On Sunday, the sounds of clashes boomed out along the road to Bilohorivka. As Ukrainian and Russian forces traded missiles and artillery fire, soldiers urged civilian cars to turn back.
About 90 people were hiding in the basement of the Bilohorivka school when it was attacked, according to Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region. But some civilians evacuated from the rubble put the number lower, saying that, in their basement at least, there had been 37 people sheltering.
“There are only twelve of us left alive,” said one of four patients interviewed by Washington Post reporters as they left a hospital in the town of Bakhmut.
“We’d been inside that basement for a month,” said a 57-year-old woman, who gave her name as Irena. Her neck and face were swollen. “We were eating dinner when it happened. We didn’t know what hit us.”
Haidai said that thirty people were rescued Saturday, seven of them wounded, and that two bodies were also found in the rubble. He said it was likely that all 60 people buried under the rubble are dead. Rescue workers battled for nearly four hours to extinguish a fire caused by a bomb from a Russian plane, he added.
Writing on his Telegram channel on Sunday, Haidai condemned the “cynical” attack on “a school with a bomb shelter.” The Washington Post could not verify the accuracy of the assertions.
Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have at times used empty schools as bases.
The attack on the school came amid growing fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin may use Monday’s Victory Day holiday to unleash, even temporarily, an even harsher assault on Ukraine.
Russia is focusing its efforts on taking more territory in eastern Ukraine, where conflict between the Ukrainian army and Russia-backed separatists began in 2014.
Putin “just wants something to tell his people tomorrow,” a member of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“They’re trying hard to take these towns,” he said.
Fighting raged across Luhansk on Sunday, as Russian forces tried to encircle the towns of Lysychansk and Severedonetsk. As reporters drove toward the area, plumes of smoke hung on the horizon.
When an artillery shell slammed into a nearby field, a civilian van in camouflage sped out through the dust cloud it produced. From inside the vehicle, a soldier gesticulated wildly at cars driving in the other direction, imploring them to turn around.
The head of the Russian republic of Chechnya said Sunday that his soldiers have captured most of the eastern Ukrainian city of Popasna, while Ukrainian officials insisted the fight is not over.
“The soldiers of the Chechen special forces … have taken most of Popasna under control,” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov wrote on his Telegram channel. “The main streets and central districts of the city have been completely cleared.”
Haidai said in an update Sunday said that Ukraine’s troops have retreated from Popasna to more secure battlefield positions. “Our troops have withdrawn from Popasna,” he wrote on Telegram. “The Armed Forces of Ukraine are now in a stronger position, which they prepared beforehand.” The Washington Post could not verify the accuracy of either side’s assertions.
In Shipilove, a village in eastern Ukraine close to where the school was struck, at least 11 people were believed to be trapped after Russian bombardment struck a building, Haidai also said Sunday on his Telegram channel.
The group was hiding in a basement when the attack occurred, but he said “that they could be rescued.” The Washington Post was not able to immediately verify the reports.
On a Victory Day without victory, Putin faces choice over all-out war
Although Moscow’s forces appeared to be trying to consolidate their hold on parts of eastern Ukraine seized after their Feb. 24 invasion, progress has slowed in recent weeks and they have lost territory in the region around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry condemned the attack on the school as a “brutal war crime” and accused Moscow of “constantly repeating the tragedy of World War II.”
Ukraine on Sunday commemorated the end of World War II in Europe along with other nations. President Volodymyr Zelensky said that after decades of peace, “evil has returned” following Russia’s invasion.
Pannett reported from Sydney and Hassan from London. Meryl Kornfield in Washington, Victoria Bissett and Annabelle Timsit in London and Annabelle Chapman in Paris contributed to this report.