On Sunday, the sounds of clashes boomed out along the road to Bilohorivka. As Ukrainian and Russian forces traded missiles and artillery fire, soldiers urged civilian cars to turn back.
Video footage from what remained of the school showed firefighters digging through the debris as small flames licked the rubble. It was unclear how many people had been inside, and whether there were soldiers present in the area at the time of the attack.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, said that there had been 90 people in the basement and that only 30 had been rescued, with the rest likely to be still in the wreckage.
But some civilians evacuated from the school put the number lower, saying there had been 37 people sheltering there. “There are only 12 of us left alive,” said one of four patients interviewed by Washington Post reporters as they left a hospital in the town of Bakhmut.
“We’d been inside that basement for a month,” said a 57-year-old woman who gave her name as Irena. Her neck and face were swollen. “We were eating dinner when it happened. We didn’t know what hit us.”
According to Haidai, it took rescue workers nearly four hours to extinguish the fire, which was caused by a bomb from a Russian plane.
Writing on his Telegram channel on Sunday, Haidai condemned the “cynical” attack on “a school with a bomb shelter.” The Post could not verify the accuracy of the assertions.
Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have at times used empty schools as bases.
The attack on the school came amid growing fears that Putin may use Monday’s Victory Day holiday to unleash, even temporarily, an even harsher assault on Ukraine.
Russia is focusing its efforts on taking more territory in eastern Ukraine, where conflict between the Ukrainian army and Russia-backed separatists began in 2014.
Putin “just wants something to tell his people tomorrow,” a member of Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, a largely volunteer reserve force, told The Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“They’re trying hard to take these towns,” he said.
Fighting raged across Luhansk on Sunday, as Russian forces tried to encircle the towns of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. As reporters drove toward the area, plumes of smoke hung on the horizon.
When an artillery shell slammed into a nearby field, a civilian van in camouflage sped out through the dust cloud it produced. From inside the vehicle, a soldier gesticulated wildly at cars driving in the other direction, imploring them to turn around.
Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Russian republic of Chechnya, said Sunday that his soldiers have captured most of the eastern Ukrainian city of Popasna, although Ukrainian officials insisted the fight is not over.
“The soldiers of the Chechen Special Forces … have taken most of Popasna under control,” Kadyrov wrote on his Telegram channel. “The main streets and central districts of the city have been completely cleared.”
Haidai said in an update Sunday said that Ukraine’s troops have retreated from Popasna to more-secure battlefield positions. “Our troops have withdrawn from Popasna,” he wrote on Telegram. “The Armed Forces of Ukraine are now in a stronger position, which they prepared beforehand.” The Post could not verify the accuracy of either side’s assertions.
In Shipilove, a village in eastern Ukraine close to where the school was struck, at least 11 people were believed to be trapped after Russian bombardment struck a building, Haidai also said Sunday on his Telegram channel.
The group was hiding in a basement when the attack occurred, but he said that “they could be rescued.” The Post was not able to immediately verify the reports.
On a Victory Day without victory, Putin faces choice over all-out war
Although Moscow’s forces appeared to be trying to consolidate their hold on parts of eastern Ukraine seized since the invasion, progress has slowed in recent weeks and they have lost territory in the region around Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry condemned the attack on the school as a “brutal war crime” and accused Moscow of “constantly repeating the tragedy of World War II.”
Ukraine on Sunday commemorated the end of World War II in Europe along with other nations. President Volodymyr Zelensky said that after decades of peace, “evil has returned” with Russia’s invasion.
Pannett reported from Sydney and Hassan from London. Dmytro Plotnikov in Berestove, Meryl Kornfield in Washington, Victoria Bissett and Annabelle Timsit in London, and Annabelle Chapman in Paris contributed to this report.