The city of Kramatorsk feels empty. Only a handful of supermarkets, restaurants and hotels are still open. Windows along the main streets are boarded up. Many residents have moved out of their apartment blocks and into houses in neighbouring villages, where they judge it will be safer.
The few locals walking around behave as if they can’t hear the sirens blaring and appear not to flinch from the occasional thunder of incoming shells.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is moving into a new phase centred on the Donbas region in the east, and most of its citizens are not taking any chances. Regional mayors told the Observer they estimated that about 70% of the population had left since Russia’s offensive began in February.
Ukrainian-controlled Donbas is surrounded by Russian forces from the north, east and south. Ukraine’s authorities believe Russian forces are aiming to encircle the territory by cutting off their supply lines from the west.
Russian-backed forces have held about a third of the region since 2014. Russia had hoped and possibly expected that its attempts to gain more territory would be popular with the mainly Russian-speaking population. But eight years of conflict, and particularly the last eight weeks, have taken their toll.
“The number of people who support Russia has fallen dramatically,” said Oleksiy Yukov, the head of Black Tulips, a volunteer organisation that has been collecting and transferring bodies for people on both sides of the conflict line since 2014.
Yukov said the Kramatorsk region had been relatively quiet. He had not seen a significant increase in the number of bodies since the full-out offensive in February. But he and his team have picked up more civilians. They collected 52 out of the 58 people who were killed when Kramatorsk railway station was hit by a Russian missile on 8 April.
“But [pro-Russian views] still exist. There are people who don’t like Ukraine and can’t even explain why. Their explanations are empty of analysis,” said Yukov. “If someone is killed in front of their eyes for no reason, it doesn’t seem to change anything. They want to believe what they already believe and they don’t want to reassess. The propaganda is still getting through, and Ukraine didn’t do enough in these eight years to stop it.”
But Kramatorsk’s mayor, Oleksandr Goncharenko, said the blockade of Mariupol in the Donetsk region and its disastrous humanitarian consequences had played a decisive role in changing people’s minds.
“If in 2014, 60% of the town were pro-Russian, I would say now it’s around 15%,” he said.
Goncharenko is one of the many Donbas politicians who has represented Ukraine’s pro-Russian parties. Goncharenko said his politics had changed after former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych “betrayed” Ukraine in 2014. He said there would be no “Donetsk people’s republic” in Kramatorsk and that he would take up arms if the city was occupied.
In the neighbouring town of Slovyansk, just north of Kramatorsk and closer to the front lines, mayor Vadym Lyakh said he had received numerous phone calls and messages from the Russian side offering him property and safety for his family in exchange for switching sides. Lyakh said he had ignored them. The Russian side had not promised safety for Slovyansk residents, he said.
As a local councillor, Lyakh had welcomed the Russian-backed separatist forces when they took over his city in 2014 and voted for the creation of the Donetsk people’s republic – something he was now reluctant to comment on.
“I don’t think there’s a difference between Kramatorsk, Slovyansk and Kyiv. It’s all Ukraine and society won’t accept becoming part of Russia,” said Lyakh.
He said that most people in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas saw that they had better lives under Ukrainian rule than in the Russian-backed republics created in 2014.
He said: “But I can’t say that everyone has understood this. I can only say that more people have and that the military activities have further shrunk the number of people who are for the Russian world.”
He said when he came to Slovyansk to study in 1995, there were no identity issues being discussed. “Back then we were all Ukrainian cities, there were no issues. Then in the 2000s, politicians started warring over us.”
In the nearby town of Kreminna in the Luhansk region, next door to two frontline towns where battles between the two sides are reportedly continuing, dozens of people were packing their bags.
“Most of the people here are waiting for Russian soldiers,” said Viktoria Slobodyansk, a 61-year-old retired English teacher who had volunteered for the Ukrainian army.
“People only want to hear what they want to hear. They think if they were in Russia, they would live much better. That is why I decided to leave Kreminna.
“I’m not afraid of the shelling,” she said, “but after Bucha and Hostomel, I’m afraid of Russian soldiers.”