BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Volunteers patiently listened to the pensioner and stuffed a frozen chicken into her shopping bag.
Olena Tyvaniuk, 70, a thin, stooped woman, tearfully explained that she needed more than food. She needed medicine. “I have a son, he’s 48, he’s a paranoid schizophrenic,” she said. “I need medicine for him.”
As towns in eastern Ukraine empty out in the face of the Russian offensive, some residents choose to stay. Like Ms. Tyvaniuk, some are trapped by medical imperatives. Or they are too poor to leave. Or, disappointed in the longstanding corruption of Ukrainian officials, they think things can’t get any worse under the Russians.
Bakhmut, just 10 miles from the front, is largely deserted. There are few cars on the streets except for military vehicles; shops and banks are closed. Only one or two cafes and supermarkets are still open.
The only pharmacy is in the hospital where wounded soldiers are brought from the front. Recently, bloodstained stretchers leaned against a wall where an injured soldier, his face bloody and swollen, wrapped in bandages, smoked a cigarette with friends.
However, in the middle of the war, even as the artillery rumbles not far from there, civilians are still walking in the street, sometimes even accompanied by a child.
Ms Tyvaniuk said her son, who barely comes out of his room, refused to leave. His meds were running out and the only open pharmacy in town didn’t stock the meds he needed, she said. He had enough left for only four days and was forced to cut slices of his remaining pills.
“He doesn’t understand the whole situation,” she said. “He doesn’t even know his own address. I can’t leave him and I never will.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called on civilians to leave eastern Ukraine as Russia deployed all its forces to seize the region. But part of the population stubbornly refuses to go there.
“Those who wanted to go have already left,” said Ruslan, 42, a volunteer with the Union of Ukrainian Churches who drives people to shelters in western Ukraine. He said his group had evacuated 1,000 people from the Bakhmut area over the past month.
However, out of 20 people who had requested evacuation from his organization on Saturday, only nine accepted the offer, he said. He had just risked the journey to the frontline town of Siversk to round up people, but returned empty. “Nobody wants to go there,” he said.
He asked that only his first name be published for fear of reprisals from the Russian side.
Most of those remaining are poor, elderly and infirm, volunteers and health workers said.
“We mostly see older people seeking all kinds of support,” said Islam Alaraj, head of the psychosocial support program in Ukraine for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “They are the most vulnerable and they have a lot of health issues, and they’ve added psychological issues to that.”
For the most part, Ukrainian health facilities across the country, including psychiatric facilities, are still functional and receiving external support, Ms Alaraj said. But as the battles evolve, it becomes more difficult to reach those in need.
“That context is changing very quickly,” she said, “and we don’t know all the locations and we don’t have access to all the locations.”
Many residents interviewed said they could not afford to rent an apartment elsewhere and feared losing everything they owned if they left their homes. They also expressed distrust of promises of assistance from aid groups or the government.
“They say they have no money and people will deceive them when they get there,” Ruslan said.
“Some of them are waiting for the Russians,” he added. “Let’s face it, there are those who sit in their basements and wait for someone to bring them humanitarian aid. And for them, it doesn’t matter who hands them an aid package, Russia or Ukraine.
Police officers on duty until last week in the town of Sievierodonetsk said they saw the mood change as Russian forces stood on the outskirts of the town. They gave up on a final evacuation when residents asked for additional guarantees.
“We are not forcing anyone,” said regional police chief Oleh Hryhorov. “Some sympathize with the other side.”
Russian troops were flying drones over the town to gather intelligence on Ukrainian positions and some residents were acting as informants for Russia, he said. Already anticipating a Russian takeover, some residents were reluctant to speak to foreign journalists, he said.
In the town of Siversk, north of Bakhmut and close to the front line, a shopkeeper suddenly chased away customers and closed her doors in the middle of the morning for “inventory”. A volunteer carrying medicine to families on a bicycle said people were afraid of any interactions.
Several Ukrainians interviewed expressed bitter disaffection with their government. Many said they could barely survive on their pension, which amounts to as little as $70 a month.
Lyudmila Krilyshkina, 71, displaced after her house was burned down in a rocket attack, wept as she complained that she could not collect her pension in Bakhmut. Because shops only took cash, she couldn’t buy food for herself and her parents, she said.
“They have to think about people,” she said. “We understand there is a war, but how are we supposed to survive? »
Another woman waiting to be evacuated complained that only voluntary organizations were helping people and government officials were doing nothing. She asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
Disillusionment with previous corrupt governments helped propel President Volodymyr Zelensky to power in Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion, popular support for him has skyrocketed as the country overwhelmingly backed his resolve to fight. Yet there remains a deep and latent cynicism about the Ukrainian government and officials.
Ms Tvyaniuk said she spent 12 years fighting for justice after a corrupt court ruled against her and her daughter. Her daughter had successfully sued her ex-husband for alimony and child custody payments, but police never enforced the court order and a judge helped falsify documents to overturn the decision.
“The police protected the courts and the courts protected the police,” she said. “It happened under Ukrainian rule, and now I don’t know if it would be better under Russian or Ukrainian rule.”
“We don’t know what to expect,” said Ihor, 44, an unemployed laborer sitting outside his building. But he said he and his partner, Olha, 60, would remain and live under Russian rule if his troops captured Bakhmut, adding: “What else is there?”
He complained that Ukrainian leaders were corrupt and had robbed the country and its workers. “They stole and put everything in their pockets,” he said. “And if Russia takes over, it will be over.”