CHASIV YAR, Ukraine – Wrapped in blankets, Maxim lies for hours as his mother is carried on a makeshift stretcher to a waiting ambulance.
Born in the dark basement of 33-year-old factory worker Oksana, she is a child of Russia’s war in Ukraine, her family living under the constant sound of shelling and gunfire.
As word gets out about the newborn, smiles and joy spread across the snow-covered courtyard, even as the incessant sound of bombs in the near distance never seems to fade away for long.
Here in Chasiv Yar, a town in the eastern Donetsk region, both new life and death are never far away, as NBC News found on a three-hour journey this week that uncovered the fleeting moments that united a community under fire. defines.
Those who have stayed and have not fled the country or evacuated to relative safety elsewhere in Ukraine are right in the path of Russia’s new offensive, which is designed to take Donetsk and parts of neighboring Luhansk that is not already controlled.
Chasiv Yar has come under heavy shelling in recent days as Russian troops work to cut off roads leading to the nearby town of Bakhmut. After months of intense fighting for Bakhmut, Moscow’s troops have intensified their push for territorial gains there and to the east.
Lyudmila, a 63-year-old former nurse who gave birth to Maxim, was feeding an NBC news team borscht soup just days earlier in the basement home she has lived in for more than three months.
“I had some equipment, not everything, but somehow I helped and delivered a healthy baby,” she said. Both mother and child are doing well.
NBC News chose not to use the last names of some residents because they said they feared for their safety.
Only a few hours earlier, Vera’s body had been lying in the corner, shattered by the explosion of a shell. She had left her home to pick up supplies from a local store but ended the journey lifeless in the snow, her clothes torn, yet still wearing her wedding ring.
She was 42 and had one child, a 14-year-old son.
“There was an explosion, we didn’t see anything, but then we started looking for people. Vera had left for the store—we didn’t realize it was her,” said 73-year-old Lyudmila, a neighbor. She was worried about seeing the body of Vera’s son “because he is in really bad condition, his body is bloody and torn.”
People here are reluctant to move to safer areas that are out of the way of Russian invasion, or cannot afford to travel. Others tried to leave but ended up back here after failing to make life work as displaced Ukrainians.
One person making the trip was Mykola Yaroslavstev, 75, whose sons are all fighting in the war. He walked through the snow with his walking stick as his friend Oleksandr, a 76-year-old chain-smoker, pulled his bags onto a sled into a van that was taking him to Odessa to be with his daughters-in-law. was waiting to be taken away.
Why don’t you leave soon?
“Because I’m 75 and stubborn. I pray for the better but it will not get better. Yesterday, my neighbor’s house was attacked and now it doesn’t exist at all,” Yaroslavstev said.
That destruction was a message he interpreted as: “So, go away old man, or else your grandchildren will see not their grandfather, but a piece of flesh.”
Although Ukrainian authorities have urged many people still living near the front line to leave, officials are sympathetic.
“It is really very difficult for people to live here. They don’t want to leave the city where they were born. Vera’s example is a very clear example. She was just a person who went out to buy some food and He was killed,” said Serhi Chaus, 42, head of the Chasiv Yar military civil administration.
Although his position is unelected, everyone here calls Chaus the mayor. He stepped into a power vacuum created when the city’s mayor fled shortly before the full-scale invasion of Moscow a year earlier.
“It is difficult to be mayor of a town in peacetime – when you have war, it is much more difficult. We try to provide people with everything they need, including water.
Chaus explained that a major problem is a lack of medical supplies – they recently used up the last of the city’s tourniquets.
There are heroes fighting in the trenches, he said, but also in what have now become border towns in Ukraine’s fight for survival.
After an explosion shook the earth too hard for comfort, the Chaus took everyone in the courtyard to a basement shelter—where a family including a single mother and her two children had been living since last June, only rarely You are leaving
NBC News later learned that the family is now finally leaving Chasiv Yar and moving to the far west of Ukraine, near the borders of Hungary and Moldova.
Lisa, 8, said she finds it difficult to sleep at night, preferring to sleep when there is light. Her older brother, Andrey, 13, and their 14-year-old neighbor Sofia, bored with their monotonous lives, spend hours playing or reading on their phones.
Liza and Andrey’s mother, Natalia Anpolska, a 39-year-old factory administrator, shared a poem inspired by the family’s claustrophobic existence. It read, “There’s no war here..just me and you living in the basement, taking care of each other. What else do you need for happiness.”
The wall is characteristic of his art: one is a fiery ball, filling the page, encompassing everything, white heat at its center.
He said, ‘This is what is happening in our country. “This is our burning country.”
Richard Engel and Mark Smith reported from Chasiv Yar and Patrick Smith from London.