak

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