In Kramatorsk, only 1 in 5 remain as the Russians are at the gates, writes IAN BIRRELL

Enemy at the gates: IAN BIRRELL tells of the terror gripping Ukrainian city the size of Norwich where 80% of residents have fled as the Russians – now just 12 miles away – inch closer by the hour

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First came the huge explosion in a school yard that damaged 2,400 flats in the early hours of the morning. Minutes later, a missile struck the city centre. The following night another huge bomb dropped on the sleepy outskirts.

One thousand pounds of explosives falling from the skies left a huge hole in the ground three times my height. The shockwaves and savage shards of shrapnel ripped through another 100 homes.

City officials reached the scene within minutes to find a 90-year-old woman clambering from the ruins of her house. ‘Who is doing this to us?’ she asked the mayor. ‘Why is he doing it?’

Surrounded by the obscene debris of war, Oleksandr Honcharenko, the mayor of Kramatorsk, gently replied that it was all the work of one man but they were also baffled by such atrocities.

Bombing yesterday pictured just miles from the city in eastern Ukraine

Bombing yesterday pictured just miles from the city in eastern Ukraine

‘Well please could you call this man and tell him not to do this any more because we are just peaceful people,’ demanded the distraught old woman.

If only this hideous war could be solved with a simple phone call to the Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Instead Kramatorsk — the capital of Donetsk region — is preparing for an onslaught from Russian forces 12 miles away that could be the defining battle of this brutal phase of the conflict.

The sirens wail almost constantly, the streets are largely deserted, the shops mostly closed and many of the remaining residents rely on food handouts and are reduced to cooking on open fires after gas supply lines were severed last week.

Everyone is bracing themselves for a bombardment that they fear might pound this once-thriving city of 220,000 people, with its elegant central square and prosperous industrial plants, into the next Mariupol. ‘Fighting civilians and freeing our city from its residents — these are the goals the enemy is trying to achieve today,’ said Honcharenko. ‘The enemy is coming closer. The danger is very close to us.’

Having suffered defeat in its attempt to seize Kyiv and Kharkiv, Russia re-focused its military efforts on seizing the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the coal basin of Donbas after arming separatists and grabbing chunks of them in 2014.

Evgeniy, Tatiana and their makeshift stove in the capital of the Donetsk region, kramatorsk

Evgeniy, Tatiana and their makeshift stove in the capital of the Donetsk region, Kramatorsk

This assault relies on intensive long-range bombardment with fighting of ‘maximum intensity’ against some of Ukraine’s most battle-hardened troops.

In recent days, the Russians have taken almost all of Luhansk and advanced in Donetsk — closing in on their key prize of Kramatorsk after capturing a nearby town, their forces encroaching on three sides.

When I arrived on Sunday night, this city about the size of Aberdeen, Norwich or Southampton felt eerie with just one in five of its citizens remaining. The lights, water and trolleybuses were no longer working following a strike on a regional power line that was being frantically repaired by courageous engineers under constant shelling.

Wandering down the ghostly streets with no cars or lights, it was as if I had strayed onto the set of a post-apocalyptic film.

This feeling was accentuated by the overgrown public spaces, with uncut grass and colourful wild flowers, in a city previously so well kept.

The air smelled of wood smoke from hastily made stoves in scores of yards — a scent familiar from developing countries, but so alien in a modern European city, as was the sight of people collecting wood for cooking as sunset fell.

In a yard between some apartment blocks, I was offered tea by Evgeniy, a construction worker, and his hairdresser wife Tatiana. They brewed it on a cooker built with bricks taken from a building shattered by a missile strike.

‘We looked up on the internet how to make an outdoor stove. We did not need to cook outdoors before and I had no clue how it was done,’ said Evgeniy, 45.

Ekaterina, 74, is evacuated from Pokrovsk, another city that is the focus of Putin's renewed assault

Ekaterina, 74, is evacuated from Pokrovsk, another city that is the focus of Putin’s renewed assault

The affable couple told me how their windows had been blown out in a bombing, their incomes had collapsed and almost everyone had fled from the surrounding apartment blocks. Only 15 people remained from 115 families that lived there.

‘People left gradually. Some on the first day of war, many more when there was shelling and windows blown out. Now it feels like people are not leaving — people have made their choice to stay,’ said Tatiana.

‘At the start of the war we would run into the bathroom to sit and hide when there was shelling. Now we don’t even get off the sofa.’

The 42-year-old hairdresser said she had earned barely any money since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in late February. ‘People are not thinking about looks and style. They don’t care about beauty.’

Despite the hardship, this pair of patriotic Ukrainians seemed determined to stay in their home. ‘Over the past couple of days we see more military.

‘This is calming me down. It gives me comfort, the feeling that I am protected,’ said Tatiana.

Clearly the city is preparing for possible attack with heavily fortified checkpoints, maze-like chicanes built from concrete blocks on entry roads and deep trenches being dug in surrounding fields as the sounds of war rumble in the distance. ‘We know they will come for us,’ said Ihor Yeskov, spokesman for Kramatorsk city council. ‘Every day we can hear the fighting and this fighting is heavy.’

Yeskov, born and raised in the city, said he was mystified by Putin’s claim to be ‘liberating’ people in the Donbas — a region where more than two-thirds of people speak Russian as their main language but with a majority of ethnic Ukrainians.

‘I don’t know what their final goal is but we are being deliberately murdered. They say they are liberating us but what are they freeing us from? Our lives? Our homes? From our jobs?’

Eight years ago Kramatorsk fell under brief control of Kremlin-backed separatists before it was recaptured by Ukrainian forces —then it replaced Donetsk, centre of the Donbas insurgency, as regional capital. Russian assaults have already devastated the city — most notoriously in an April missile strike on the rail station at a time when it was packed with thousands of women, children and elderly people trying to flee.

Snezhanna, four, with her cat during the evacuation from Pokrovsk in eastern Ukraine

Snezhanna, four, with her cat during the evacuation from Pokrovsk in eastern Ukraine

The monstrous attack — believed to have been fired from the Donetsk enclave run by Putin’s stooges — left 60 people dead, including seven children, with more than 100 injured, many of them losing limbs. One woman told me of relatives, including a girl aged six, having to walk on human flesh to escape.

A police officer’s wife said he returned from work that day with his uniform covered in ‘meat’ and blood, unable to talk about the horrors he had seen.

Among doctors aiding the victims was Andrei Petrychenko, a surgeon and head of Kramatorsk’s medical department who had been attending a nearby meeting. ‘If we had not been able to provide fast assistance, many more would have died,’ he said. Now he is preparing for another wave of war casualties — but with just 40 per cent of his medical staff still in the city.

All four city hospitals — including one for children — have moved operating theatres into basements and stocked up on supplies.

‘I am angry since these are attacks on the civilian population,’ said Petrychenko, who worked on the Donbas frontline when this war erupted eight years ago. ‘There is no explanation for such deeds. I would call this a genocide of our people.’

Attacks on the city in recent weeks seem to have targeted residential and industrial areas, destroying up to ten per cent of homes and hammering its major factories — including one producing equipment for power plants that was hit five days in a row.

‘It is really, really difficult to survive,’ said Oksana, 52, who had just fried eggs and boiled potatoes for her dinner on a home-made stove beside her flat. ‘I worked in a shop but it is closed now while all the factories have shut down or been evacuated.’

Reporter Ian Birrell in front of destroyed flats in Kramatorsk, Ukraine

Reporter Ian Birrell in front of destroyed flats in Kramatorsk, Ukraine

Only one in five shops remains open and prices have surged, especially after the rail station attack cut off the city’s main supply route. Even as I bought coffee from one stall, a woman was painting over old prices to put them up due to the rising cost of milk. Most residents who remain appear to be older or from poorer backgrounds, with few children to be seen.

Yet some people have been returning in recent weeks, having evacuated to safer areas only to miss their homes or see their money run out.

‘They went at the wrong time —they should be evacuating now,’ said Bogdan, a local journalist overseeing the handing out of emergency food supplies to a queue of weary-looking people clustered on the pavement.

I went with him to hand a plastic bag containing canned fish, flour, rice and oil to an elderly man whose daughter had rung from another city to say he needed help. Anatoliy, 83, was sitting on a bench in the sun, his walking stick beside him. ‘I’m way past the age when anyone is afraid. I’m not afraid of anything. What should I run away from? If they come for me I’ll take a stick and kick them out.’

Later I met Natalia, 43, as she collected bricks from a bomb site to build her stove. She told me her windows had been blown out and two schools hit near her home. ‘It’s all very sad and very bad. We’ve lived all our lives here,’ she said. But she insisted she would not move so she could stay with her mother Anna.

‘We have nowhere to go, no relatives to stay with. It is all the elderly people who are left and we cannot leave them behind.

She insisted they appreciate the scale of the threat. ‘We understand the reality really well. We are sane. The war is moving towards us every day and if it comes closer we can do nothing else but hide since we have no means to leave.’

Yet having seen such lethal destruction in the southern port of Mariupol and now in nearby Severodonetsk — a city half the size of Kramatorsk — officials are redoubling efforts to persuade residents to leave.

Police are even going door-to-door in towns near the front to press the case for evacuation.

‘The Russians are using weapons that leave no chance for civilians,’ said Tetiana Ignatchenko, spokeswoman for the regional authority. ‘The only way to preserve lives is evacuation.’

The nearest railway station for evacuation is now 50 miles away in Pokrovsk, where exhausted citizens fleeing the war board trains to safety and volunteers told me they were desperately searching basements for survivors in the devastated Donbas cities.

Among those I met on the platform was a 74-year-old retired accountant called Ekaterina, who was sitting in a wheelchair clutching her passport beside her sick husband Mikhail, 84, a former miner, following their rescue.

She explained how she had been lying on her bed, waiting for death, as she listened to the explosions raging all around her third-floor flat. ‘We did not have water or gas or electricity. We had no money, no food. We were so hungry.

It was tragic to see this pensioner suffering such trauma, to witness one more life wrecked by the terrible inhumanities of war. ‘I had everything, bought everything with my own money. Now I am homeless and I have nothing.’

No wonder this proud Ukrainian was left mystified by this senseless conflict — just like that other elderly woman emerging from the ruins of her destroyed house.

‘Why is Putin doing this to us?’ asked Ekaterina in tears.

‘What have we done wrong to go through such pain? Why is he fighting me?’

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