Dnipro, Ukraine – Dnipro, a city on the Dneiper River, has so far seen less intense fighting than other urban centres in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion last week.
Residents in the city of about one million people have been mobilising to help organise humanitarian support for the Ukrainian army and people in need.
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Alya Klueva, 29, is among them. The English-language teacher, along with her partner, David, has been volunteering to help collect essential items, including for her relatives who are trapped in Volnovakha, a city some 300km (186 miles) southeast of Dnipro that has come under intense attacks.
She shared her story with Al Jazeera on Thursday. Her account below has slightly been edited.
“My aunt, cousin and grandma are in Volnovakha. My grandmother is in her 70s, she’s an old lady who lives alone. The street where she lives has been destroyed and we don’t know if she is still at her house. Maybe she’s in the basement but we don’t know if she’s still alive.
“My 40-year-old aunt is also there. She has a son who is a teenager; her husband is away fighting in our army, defending Ukraine. Another cousin called and said the army will let him return home to find her. But there is a problem – it’s almost impossible to enter the city because Russians shoot all the time.
“We have not heard anything from them for days. She was last online on February 26. I messaged her that morning, telling her she should come here to Dnipro and that we could provide them with shelter. She answered: ‘Thank you. We are alive but we can’t leave because they shoot. We don’t have electricity, water or heating.’
“This was her last message.
“Volnovakha is a small, cute city with lots of trees. Most of its residents work for the railway station. Life has been hard for the last eight years because they are close to the front line with the [breakaway region held by pro-Russian separatists] Donetsk People’s Republic. It was always dangerous to live there, but they were safe all of these years.
“My mum’s whole family are from Volnovakha, but many relatives left when the separatist war started [in 2014]. Some even went to Russia because Russian propaganda is very strong here. They watched Russian television in this area and many people did not trust Ukraine as a result.
“We have been calling all the shops to find power banks to send to my family as there is no electricity. We also bought water, snacks, canned corn and pads for women, and also brought blankets, jackets and socks from our house. A volunteer from the Territorial Defence plans to take them there tomorrow by car, but it’s very dangerous.
“Many people in Dnipro have relatives in Volnovakha and are losing their minds with worry. We hope there will be a pause in the fighting for a couple of hours so that somebody can enter the city. People said that children are dying in basements, they don’t have any water, they don’t have food.
“Another cousin, Lena, has been texting me about relatives in Russia. They sent her messages saying things like, ‘We are worried because Ukrainian Nazis shoot Ukraine’s own peaceful citizens who are waving white flags.’ This is absolute nonsense.
“Our relatives [in Russia] don’t believe us about what is happening. Their granddaughters even live in [Ukraine’s capital] Kyiv, they have young girls and they have not left. What do these people think, that Ukraine and the whole of the West is just making this war up? For me, they are brainwashed.
“It was really hard to decide to leave or to stay in Ukraine because I have parents and two little sisters: a teenager and one who is 10 years old. My parents decided to leave and they said I had to also, but I don’t want to separate from David. They packed to go, but then decided to stay anyway. Now we can help protect our city and work in the volunteer centre.
“We realise how serious the situation is. Dnipro is safe at the moment so we can help. If we just stay at home, it doesn’t help anyone. We can’t go to work. Of course, we worry about money. We spend to help others and we don’t know when this will stop.
“I didn’t vote for Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but now I have started to believe in our president. Our losses maybe are bigger than they say, but our president didn’t leave. He stayed here and tried to defend our country. That motivates everyone.
“It’s kind of a paradox that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin tried for years to divide Ukraine, but in the end he’s made us more united.”