The mayor of Lugansk, a city occupied by Russia, sets up a government in exile

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Mykola Khanatov, mayor of the town of Popasna, is seen in Dnipro, Ukraine on July 9.  (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
Mykola Khanatov, mayor of the town of Popasna, is seen in Dnipro, Ukraine on July 9. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)

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NOVOMOSKOVSK, Ukraine — Mykola Khanatov is a mayor without a city.

He remembers the last time he saw his hometown of Popasna, in the Lugansk region of eastern Ukraine. It was Orthodox Easter and the Russians were at the gates. He was inside his fourth-floor apartment when a torrent of shells landed nearby.

The 41-year-old raced down the stairs, slipping through the bars of a locked security door to reach the basement.

There he huddled with his neighbors for the better part of an hour. After weeks of heavy shelling, residents had learned the rhythm of the Russian fire teams – a pause in the shelling meant he had a 10-minute lead before the soldiers reloaded.

He remembers running to his van and driving through back roads and alleys that led west, hoping to stay out of sight of Russian drones used to identify artillery targets. The city he knew by heart, now bruised and disfigured, flashed by.

Resigned to the loss of his home, he only hoped to make it out alive. “I have never prayed so hard for my own life,” he said.

Now in exile, Khanatov, like dozens of other Ukrainian mayors in territories occupied by Russian forces, is determined to keep his community together. He and other city officials began the painstaking process of trying to rebuild the administration they left in Popasna.

Their headquarters is a three-car garage, 270 km west of the city of Novomoskovsk. At the school next door, the mayor works in a former classroom, the walls lined with pictures drawn by students with messages reading “Lets go Ukraine” and “Think happy” scribbled in pencil.

Their new town planning meetings are dedicated to organizing humanitarian deliveries to exhausted families in Popasna and helping others navigate the bureaucracy of a government at war. With most of the town’s 20,000 residents displaced and those still there facing increasingly difficult conditions, the need is growing.

Prior to the war, Khanatov had a staff of almost 100, who helped oversee the city’s bus drivers, teachers, accountants and municipal employees. Only 15 members of his administration are still with him at the makeshift center, where they take turns answering phone calls and social media messages from their former neighbors, who need help with pensions, certificates of birth, food and shelter.

“It’s moral support, to let people know that their leaders haven’t abandoned them,” Khanatov said. “Right now there are people being born and dying in the occupied territory.”

When you don’t save recent arrivals about 4,000 went to Novomoskovsk the team loads boxes of relief supplies, which are driven at least once a week to refugee families in the frontline town of Bakhmut.

The people of Popasna have lived in the pain and chaos of war for nearly a decade. A Moscow-backed separatist uprising in 2014 displaced tens of thousands of people in eastern Ukraine and destroyed infrastructure across the region.

Kyiv has made a concerted effort to support those left behind, building new schools, repairing old roads and improving government services, Khanatov said. The improvements were incremental, but striking compared to the the poor living conditions in the neighboring occupied territories, which some Ukrainians compare to North Korea.

Over the years, residents have grown accustomed to the presence of Ukrainian troops in their frontline town, but the mood began to change in January as officials warned of a Russian invasion. Within days of the start of the war on February 24, many were reluctant to leave their homes memories of the 2014 displacement still lingered. Trains bound for Kyiv, the capital, would wait 12 hours to evacuate 10 passengers. Some fled, to return a few days later, according to the mayor.

On March 2, the bombardment began. The city held out for 68 days, until Russian forces finally overwhelmed its exhausted defensive positions. Khanatov said hundreds of residents had been killed in the fighting and the city had run out of plaques for headstones.

At the start of the invasion, officials focused on evacuating the thousands of residents trapped in the city and providing humanitarian aid to those who refused to leave.

The administration, working with utility chiefs, firefighters and police, would begin the day assessing the damage overnight, dispatching maintenance crews to make hasty repairs to electrical and utility lines. bombarded water. “They bombed at night and in the morning we started again,” said the mayor.

Officials began quietly removing boxes of government documents, stamps and computers from their homes, knowing that their days in Popasna were numbered. Afraid of stoking panic among the residents that they were being abandoned, Khanatov asked the city accountant to bring home a box every night until the office was emptied.

Soon, bodies are piling up in the streets. The stench of death was everywhere.

“Getting people out is good, bringing in humanitarian aid is good, but dead bodies were scattered all over our city and they had to be buried,” Khanatov said. “Emotionally it was a constant struggle, but I had to get over it.”

The mayor found a truck to pick up the remains. A local funeral home buried them.

City officials regularly gathered in person before their meeting place was struck twice by the Russians. “Everyone knew what to do,” Khanatov said.

As the Russian forces closed in on the city, he gathered the department heads of Popasna one last time. “Whoever wants to leave can leave, whoever wants to stay can stay,” he told them. “I won’t tell you what to do. You were stronger and braver than I could ever have asked of you. I will accept your decision.

Many, including the mayor, opted to move to the nearby town of Bakhmut, where they continued to hold office, then moved again to Novomoskovsk as the fighting drew closer.

The head of the water department, Dimitri Filishtinskyi, led more than 50 evacuation missions, saving hundreds of people. But the missions became more dangerous, as Russian drones circled overhead and evacuation buses became targets for enemy artillery. A volunteer driver from Kyiv was captured and held for ransom by Russian forces.

Many residents refused to leave, Khanatov said, fearing they might not survive the trip. Others preferred to wait for the occupation. Filishtinskyi stopped visiting an air raid shelter after people inside expressed sympathy for the invading Russian forces. “For eight years they saw there was no future there and they were still waiting for the Russian world,” he said.

But Khanatov was struck by the bravery of ordinary Ukrainians, willing to sacrifice their lives to save his city. “It’s the young, the good, who are most dedicated to helping others,” he said.

April 29 was the last time anyone could enter Popasna from Ukrainian-controlled territory. A few days later, the governor of Luhansk confirmed that the city had fallen.

“When the Russian soldiers arrived, they must have understood that the people of the city were quite well off. even with the city in ruins,” Khanatov said.

In the months that followed, some officials changed the former police chief has accepted a position in another city, as has the fire chief. The mayor is trying to hold his government in exile together.

Khanatov shares a spartan one-bedroom apartment with his wife and 17-year-old daughter, furnished with the few belongings they were able to salvage from their home. His wife, Rimma, is suffering from suffocating panic attacks.

“When we come back to see the destruction with our own eyes, there will be a second wave of pain,” Rimma said.

“There are still so many things to overcome,” she lamented, crying silently. “We built everything in Popasna.”

Khanatov tries to bury his feelings in his work. “Once in a while it catches up with me,” he conceded. “I was scared, but that fear emboldened me.”

He is sustained by his memories of Popasna and the hope that he will one day be free.

“We still hope to go back one day,” he said.

Anastacia Galouchka and Wojciech Grzedzinski contributed to this report.


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