SEVERODONETSK, UKRAINE (AFP) – She ran, clutching her soup ladle from the wood-fired stove set up by trapped residents metres from their doorstep, and dived into the basement to escape the mortar blast.
The whistling shell blew a hole in the nearby building of Ukraine’s besieged Severodonetsk so big that loose chunks of brick began raining down on the backyard, linking several war-shattered apartment blocks.
The heavy hail smashed windshields and left dents in awnings before coming to a merciful stop.
A few of the braver residents poked their heads around the metal door of their battered entrance to see if it was safe to finish cooking their meal.
But then another mortar shell smashed into more or less the same spot with a devastating bang.
And then another – and then more exploded like clockwork every few seconds across residential districts of an industrial city transformed into a raging battlefield in the third month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It has been like this for four or five days,” school teacher Tamara Nesterenko said, cautiously making her way back to the makeshift kitchen in a ghostly city devoid of running water, gas and power for weeks.
Three pots gently simmered with soup and potatoes for the 27 residents living below ground in the dark for much of the past month.
“We do not even know who is firing or from where,” said the 55-year-old.
“It is like they are playing a game.”
The remaining residents of one of east Ukraine’s main chemical manufacturing centres – once a city of 100,000 built by the Soviets from the ashes of World War II – are afraid to take more than a few steps outside their front door.
Tanks spit angry fumes as they rumble across debris-strewn streets and spin their turrets at more or less anything that moves.
Frightened-looking men patrolling the city’s military checkpoints open fire at cars that fail to slow to a crawl.
The artillery shells flying across eastern districts gripped by the fiercest battles often explode without warning because they are being fired at such close range.