Svitlana and her son Danylo had been in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro for less then a day when a terrible realisation struck her: without money, the offer of work or a permanent place to stay they would have to return to their apartment in Sloviansk, where the frontline of the war was drawing closer and the sounds of Russian bombardment growing ever louder.
Early that morning they had packed their belongings into two bags and left the room they rented in a communal apartment in Sloviansk. Volunteers drove them to the only functioning regional station, in Pokrovsk, where they boarded the daily evacuation train.
It was the second time they had run from war. In 2014 they had left their home in Horlivka after Russian forces occupied the town. Svitlana’s husband had been killed by shrapnel and she said the new authorities refused to compensate her, recording his death as a heart attack.
They had been told they would be given tokens on the train which they could exchange in Dnipro for relocation money – £60 for Svitlana and £120 for Danylo. But for some reason people on their carriage didn’t receive their tokens.
They were greeted by a group of Pentecostal churchgoers in Dnipro who took them to a Pentecostal prayer house-turned shelter. But it became clear that evening that Svitlana was expected to move on from the church after a few nights.
“Here they want £300 for a room, it’s just completely unrealistic,” she said, referring to rental prices in Dnipro. “If I just had more time then I could find work, but we’ll be on the rubbish dump. I know people who have been waiting three months for their displaced person (benefits).”
Even when Ukrainians are able to flee towns under bombardment, a lack of money and financial support is sending many back.
“We don’t have any relatives,” Svitlana said, And in this world, everything is about money.”
The next day they were given a lift back to Sloviansk, first from volunteers who dropped them in another town, Kramatorsk, and then from Ukrainian soldiers who picked them up from the side of the motorway.
Over the last week and a half conditions in Sloviansk have worsened considerably.
Since 4 July, Svitlana and Danylo have been living in a basement of an old factory next to their house, which is reinforced with steel rods. Svitlana said they have only been able to go outside four times in the last 10 days. The basement is damp, there is no phone signal and all of Danylo’s neighbourhood friends have left. He is the last child in the club of residential buildings where they live.
About 20,000 people are left in the town, a fall of more than 80% since the spring, when the town’s mayor urged residents to leave as Russia began advancing into the remaining Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donbas, the collective name for Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
Svitlana’s remaining neighbours – about a dozen out of several hundred – also blamed a combination of temporary accommodation elsewhere and a lack of work for not leaving.
“Where should we go?,” Svitlana said. “If they gave me a house, OK. But after a month, I’ll be on the streets. I’d rather stay here where I know people. Who’s going to help in Lviv?”
There has been no running water in Sloviansk for over six weeks and no gas for even longer, say Svitlana and her neighbours. The electricity supply can come and go, meaning they sometimes use makeshift grills they have made outside their building instead of their plug-in stoves. There are only a few food shops still open and there is almost no work to speak of.
Svitlana has not received a salary since the corner shop where she worked closed because of the war. Their neighbour Natalia, who worked at the local psychiatric hospital, said her state salary was reduced from £180 to about £50 a month in March and was cut entirely in May.
The frontline is now just 10 kilometres from Sloviansk, which is said to be the next big town in Russia’s sights. Since early July, the town has experienced days where the shelling has been constant, Svitlana said. On one occasion the market was hit. Footage of the immediate aftermath showed local people and soldiers pulling bodies from the burning stalls.
Successful Ukrainian strikes in the past week on Russian ammunition depots seem to have slowed the bombardment. However, the Washington-based thinktank the Institute for the Study of War assesses that the Russians will probably launch a larger-scale and more determined offensive towards Sloviansk soon.
Shortly after they returned from Dnipro, a farmer north of Sloviansk, next to the frontlines, offered them £5 for a day’s work cherrypicking. Svitlana, Danylo and her neighbours went on his truck but said they had to hit the floor twice as fighter jets and rockets flew over the orchard from the Russian side.
“We all club together here and put what we can in for meals – one person has a carrot, another some rice,” said Svitlana. “What I don’t understand is there’s all this money coming in from the west but no one comes here, apart from the council workers who bring water.”