The portable radio in the dark cellar of the rocket-damaged kindergarten was broadcasting Russian news about the Kremlin’s military victories in Ukraine over whistling airwaves.
The six terrified ladies and lone guy huddled in the middle of the east Ukrainian combat zone didn’t know whether to believe the monotone voice — or who was roaming the streets of besieged Lysychansk above their heads.
All they knew was that a Grad volley had hit their building a few days before, leaving the tail end of one of the unexploded rockets protruding from the pavement at a sharp angle only steps from the rear door.
Their feverish fears vacillated between the idea that their shelter’s lone entrance might get blocked by falling debris and that the Kremlin’s forces might come knocking unannounced.
“The Russians on the radio just said that they have captured Bakhmut. Is that true?” Natalia Georgiyevna anxiously asked about a city 30 miles (50 kilometers) to the southwest that remains under full Ukrainian control.
“We do not really know anything,” her neighbor Viktoria Viktorovna added from a corner cot positioned just outside the beam of light illuminating a lone patch of the dank cellar.
“I guess we still have the Ukrainians here, no?”
– Mysterious voices –Nearly three months of war have transformed this coal-mining city of 100,000 mostly Russian speakers into a wasteland that lacks everything from water and power to cell phone service.
During afternoon lulls in the fighting, most residents who crawl out of their bunkers make a beeline for the city’s lone natural spring to stock up on water that they must boil to make it safe to drink.
Some of the women in the kindergarten basement said they hadn’t gone outside in two months because they were so afraid of being detected and punished that they simply gave their patronymics instead of their last names.
This paralyzing seclusion is exacerbated by frightening Russian and Ukrainian radio broadcasts that arrive on the airways at random times and provide contradictory information.
Unidentified voices fade in and out, and sometimes simply vanish.
“The Russians are saying they are winning and the Ukrainians are saying they are,” Natalia Georgiyevna said.
“When we still had the internet, we could watch the news. But now… I have no idea who these voices are or where they come from.”
– Information vacuum –The concept of warring sides filling information vacuums with propaganda is not new.
During the Cold War, radio was a potent Western weapon against the Soviet Union, which Moscow attempted to silence.
Throughout an eight-year insurgency that preceded the Kremlin’s all-out invasion on February 24, Russia has been broadcasting its version on the news across eastern Ukraine.
The Lysychansk broadcasts have heightened a mood of paranoia that has pervaded the lawless streets of a vast industrial zone that has been teetering on the brink of the east Ukrainian front for weeks.
The Russians are closing in on Severodonetsk, Lysychansk’s northern sister city, from three directions.
The Ukrainians are battling valiantly to halt the Russians from marching south of a strategically important river that separates the two cities.
This has left people such as coalminer Oleg Zaitsev worrying as much about the identity of the armed men whizzing around in battered cars as the shells randomly falling from the sky.
“I am mostly afraid that some stranger might drive up to me and ask for my papers. You never know these days whose side they are on,” the 53-year-old said on his way back to his basement.
“They could be the Russians, and who knows what happens to you then.”
– Urban conflict –Residents said the Grad volley at the start of the week appeared to be aimed at a grade school on the opposite side of the yard that housed one of the Ukrainian units defending the city.
The contentious issue of military personnel seizing civilian buildings during urban fighting is a constant in the propaganda war raging over Ukraine.
Some residents object to the concept. Others argue that Ukraine has no choice because Russia is the one who has wreaked havoc on its cities.
Yevghen Polchikha, a cellar resident, appeared more concerned about the morality of placing soldiers in schools than by the prospect of the Grad missile still sticking out of the earth exploding.
“It is just lying there,” the 58-year-old said. “Our kindergarten seems sturdy enough. But you just never know.”
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