BAKHMUT, Ukraine—The evacuation van idled in front of an apartment building in this eastern town as artillery barrages sounded from Russian army positions less than 3 km away.
In her fourth-floor apartment, Maria Voronitskaya, 81, rushed to dress and pack as the windows rattled.
“I give you two minutes!” shouted Serhiy Rozhok, a volunteer whose Vostok SOS organization pulls people from besieged towns in eastern Ukraine. “We warned you an hour ago that we were coming.”
It was the kind of scene unfolding on Ukraine’s eastern front line, where Russian artillery and air attacks were aimed at subduing Kyiv forces. Ukraine has blunted Russia’s advance in recent weeks, but towns like Bakhmut, now in Moscow’s crosshairs, live under a bombardment that shows no signs of abating.
Ms Voronitskaya stuffed clothes and documents into two plastic bags and struggled up the stairs to the van, lamenting the scarf, handkerchief and other items she had left behind.
Antonina Antonova, her 59-year-old neighbor, watched from the courtyard, her shoulders hunched. She said she was staying in hope the violence would decrease, as she had no money saved up and no relatives were offering shelter elsewhere.
“The evacuation train will spit me out on the platform in Dnipro or Lviv, and then what?” she said, referring to two Ukrainian towns where refugees are housed. “I’ll live in the basement if I have to, because I have nowhere to go.”
The women’s contrasting choices show the harrowing dilemma faced by residents of eastern Ukrainian cities.
The Russian army tries to advance behind devastating artillery bombardments. A lack of gas and water portends a harsh winter for those left behind. Kyiv’s government has repeatedly urged people to leave, issuing a mandatory evacuation decree in August.
Many accept the offer, and groups like Vostok SOS facilitate their departure. The nonprofit’s call center in western Ukraine responds to inquiries from relatives of those stranded in frontline towns, whose addresses are then passed on to volunteers like Mr Rozhok.
He leaves every morning in a silver Renault van with Oleksandr Zyoma, another volunteer, hanging bulletproof vests above each door to protect himself from shrapnel. He collects the evacuees and takes them to Pokrovsk, on the edge of the Donetsk region, where he puts them on a free train to Dnipro, Kyiv and further west.
But across the war-torn region, which Russia has pledged to capture, many residents are opting to stay, hoping the fighting will stop and often scoffing at a promised payment to evacuees that equates to around 50 dollars.
Aleksei Yukov, another volunteer who has helped evacuate people, said he recently visited a frontline town where he tried unsuccessfully to persuade a woman with four children to leave. They later died in the shelling, he said.
Maria Voronitskaya’s apartment is a few kilometers from the front line in Bakhmut, where shrapnel dots the street.
“People say they have nowhere to go. Yes, it is a problem,” Mr. Yukov said. “But for many, the fear of homelessness trumps the fear of death.”
Mr Zyoma, Mr Rozhok’s partner at Vostok SOS, said 80% of the people their team picks up have no set destination and no relatives or friends to go to. They only accept help to evacuate when the situation becomes unbearable.
With cellular connectivity across swaths of eastern Ukraine, people sometimes don’t know how close their homes are to fighting. As the Vostok SOS van approached Bakhmut, a helicopter hovered nearby, dropping rockets at a strategic position overlooking the road. “Sometimes we show people a map and say, ‘Look, the Russians are only 2 miles away,'” Mr Zyoma said.
In the towns of the Donetsk region, 60% of which are now occupied by Russian forces, it is mainly the poor, the elderly and the infirm who remain.
Bakhmut is one such town, on the front line as Russian forces seek to break through.
The streets traveled by the Vostok SOS van on the morning Ms Voronitskaya was evacuated were deserted. Windows in government buildings, residential buildings and churches were boarded up. A downtown grocery store offered slim choices for anyone venturing down to the basics.
Near the main road leading into the city stand the ruins of the football stadium, whose blue and yellow spectator stands, spelling out the name of the city, were destroyed by a Russian rocket strike in early July. Stray animals roamed the streets.
MM. Rozhok and Zyoma had four addresses to visit that day. In a northern neighborhood, they stopped next to a shell-damaged house where Lyudmila Gnatenko and Oleh Bakumenko, both in their 50s, had spent part of the night in a basement to avoid bombardment.
On Chkalova Street, they picked up Antonina Chechueva, 88, who cried when her neighbor saw her leave and said it was the chronic lack of sleep – woken up night after night by the shelling – that kept her going. finally pushed to leave.
Mrs. Voronitskaya, whose address was closest to the Russian lines, had already rejected a ticket. Her husband died five years ago and until early April she was living with her daughter Olha and 18-year-old granddaughter Viktoria, but the two women left Bakhmut in early April after failing to convince Ms Voronitskaya to join them.
“She categorically refused at the time,” young Ms Voronitskaya said in a phone interview from Rivne, western Ukraine, where she was staying with her family and planning to bring her mother soon. “She didn’t think things would get this bad.”
In July, there was no light, gas or water in Bakhmut, and the Russian army was closing in. Mrs. Voronitskaya only left the house to buy food and spent nights sitting on a small stool near the entrance to her apartment, between two walls. She was not ready when Mr. Rozhok came because she had fallen asleep shortly before dawn and overslept.
“I should have left a long time ago,” she said later in the day, over a meal of soup and bread provided by a Pokrovsk church that treats evacuees before taking them to the station. “I didn’t think it would go so badly.”
Ms Voronitskaya said there were only seven people left in her seven-story building in Bakhmut. A neighbor was sleeping on the sixth-floor landing, flanked by concrete walls. Others spent nights in the basement. Some who remain say they will hold their own no matter what.
Oleksandr Beliy, a 72-year-old welder living on the first floor, spends his days drinking tea and feeding the pigeons that land on his windowsill every morning.
“My parents and grandparents are buried here,” he said. “Where should I go?”
Oleh Bakumenko, wearing a dark T-shirt, boards an evacuation train with other Ukrainians traveling from Pokrovsk east to safer parts of the country.
Write to Matthew Luxmoore at [email protected]
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. For some Ukrainians fear homelessness prevails over fear death