A Ukrainian police officer inspects a half-destroyed building when, suddenly, he rushes to the ground, ducking for cover.
“Incoming,” he shouts to his partner, in body camera video seen by CNN, as a shell lands nearby. “There will be more.”
There’s little to police these days in Avdiivka as most of the people who used to live in this frontline city are gone. But some 1,600 have remained, and this unit — the White Angels — are there to evacuate them to safety.
“On average, we evacuate four people from Avdiivka per day,” Lieutenant Dmytro Soloviy, a member of the unit told CNN in a phone interview.
The city had been left on the frontline when pro-Moscow separatists seized large portion of the Donbas region, including the nearby city of Donetsk, in 2014, and has been under fire since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
But on October 10, Moscow began a concentrated push, sending waves of soldiers and armoured vehicles while also intensifying shelling of the city. The attack on Avdiivka comes as the front lines of the war remain relatively static, with Ukraine’s counteroffensive continuing to move much more slowly than initially anticipated.
Some analysts had initially suggested the Russian move was designed to force Kyiv to divert some of the forces it had been using for its attacks along the southern and eastern front lines, but Ukrainian officials say the goal is actually to make advances while Kyiv is focused elsewhere.
“The situation is tense,” Soloviy said, explaining people can no longer leave on their own, they have to wait to be evacuated. “Because of the increased shelling, people have started to sign up more often (for evacuation).”
Many of Avdiivka’s residents had already fled before the full-scale invasion, leaving the city with a pre-war population of around 30,000.
“Most of the people remaining in the city are elderly, mostly men. They [stayed because] did not want to leave their homes,” Soloviy explained. “Now the situation is grim. Just so you understand, 10-15 bombs are dropped every day.”
Between airstrikes and artillery, supply lines into the city have also slowed down and so Solviy’s unit has had to step in.
“At the moment, we are the only ones bringing in the aid. We bring in humanitarian aid, bread, medicines,” he said. “We go every day, there are no days off.”
“There used to be three grocery stores operating in Avdiivka. Two of them were destroyed by missiles. Now only one sad little grocery store is open,” he added. “There is nowhere to buy bread so once a week, we bring some so people can get bread.”
A battle-hardened city
When people began leaving Avdiivka in 2014, the Ukrainian military moved in, fortifying the city and building up its defenses, turning it into a stronghold. Nine years and a full-scale invasion later and the frontline near Avdiivka has barely shifted.
Video of the White Angels unit driving into the city shows a city covered in yellow and blue. Dozens of Ukrainian flags dot the route, but so do crumbling walls and shattered windows - entire buildings, some several stories high, razed to the ground.
“The situation has not changed radically - it is tough,” the head of the Avdiivka city military administration Vitalii Barabash said in daily update on Wednesday. “The defense line around the city and in the city itself is constantly under fire. (The Russians) are firing with everything they have.”
Airstrikes, missiles and artillery, constantly pointed at the city and its surroundings. Russia has been able to make small gains west of Krasnohorivka, to the north of Aviidvka, but those marginal advances have come with a heavy price tag and Moscow’s still a long way off from its objective.
“Russian troops continue to try to encircle Avdiivka, making numerous attempts to storm it,” the Ukrainian National Guard said in an update Wednesday. “Our soldiers are steadfastly holding the line, inflicting significant losses in manpower and equipment on the enemy.”
On the ground, the fighting constant and fierce.
“Small arms battles and artillery duels continue around the clock,” Barabash explained. “The assault continues 24/7.”
And after losing a large chunk of military equipment, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, in the first few days of the offensive, Russia seems to have shifted to a tactic it knows well, the same it used on Ukrainian forces defending the city of Bakhmut.
“The enemy is assaulting, throwing more and more flesh,” Barabash explained. “The Russians decided to push on, they keep going despite the losses.”
But for those who go to Avdiivka day in and day out, that’s where the comparisons end.
“I don’t think it’s the same as Bakhmut. Avdiivka is a battle-hardened town, it’s been through a lot,” Solviy said. “People there are used to it.”
No building left intact
While Moscow’s strategy has failed to play out as intended, it has still exacted a toll on Avdiivka. The city’s sole hospital is still functional but unable to provide advanced care.
“The hospital operates as a stabilization point. Here patients are stabilized and we further transfer them to other cities, where people are provided with more professional help,” Solviy explained, adding there’s not enough staff for the demand. “There is a chief physician Vitalii Sytnik and up to 10 nurses.”
Aside from the hospital, Avdiivka’s civilian infrastructure is all but gone.
“There is not a single building left intact,” Barabash said on Wednesday, while Solviy shared a similar view.
“Everything is destroyed,” the officer said. “Back in the summer, there were hopes that we might come back. There had not yet been heavy destruction.”
“Now it is an irreversible process. The city is a ruin,” he added.
But while some people remain, Solviy will continue his daily trips to Avdiivka, hoping to ease the suffering and provide some comfort.
“I could have been a regular cop, shuffling papers in my office. I chose to be a White Angel,” he said. “It can be scary. Sometimes the fear just takes over, but then it goes away and I keep going.”
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