In the eastern Ukrainian town of Volnovakha, remaining civilians huddle in basements under near-constant bombardment from surrounding Russian and separatist forces.
"The town is being destroyed," one resident wrote to RFE/RL's Donbas.Realities on February 27. "Direct hits to the hospital. Houses are burning. Looters are thriving -- they steal groceries, mobile phones, appliances. Residents are in basements, completely cut off from information. There is no light, water, heat, or telephone connection."
Volnovakha, with a prewar population of about 21,000, lies in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region, about 65 kilometers southwest of the regional capital, Donetsk, and on the front line between Ukrainian forces and the combined arms of the Moscow-backed separatists and their Russian military allies. It has been the scene of intense fighting since February 27.
"Private homes and apartment buildings, infrastructure facilities, and a hospital were severely damaged by the occupiers' shelling," the Kyiv-appointed head of the Donetsk regional administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, told RFE/RL. "The town is blocked by the enemy," he added. "It is impossible to evacuate the population or even bring people bread and water.... I appeal to international humanitarian organizations to help the city."
Volunteers In Yellow Armbands
Meanwhile, some 700 kilometers to the west, the Black Sea port city of Odesa has seen little action in the first days of Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. But it is impossible to escape the preparations for war. On the morning of February 28, a radio announcer advised residents which parts of an armored vehicle to target with Molotov cocktails: "Windows, wheels, hatches," the voice said.
Ukraine's third-largest city, with a population just over 1 million, Odesa is known as "the pearl of the Black Sea," and it has a rich cultural history to match the moniker. In Russian imperial times and in the Soviet era, people knew it as the country's "southern capital."
A few rockets landed in the city on February 24, the first day of Russia's invasion. Since then, residents have heard only occasional small-arms fire or bursts from anti-aircraft emplacements. The Buyalik airfield, some 100 kilometers north of the city, has been shelled.
On February 28, the city center was deserted of people, but populated by anti-tank hedgehogs, concrete barriers, and other military preparations. Volunteers in yellow armbands hustled the few pedestrians out of the area, while others handed out coffee and snacks to soldiers.
"People are armed," said local civil-defense coordinator Serhiy Bratchuk. "People are carrying out their tasks in full cooperation with the armed forces of Ukraine, the National Police, the Security Service, border guards, and local authorities. We face threats from the sea and the air."
Bratchuk and his volunteers coordinated donations of food, medicine, and other necessities brought in by local residents. Timur Nishnaianidze, a former Georgian consul-general in the city, carried an automatic rifle as he enlisted recruits in a volunteer detachment.
Most cafes, bars, and restaurants in Odesa are closed. Each day, more roads into the city are blocked and new checkpoints pop up. There is a 7 p.m. curfew.
'We Need Help'
Back in Volnovakha, locals use the Telegram app to search for missing relatives. On February 28, there was a report of a 12-year-old girl trapped alive in the basement of a collapsed building.
"Since yesterday the Russian Army has been shelling my hometown of Volnovkha," Lilia Filonenko wrote on Instagram on February 27. "People are without electricity, water, and heat. No telephones. They are bombing.... Civilians are being killed. There are corpses in the streets."
"We need help," she pleaded.
The Volnovakha district administration has said there is no opportunity to evacuate citizens or wounded from the besieged town. "We know about the terrible situation and about the shelling," the administration said in a statement. "We understand the situation you are in now. But unfortunately, there is no possibility of a 'green corridor' for the mass evacuation of the population. As soon as it is possible to evacuate people safely, we will do it."
Saboteurs And Symbolism
Near Odesa on February 27, border guards reportedly intercepted "a sabotage and reconnaissance group" in two civilian vehicles. Land mines, grenade launchers, and automatic rifles were reportedly seized.
On February 25, the Ukrainian military reported killing 25 Russian paratroopers and sinking a Russian boat near Koblevo beach on the eastern edge of the city. Bratchuk said some of the purported saboteurs had come into Ukraine from the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester, a Russian-backed enclave about 50 kilometers to the northwest.
WATCH: Kyiv residents lined up on February 28 to receive weapons to help defend the Ukrainian capital from Russian troops.
The headquarters of the 122nd Territorial Defense Brigade is located in Odesa. It is responsible for guarding infrastructure facilities throughout the region and helping police and the armed forces combat saboteurs. An RFE/RL correspondent reported seeing long lines of people waiting to enlist at the unit's reception center.
"Volunteers help to organize the lives of the soldiers," said Oleksiy Chorniy, head of the brigade's volunteer headquarters. "They provide them with food and other material that the state has not sent yet.... There is a huge number of people helping out.... I have never seen such a thing before."
Local hospital volunteer Andriy Tantsyura told RFE/RL that as of February 26, 14 wounded soldiers had been brought to the Odesa Military Hospital. RFE/RL was not able to confirm that information.
Volunteer coordinator Bratchuk says that Odesa, because of the prominent role it played in the Russian Empire, has always been a key part of Russian nationalists' plans to carve the so-called Novorossia out of eastern and southern Ukraine.
"I think the occupiers have a sense of symbolism," he said of the invading Russians. "They consider Odesa a symbol of the empire...and probably planned to come here as 'liberators.' But...we think that the formation of our defense has confused their plans for a landing. They have begun to understand that no one is waiting to welcome them."