(Avdiivka) “When I saw that, I was flabbergasted,” Nadezhda exclaims, passing the gaping and still smoking side of a long bar of an empty 15-storey building, hit the day before by a strike Russian, in Avdiïvka, in eastern Ukraine.

Pounded by artillery and more recently by air force, the city is another “fortress” of Donbass that Russian forces are trying to encircle, like its neighbor Bakhmout, located 60 kilometers further north.

“Every day follows and resembles each other, with these bombs and these missiles,” continues Nadezhda, 70, as she walks back to her house with a neighbor, her arms loaded with bags of food aid.

Russian troops have been trying for months to take Avdiivka, which has been on the frontline since 2014 and the start of the war between Ukrainian forces and Kremlin-led separatists.

Although only 13 km from Donetsk, the Russian-controlled capital of the eponymous region, Avdiivka still had 30,000 inhabitants when the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

After more than a year of conflict, the city has only some 2,300 inhabitants, including 1,960 registered as receiving humanitarian aid, according to Vitaliy Barabash, head of the local military administration.

“Over the past three weeks, with the help of the police and volunteers, we have evacuated about 150 people… We had 47 children in the town, now there are only eight left,” says he told AFP.

Some residents still live in the cellars of buildings in the city center, and others in the houses that spread out by the hundreds in the east of the locality, deprived of water, gas and electricity for months. .

In front of a gutted building, an old man, who does not wish to speak and refuses to be helped, patiently cuts with a saw and an ax the frame of a door and tree branches torn by the wind blowing. ‘an explosion.

His burden put in a bag and placed on his hunched back, he sets out again, with a slow step, his handicapped right leg, helping himself with old wooden crutches wedged under his armpits.

“The situation is only getting worse. Now (the Russians) use X-59, X-101, X-555, C-300. This has never been the case before. They are hitting us with about 10 to 12 missiles a day, even 14,” explains the administrator, citing the names of long-range weapon systems.

“The missiles are getting bigger and bigger, and so is the damage. The buildings are literally collapsing […] They will probably destroy everything here, ”laments Ruslan Surnov, manager of a help center.

“We weren’t really scared before, we got used to GRAD rockets, even though they’re designed to kill people. But now we are bombarded by missiles, we are under attack from the air,” he adds.

When the conflict in Ukraine began in 2014, Avdiivka was captured by separatists, before being retaken by Kyiv forces. Due to its proximity to the front line, it remained one of the hotspots until the outbreak of the invasion last year.

The city is currently one of the two most difficult theaters of combat on the front, along with that of Bakhmout.

North of Avdiivka in June, the Russians cut off one of the two main access roads to the town, and positioned themselves to the east and south.

In recent months, they have advanced and taken the villages of Vodiane and Opytne to the southwest, and Krasnogorivka and Vesselé to the north, as if to take Avdiïvka in a pincer movement, failing to be able to take it frontally.

In the fields bordering the last access road, small black craters left by shell strikes are visible.

For Vitali Barabach, if the missile strikes are “the biggest problem […], obviously another problem is that they keep trying to surround the city”.

However, Avdiïvka does not seem ready to fall.

“The city has been on the front line for more than eight years. It is a very serious line of fortification, all concrete, with bunkers,” explains Ruslan Surnov.

“It’s a real fortress. She is better protected than Bakhmout. Bakhmout mostly has trenches, here we have bunkers,” he continues.

The central hospital was not spared from the strikes either. “On March 8, our canteen was hit,” without causing any injuries, says Vitali Sytnyk, the director of the establishment.

A surgeon is still operating there, but the most seriously injured are transported to other towns.

“Most people come to get medicine, because all the pharmacies are closed”, and some “request sedatives, sleeping pills”, to combat stress, explains Vitali Sytnyk.

Nadezhda has another concern: “We would like to have some rain for the garden. We have to sow already, but the ground is dry […] All these explosions even affect the rain clouds. The result is that we have nothing,” she thinks.