In a picturesque resort town on the northern edge of Ukraine’s Donbas region, people can hear the shelling coming closer. The Russians are just five miles to the north.
Sviatohirsk was once a staple of the tourist trail but now it is just another place in the Donbas where people flee the fighting. Most of its permanent residents have themselves fled, fearing the war will not stop its ruthless advance here.
It was famed for its historic Russian Orthodox church and monastery, set amid the wooded Holy Mountains of the Donbas. That monastery has been damaged by shrapnel from a Russian air strike that hit a target nearby. There is now a gaping hole in the church spire.
Just to the north is the city of Izyum where there is already fierce fighting. The residents who had fled Izyum told us they had been bombed day and night, been without running water and electricity for weeks. They also said there were bodies on the streets.
“Everyone is worried,” the town’s mayor, Vladimir, tells me.
He says those who have remained regularly call to check he’s not leaving. He is not. He is staying put and organising food parcels for the town’s dwindling population. These are people who are tired, hungry and scared, too scared sometimes to apportion any blame on Russia.
“I will not talk about it,” one woman tells me, “because we still have to go home.”
Russia is open about the fact that its renewed focus in the war will be in Ukraine’s east, the Donbas. The Russian offensive here is coming from three directions – from the north, south and the east.
But the landscape of the town that so charms its visitors also offers some kind of protection to its terrified residents. Unlike most of the Donbas region, which is largely flat open landscape, Sviatohirsk is set among hills and forests – providing some natural defences – making it harder for an army to manoeuvre with artillery and tanks.
The residents who have stayed behind now rub shoulders with soldiers getting a brief respite from the fighting. They grab a coffee from one of the few shops left open. The military’s not allowed to speak to us without permission.
One man proudly tells us he was trained by British troops before the latest war started. He’s confident that Ukraine can win this war.
But I meet another soldier who sounds less assured. The unrelenting Russian bombardment is taking its toll. Another soldier tells us that the Russians have been targeting their positions with white phosphorous shells – which burn into the flesh.
There is now a real danger that Russia may soon try to encircle Ukrainian forces in the region who have been fighting Russian-backed separatist in the region since 2014. Ukrainian troops there are among the most battle hardened in the Ukrainian Army. But they, too, are worried that their supply lines could be cut off as Russian forces push in from three different directions.
The unit we saw look well trained and well equipped. Their automatic weapons were fitted with suppressors, which are silencers. An officer who agreed to be interviewed says his son, too, was trained – by US and British forces.
Volodomyr told us that the Ukrainian Army is now much better prepared than the one of 2014 – when Russian backed separatists took over part of the Donbas.
“If this war had happened then, I don’t know how it would end, but now we know the Russian aggressors will get what they deserve.”
Volodomyr says the Russians are using similar tactics they have used elsewhere in Ukraine – “creating panic among the local population”. He says “it’s inhuman”.
It is now happening right across the Donbas.