Volodymyr Zelensky, a 66-year-old namesake of the Ukrainian president, opened the gate of his home in the frontline town of Yampil in east Ukraine, where residents have been emptying out.

Despite a surprise Russian offensive in the northern Kharkiv region last month, Moscow has intensified attacks in Zelensky's home region of Donetsk.

“People are running away,” he told AFP, vowing to stay on, although he acknowledged his fear of the Russian advances.

Standing next to a bed of yellow tulips and a couple of sleepy dogs, he recounted how several rockets had struck nearby, narrowly missing homes but leaving behind large craters.

When Russian troops occupied Yampil in the first year of the invasion, in 2022, Zelensky refused to flee.

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If they manage to return though, he fears they will be “much more cruel.”

Military vehicles line the streets of Yampil, about a dozen kilometers (seven miles) from the front line.

The house next door to Zelensky's lies in ruins. Others have been boarded up.

And of the few remaining residents, many fear that speaking to reporters could earn them a Russian drone strike the following day. 

Daily attacks

Fighting that erupted in the region in 2014 between Kremlin-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military has left in its wake ghost town after ghost town.

Russia claims to have annexed Donetsk – and four other Ukrainian regions – and is determined to fully capture it.

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The front line near Yampil is comparatively stable but elsewhere in Donetsk, Russia is advancing, slowly but surely.

Its forces are nearing Chasiv Yar – a town perched on strategic heights – and Pokrovsk, a rail hub where Ukraine says fighting is most tense.

“The situation is quite difficult now,” said Maksym, a 38-year-old commander of a tank company deployed near Pokrovsk.

“Almost every day we repel attacks two, three times,” he added.

“There has been a clear increase in enemy personnel and they have also brought in vehicles, heavy vehicles, and artillery that can fire at long range,” Maksym said, describing fighting over recent days.

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“It's one of the hottest areas here,” his deputy, Sergiy, 36, added. 

In February, Russia managed to capture Avdiivka, a prized industrial town that Ukrainian forces had controlled for around a decade.

Since then, Moscow's forces have wrested a string of mostly destroyed villages nearby – news that is hard for Ukrainian soldiers to hear.

“It's difficult for many to remain optimistic,” said Danylo, a 23-year-old drone operator, who goes by the nom de guerre “Macron.”

Ukraine had suffered “a lot of losses” since winter, when delays in US aid began impacting the front, he said.

And the Russian offensive in Kharkiv did not see any let up in “pressure or shelling” in the east, he added.

The conquest of Chasiv Yar, whose several hundred residents now live under constant fire, could bring about a major Russian breakthrough.

Thick, black smoke filled the sky above the town this week, attesting to the fierce fighting.

Russian forces have not broken through the town's outskirts for now, said Ruslan, a press officer for the 41st brigade. But “they are constantly trying to get in,” he added.

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His brigade would soon get reinforcements by way of new recruits – but not nearly enough.

Between the wounded, dead and tired, “we need people,” he said.

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