Every few minutes, the ground shakes as explosions echo through the battered streets of Siversk, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Sometimes it’s the outgoing Ukrainian fire, sometimes the Russians fire back.
An elderly woman in black pants, chunky shoes, a dirty gray overcoat and a headscarf is crawling down the street. Another explosion sounds. She shudders, her eyes wide open, but she doesn’t miss a step. She joins a crowd of several dozen residents, mostly elderly, bundled up against the cold.
The roads are covered with mud and rubble kicked up by countless shells. The few vehicles must circumvent craters filled with water where the bombs fell. The upper floors of some buildings have been reduced to rubble and barely a window to the street is intact. Telephone and electric wires meander across the floor, long dead.
At the edge of the crowd, alone, is 72-year-old Lubov Bilenko. His face is flat, devoid of emotion, his dark eyes expressionless – the gaze of a thousand miles.
“Of course, we were very scared before,” she said in a low voice. “Now we are used to it,” she says of the shelling. “We don’t even pay attention anymore.”
Bilenko tells CNN that she ventured out of her apartment, where she lives alone, onto the main road to collect her monthly pension, brought to town by a mobile unit from Ukrposhta, the Ukrainian postal service. Bilenko’s pension is just under $80 a month. Just buy some food in one of the few shops still open.
The small yellow and white Ukrposhta van comes to Siversk once a month.
Anna Fesenko, a blonde woman with a quick smile, leads the mobile unit. As she and her colleagues check documents against a list of recipients and distribute cash, Anna draws a smile and the occasional chuckle from the weary townspeople.
Fesenko says she has been with Ukrposhta for 15 years. Those years of predictable, methodical postal work didn’t prepare her for what she does now.
“I could never have imagined such a nightmare,” she told CNN.
Before heading the mobile unit, Fesenko worked at the Bakhmut post office, about 22 miles south of Siversk. But in mid-autumn, the fighting around town became so intense that she and her colleagues had to evacuate.
She understands that her job is not just to distribute pensions: it is to remind the people of Siversk that they have not been forgotten. “I think we are the only link between them and the rest of the world,” she says.
However, not everyone is even ready to go out.
“I live less than 20 minutes walk from here, but my wife is afraid to come here,” says Volodymyr, 63, who declined to give his full name, dragging on a cigarette before joining the line.
“My wife told me not to spend our pension on cigarettes,” he laughs, taking another deep puff.
Olha, 73, arrived at the front. Like so many others living in the war zone, she spent months huddled with others in the basement of her building. It is a cramped and uncomfortable existence. However, she is ready to bear it.
“I was born here,” she says, nodding her head forward for emphasis. “This is my homeland.”
Then, yet another loud explosion. Olha barely notices. “I’m not going anywhere. What will be will be.”
The head of the Siversk military administration, Oleksi Vorobyov, oversees the operation. He’s nervous that so many people have gathered out in the open.
Russian forces are just across a wide valley, occupying hills visible from the pension distribution point. They are about 10 kilometers (six miles) to the north.
Vorobyov urges people to back off, to disperse “for your own safety”. They ignore it.
“We try to choose the right time and the right place,” Vorobyov says of the retirement pension. This means that each time the mobile unit arrives, it’s a different place and time to avoid being targeted by the Russians.
“But it’s war,” he adds. “Today is like that” – he nods to the queuing crowd – “and tomorrow it can be totally different.”
We left Siversk around noon. The distribution was only half done.
An hour later, a Russian artillery shell hit the ground a block away, Fesenko, the postmaster, told us by phone.
No one was hurt, she said, but she and her colleagues shrugged off the formalities. They quickly distributed whatever money they could to those still waiting, she said, and left.