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Report from the Donbas: Shelling Intensifies in Severodonetsk as Russia Moves to Capture Key City

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Image Credit: Courtesy: William Nessen

Heavy fighting is continuing in eastern Ukraine as Russia attempts to seize the entire Donbas region, where fighting began in 2014. We speak to independent journalist Billy Nessen, who just left the city of Severodonetsk, where Russian shelling has exponentially increased. He says a possible Russian capture of Severodonetsk would be a “big propaganda victory for Russia,” but predicts that Ukrainians are not yet at the point where they are willing to concede.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

Heavy fighting is continuing in the eastern part of Ukraine as Russia attempts to seize the entire Donbas region, where fighting began in 2014. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of turning towns and cities in the region to ashes. Some of the heaviest attacks are occurring in two cities that remained under Ukrainian control: Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. The mayor of Severodonetsk said 60% of the city’s homes have been destroyed.

Last week, Democracy Now! spoke to independent journalist Billy Nessen in Severodonetsk. During the interview, a Russian shell hit the building located next to where Billy was standing.

BILLY NESSEN: There have been foreign fighters here, but I think a lot of them are, from what I hear from Ukrainians, not very effective ones. There are probably some. You know, it’s mostly not ex-special forces. [explosion] [sirens] [no video]


BILLY NESSEN: [bleep] Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy, are you OK?

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah, I’m OK. Just right next door to us.


BILLY NESSEN: [bleep] That landed right here. [explosion] [bleep]

AMY GOODMAN: That was independent journalist Billy Nessen on Democracy Now! last week. On Thursday, Nermeen Shaikh and I spoke to him again, shortly after he left Severodonetsk for the city of Kramatorsk, about 60 miles to the west. I began by asking why he left Severodonetsk and about reports that Russian shelling had killed six people in the city Wednesday.

BILLY NESSEN: For the whole time I was there, there was a lot of shelling, but it was mostly over the town. And it has increasingly landed in the town. And I think this — there is a good reason militarily for that. I think some of the troops from the frontlines have moved back, and they’re trying to hit batteries that pulled back into the town. But it’s hard to explain the increase in shelling and the increase in people killed.

I think it’s got to be at least twice that number of dead. We had one person die in the distribution center, you know, just a few feet away for me, whose — the bottom part of her leg had been blown off, and she bled out, despite two tourniquets and the best efforts of —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, Billy, what that distribution center is. Take us back there, where we first interviewed you.

BILLY NESSEN: The distribution center is the place that organizes the evacuation of people who want to be evacuated to other towns west of there, and sometimes out of the country. And it also distributes aid that comes in by the road from the west to the people who want to stay.

Last night, after we had treated the wounded, there was an attack. The building was hit several times. It’s a very large warehouse. It has about five floors above it. And thankfully, it’s got another building at one end. And I think it was probably hit there by a couple of rounds, and the whole building just shook. This is the thing. I mean, people who haven’t been in this situation, artillery, it’s an unhuman sound and an inhuman shaking of the earth that’s hard to describe. I think at some point, hopefully, we can play some of the sounds. It’s almost like some deep sea monsters are battling under the sea, and you hear these echoes and the tremors. And it was — we gathered. The electricity — we have a generator — went off. It was knocked off. And we gathered in flashlights and were scared that the building was being targeted, and we thought this could be a terrible night. But it turned out, in the end, to be better than we feared.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Billy, can you explain, describe for us your journey to Kramatorsk? What did it entail? And why did you and the photographer you spoke of — why did you decide to go there?

BILLY NESSEN: Well, so, the Russians are trying to encircle two cities, both Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. And they’re doing that by trying to cut off the road west of Lysychansk. That road goes to Bakhmut. And so, this was an even — not necessarily much more safe place, but there’s a hospital here, and I thought I would come here and try and spend a day or two.

I was aware that I had reached a kind of limit, an emotional limit. And my colleague is seeing some — is with some other people. But it just got — I think we realized that there was a good chance that we were going to get killed. There were too many shells coming down all around the center and just throughout the city, and too many people were coming in and dying and almost dying. It was coming closer and closer to us. And we both felt guilty about leaving.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about other people still there? Were there any other evacuations, ongoing or planned, the old couple whom you spoke of earlier?

BILLY NESSEN: Yeah. Listen, people are hesitant to leave. That’s the tough thing. Despite the war, people are scared to go away. They don’t know — often these people have never been anywhere outside their city.

It’s starting to rain here, so I’m going to satisfy Amy and put on my helmet. There it is, folks.

So, there are going to try and be more evacuations, but the road even out of Severodonetsk might have been cut already. And then the road from Lysychansk to Bakhmut, the Russians are on it, and it’s very hard to get through. So the evacuations might be at an end. There are people, volunteers, still at the center. They’re all local people, and they’ve decided that they’re going to stay and brave whatever comes.

AMY GOODMAN: How do people communicate with each other from city to city, Billy? What means of communications, internet, is there? And in the last few days, have you seen a qualitative — I mean, this is in Severodonetsk — but a massive increase in the shelling? Take us from the significance of Luhansk to Donetsk, these two areas, to Kramatorsk and what it means in this battle.

BILLY NESSEN: Well, I think that the shelling has not necessarily increased; it’s just drawn closer and closer, and the Russians — there’s a Russian presence in Severodonetsk and a sense that they can take it and that they can take Lysychansk, which I hadn’t heard before. And I think there’s, you know, a movement to withdraw.

This is a — you know, it’s going to be a very big blow, I think, to some of the morale of the people here and to the troops. And I think it will be a big propaganda victory for Russia. And I think it’s especially dangerous in that it will begin to affect the politics and the support in the West, in the United States. As this war extends over time, you know, it’s inevitable that it drops from being the primary issue for American and European politics. I think it’s dropped down a notch already. And I think things like this will begin to pressure or see politicians saying, “Well, maybe we need to negotiate with Russia, with Putin. Maybe Ukraine has to give up something.” That’s not how Ukrainians feel. But I think there’s an awareness there that this is a danger.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you head from here, Billy? From Kramatorsk?

BILLY NESSEN: I’m just going to give it a good think a couple of days here. I’m going to stay in this hospital for a couple of days and have a good cry. You know, when you come out of these things — I’ve been there for a month — it’s like you come out — even though this is still a war zone, that was beyond — you know, I had experienced something similar when I was with the guerrillas in Aceh, which is daily battles with the Indonesian military and quite scary. But it’s like you’re coming from a different world. And the emotions on the way here, just earlier, I began to have that cry, and I became aware that I had really pushed down my fear and the pain.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Billy, we thank you so much for being with us, and we’ll get in touch with you again soon. Please be safe. Billy Nessen has just left Severodonetsk. He’s now in Kramatorsk, will stay there at a hospital for a few days. Thanks so much for joining us.

BILLY NESSEN: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Independent journalist William “Billy” Nessen, speaking to us from Ukraine.

And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Camille Baker, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon and Juan Carlos Dávila. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick. Our special on Monday, on Memorial Day, around Roe v. Wade. And remember, wearing a mask is an act of love. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us, from everyone at Democracy Now!

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