CHASIV YAR, Ukraine — Swaddled in a blanket, Maksym is hours old as his mother is carried out on a makeshift stretcher to a waiting ambulance.
Born in a dark basement to Oksana, a 33-year-old factory worker, he is a child of Russia's war in Ukraine, his family living under the constant sound of shelling and gunfire.
Smiles and joy spread around the snow-covered courtyard as word about the newborn gets out, even as the constant soundtrack of bombs in the near distance never faded for long.
Here in Chasiv Yar, a town in the eastern Donetsk region, both new life and death are never far away, as NBC News found in a three-hour visit this week that highlighted the fleeting moments that define a community under fire.
The few who have stayed and not fled the country or evacuated to relative safety elsewhere in Ukraine are right in the path of Russia's new offensive, designed to take the parts of Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk it doesn't already control.
Chasiv Yar has been shelled heavily in recent days as Russian troops work to cut off routes to the nearby city of Bakhmut, a symbolic prize the Kremlin may be hoping to capture ahead of the Feb. 24 anniversary of its full-scale invasion. After months of intense fighting for Bakhmut, Moscow's troops have intensified their push for territorial gains there and across the east.
Ukrainian forces running low on ammunitionFeb. 15, 202301:31
Ludmila, a 63-year-old former nurse who delivered Maksym, had just days earlier been feeding an NBC News team borscht soup in the basement home in which she's lived for more than three months.
“I had some tools, not everything, but somehow I helped and a healthy baby boy was delivered,” she said. Both mother and baby are doing well.
NBC News has chosen not to use some residents’ last names because they said they feared for their safety.
Just a few hours earlier, the body of Vera was lying around the corner, shattered by a shell blast. She had left her home to pick up supplies from a local shop but ended the trip lifeless in the snow, her clothes torn, still wearing her wedding ring.
She was 42 and had one child, a 14-year-old son.
“There was an explosion, we saw nothing, but then we started to look out for people. Vera had left for the shop — we didn’t realize it was her,” said Ludmila, 73, a neighbor. She was concerned about Vera’s son seeing the body “because she’s really in bad shape, her body is bloody and torn apart.”
People here are reluctant to leave for safer areas that are out of the way of the Russian offensive, or can't afford to make the trip. Others tried to leave but ended up back here having failed to make life work as displaced Ukrainians.
One man making the trip was 75-year-old Mykola Yaroslavstev, whose sons are all fighting in the war. He trudged through the snow with his walking stick as his friend Oleksandr, a sprightly chain-smoking 76-year-old, pulled his bags on a sled to a van waiting to take him to Odesa to stay with his daughters-in-law.
Why not leave sooner?
“Because I’m 75 years old and stubborn. I pray for better but it will not get better. Yesterday, my neighbor’s house was hit and now it doesn’t exist at all,” Yaroslavstev said.
That destruction was a message that he interpreted as: "So, old man go away, otherwise your grandkids will not see their granddad, but a piece of meat."
Though Ukrainian authorities have urged many people still living near the front lines to leave, officials are sympathetic.
“It’s really very hard for people to be here. They don’t want to leave the town where they were born. The example of Vera is a very obvious example. She was just a person who went out to buy some food and she was killed,” said Serhiy Chaus, 42, head of the Chasiv Yar Military Civilian Administration.
Although his position is unelected, everyone here calls Chaus the mayor. He stepped into a power vacuum that emerged when the town's mayor fled shortly before Moscow's full-scale invasion a year ago.
“It’s difficult to be a mayor of a town in peaceful times — when you have war, it’s much harder. We try to provide the people with all they need, including water,” he said.
Chaus explained that a big problem is the lack of medical supplies — he used the town's last tourniquet recently.
There are heroes fighting in the trenches, he added, but also here in what have now become frontier towns in Ukraine's battle for survival.
After an explosion shook the earth too hard for comfort, Chaus ushered everyone in the courtyard into a basement shelter — where a family, including a single mom and her two children, had been living since last June, only leaving rarely.
NBC News learned later that the family has now finally left Chasiv Yar, moving to the far west of Ukraine near the borders with Hungary and Moldova.
Liza, 8, said she finds it hard to sleep at night, preferring to sleep when it’s light. Her older brother, Andriy, 13, and their neighbor Sophia, 14, are bored of their monotonous life, spending hours playing on their phones or reading.
Liza and Andriy's mom, 39-year-old factory administrator Natalia Anpolska, shared a poem inspired by the family's claustrophobic existence. "There is no war here... Just me and my getting used to living in the basement, caring for each other. What else do you need for happiness," it reads.
The wall features her art: one is a fiery ball, filling the page, engulfing everything, white heat at its center.
“This is what’s happening in our country,” she said. “This is our burning country.”
Richard Engel and Marc Smith reported from Chasiv Yar and Patrick Smith from London.