MARIINKA, Ukraine – Valentina Gordeyeva was waiting for a bus when a rocket came crashing down beside her, spraying fire-hot shrapnel that struck her in the left hand and lower abdomen. She was initially waiting to go to a medical center for a checkup — instead, she ended up at a trauma hospital.
“I ran when I heard the artillery start,” Gordeyeva told BuzzFeed News from her hospital bed in nearby Kurakhove on Friday morning, 24 hours after the attack. She had tried to make it inside a nearby shop but the shrapnel struck her down in the street. “My blood was everywhere,” she said as she fought back tears.
The 65-year-old retired school teacher whose home sits smack on the front line — it was damaged by a rocket eight years ago — said that stress, the pain from her wounds, and the fear of a return to full-scale war were keeping her from sleeping.
“It felt like 2014 and 2015,” said Gordeyeva, referring to the period of Russia’s war against Ukraine when the fighting was the heaviest.
The attack seemed to be part of a coordinated assault by Russia-led forces targeting dozens of locations, including civilian areas and military posts, up and down the 250-mile front line in eastern Ukraine.
In the town of Stanytsia Luhanska, a shell blasted through the wall of a kindergarten, injuring three teachers but none of the 24 children, according to Ukrainian authorities and humanitarian organizations. A secondary school in Vrubivka was also hit and three adults were wounded, the military said. Two Ukrainian soldiers were injured at their positions by the artillery bombardment, the Defense Ministry reported.
And the attacks continued into Friday. BuzzFeed News counted at least 12 artillery explosions in Mariinka in the span of an hour. The hollow swoosh of them being fired was punctuated by the roar of them crashing in the town seconds later.
The outbreak of violence came at a dangerous moment in the deepening crisis between Russia and the West that many fear is edging closer to large-scale war.
President Joe Biden planned to hold talks with other Western leaders Friday in an attempt to find a way to avoid a new Russian invasion of Ukraine. But he told reporters the day before that he believed President Vladimir Putin would likely attack the country “in the next several days.”
At the Munich Security Conference on Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US is “deeply concerned” that Putin has chosen not to seek a diplomatic solution to the standoff.
Russia has built up a force of more than 130,000 troops positioned around Ukraine. And despite Moscow saying it was withdrawing some of them after holding military drills this week, a senior White House official said there was evidence that showed the pullout was a ruse. In fact, the official said, Russia had added another 7,000 soldiers to its forces staged near Ukraine this week and repositioned the troops it had claimed it was withdrawing to other locations nearby.
The assessment appeared to be supported by satellite imagery showing new battle groups and military equipment, including attack aircraft, within striking distance of Ukraine.
On Friday, the US said the Kremlin now had as many as 190,000 troops under its control near the borders of Ukraine, a significant increase in its previous estimates. Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said that included troops under the Kremlin’s control in the occupied eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. He called the collection of forces “the most significant military mobilization in Europe since the Second World War.”
Late Friday, signs that Russia was edging closer to war emerged. The Donetsk forces under Moscow’s control announced they were evacuating residents to Russia’s Rostov region, claiming without evidence that Ukrainian forces were massing nearby and preparing to launch an “offensive.”
Western leaders have warned that Russia would make such proclamations and launch attacks in eastern Ukraine to stage a pretext to invade the country again.
In Mariinka, some residents said they were frightened by the prospect of a return to full-scale war. Oleksandra Sisenko, a city employee who filmed a video of Thursday’s shelling that was shared widely on social media, said she worries about the safety of her daughter, a third-grader attending the school near the place where Gordeyeva was wounded.
“We want peace,” Sisenko said. “We want to build a future.”
At the same time, others said they had become numb to the fighting after eight years of war and don’t believe a peaceful solution can be found. Their stoicism was on display Friday morning.
Masha, 16, practiced singing love songs in the auditorium of the town’s youth center. She said singing helped her forget about the war outside.
Down the hall, 12-year-old twins Veronika and Yeva were hard at work on art projects in a room where rocket shrapnel had shattered a window the day before. The pair didn’t bat an eye as bombs exploded outside. They threaded string through tiny beads to create extravagant necklaces.
They weren’t scared, they said, because the shelling hadn’t happened “in a while” and they weren’t convinced that it would continue or grow worse.
Alina Kosse, an administrator at the Mariinka city youth center, said people in Mariinka want peace but don’t expect it will come soon.
Like animals learn to adapt to any situation, she said, “we have learned to live with war.”