'Help us': Last few residents hold on in Donbas ghost town

A resident looks out at a school building damaged by Russian military strike in Kostiantynivka, Ukraine, on July 13, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

BOHORODYCHNE, Ukraine - In the eastern Ukrainian village of Bohorodychne - which means 'where God was born' - the golden domes of the church have fallen down.

The church was blown up in one of the many shellings the village has seen as it was taken and retaken several times by Russian and Ukrainian troops fighting for the Donbas.

Ukrainian soldiers said Russians fled the village a few days earlier, in the face of their army's sweeping counter-offensive.

They left a ghost town behind.

Nina Gonchar and her son Mykola, standing in front of their shattered house, appear to be the last two residents still left in the village.

Some of their family members were murdered, they told AFP.

"The Russians came, they killed my brother and my sister-in-law," says 58-year-old Mykola.

Russian soldiers wanted to use his brother's home as a base, but after he refused, they gunned the house down, killing the couple at the same time.

Mykola says he wrapped the bodies in blankets and buried them himself.

'Barely survived'

He and his frail 92-year-old mother "barely survived" the occupation thanks to food jars, a few poultry and some vegetables in the garden.

"How can I describe it with words? It was difficult, I was afraid," Mykola says.

His mother, traumatised by the fighting, still goes back into hiding in the shelter her son dug in their garden, even though the area is back in the hands of Ukraine again.

"I cry every day. They killed my son," Nina says, wiping tears from her eyes with a veil.

As she speaks, artillery fire resonates in the background.

But it is one of the only sounds in the empty village.

"They took all my geese and even the bed linen from my mother," Mykola says.

"There were many goats in the village... they ate all of them too."

'What will be, will be'

Many inhabitants also left for Russia when Russian troops marched in the village last spring.

In this Donetsk region, in the Donbas, many residents are pro-Moscow.

"They told us we could leave for Russia, but I said no. Who would be waiting for us over there?" he says.

He also refused to leave when Ukrainian soldiers asked him if he wanted to go towards a slightly safer western Ukraine, citing health issues and his mother's late age.

"I just thought: what will be, will be," he explains.

A local resident pushes her bicycle through damaged buildings in Toretsk, eastern Donbas region, on Aug 5, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Walking over debris in his devastated garden, Mykola points to two grenades.

He says he took them from "drunk" Russian soldiers and that he has been waiting to give them, along with other ammunition he found, to the Ukrainian army.

Later that day, shells started falling again - this time closer to the village - and AFP saw Ukrainian troops running for cover.

After Ukraine began a lightning counter-offensive to wrest back more territory from Russia in recent days, Moscow said it launched a fresh round of strikes in the Donetsk region.

Near her shattered home, even before the latest round of attacks, Nina Gonchar feels safest hidden away deep inside her shelter.

She huddles next to a wood stove, surrounded by religious icons.

"Help us," she pleads. AFP

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