Russian soldiers and volunteers distribute bread in Mariupol on April 12, 2022, as Russian troops intensify a campaign to take the strategic port city across eastern Ukraine. AFP
The four-year-old recognised the low whistle of the Russian artillery shell hurtling toward the Ukrainian town of New York long before his mother had a chance to grab his hand.
“Here comes one,” the boy said matter-of-factly a few long moments before the blast of an exploding building echoed across the small town with the big American name.
His exhausted 28-year-old mother did not even bother to duck.
Valeria Kolakevych has heard so many shells whizz overhead in the third month of Russia’s offensive that she knows instinctively how close each will land while it is still in the air.
“It was terrible,” Kolakevych said, without skipping a beat in her story about a round of fire that had badly damaged four neighbouring houses the previous night.
“And the most terrible thing is that there was nothing there — just civilians,” she said as another artillery shell blew something up near the upper end of the hilly street.
The second impact forced her 11-year-old daughter to utter a soft yelp and cover her ears. The little boy followed his sister’s lead and hunched closer to the ground.
Kolakevych took her children’s hands and walked off as more blasts rang out from fields that once made up the de facto border between government territory and lands overseen by Moscow-backed insurgents in Ukraine’s industrial east.
Shooting from three sides
Russia’s February 24 invasion has reignited fighting along fronts that froze over once Ukraine’s eight-year separatist conflict in the east settled into a dreary stalemate after claiming 14,000 lives.
Russia initially prioritised seizing Kyiv and Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv in the north.
Setbacks in both have put the onus on Russian and pro-Kremlin separatist forces to break through from a southern flank that stretches from Crimea to the destroyed city of Mariupol further east.
This has spelled trouble for New York — a town of 10,000 mostly Russian speakers that attempted a fresh start last year by dropping its Soviet name Novgorodske and adopting one first chosen by its German settlers in the 1800s.
Locals say there’s no record of how the town first got its name. It was changed under the Soviet Union in 1951 and back again last year after an activist campaign.
Residents say artillery fire began pelting New York a month ago and has grown heavier by the day.
“It is getting really bad. There was a bit of shooting here and there before but it did not really bother us,” seamstress Valentyna Kanebalotskaya said while moving her belongings to her daughter’s house in a slightly safer part of town.
“But now they are shooting at us from the west, east and south,” the 71-year-old said.
Abandoned military base
Ukraine’s stretched forces are sending in their biggest guns and toughest units to hold off a Russian advance on two important cities in the northeastern corner of the front.
But the Ukrainian military presence verges on non-existent within the confines of New York itself.
A naked mannequin inexplicably stands next to the open door of an abandoned military base filled with sandbags on one of the town’s main roads.
A few forlorn soldiers appear to represent the main defence of a central square that has been bombed repeatedly in the past week.
“You see that crater — a Russian jet did that,” a soldier who agreed to be identified as Oleksandr said, showing off a yawning hole in the dirt road.
Behind it stood the broken frame of a large factory and a chain of other ruined buildings comprising the town’s industrial district.
Oleksandr’s main worry is that the Russians might accidentally hit a neighbourhood plant that manufactures a raw material for paints and plastics called phenol.
“That is a very frightening thing. Just one direct hit and it would react like a chemical weapon,” the 36-year-old soldier said.
“It rolls along the ground and its consequences are very tragic.”
Both sides have accused the other of planning chemical attacks — a charge that appears at least partially aimed at deflecting blame in case someone accidentally hits a hazardous site with stray fire.
Yet residents appear more worried about more immediate problems, such as a lack of running water and gas. Some of the Russian speakers even blame the artillery attacks on Ukraine.
“The Ukrainians come in to fire from the hills here and then leave. And then all of us get shelled,” said pensioner Yelena Valeryanova.
She and many other Russian speakers use patronymics instead of last names when talking to reporters out of fear of retribution from local Ukrainian officials.
“The Donetsk (separatists) treat us better,” she said.