Latest news on the war between Russia and Ukraine: live updates

Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

DONETSK PROVINCE, Ukraine — Artillery shells sounded in the distance, but the noise from a home’s yard near the front last week came from the screams of children playing.

Even as the war loomed, Natasha, a 46-year-old mother of six, said she had no intention of giving up and leaving, but instead focused on keeping home and home together.

“We could go,” he said, adding that Ukrainian soldiers stationed nearby had suggested he evacuate the family. “But how would we make money? And I have children to feed.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he is preparing a mandatory evacuation for civilians in the fiercest fighting areas in Donetsk province, saying hundreds of thousands of people, including tens of thousands of children, must leave immediately.

Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, said some 200,000 people had to leave the region because there would be no heating or gas supply in Donetsk this winter due to the destruction of gas pipelines by the Russians.

Natasha and her husband, Oleh, 49, are the only couple with children left in their hilltop village a few kilometers from Russian positions in eastern Ukraine. But their dilemma is similar to that of many rural families. For the children who still live in the towns and cities along this stretch of Donetsk province, life is a precarious and self-sufficient existence as war threatens to end them.

In the countryside, children show up unexpectedly, on their bikes, fetching water or swinging a bag of produce given out by a charity. In the villages, they accompany their parents to the store, their faces pale and tired after days sheltering in cellars.

Natasha and Oleh have five sons and one daughter: Tolik, 14, Sasha, 12, Vova, 11, Nastya, 9, Kostya, 7, and Yarik, 6. Both lost their jobs when nearby factories closed with the start of the war. five months ago, and since then they have had trouble making ends meet. They asked that their last name not be published to avoid future reprisals.

Government services in the area have largely ceased. Child support in Ukraine pays only children under the age of 3, so the family is no longer eligible for assistance, Natasha said.

“We had to make do with our own devices,” he said.

Natasha became the main breadwinner for the family when neighbors fled the war and left their home and dairy cows in her care.

She and her older children are now accomplished dairy farmers. Tolik and Vova parted ways with the family’s cell phone to fetch the cows one recent afternoon from the grassy hillside next to the village. Natasha tied up the cows and Vova hooked up the battery-powered milking machine.

She gets up at 4:30 every morning to milk the cows and has taught herself to make sour cream and cottage cheese, which she sells at the nearby town market.

There is no bus service into town anymore, so he walks all the way most days, leaving at 6:30am to arrive at 8.

Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

In town, she sits under the trees on a sidewalk with a group of women selling homemade cakes and fruit and vegetables from their gardens. But customers are dwindling as Russian rocket attacks have hit the city with increasing intensity.

This fall, with the youngest, Yarik, turning 6, all the children were required to be in school, Natasha said.

Instead, with education severely disrupted for two years during the pandemic, children had only started returning for two-week shifts last fall. Then the war broke out and classes were suspended again.

Aside from schooling, the children seem little affected by the war, he said.

“The little ones are not afraid of anything,” he said. They have basements in both houses to use as bomb shelters, but keeping the kids inside isn’t easy. “I yell at them to hide, but as soon as a helicopter flies by, they come out. It’s interesting for them.”

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