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Ukrainian civilians grapple with heart-wrenching decisions as Russian forces surround Bakhmut

Russian forces surround Bakhmut, Ukraine
Ukraine fights to keep Bakhmut as Russian forces surround the city 04:47

Chasiv Yar, Ukraine — Ukrainian and Russian forces are now fighting just yards apart in the streets of Bakhmut. The horrors of the war in the front-line city have been described as "hell on Earth." Russian troops and mercenaries from the Wagner Group have encircled the industrial town on the edge of Russian-held territory on three sides, but Ukrainian forces are putting up a fierce resistance — and both sides are suffering enormous losses. 

Only about 10% of the roughly 70,000 civilians who used to live in Bakhmut are still thought to be eking out to an existence there — barely surviving amid the ruins without reliable heat, water or electricity supplies. The fear is that Moscow, with its spring offensive, will try to not only take the whole of the city, but to push further west beyond it.

Just a few miles past Bakhmut in Ukrainian-held territory, sits Chasiv Yar. The once sleepy town has become a garrison, and it's already firmly in the Kremlin's cross-hairs. The residents and Ukrainian troops there know if Bakhmut does fall, they're next.

Bahkmut sees intense fighting as Ukrainian soldiers try to hold off Russian forces 01:56

Life in Chasiv Yar has become an unrelenting misery. Every other minute the sound of shelling thunders through the streets. Tanks rattle buildings as Ukrainian forces race to and from the nearby front line. 

Antonina, 85, has spent her entire life in Chasiv Yar. We asked her how she was coping with the constant sound of shelling from the war on her doorstep.

"We are used to it now. We are used to hearing them shell every day and night," she told CBS News. "Whenever I leave my home, I pray to God. I pray I can get some bread and not get killed along the way." 

Antonina, 85, speaks with CBS News in her hometown of Chasiv Yar, eastern Ukraine, in early March 2023. CBS News/Agnes Reau

Antonina survived the horrors of World War II, and she never expected to live through such hardship again — least of all at the hands of her neighbor to the east.

"We never thought that Putin will come to us with war," she said. "I lived through the second world war. I survived it when I was still small… It was hard but we survived. Who would have thought that in 70 years, there would be war again."

Antonina appeared resigned to her fate.

"I am now 85. What can I fear now? We are going to die either of natural causes or we are going to get killed," she said. "We are scared, but what does that give us if we can't do anything about it?"

"We are not going to evacuate," Antonina told us. "We don't have money and we don't have anyone to go to."

For many of Antonina's neighbors who've remained in the town, staying in Chasiv Yar has been an act of faith. But with every passing day, that faith is starting to waver.

Daniel Wilk, left, a Canadian national volunteering at a humanitarian aid center in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, speaks with CBS News correspondent Imtiaz Tyab in early March 2023. CBS News/Agnes Reau

At an aid center, locals have been encouraged to evacuate while they can. Daniel Wilk, a Canadian volunteer, has been among those helping evacuate civilians to safer areas.   

"I pretty much just try to get them out of the range of artillery," he told us as more booms echoed through Chasiv Yar's streets. "If Bakhmut falls, this place will be destroyed." 

Wilk has been rescuing people in Ukraine for more than seven months. He told CBS News he'd spent all his money and his mission was now reliant solely on donations, but he was determined to keep going. 

"It's the job" he said. "What else am I going to do? Of course, not everybody that I've got out would be dead, but many of these people would be dead or seriously injured by now."  

Inside the aid center, Sasha and Ludmila, who've been married for 46 years, were waiting for help. Sasha said his health was deteriorating fast, and he was also ready to get out.

"I don't feel well, I have a disability. I cannot sleep at night. I am walking around the house and I feel so bad, and I feel myself weakening," he told CBS News. "There is no water, no electricity, and no heat… It's scary to live — I don't even live here, I suffer here."

Sasha and his wife Ludmila speak with CBS News at a humanitarian aid center in Chasiv Yar, eastern Ukraine, in early March 2023. CBS News/Agnes Reau

He made his decision, but Ludmila just couldn't bring herself to abandon her life in Chasiv Yar. She cried as she told us that she supported her husband's decision to go, but she was staying put.

"It's hard," she said. "I will survive. I am strong." 

But as the couple made their way to the car that was to take Sasha to safety near the capital Kyiv, it was too much for his wife to bear. 

Ludmila and her husband Sasha speak with CBS News in Chasiv Yar, eastern Ukraine, along with one of the many animals that Ludmila looks after, in early March 2023. CBS News/Agnes Reau

"Don't cry," he told her. "You should come with me." He tried to evacuate twice before, but couldn't leave his wife behind. This time, he went.

Ludmila stayed behind. She said she had to keep caring for cats and dogs that have come to rely on her.

"He's [Sasha] is going to good hands, and there are good people in the Kyiv region. I will survive, I'm sure," Ludmila said, explaining that she couldn't live with herself if she left the animals in the town to fend for themselves. "I am not going to leave them. I judge the people who left their pets at home when escaping. I have bags full of cat food that I take around and feed them. They now know me, and they greet me. I can't betray them."

In Chasiv Yar, what once might have seemed like a small sacrifice, is now one of life or death.

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