The prolonged roar of Grad rockets can be heard as locals in the east Ukrainian town of Siversk crowd around a van selling essentials such as bread, sausages and gas for camp stoves.
“Everyone is suffering. All of us here are trying to survive,” said Nina, a 64-year-old retiree, pushing a bicycle.
“There’s no water, no gas, no electricity. … We have been living for three months now under shelling. It’s like we’re in the Stone Ages,” she said.
The small town of mainly village-style single-story houses on dusty roads has become a new frontier in the war between Russia and Ukraine.
Ukrainian troops have given up defending the ravaged city of Sievierodonetsk and now face a battle with Russians seeking to encircle neighboring Lysychansk.
Siversk is the last major town en route to Lysychansk, albeit along roads that are severely damaged and under shelling and has Russian forces encroaching from the north and south.
Local people, many of them retirees, complain they feel abandoned by Kyiv.
“The town has really died. And we would like to live a little bit longer,” said Marina, 63, a retired factory worker.
“They’re just basically killing us. It’s dangerous everywhere,” Nina said. “No one needs us, there’s no help from the government. Ukraine has forgotten about us.”
‘Batteries are trending’
Military vehicles including U.S. Humvees and latest-generation U.S. and Soviet-style howitzers, tanks, aid trucks and ambulances constantly pass back and forth through Siversk.
“All day they’ve been coming,” said a policeman at a nearby checkpoint, adding that three vehicles carrying evacuees have gone through “with mainly old people, women and children — there is movement today.”
Driving onto higher ground, dirty smoke rises from a fresh Ukrainian missile launch.
The street van in Siversk is a commercial operation, bringing goods including Polish food from the city of Dnipro, some 300 kilometers away, locals say.
“It’s expensive, of course,” Nina said.
There are also deliveries of humanitarian aid. AFP journalists saw three Red Cross trucks drive up to municipal offices and unload boxes of food including sunflower oil, tea and buckwheat, as well as hygiene items such as razors.
Municipal official Svitlana Severin asked the Red Cross staff to bring more candles, matches and flashlights.
“Batteries are trending,” she said. Flashlights “need power and we don’t know when we’ll get electricity.”
The boxes are put in a storage room. Severin says that in order to minimize crowds, they stagger their handouts, with specific days each month for each social group.
An older woman comes up to the vans indignantly asking why she cannot access the aid and asking for heart medicine.
There are also local initiatives.
Social worker Svetlana Meloshchenko says she and her helpers go round distributing water in milk containers and have given out candles and washing liquids outside the local shop.
“Candles are needed — people spend nights in their cellar,” she said.
“There are a lot of small children, old people, disabled people,” she added, as well as “a lot of people with diabetes.”
“Medicines are supplied to hospitals, but not enough for all,” she said.
Russian troops are firing artillery on the area around Siversk, according to Ukraine’s General Staff.
Nearby, a group of Ukrainian soldiers sprawl in a disused petrol station, eating bread and sausage, their semiautomatic rifles beside them. They say they are going back and forth to the front, without giving details.
“Our cause is the right one,” insisted one young soldier, while another older, bearded man said: “We don’t look at the news.”
“When there’s really good news, we’ll definitely hear about it,” he said, smiling.