Mykolaiv feels like a city with its fate hanging over it.
The port, on Ukraine’s southern Black Sea coast, is in Russia’s sights, as Putin’s forces try and push south and west, cutting off vital access to the sea.
Many of the neighbourhoods are now deserted, either destroyed in shelling or abandoned by residents who have fled to safety in Europe or elsewhere in Ukraine.
Three stray cats stand in front of a stairwell at the entrance of an empty apartment block. A lone dog eyes them from the other side of the door, deciding whether to brave it or not.
Red poppies, a sign of spring and new life, now grow alongside an upturned slide and swings in a forlorn playground now sit absent of the children who once ran around here.
A bath hangs out of a gaping hole on the first floor of a building; it looks like it took a direct hit. There is a smell of gas in the air.
The trains stopped working long ago, petrol stations are now empty and running water has stopped altogether.
The flame at the tomb of an unknown soldier still dances in rain on this gloomy May day – a monument to the soldiers who defended Mykolaiv from the German forces in the Second World War and a source of inspiration for their grandchildren doing the same today.
One of those men is Dimitro, an IT worker until 24 February, now a proud soldier protecting his homeland; he takes us around Mykolaiv’s former City Hall. The building was destroyed when a Russian cruise missile slammed into the fourth floor as people were arriving to work one morning – 36 were killed in the strike.
The debris of a once busy office is everywhere – ring-binders with thousands of sheaves of paper, carpet, dark corridors, once neat records of bureaucracy now scattered on the floor. There are broken chairs and desks, shoes, rugs, a crushed printer and then someone’s blood, still on the walls.
It’s always remarkable what remains intact though – the occasional picture still hanging, bookcases untouched, a telephone set down to one side as if the missile struck mid-conversation.
‘We will stay…we love our homeland’
Two national guard soldiers went to make a cup of tea in the corner of an office, seconds before the missile hit – they both survived. The random fate of war.
Most of those still in Mykolaiv are elderly and unable to escape. Like 83-year-old Liudmyla Suprun, who lives in a small two-room apartment with her sister. We met her filling water bottles for cooking and washing.
“My sister is very sick,” she tells me as we helped her carry bottles back home.
“The roads are being shelled and my sister can’t walk downstairs so we’ve had to stay here. We will stay – we are old and can’t go. We love our homeland, we are Ukrainians.”
‘Putin? He’s sick in the head’
Liudmyla lives on the third floor – it is a struggle for her to get up the stairs, and I can’t help think how little chance she has of getting down to the bunker when missiles strike in the middle of night.
She shares the tiny apartment, just two rooms, with her younger sister who recently fell out of bed and broke her leg. I ask her how she is.
“I’m still creaking,” she laughs, “I now walk with a stick but I don’t leave the house. That’s how we live – quietly creaking!”
I mention Vladimir Putin, “he’s sick in the head,” she says. “Can’t someone just kill him – can’t they remove the sick old man?”
The two sisters will stay here together. They know they very probably might die here together. But whatever happens, they won’t leave Mykolaiv. They only have each other.
That’s the determination and loyalty that Russia is up against.