DONETSK PROVINCE, Ukraine — In the distance echoed the rumbles of artillery pounding the beleaguered eastern Ukraine, but it was the screams of children playing one recent afternoon that echoed across the frontline yard.
The scene spoke of the grim choice facing residents after President Volodymyr Zelensky this weekend called for a mandatory evacuation of the region and ordered hundreds of thousands of civilians in eastern Ukraine to leave their homes.
“We could go,” said Natasha, a 46-year-old mother of six, as she spoke of the noise of war with unwavering calm. “But how would we make money? And I have children to feed.”
Mr Zelensky’s evacuation announcement is the most comprehensive government directive issued so far in the war, after months of relentless Russian bombing destroyed heat and electricity supply infrastructure in eastern Ukraine. Russian forces are now stepping up their offensive in Donetsk province after taking almost all of neighboring Luhansk.
Fighting is also escalating in southern Ukraine ahead of an expected Ukrainian offensive, and shelling is also increasing in regions along its northern border.
In Mykolaiv, the southern city that faced heavy Russian bombardment early in the invasion, officials said a hotel, a sports complex, two schools and dozens of houses were in ruins after Russian shelling early on Sunday. Officials described it as the worst shelling there yet — a remarkable assessment given the beating the city had already endured.
Emergency services racing between the explosion sites in Mykolaiv were still trying to determine the number of victims, but one of Ukraine’s richest businessmen, Oleksiy Vadaturskyi, and his wife are said to be among the dead.
Vadaturskyi’s company, Nibulon, which confirmed the deaths, has built storage facilities and other infrastructure needed to export grain. He was killed when the first shipments of grain since the beginning of the war were loaded onto freighters after a blockade of months in the Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea.
It was not clear whether Mr Vadaturskyi was directly targeted or if he, like many other civilians killed by Russian bombs, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Our coverage of the war between Russia and Ukraine
Also on Sunday, Moscow accused Ukraine of being behind a drone attack on the Black Sea Fleet headquarters in occupied Crimea, and Ukrainian officials said there was mounting evidence that a deadly explosion in a Russian penal colony last week was ordered and carried out by Russian troops.
In Donetsk, Ukrainian authorities said Mr Zelensky’s evacuation order this weekend was an attempt to both save civilian lives and free up valuable resources for an escalation of the coming fighting.
“The sooner it’s done, the more people leave the Donetsk region now, the fewer people the Russian army will have time to kill,” said Mr. Zelensky in his late night speech on Saturday.
The directive aims to give local officials more time to move civilians, ease pressure on beleaguered emergency services and help the government get ahead of what it fears could turn into an unmanageable crisis in the coming months.
The Russians control about 60 percent of Donetsk province, and Ukrainian officials have warned that Moscow will step up its efforts to take the rest of the province as it plans to annex parts of Ukraine.
Iryna Vereshchuk, a deputy prime minister of Ukraine, said as many as 200,000 people had to leave the region and warned that there would be no heat or gas supply in Donetsk this winter due to Russia’s destruction of gas pipelines.
Hoping to alleviate the economic concerns of those hesitant to leave, Mr. Zelensky that the government would help the people logistically and financially. Natasha and her family know those economic concerns all too well.
She and her husband, Oleh, 49, are the only couple with children left in their village just a few miles from Russian positions in eastern Ukraine. Their dilemma reflects the precarious situation of rural Donetsk families who cling to their self-sufficiency even as the war threatens to engulf them.
The couple, who asked not to publish their last names to avoid retaliation, both lost their jobs when the nearby factories closed five months ago due to the outbreak of war, and have struggled to make ends meet ever since.
Government services in the area have largely ceased, and Natasha became the family’s main breadwinner as neighbors fled, entrusting their homes and dairy cows to her. She gets up at 4:30 am every morning to milk the cows, and she has taught herself how to make sour cream and cottage cheese, which she sells at the nearby town market.
But customer numbers are dwindling as Russian missiles hit the area with increasing intensity. “We had to manage it our own way,” Natasha said.
The family has been through the war before. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists seized parts of Donetsk and their house was destroyed in the fighting that followed. The separatists evacuated the family, with the four children they had then, to Crimea. Later they were moved to Russia.
Some of their friends who had also been evacuated remained in Russia and acquired Russian citizenship, but Natasha and Oleh decided to return home, where the Red Cross helped rebuild their home.
“I wanted to eat sala and our own apricots,” she said. Sala, or lard, on a slice of bread, is a favorite Ukrainian staple.
Two more children joined and by this fall they should all be in school, Natasha said. But the school has now also been suspended.
“I don’t know what it will all be like,” Natasha said. “The teacher called. She said she might learn them over the phone.”
Elsewhere, Moscow on Sunday accused Ukraine of being behind an improvised drone attack on naval headquarters in the occupied Crimean port city of Sevastopol. The strike caused a handful of injuries and minimal damage, but it was highly symbolic, coming on Russian Naval Day and forcing the cancellation of naval celebrations.
The Ukrainian military denied responsibility for Sunday’s drone strike, but also argued that Russian military facilities in Crimea were legitimate targets. “We do not carry out strikes on the territory of the Russian Federation,” he said. “Crimea is Ukraine.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was considered illegal by most of the international community. Now Moscow is taking steps over recently seized territory to host “referendums” similar to those that led to the annexation of Crimea, and otherwise take steps to assimilate the population.
Russian-appointed drivers have handed out Russian passports, cell phone numbers and set-top boxes to watch Russian television. They have replaced the Ukrainian currency with the ruble, rerouted the internet through Russian servers and arrested hundreds of people who resisted assimilation.
Also on Sunday, Ukrainian officials cited recently released satellite photos as further evidence that a deadly explosion in a Russian penal colony last week was not the result of a Ukrainian missile strike, as Russia claimed, but the work of the Russian armed forces themselves.
The blast, at a camp in the Russian-controlled territory of eastern Ukraine, killed at least 50 Ukrainian prisoners of war, many considered national heroes after being captured during a siege of a steel mill in the coastal city of Mariupol.
Since the explosion late Thursday, both sides have exchanged allegations about the source of the explosion. Although Russia’s defense ministry said on Sunday it would give the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations access to the penal colony, neither organization confirmed the claim.
The Red Cross said in a statement on Sunday that it has not received confirmation from Russia that it is allowed to visit. There was no immediate comment from the UN, which has said it is ready to send experts for an investigation if both sides agree.
Carlotta Gall reported from Donetsk, and Erika Solomon from Berlin.