An uncovered mass grave for civilians is growing on the edge of disputed twin cities.


LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine – A mass grave on the outskirts of this city in eastern Ukraine has still been uncovered. Dirt mounds and yellow-flowered weeds surround a pit filled with a dozen body bags. They stink of death in the warm summer wind.

The dead are civilians killed in shelling in recent months in the cities of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk and the nearby city of Rubizhne. They lie in a heap because there are no relatives to claim and bury their bodies.

Standing over the grave, Pvt. Sergiy Veklenko, 41, explained why the bodies were still being uncovered: “All of our machines that we had in the city’s inventory — excavators and all — were given to the military to dig trenches.”

As the war enters its fourth month and the Ukrainian and Russian casualties amount to thousands dead, it is clear that the trenches have also become graves for many soldiers.

Private Veklenko, a former police officer who joined the Ukrainian army when the war started, estimates that 300 people are buried in the mass grave. “We’ve buried people here who have died since April,” he said.

The tomb is located near a row of hills that now house Ukrainian artillery positions defending the city. The howitzers fired on and on all Thursday morning.

The number of civilian casualties in Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, two cities separated by the Siversky Donets River, is unknown. As Russia tightens control in Sievierodonetsk and shifts its focus to neighboring Lysychansk, there will certainly be more civilian casualties unless Ukrainian forces withdraw.

On Thursday, local officials said at least four people were killed in a Russian airstrike in Lysychansk. The attack took place in the morning, but it took several hours for the news to be posted on the official Telegram channels, highlighting the difficulty of communicating what is happening in the city.

Lysychansk, an industrial city with a pre-war population of 100,000, is largely cut off from the outside world, with no cell phone service or electricity. Local officials estimate that there are still 40,000 people in the city, although the exact number is unknown.

Their reasons for staying include the need to care for elderly relatives and, in some cases, even an unwillingness to part with pets.

“Everyone doesn’t want to give up their home,” said a woman who came out of her home on Thursday to receive supplies from a group of police and soldiers. “And what about cats and dogs? What about the elderly? So we are here.”

“You must have a lot of money to evacuate, to pay the rent,” she continued, using only her first name, Luda. “And they don’t allow pets in the rented apartments. I have two dogs and two cats, how can I abandon them? This is not an option, to cry after them later.”

Two people near her were killed by shelling about a week ago, she said. They were buried in a patch of woods nearby, their graves marked with a cluster of wilting flowers.

In Sievierodonetsk, about 500 civilians have sought shelter in a large chemical plant, while fighting rages in parts of the city where Ukrainian forces still control. Officials estimate that 10,000 civilians remain.

Since the destruction of three bridges connecting the two cities, Ukrainian forces in Sievierodonetsk have not had easy escape routes. On Thursday, there were reports that Ukrainian troops able to cross the river had begun to retreat to defend Lysychansk, which is higher up.

For troops and civilians in Lysychansk, one question lingers: what comes next?

A group of Ukrainian soldiers seeking shelter in the basement of an apartment complex expressed hope that the advanced missile systems promised by the United States would soon arrive. The extended range of the missiles would allow them to hit Russian artillery positions. But until the guns arrive, the soldiers said, the Russian artillery will be relentless.

“An hour feels like a whole day,” said one soldier.

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