She carried a simple bouquet of white lilacs as explosions echoed through the bright spring air. Tears streaked her weathered face, which was framed by a blue scarf.
Nina Mikhailovna came on Monday, as she does every year on May 9, to the eternal flame in a city park that commemorates the Allied victory in World War II. She came to honor the memory of her father, who was killed in 1943, and to remember those who died liberating her native Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine, from the Nazis, whom she remembers forcing her into the fields as a child to cut and harvest wheat.
At nearly 89, Ms Mikhailovna thought she would never witness something as serious as this war with the Germans. But the current war with the Russians is worse, she says.
At least the Germans were enemies.
“These are our people,” she said of the Russian forces, citing the intertwined history and family ties that unite Russia and Ukraine. As she spoke, Russian rockets landed close enough to rumble the ground where she stood.
“My niece lives in Moscow but was born in Sloviansk,” she said, referring to a Ukrainian town a few miles from Kramatorsk. “And now they are sending her husband to fight. What’s he supposed to do, kill his stepmother?
“That’s what’s so hard to bear,” she says.
For decades, Ukrainians and Russians have been linked by their shared experience of World War II. Together they died by the millions under German fire and together they drove the Nazis from their lands. And every year on May 9, when the Soviet Union marked Victory Day, they marched in parades and laid flowers on monuments, always together.
But this year, as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin used the holiday to defend his invasion, praising Russian troops for their “fight for the fatherland”, Ukrainians hid in bomb shelters and fought in trenches and died in air raids, like their grandparents. so many years have passed.
The eastern region of Donbass, which the Kremlin is trying to capture in this war, traditionally sees Moscow as a political and cultural center of gravity, and many residents have close family ties to Russia. The war complicated this relationship. After Mr Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine and started a separatist war in the Donbass in 2014, the government in kyiv removed Soviet symbolism of Victory Day. Ukraine celebrates it simply as a victory over fascism, which some Ukrainians now also associate with Mr Putin’s government.
“We have defeated fascism and we will defeat Ruscism,” said Pavel Kirilenko, the governor of the Donetsk region, who arrived with heavily armed guards to lay flowers in front of the monument.
Mr Kirilenko spoke Ukrainian, but most of those arriving at the monument spoke Russian and expressed unease at the changes Ukrainians had made to what they called “our holiday”, even as they criticized the war and hoped for its end.
“Would you deny the memory of your grandfather? said Sergei Porokhnya, 60, when asked why he had come to the monument to mark the holiday. “Why should I deny the memory of my grandfather, who died after disappearing?”
Throughout Monday morning in Kramatorsk, sirens wailed and the thud of bombs and rockets rocked the city as Russian forces closed in from the north and east. They are not moving as fast as Mr Putin would have liked, but they are now close enough to Kramatorsk, a major industrial center in the Donetsk region, to keep all but the most intrepid, like Mrs Mikhailovna, away from the park which holds the WWII monument.
At a hospital on Monday, ambulances arrived carrying civilians and soldiers injured by the day’s shelling. A 28-year-old soldier named Andriy, pale and shivering in a hospital bed, described a hellish bombardment that morning, which culminated for him when shrapnel split his thigh open and shattered his femur.
“It was obvious that it would happen on May 9,” said Andriy, who worked on a dairy farm in Denmark when the war broke out and returned home to fight. “We were ready for this.”
Another soldier in the hospital, a staff sergeant named Alekandr, showed video on his phone of intense fighting in the town of Rubizhne, about 80 km away. In one, he throws a rocket-propelled grenade at a Russian armored vehicle, which ignites. Like Andriy, he was comfortable providing only his first name, for security reasons.
He said he and his comrades were nearly overrun as they fired grenades and machine guns through the windows of a building. He escaped with a contusion and is ready to return to action as soon as the doctors sign off.
“We are no longer brothers,” he said of both sides. “It sure is painful. Why did my grandfather fight?
While some soldiers have insisted that the rift between Russia and Ukraine is now final, there is ambivalence about the war among residents of this part of Ukraine that can be difficult for strangers.
In Barvinkove, west of Kramatorsk, rockets rained down day and night, destroying homes and forcing all but the most loyal or stubborn to flee. But some people there are less enthusiastic about the ubiquitous Ukrainian troops defending their city against Russian forces coming from the north, said 20-year-old volunteer soldier Bohdan Krynychnyi.
“Here we have problems with the locals,” Krynychnyi said as he took a break from the fighting to buy groceries at the city’s only active market. His call sign is Monk as he abandoned his training at a Ukrainian monastery to join the war. “They are waiting for the Russians here,” he added.
He described entering a house that morning that had been shelled by Russian forces. Inside, he said, he found a Soviet flag and an orange and black St. currently fighting against Ukraine.
Outside the city, the soldiers of the Ukrainian 93rd Mechanized Brigade celebrated their own victory. They had recently acquired an almost new self-propelled artillery piece with modern Russian firing and targeting technology and were learning to use it. The large armored vehicle, which can fire shells with high accuracy up to 20 kilometers away, had been abandoned by its Russian crew during a Ukrainian attack, said Major Serhii Krutikov, the deputy commander.
“We are using their weapons against them,” Major Krutikov said. “We don’t have this type of equipment in Ukraine.”
For Maria Mefodyevna, a 93-year-old Barvinkove resident who also remembers the arrival of the Nazis during World War II, all that matters is that the shooting stops. His house on a residential street is riddled with shrapnel. Her husband and sons are dead and she is alone.
“I just want the war to end,” she said, standing uncomfortably in her living room, wearing a blue floral dress and a headscarf. “I only have a short time to live, and of course I want to see who wins.”