Russia’s offensive has their homes in its sights, but they can’t or won’t leave

CHASIV YAR, Ukraine — At 9 months old, baby Alyona has lived through nothing but war.

Such is the threat from constant Russian shelling; she rarely gets to leave the cramped, dark basement in the small eastern Ukrainian town of Chasiv Yar that she, her parents and five other adults call home.

While they have enough food and water, their lives are on hold, their exhausted minds on constant alert. The street next to theirs was recently hit by a bomb, the shrapnel ricocheting off their building. Windows are blown out across the town, glass strewn all over the frozen ground.

Nearby, a burned-out five-story apartment block is now a brick shell showing hardly any signs that it was once inhabited. Hit by a rocket strike in July, 48 people including one child were killed, the Ukrainian State Emergency Service said at the time.

“I have to be careful,” Alyona’s father, Artem, 36, told NBC News as his oblivious daughter played with a rattle. “I’m responsible for the life of my wife, of my kid, and now the kid is living in the condition that she doesn’t see the sunshine and sometimes there are days that she doesn’t go out. Only when I’m sure that there will be no shelling here.”

Ukrainians attend Sunday prayers at the basement of an apartment in the town of Chasiv Yar on Sunday. A new Russian assault puts the area under increased risk.Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP – Getty Images

Now the widely anticipated Russian offensive on eastern Ukraine has begun, and the front line’s drawing ever closer.

A huge barrage of missiles and drone attacks targeting towns and cities set off air raid sirens across the country Friday, after days of intensifying ground attacks along the front lines in the east.

“There is a daily escalation, and Russian attacks are becoming active throughout the region,” Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of Donetsk, said Friday. As with previous large-scale bombardments, energy facilities were targeted causing localized blackouts. For now, for most people, the lights are still on.

But for the thousands of Ukrainians who either can’t leave or refuse to leave homes in the firing line, there is no end in sight to the waking nightmare of war.

Chasiv Yar is in the Donetsk region, which is largely held by Russian forces, just a few miles west of Bakhmut, the war-torn city that’s become a symbol of Ukraine’s defiance.

Analysts have warned that Moscow’s forces, pushing for a high-profile victory to coincide with the Feb. 24 anniversary of the invasion, could finally be on the brink of taking Bakhmut as Russia looks to push further west to consolidate its hold on Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk, which together make up the Donbas region — known before the war as the home of Ukraine’s industrial heartlands.

Leaving is often easier said than done.

Artem and his wife, Oleksandra, 26, traveled around 155 miles west to the city of Dnipro to apply for temporary displaced status. But the small handouts they were given and the difficulty of finding work proved all too much. So despite the dangers, they returned to Chasiv Yar. Like so many, they have older relatives nearby.

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