On the road in eastern Ukraine, everywhere is the front line

Al Jazeera witnesses the scramble to defend eastern Ukrainian cities as Russian forces close in.

Empty streets of Mariupol on Feb 26, 2022.
Empty streets of Mariupol on February 26 [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

Mariupol and Dnipro, Ukraine – On the morning we intend to leave Mariupol, it’s not yet clear if it’s possible to get out – there are reports the city has been surrounded by Russian forces and artillery attacks reverberate through the grey sky like thunder.

I had been in Mariupol for almost one month, but after Russia crossed the border on February 24, it was not so much a matter of if the port city in eastern Ukraine would be targeted in the advance, but when.

The city is key to President Vladimir Putin’s plans to establish a land corridor between Russia, breakaway territories in the Donbas region, and annexed Crimea. Cargo that passes through the port is key to Ukraine’s economy.

Mariupol’s eastern suburbs, 10km (six miles) from the front line with Russian-backed separatists, have already suffered years of violence, but during the last week, Russian troops have moved in from every direction and the area has been pounded incessantly with rockets and other projectiles.

Each day, the fighting on the outskirts of the city moves closer to the centre, the cracks and booms growing louder.

A school is destroyed. People watch from the window as burning orange flashes fly through the sky, wondering if their building is next.

The city has suffered casualties, although an exact figure is not clear.

At the city’s main hospital, I interview generous-hearted Ukrainians donating blood for the injured.

New military checkpoints spring up seemingly in moments, blocking roads with hastily felled trees, while a petrol station attendant advises my car full of journalists to leave and get far as far away as possible as it hurriedly shuts its doors, presumably expecting an imminent attack.

There is often no electricity, no heat and no internet. Friends I’ve never heard swear before start cursing.

This region speaks mostly Russian, many have relatives in Russia – the killings are a crime that is hard to compute.

Ukrainians now face a terrible choice: stay and face weeks, perhaps months, of deadly assault, or try to leave for the uncertainty of dangerous open roads and a life displaced.

But trains and buses out of Mariupol have stopped and for many, the window to escape safely may have already gone.

A translator, sick of nights in dusty bunkers, plans to come with us if we go but then can’t bring herself to leave her parents behind. They don’t have the paperwork they might need later, especially if they need to flee the country, and her father is of fighting age – it’s uncertain if he can travel.

On Friday, a soldier at the front sends me a message: “We barely got out alive yesterday. We have pulled back.”

“Welcome Russia!” a neighbour cried into the night sky as we debated whether to stay or go. What happens in a city surrounded by enemy troops if some residents want them there, but most do not? Stories of Russian saboteurs abound across the country, but are even more potent in a city that was once considered pro-Russian.

It was another uncertainty we did not want to risk.

As we drive out of the city on Sunday, I and a small group of two photographers, including Emre Caylak – also working for Al Jazeera, and a radio journalist, notice that a mural of the trident coat of arms of Ukraine has been crossed out with graffiti.

We are privileged in having the means to escape; we drive out from the northeast and are allowed to leave, even though there are rumours that Ukrainians who tried to were not. “Watch out for mines,” the checkpoint guard soldier tells us.

The landscape of flat, open agricultural fields feels both a comfort – we can see for hundreds of metres all around as – and a curse for its lack of shelter. The road is littered with burned-out cars, churned up mud from the tracks of tanks and all along soldiers are setting up new checkpoints.

As we pass cities, troops prepare to defend them, scrambling to dig new trenches. On the outskirts, villagers take down road signs to confuse Russian troops. Iron anti-tank barriers known as Czech hedgehogs are scattered everywhere.

Ukranians taking of road signs. Fen 27, 2022.
Ukrainians taking down road signs to confuse Russian forces [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

To our south, Melitopol and Berdyansk have reportedly been occupied by Russian forces. We are heading for industrial hub Dnipro, approximately 300km (186 miles) from Mariupol on the western side of the Dneiper river that marks the start of eastern Ukraine.

So far the city has mercifully seen less violence than Kharkiv to its north, where attacks – allegedly with cluster bombs – have been called war crimes by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

However, some military experts believe there is a plan to take cities to the north and south of Dnipro, before sweeping down to cut off the east up to the border with Russia.

Passing through the country, it is clear to us that nowhere is safe in this war, and everywhere is the front line.

As we skim the city of Tomak, we get a call to say it has likely been occupied. The stress of the situation has everyone paranoid – we stop for coffee and to take a picture and a woman demands we show our ID.

In Zaporizhzhia, we get petrol and there’s a news flash that the Russians are moving in on the city’s nuclear power station. Nowhere did we see more frantic attempts to fortify the city than here.

Arriving into Dnipro after hours of travelling and checkpoints, we can finally breathe again. It is a city of grand Soviet buildings and open streets, and while Mariupol felt suspicious and stifling, Dnipro has united in efforts to coordinate humanitarian aid to others.

We see people collecting food, water, clothing, and even making Molotov cocktails to throw at tanks.

Identities change before your eyes, as people acquire new labels that could define their future: volunteer, refugee, soldier, widow.

It’s only days since the start of this terrible war, but it feels like it has been months. Time has become lost in a stream of phone notifications, each one could bring news of more disaster, while every loud noise is a possible attack.

Days no longer have the same structure – instead of time for work and time for rest, they are divided by sirens and no sirens; before curfew and after.

Makeshift bomb shelters in places that long served as storage for broken furniture and knick-knacks are now a lifeline, with residents filing in to check long-ignored electricity cables and put in light bulbs, and to sweep away huge, draping cobwebs and years of accumulated dust.

By 9:30pm on our first night in Dnipro, the sirens sound for the sixth time and we head into our hotel’s shelter again.

A child works on his homework, practising reading aloud, learning literacy skills for a future I desperately hope will be peaceful.

Source: Al Jazeera