For once, the distant thunder of shelling cannot be heard in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. Orthodox Palm Sunday has granted its residents some respite before an expected Russian onslaught.
In the Orthodox Svyato-Pokrovsky church, around 40 people — mostly women wearing colorful headscarves — occupy the largely empty pews as the sermon begins.
“It’s very hard and scary right now,” said a congregant as she arrived at the red-brick church topped with four gleaming domes.
“We must pray for our soldiers to have strength and faith. We need it and they need it,” she told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Two young children entered with their mother. Holding branches in anticipation of the Christian holiday of Easter, which for Ukrainian Orthodox faithful falls on April 24 this year, they solemnly lit a candle before leaving.
“Today is a big celebration, Palm Sunday. It would be wrong not to come, especially when it’s calm,” said Nadia, 30, as her children aged three and four played in the adjoining park.
Nadia refused to be evacuated for fear of traveling alone with her two young offspring and leaving her relatives in Kramatorsk.
“We don’t go to the basement each time there’s a (bomb) siren. It’s too stressful for them (the children),” she said. “We have our spot in the basement just in case, but we prefer to stay in the house if possible. We dim the lights.”
Near the railway station — closed since shelling on April 8 killed 57 people — a heavy military vehicle slowly transports an imposing artillery cannon through a junction.
The range of its shells is about 40 kilometers (25 miles) — roughly the distance separating Kramatorsk from the surrounding front line.
In a rare continuation of normal life, a handful of ageing trolleybuses ferry passengers around the city center.
The “Miracle Market” store also remains open — one of the few supermarkets to do so.
Some aisles are bare, but many customers remain in the alleys in their search for essentials such as bread, meat, vegetables, cheese and tea.
Shop manager Igor Kudriavtsiev is proud to serve those who have stayed in the capital of the Donbas region, after the vast majority of its 150,000 inhabitants fled.
“Our profits aren’t as high (as before the war), but we’re responsible for those who have stayed — mostly elderly people who, for one reason or another, weren’t able to leave,” he said.
Only one of the chain’s eight stores in Kramatorsk had to close owing to a lack of staff.
“We have all the products we need. There’s no supply problem,” Kudriavtsiev insisted.
A shop employee fills empty display boxes with sought-after bags of sweets. “It’s what goes the quickest, along with tea,” she explained.
Most of the stalls in Kramatorsk’s large central market are closed, but dozens of residents can still be seen roaming the streets.
“It’s difficult, but we keep working. We have fewer than half of our regular customers,” said Yelena, 51.
Running her small clothes stall, she said she would not leave Kramatorsk.
“I have my own house. I worked so hard. I won’t move anywhere. My father is 80, I’m not going to leave him,” she explained. “I believe in our men (on the front line), I believe in Ukraine.”