She ran holding her soup ladle from the wood-burning stove set up by trapped residents a few meters from their door and dove into the basement to escape the mortar blast.
The whistling shell ripped a hole in the nearby building in besieged Severodonetsk in Ukraine so large that loose pieces of brickwork began raining down on the backyard, connecting several war-destroyed apartment buildings.
The heavy hail shattered windshields and dented awnings before stopping.
A few of the bravest locals poked their heads through the metal door of their battered entrance to see if it was safe to finish cooking their meal.
But then another mortar shell crashed more or less in the same place with a devastating crash.
And then another – and then more erupted like clockwork every few seconds in residential neighborhoods of an industrial city turned into a raging battlefield in the third month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s been like this for four or five days,” said schoolteacher Tamara Nesterenko, cautiously returning to the makeshift kitchen in a ghost town that has been without running water, gas and electricity for weeks.
Three cooking pots were simmering gently with soup and potatoes for the 27 residents living underground in darkness for much of the past month.
“We don’t even know who is shooting or from where,” the 55-year-old said.
“It’s like they’re playing a game.”
– Moans and prayers –
The remaining residents of one of eastern Ukraine’s main chemical manufacturing centers – once a city of 100,000 people built by the Soviets from the ashes of World War II – are afraid to do more than a few steps in front of their front door.
Tanks belch fumes of anger as they rumble through the debris-strewn streets and spin their turrets on more or less anything that moves.
Frightened-looking men patrolling the city’s military checkpoints open fire on cars that don’t slow down.
Artillery shells passing through the fiercest battle-ridden eastern quarters often explode without warning because they are fired at such a short distance.
Those firing at longer ranges emit a rippling whine as they fly over a city in a permanent state of war.
Nella Kashkina sat in the basement next to an oil lamp and prayed.
“I don’t know how long we can hold out,” the 65-year-old former city worker said.
“We’re out of medicine and a lot of sick people — sick women — need medicine. There’s just no medicine at all.”
– ‘Run and hide’ –
Flickering flames from wood-burning stoves betray the only signs of civilian life in the new epicenter of Russia’s assault on its pro-Western neighbor.
Severodonetsk and its sister city Lysychansk constitute the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the smaller of the two regions comprising the Donbass war zone.
Russian forces have surrounded the two – separated by a river marking a central front in the war – and are bombarding them with fire in an apparent effort to wear down their resistance and deprive them of supplies.
Lysychansk still has a southwestern route that Ukrainian forces use to transport reinforcements and humanitarian aid.
Severodonetsk’s only link to government-held land is a bridge to Lysychansk which neither side seems to want to blow up – but whose surroundings are bombarded around the clock.
The bridge allows residents of Lysychansk to send trucks with water that their neighbors in Severodonetsk can pick up at specific meeting points.
“There is always a long wait for water… Can you imagine waiting outside under this fire,” asked Anna Poladyuk, a retired doctor.
“You just run and hide, run and hide.”
– Suffering city –
Klaudia Pushnir sobbed silently on the side of her basement mattress reminiscent of her youth.
The 88-year-old was sent to Lysychansk as a student to help build a vibrant new city that could showcase the Soviet Union’s post-war might as it began its clash with the West .
“It was like we were building something new. There was so much joy in the city. So many young people. We got apartments to help build the city,” she recalls with a hint of a smile.
“Now my children’s apartment is in ruins, my apartment is in ruins and the whole town is suffering.”
The golden glow of the oil lamp outlined the silhouettes of people wrapped in blankets in the four corners of the room.
Someone put a consoling hand around the grandmother’s shoulder. Another explosion echoed through the intertwining rooms of the basement.
“We’re sitting here not knowing what’s going to happen. But I’m probably going to die here,” she sobbed.