DONETSK PROVINCE, Ukraine — The thuds of artillery pounding Ukraine’s beleaguered east echoed in the distance, but it was the cries of children playing on a recent afternoon that echoed in the yard near the front line.
The scene spoke of the grim choice residents face after President Volodymyr Zelensky called this weekend for a mandatory evacuation of the region, ordering hundreds of thousands of civilians in eastern Ukraine to leave Their houses.
“We could go,” said Natasha, a 46-year-old mother of six, speaking of the din of war with unwavering calm. “But how would we make money? And I have children to feed.
Mr Zelensky’s evacuation announcement is the broadest government directive issued so far in the war, after months of relentless Russian bombardment that destroyed infrastructure to provide heat and electricity in eastern Ukraine. Russian forces are now stepping up their offensive in Donetsk province after capturing almost all of neighboring Lugansk.
Fighting is also intensifying in southern Ukraine, ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian offensive, and shelling has also intensified in areas along the northern border.
In Mykolaiv, the southern city that faced heavy Russian bombardment at the start of the invasion, officials said a hotel, a sports complex, two schools and dozens of houses lay in ruins after Russian shelling early Sunday. Officials described it as the worst bombing to date – a remarkable assessment considering the shelling the city had already suffered.
Emergency crews racing between blast sites in Mykolaiv were still working to compile a casualty count, but one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen, Oleksiy Vadaturskyi, and his wife, are believed to be among the dead.
Mr Vadaturskyi’s company, Nibulon, which confirmed the deaths, has built storage facilities and other infrastructure needed to export grain. He was killed just as the first shipments of grain since the start of the war were being loaded onto freighters in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports after a months-long blockade.
It was unclear whether Mr. Vadaturskyi was directly targeted or whether he, like many other civilians killed by Russian bombs, was in just the wrong place at the wrong time.
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Also on Sunday, Moscow accused Ukraine of being behind a drone attack on its Black Sea Fleet headquarters in occupied Crimea, and Ukrainian officials said there were more in addition to evidence that a deadly explosion last week at a Russian penal colony was ordered and carried out by Russian forces.
In Donetsk, Ukrainian authorities said the weekend evacuation order for Mr Zelensky was aimed both at saving civilian lives and freeing up valuable resources for an escalation in the fighting ahead.
“The sooner it is done, the more people leave the Donetsk region now, the less the Russian military will have time to kill,” Mr Zelensky said in his Saturday night speech.
The directive aims to give local authorities more time to move civilians, ease pressure on beleaguered emergency teams and help the government get ahead of what it fears will become an unmanageable crisis in the coming months.
The Russians control about 60% of Donetsk province and Ukrainian officials have warned that Moscow will step up its efforts to take the rest of the province as it pursues plans to annex parts of Ukraine.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, said as many as 200,000 people had to leave the region, warning that there would be no heating or gas supplies in Donetsk this winter due to the destruction of gas pipelines through Russia.
Hoping to ease the economic anxieties of those reluctant to leave, Zelensky said the government would help people logistically and financially. Natasha and her family are well aware of these economic worries.
She and her husband, Oleh, 49, are the only couple with children left in their village a few kilometers from Russian positions in eastern Ukraine. Their dilemma reflects the precarious situation of rural families in Donetsk who cling to self-sufficiency even as war threatens to sweep them away.
The couple, who asked that their surname not be published to avoid reprisals, both lost their jobs when nearby factories closed with the start of the war five months ago, and they are struggling to make ends meet since.
Government services in the area largely ceased and Natasha became the main breadwinner when neighbors fled and left their homes and dairy cows in her care. She gets up every morning at 4:30 a.m. to milk the cows and has taught herself how to make sour cream and cottage cheese, which she sells at the nearby town market.
But customers are dwindling as Russian rockets hit the area with increasing intensity. “We had to manage by our own devices,” Natasha said.
The family had already experienced the troubles of war. In 2014 pro-Russian separatists seized parts of Donetsk and in the ensuing fighting their home was destroyed. The separatists evacuated the family, with the four children they had at the time, to Crimea. Later they were transferred to Russia.
Some of their friends who had also been evacuated stayed in Russia and acquired Russian citizenship, but Natasha and Oleh decided to return home, where the Red Cross helped rebuild their home.
“I wanted to eat sala and our own apricots,” she said. Sala, or lard, on a slice of bread, is a favorite staple of Ukrainians.
Two more children have arrived and this fall they are all supposed to be in school, Natasha said. But school is also suspended now.
“I don’t know how this is all going to turn out,” Natasha said. “The teacher called. She said she could teach them over the phone.
Elsewhere, Moscow on Sunday accused Ukraine of being behind an improvised drone attack on its naval headquarters in the occupied Crimean port city of Sevastopol. The strike caused a handful of injuries and minimal damage, but was deeply symbolic, coming on Russian Navy Day and forcing the cancellation of naval celebrations.
Ukraine’s military denied responsibility for Sunday’s drone attack, but also claimed Russian military installations in Crimea were legitimate targets. “We are not launching strikes on the territory of the Russian Federation,” he said. “Crimea is Ukraine.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was deemed illegal by most of the international community. Now Moscow is taking steps across recently seized territory to hold “referendums” similar to those that led to the annexation of Crimea, and otherwise acting to assimilate the population.
Russian-appointed administrators handed out Russian passports, mobile phone numbers and set-top boxes to watch Russian TV. They replaced the Ukrainian currency with the ruble, redirected the Internet through Russian servers and arrested hundreds of people who resisted assimilation.
Also on Sunday, Ukrainian officials cited newly released satellite photos as further evidence that a deadly explosion at a Russian penal colony last week was not the result of a Ukrainian missile strike, as Russia has claimed. , but the work of the Russian forces themselves.
The blast, at a camp in Russian-held territory in eastern Ukraine, killed at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, many of whom were considered national heroes after being captured during the siege of a steelworks in the coastal city of Mariupol.
Since Thursday night’s explosion, the two sides have traded accusations about the source of the blast. While the Russian Defense Ministry said on Sunday it would allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations access to the penal colony, neither organization has confirmed that claim.
The Red Cross said in a statement on Sunday that it had received no confirmation from Russia that it would be allowed to surrender. There was no immediate comment from the UN, which said it was ready to send experts for an investigation when both sides agree.
Carlotta Gall reported from Donetsk and Erika Solomon from Berlin.