AVDIIVKA, Ukraine — When the shelling starts, the people who have remained in this town in eastern Ukraine hardly flinch. In truth, the shelling barely stops.
Russian efforts to capture Avdiivka began over a year ago and in recent weeks have escalated. On Monday, as a Ukrainian police evacuation team went from basement to basement to try again to persuade people to leave, the thud of artillery could be heard every minute or two from Russian forces that have sometimes been stationed no more than a mile away.
“Do you hear? It’s flying,” one resident said as a rocket passed overhead. “Then there is a boom,” he added as it detonated.
Moscow’s intensified bombardment of Avdiivka and outlying villages is part of a broader offensive that has centered on the city of Bakhmut, about 34 miles northeast. Although Russia’s latest push has failed to capture any major town, its strikes have continued to lay waste to parts of eastern Ukraine.
On Monday, the town’s military administrator, Vitaliy Barabash, ordered the remaining public officials to leave and barred journalists and aid workers from entering, citing safety concerns. A team of New York Times journalists visited just before the ban was announced.
Avdiivka was once a bedroom community for Donetsk, the regional capital that in 2014 fell to Russian-backed separatists. That turned Avdiivka into a frontline town and an early target when Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, although the city has remained in Ukrainian hands.
Now, out of a prewar population of 30,000 people, residents say only hundreds still live in Avdiivka. The Ukrainian authorities said on Monday that five children remained behind.
Damage from shelling and rocket fire has strewn residential communities with rubble, making streets nearly impassable by car. Schools, health clinics, shopping centers and apartment blocks have been left with gaping holes. Chunks of unexploded ordnance protrude from the streets.
Most residents who remain are middle age and older. Through the months of terror, they have moved into basements beneath the Soviet-era apartment blocks, setting up beds, makeshift kitchens, bookshelves and small Orthodox shrines in large rooms lit by candles.
Below ground, the sound of artillery barely registered. Many occupants sat on their beds and stared into space. With no electricity or running water, the basements were humid and dark, a stifling smell pervading the air.
Still, it was safer underground. One retiree said she hadn’t been outside for five months.
People have stayed behind for various reasons. Some said they were too ill, others too attached to the lives they once lived. Still others said they were too poor to move.
Some appeared too paralyzed after months of shelling to make the decision to flee.
“I’ve been living here for 43 years. How can I leave Avdiivka?” said one older resident, Polina, who emerged from a basement to drop off cat food for a neighbor and check on damage to her apartment. Like others interviewed for this article, she gave only her first name, fearing for her safety.
“I understand that to stay alive is more important,” she went on. “But at my old age I don’t want to hop around to different apartments somewhere else.”
Yards from her apartment, a building was still smoking after a recent rocket strike.
In a border region with strong ties to the former Soviet Union, loyalties are sometimes divided. Two older residents appeared to support Russia and blamed both sides of the war for shelling their community.
Gennadiy Yudin, a Ukrainian medical police officer who is from Avdiivka, and a fellow officer who came to evacuate people on Monday were frequently rebuffed. Many residents knew the officers from previous visits and were used to their attempts to persuade them.
One mother, Natalya, agreed to be evacuated with her 3-year-old daughter, Marina. She was distraught as she packed their few belongings into plastic bags, in part because she said she had no money to start a new life.
Most times, when the officers approached, residents scuttled back down to their basements and slammed the door.