A public kitchen closes early so workers can get home on a day of heavy bombing. Police officers stuff the windows of their station with white sandbags. Every few minutes we hear the boom or thud of weapons being fired into and out of the city.
Each hit could mean a death. The Russian military is drawing closer.
In a golden-domed church on Sunday morning, Valentina, a 70-year-old singer, looks sad when she tells us she will stay in her eighth-floor apartment, despite fears that Russia once again has her city in its sights.
“This year I will plant potatoes in my garden,” she says. “I will harvest tomatoes.”
About two hours later, rockets hit a residential area a block away, burning out cars and sending 10 people to the hospital. Later that day, a nearby bridge is blown up.
In the suburbs, volunteers drive a small green bus from neighborhood to neighborhood, picking up families who want to evacuate. Many people weep as they hug loved ones or neighbors and board the bus.
“Maybe it’s silly,” says a woman in a white dress with teary, red eyes. “But I just can’t go.”
Inside the bus, passengers are eager to get moving.
“We need to get out of here as soon as possible,” says Lydia, 65, as she and her husband wait for the bus to depart.
Another woman, Tatiana, 63, is traveling alone. “We’ve been here since the war began,” she says. “During the winter we had no heat and no windows. During the occupation we had no internet and no grocery store.”
Russia occupied Kupiansk for seven months in 2022, before they were pushed out by Ukrainian forces.
“But now combat is coming closer,” says Tatiana.
Across town, closer to where Russian soldiers are firing off bombs from about 5 to 10 kilometers (3 to 6 miles) away, a post office is tucked behind an open-air market where vendors sell clothes, housewares and dried fish.
Every few minutes a customer comes into the post office, despite the ongoing shelling. Many come with packages to ship.
“I’m sending out my most important things, like electronics,” says Nina, 64, standing at the counter. “I’m planning to leave the city, and I’m afraid my property will be destroyed.”
Within a few days, she says, she will flee to western Ukraine, where she hopes to find her valuables waiting for her.
Other customers come in to pick up their pensions — the only income for most retirees in Kupiansk. Officials tell us they are paying out pensions three months in advance nowadays, in case they lose access to the city.
Carriers used to deliver the mail, but the last time it went out was weeks ago, and then only to the region’s most infirm people, those who couldn’t make it to the post office.
The windows are mostly filled in with plywood, but one rectangle of glass lets in light. “That’s all that’s left of our peacetime windows,” jokes one worker.
Svitlana Oleynikova, 45, the post office manager, says incoming bombs frequently hit a nearby school, but some seem to miss their mark and land outside their office.
When Russia controlled the city, the post office was closed, and it seems inevitable that workers will be forced to abandon their post again, she says.
“I am evacuating my mother this week,” she explains. “But I will keep working until the post office is closed.”
Soldiers standing by
Near a clearing in the bush alongside the Oskil River, about a dozen Ukrainian soldiers relax by the shore in various states of undress — speedos, camouflage pants, underwear. We are about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Russian forces.
“Isn’t this a great place for a holiday?” one man asks us. The rest of the group laughs.
Two beers in cut-off water bottles are stowed under a car bumper, out of the sun. One man swims about 5 meters out to the center of the river. There is a faint smell of cigarettes. The band Måneskin’s version of the 1967 Four Seasons song “Beggin’” blares from somebody’s phone.
“Don’t be afraid of shrapnel,” says one soldier, wearing shorts and dog tags, without a shirt. “This one hit our car” he adds, grinning. He points out a hole in the roof and the side-back window, shattered and covered with lime green tape. “And we were in it.”
Inside the city, at a territorial defense post hidden on the side of the hill, Maxim, a 25-year-old soldier with a hand badly mangled from a mortar attack in the early days of war, mans a grenade launcher. He scans the horizon over the river for approaching Russians, as smoke from recent bombings rises from the forest.
So far, neither side has launched a full-scale attack, says Maxim, but they are preparing for battle.
“They’re not going to be able to take this city like they did in the early days of the war,” he says. “The city was taken without a single shot being fired. But we have a lot of forces here now.”