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A mayor in Ukraine aids his town's few remaining people, as Russia closes in

Serhii Chaus, the mayor of the eastern Ukrainian city of Chasiv Yar, arrives at a bread delivery location on the outskirts of town. Chaus goes daily into the embattled town to deliver supplies and meet residents who choose to stay there as Russian forces are approaching the area.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
Serhii Chaus, the mayor of the eastern Ukrainian city of Chasiv Yar, arrives at a bread delivery location on the outskirts of town. Chaus goes daily into the embattled town to deliver supplies and meet residents who choose to stay there as Russian forces are approaching the area.

CHASIV YAR, Ukraine — Every morning, Mayor Serhii Chaus loads a van with bread, bottled water and hot meals, puts on his body armor and starts driving to his hometown.

More than 13,000 people used to live in this eastern Ukrainian town before Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022. Now with Russian troops on Chasiv Yar's doorstep, only a few hundred remain under constant fire.

"I have to keep my fear checked, on the edge, so my body and mind can hold out," he says. "Because the people there depend on me."

Russian forces are now approaching the outskirts of Chasiv Yar, according to the Institute for the Study of War, in an attempt to encircle and seize it as part of a renewed Russian offensive on multiple fronts in eastern Ukraine. The Washington-based think tank estimates Russian forces have taken an additional 195 square miles of Ukraine — an area slightly smaller than Chicago — since launching the offensive in October.

The onslaught stepped up in February, after Ukrainian troops withdrew from Avdiivka, a city about 50 miles south of Chasiv Yar. The Ukrainian military says its forces are low on ammunition because of delays in foreign aid. Russian fighter jets pounded Ukrainian positions in Avdiivka constantly with highly destructive glide bombs.

Avdiivka was the Kremlin's first significant victory since last May, when Russian troops took control of the key industrial city of Bakhmut, about 6 miles from Chasiv Yar.

"I know everyone in town"

Constant Russian attacks have driven out most of Chasiv Yar's residents and knocked out the town's power and running water.

Still, the mayor is trying to keep the town operating.

"We try to visit at least half of the neighborhoods in the city every day, to talk to people," Chaus says. "Their needs must be recorded and understood, and we need to figure out how to solve them — and whether it's even possible to solve them."

Razor wire can be seen on the outskirts of Chasiv Yar.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Razor wire can be seen on the outskirts of Chasiv Yar.

There are many problems. How to get people to a doctor or find them the right medicine. How to fix buildings destroyed every day. How to evacuate those who want to leave. How to keep those who stay warm and fed.

Locals who have stayed in Chasiv Yar try to help the mayor. He brings up what's left of the utilities department, now run by a woman in her 70s. Chaus says the woman initially left Chasiv Yar but grew anxious in exile.

"She was gone for about six months and then told me, 'Find me a job, I want to go back,' " he says. "And now she's here, exposed to danger."

He says her team, composed mostly of elderly volunteers, now delivers firewood and sweeps the streets, even during shelling. Chaus can't always reach them, but he tries.

"I know everyone in town," he says. "I know all their faces, and most by name."

"It was home"

Chaus, who is 43, looks like a next-door neighbor out of central casting — friendly, bespectacled, with a trim, salt-and-pepper beard. He spent nearly his entire life in Chasiv Yar. When he speaks about it, he sometimes uses the past sense.

"It was a small town centered around people's lives," he says. "In one word, it was home."

In his memory, his hometown was a rustic paradise surrounded by ponds and forests, birds chirping, the air scented with fresh earth and blossoms.

"There was this pond, Goldfish, which had this incredibly beautiful oak grove," he says. "We gathered there with our families. Everyone had their favorite spot where they could sit for an hour and meditate in nature."

That peace was first broken in April 2014, when Russia recruited armed, pro-Kremlin local militias to occupy parts of Donetsk region, where Chasiv Yar is located.

"I know everyone in town," Mayor Chaus says. "I know all their faces, and most by name."
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
"I know everyone in town," Mayor Chaus says. "I know all their faces, and most by name."

"This area has been under siege for 10 years," Chaus says. "And then came the full-scale invasion."

Martial law went into effect, and Chaus was appointed head of the local military administration, something like a wartime mayor. Like other wartime officials in Ukraine, he often dresses head to toe in army green. His wife and children were moved to safety long ago, and he has helped evacuate thousands of other residents, especially after the fall of Bakhmut. Most of those who remain are elderly.

"They no longer cling to the future," he says. "They cling to the past. Some say their lives are over. I tell them there is still life ahead, and every day should be bright."

Though Chaus spends most of his waking hours traveling in and out of Chasiv Yar, he sleeps in the nearby city of Kramatorsk, a major hub in the east for humanitarian aid. Being there allows him to collect food, filtered water, firewood and blankets and deliver them to his constituents.

Home on the front line

Last month, NPR joins Chaus and his deputy, Ruslan Pryimenko, on one of his daily trips to Chasiv Yar.

"Let's see what we can get done today," Chaus says, as air raid sirens blare.

Mayor Chaus and his deputy fill a van with bread and bottled water for residents in Chasiv Yar as air raid sirens blare.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Mayor Chaus and his deputy fill a van with bread and bottled water for residents in Chasiv Yar as air raid sirens blare.

It takes about 90 minutes to drive from Kramatorsk to Chasiv Yar. The men have already loaded up their van with bottled water. Halfway through, they stop at a town to pick up loaves of freshly baked bread and trays of hot borsch, the thick beet-and-meat stew that's Ukraine's national dish.

Another air raid siren wails as they put on helmets and bullet-resistant vests and check to make sure their tourniquets work. Chaus also asks the NPR reporting team to shut off its mobile phones so Russian forces can't track the signal.

He gives the team a two-way radio to stay in touch with him and Pryimenko and asks not to wander around without them, especially on the approach to Chasiv Yar.

"We know these roads, you don't," Chaus says. "Don't be stupid."

As he nears Chasiv Yar, the mayor sees the forests he recalled earlier, where he once meditated in nature.

The trees are now dead, the ponds an ashy gray. Instead of families having pond-side picnics, there are freshly dug trenches.

"Shield town"

In Chasiv Yar, the streets are empty. The buildings look crushed and empty. The air smells burnt, heavy with the stench of gunpowder and the propellant of spent munitions.

Chaus and Pryimenko stop outside the ruins of a mini-market. Still intact above the doorway hangs a sign with images of the chocolates, bread and sausage you once could buy here. Chaus clenches his jaw and starts unloading his van.

"We're going to try to deliver this food," he says, "and then we'll see how things go."

Drones fly overhead. There are explosions every few seconds.

Tetiana Procenko doesn't flinch as she emerges from the ruins of the mini-market, where she's been sheltering.

Tetiana Procenko is one of the few remaining residents living in Chasiv Yar despite the encroaching Russian troops.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Tetiana Procenko is one of the few remaining residents living in Chasiv Yar despite the encroaching Russian troops.

"Oh borsch!" she says, as the mayor hands her containers of the still-hot, beet-red stew. "And thanks a lot for the bread."

Procenko is 64, a retired school guard. She will share the food the mayor brought with their neighbors.

Asked if she's scared here and why she won't leave for someplace safer, she says, "Where can I go? And how can I support myself? I left [Chasiv Yar] and came back, and then left and came back again. I don't have enough money to support myself."

Procenko says her pension is too small to live on, and the Ukrainian state doesn't offer enough aid to find a decent place to live as an internally displaced person.

"At least this is our home," Procenko says of Chasiv Yar.

The mayor calls Chasiv Yar a "shield town." He says it's taking so much fire to shield a bigger city, Kostiantynivka, which has a railway hub the Russians want.

The rail hub

The railway station in Kostiantynivka was destroyed in a Russian strike in late February.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
The railway station in Kostiantynivka was destroyed in a Russian strike in late February.

Kostiantynivka is roughly 12 miles away from Chasiv Yar. In late February, Russian forces bombed the train station, now a pile of rubble. But the rail lines that both sides need to supply troops are intact.

The blast also damaged a church across the street. Workers are repairing its spires and broken windows. In the church courtyard, a gray-haired man is sweeping up broken glass and gathering small pieces of concrete. He says his name is Hennady but doesn't want to give a last name because he says he fears for his safety.

"When will they just sit down and negotiate a peace settlement?" he asks. "Everyone here wants this war to stop. Everyone is tired."

A Russian jet flies overhead. Hennady keeps working even after the warplane drops a bomb somewhere in the distance.

A plume of smoke from an airstrike near Kostiantynivka can be seen from a distance.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
A plume of smoke from an airstrike near Kostiantynivka can be seen from a distance.

Kostiantynivka's residents have been watching with dread as Russian forces pummel Chasiv Yar. Parts of eastern Ukraine have been under Russian control for a decade. They describe Russian occupation like a cancer slowly metastasizing toward them — to kill them.

"Living on the front line, knowing that every day your life can end, that puts a lot of pressure on your psyche, your physical health," says 31-year-old Kristina Vasyliuk, who used to work in arts administration. "You may not realize it until it hits you all at once."

"I remember people burning"

People line up for humanitarian aid at a handout location in Kostiantynivka.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
People line up for humanitarian aid at a handout location in Kostiantynivka.

Vasyliuk's voice sometimes quivers when she talks about Kostiantynivka and the humanitarian center here she helps run. The town's utilities still provide power and water but many residents need food and health supplies. The center also helps hundreds of internally displaced Ukrainians from places like Bakhmut, Vasyliuk's hometown.

"They lived in basements," she says. "They refused to go outside."

Bakhmut is the site of the bloodiest battle in the Ukraine war, lasting from July 2022 to May 2023. Thousands of soldiers from both sides were killed there, including one of Ukraine's most decorated battalion commanders, 27-year-old Dmytro Kotsiubailo, known by his call sign Da Vinci.

Russian troops used cannon-fodder tactics there for almost a year and finally took the city last May, after destroying it. Vasyliuk fears the same end for Kostiantynivka.

Kristina Vasyliuk works at a humanitarian center in Kostiantynivka where people come for supplies.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Kristina Vasyliuk works at a humanitarian center in Kostiantynivka where people come for supplies.

"I can say from experience that people will stay here until the last moment, until the situation is absolutely critical," she says.

She survived the bombing of Kostiantynivka's main market last September. More than a dozen people died. She says it changed her profoundly.

"I remember people burning," she says. "When I stopped shaking, I caught myself thinking that I could have died right here and now. It passes, this fear of losing your life, it passes very quickly when you are here."

She says she feels like she should stay in Kostiantynivka and help. She sees that the humanitarian center needs her. But in the last few weeks, she has been trying to make sense of her numbness to danger.

"Every time I hear a bomb hit, I tell myself, it won't hit me again, at least not today," she says. Then she reminds herself: "Your family is worried about you, your life is just beginning."

Buildings damaged by Russian strikes in Kostiantynivka. The sounds of artillery, mortar rounds and bombs dropped from planes are heard every day.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Buildings damaged by Russian strikes in Kostiantynivka. The sounds of artillery, mortar rounds and bombs dropped from planes are heard every day.

"I constantly ask myself, 'Should I stay or should I go?' " she says.

She sees and hears explosions every day — from artillery, mortar rounds and bombs dropped from planes. The fighting is moving closer.

"Today isn't the loudest day"

Back in Chasiv Yar, under constant fire, Mayor Chaus is evaluating how to get to the other side of town, which is closer to the frontline and much more dangerous.

Chaus checks in with residents in Chasiv Yar.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Chaus checks in with residents in Chasiv Yar.

He wants to see the town's de-facto utilities director, the retiree in her 70s who returned here. The woman is the aunt of his deputy, Pryimenko.

"When she left Chasiv Yar, the light just went out of her eyes," Pryimenko says. "Now that she's returned, life has returned to her. She is tireless, even though she knows she may die."

The mayor says the utilities crew may be sweeping the streets. War or not, he says, it's a matter of dignity. He wants to help.

An explosion hits nearby. It's loud enough that the mini-market vibrates. The mayor is not fazed.

"These are the conditions we work in," he says. "And today isn't the loudest day."

He returns to his van and drives through what's left of his hometown.

Chaus returns to his van to visit more residents who are still living in his hometown, despite nearby explosions from the war's front line.
Claire Harbage / NPR
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NPR
Chaus returns to his van to visit more residents who are still living in his hometown, despite nearby explosions from the war's front line.

NPR producer Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this report from Kyiv.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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