Mikhailo, who has lost everything to the war except perhaps his sense of humor, puffs on a cigarette before half-joking: “You can’t die twice.”
He survived the Russian onslaught beneath the ruins of Rubizhne, on the front lines of the raging battle for control of eastern Ukraine.
Kremina, the nearby town along the Donbass frontline, fell to Russian forces five days ago.
Rubizhne is hanging by a thread with the launch of a major Russian offensive to conquer the region.
After a month of shelling, the Russians captured the northern part of the city. Most of the south remained under Ukrainian control on Saturday.
The Ukrainian artillery manages for the moment to keep the invaders at bay, stopping their progress.
Columns of smoke rise above the chimney of the city’s largest chemical plant as the big guns fire. A row of towers abandoned by their working families, disappear behind the smoke.
Rubizhne, which had a population of 60,000 before the war, is accessible via a series of checkpoints manned by soldiers. “Kozak” armored vehicles have priority when crossing to reinforce the front.
The city was destroyed. Each building, without exception, bears witness to the fighting. Not a single window withstood the deluge of fire from both sides.
The cratered streets are fields of rubble.
The buildings are either damaged, burnt or totally gutted. Roofs were torn off, facades collapsed like dollhouses.
“I want my house”
The last people to remain are, like in all the other towns on the front line, the most vulnerable.
Near the only roundabout in the south of Rubizhne, a dozen inhabitants live in a cramped cellar to protect themselves from the carpet of bombs.
Mikhailo walked to the shelter. At the entrance, a group of men, some seated, others standing, pass around a single cigarette while letting a wood fire go out.
The staircase opens into a maze of dark rooms. An oil wick illuminates an alcove.
Alongside the flickering flame, a radio spits Status Quo’s hit song “You’re in the army now”, an anthem for all young conscripts around the world.
In the adjoining room, a candle illuminates the faces of six elderly men lying on cots.
Lyudmila, 63, has been in the cellar since March 15.
“Those who stayed are those who have nowhere to go in Ukraine,” she says.
“My mum will be 90 in August. I can’t carry her myself and take her in a car.
“Let everyone who started this war come down to our basement to hold negotiations. Let them listen to the bombardments and sit by candlelight.
“Then they will finally make a decision,” Lyudmila said, trying to calm her mother down.
“I want my house,” says the mother, wrapped in a blanket like a mummy.
The old lady refuses to climb the stairs of the shelter, “too scared”, she says.
Sleepless nights in the cellar brought back nightmares of World War II and memories of starvation.
“Everything is unreal”
The city’s grand Palace of Culture bears witness to a rich history, but it was pounded by artillery and only the facade is still standing.
Inside, the old movie theater is in tatters. The folding seats collapsed like dominoes.
In the entrance, the huge chandelier is in pieces on the red carpet.
Children’s stage costumes still hang in overturned cupboards.
There are no more windows in the piano room which is covered in broken plaster.
Retired engineer Yuri Fomin wanders the empty halls of the ruined palace, holding a Polish novel and a pen.
“Every day when I was little, I either went to the cinema or to the library to pick up a book,” he recalls.
“It was such a happy childhood, there’s so much nostalgia… I wasn’t mentally prepared for this war.
“I have the impression that everything is unreal, that we live in a parallel dimension, but in fact we live in the reality produced by the sick mind of the President of the Russian Federation“, says the 62-year-old man .
As often in this region torn apart by separatist fighting, Mikhailo said “no matter who wins, the war must end very soon”.
And what will he say to the first Russian soldier he meets next? “Hello, do you have a cigarette,” he replies, smiling at his own joke.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)