Latest news about 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 — In the distance came the rumble of artillery, but the sound from the yard of a house near the front line last week was from the screams of children playing.

Even as the war drew closer, 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 can go,” she said, adding that Ukrainian soldiers stationed nearby had suggested that the family be evacuated. “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 areas where the fiercest fighting in Donetsk province is taking place, and says hundreds of thousands of people – including tens of thousands of children – must leave immediately.

Iryna Vereshchuk, a deputy prime minister of Ukraine, said as many as 200,000 people had to leave the region because there would be no heat 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 just a few miles 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 part of Donetsk province, life is a precarious, self-sufficient existence as war threatens to engulf them.

Children unexpectedly turn up in the countryside, fetching water on a bicycle or balancing on a bag of products distributed by a good cause. In the cities they accompany their parents to the store, their faces pale and tired after days of hiding in cellars.

Natasha and Oleh have five sons and a daughter — Tolik, 14, Sasha, 12, Vova, 11, Nastya, 9, Kostya, 7, and Yarik, 6. The couple both lost their jobs when the nearby factories closed with the outbreak of the war five months ago, and they’ve struggled to make ends meet ever since. They asked that their last name not be published to avoid retaliation in the future.

Government services in the area have largely been shut down. Child support in Ukraine only pays for children under 3, so the family is no longer eligible for help, Natasha said.

“We had to sort it out our own way,” she said.

Natasha became the main breadwinner when neighbors fled the war and entrusted their homes and dairy cows to her.

She and her oldest boys are now experienced dairy farmers. Tolik and Vova wrenched from the family mobile to bring in the cows one recent evening from the grassy knoll next to the village. Natasha tied up the cows and Vova hooked up the battery-operated milking machine.

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

There is no longer a bus service into town, so she walks all the way most days, leaving at 6:30am and arriving at 8:30am.

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 pies and fruits and vegetables from their gardens. But customer numbers are dwindling as Russian missile strikes hit the city with increasing intensity.

This fall, with the youngest, Yarik, turning 6, all the kids would be going to school, Natasha said.

Instead, when education was severely disrupted for two years during the pandemic, the children had only begun returning for two-week shifts last fall. Then war broke out and school was suspended again.

Because they go to school separately from each other, the children seem unaffected by the war, she said.

“The little ones are not afraid of anything,” she said. They have basements in both houses that can be used as bomb shelters, but keeping the kids inside isn’t easy. “I call them to hide, but as soon as a helicopter flies, they go outside. It’s interesting for them.”

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