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Russia targets Ukraine’s last link to embattled east

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Bakhmutske (Ukraine) (AFP) – The injured coal miner peered through his shrapnel-riddled windshield and tried to ignore the rattling sounds coming from his flat tires as he drove along Ukraine’s last link with is besieged.

The cars around him had just come to a screeching halt from a sudden burst of fire from somewhere in the forest above.

But Sergiy Tokarev seemed oblivious to the danger after being bombarded as he returned to the frontline village of Zolote to rescue his stranded neighbours.

The 60-year-old ended up turning his van around and spending the night on an open road that became the latest target for Russian forces approaching from the east.

White smoke from the burning fields shrouded the wreckage of charred buildings smoldering behind him.

Tokarev peered out the window and complained of the headache he will have finding new tires nearly three months after Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbor.

“There are grandmothers and grandfathers stranded there,” he said, racing his van forward.

Its dented, squeaky rims looked like they were long past the point where they should have fallen.

His right thigh was bandaged after being grazed by shrapnel that flew at him on the outskirts of his hometown.

Ukrainian coal miner Sergiy Tokarev, 60, was bombed as he tried to save friends and neighbors in the frontline village of Zolote ARIS MESSINIS AFP

“If I am destined to die here, I will die here,” the coal miner shrugged.

“But if not, I will continue to withdraw people.”

‘They are here’

A bumpy road through fields filled with sunflowers and hamlets has become one of the most important fronts of the entire war.

Ukrainian forces, outgunned, attempted to prevent the Russians from encircling the once bustling towns of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk at the northeast end of the road.

The two crumbling coal and chemical manufacturing centers form the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the smaller of the two regions comprising the Donbass war zone.

The road slowly pursued by Tokarev in his dented van became the last way for Ukraine to send reinforcements – and for rescuers to get out stranded civilians.

Russia launches precision strikes along strategic route
Russia launches precision strikes along strategic route ARIS MESSINIS AFP

Russia is now trying to cut it about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Lysychansk by first pounding it with artillery and then moving through it with force.

Ruffled mounds of black dirt expose spots where Russian shells crashed into the sides of the dual carriageway.

Lightly armed Ukrainian soldiers try to protect themselves in dune-like reinforcements erected in ditches and ravines.

Buildings housing troops and equipment are burning due to precision strikes launched from unseen positions.

“They joined us,” said a soldier who uses the nom de guerre Tadzhik near the twisted body of one of his fallen comrades-in-arms.

“We can’t see them but they are there.”

Last outing

The importance of the road could not be greater for construction worker Dmytro Mosur.

Dmytro Mosur lost his wife in Severodonetsk and now hopes to evacuate his two toddlers before the Russians cut off the last road leading
Dmytro Mosur lost his wife in Severodonetsk and now hopes to evacuate his two toddlers before the Russians cut off the last road leading ARIS MESSINIS AFP

The 32-year-old had his binoculars in his arms and tears in his eyes after losing his wife in one of the relentless bombardments engulfing Severodonetsk.

He now stood in an exposed square in Lysychansk, waiting to hear if rumors that rescuers could take him and his daughters to safer ground were true.

“I thought something like this could happen,” Mosur said of the day his wife died after briefly leaving her bunker to cook a meal over an open flame in the yard.

Neither town has gas or electricity, and up to 20,000 of the original 100,000 inhabitants of each spend most of their time hiding underground.

Those who come out to Severodonetsk to tend to the wood-burning stoves brave the artillery battles raging in the northern and eastern parts of the ghost town.

Some Ukrainians along the Eastern Front had delayed the difficult decision to abandon their homes
Some Ukrainians along the Eastern Front had delayed the difficult decision to abandon their homes ARIS MESSINIS AFP

“We discussed leaving earlier but I couldn’t convince her. We even argued about it,” the father said.

“As soon as this drama hit, I immediately decided to come out. I no longer doubted.”

stay behind

Natalia Ryazantseva also has no doubts.

The 57-year-old businesswoman saw her daughter move to the French Riviera and her son settle in Poland when the east was engulfed by an eight-year-old insurgency which the Kremlin backed before its invasion.

The two panicked after Ryazantseva told them she barely escaped a shell that shattered her bedroom ceiling earlier this month.

Ukrainian forces are increasingly under attack on the key road
Ukrainian forces are increasingly under attack on the key road ARIS MESSINIS AFP

“They told me to leave immediately,” she said happily in the rose garden of a detached house on the leafy outskirts of Lysychansk.

The whistles of artillery fire sounded distant, and Ryazantseva sounded relaxed as she described the pain of living without electricity or running water.

“How can I leave?” she asked. “We are old people now. At my age, a woman wants the peace and comfort of her own home, so we decided to stay.”