By Oleh Chernysh
BBC News Ukrainian

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Intense daily bombing has left many of Zhytomyr's residents homeless

Since the start of the invasion, most of the world's attention has focused on Russian attacks on the east and the south of Ukraine, as well as the areas around Kyiv.

But just west of the capital, in the Zhytomyr region, residents have faced massive daily bombardment - killing civilians and leaving many without homes.

In the first two weeks of the invasion, Russians have launched over 40 rocket and air attacks on the city of Zhytomyr itself and surrounding towns and villages.

Dozens of people have been killed, both troops and civilians. So why is Russia attacking this part of Ukraine so heavily?

Logistics hub

The city, which had a population of about 280,000 before the war, is a key point in the logistical and humanitarian corridor, Zhytomyr's mayor Serhiy Sukhomlyn tells the BBC. Aid from Europe is being delivered to Kyiv and further east via Zhytomyr, and refugees are travelling in the opposite direction.

"In order to intimidate Zhytomyr, they are hitting both residential and industrial buildings, targeting infrastructure," says Mr Sukhomlyn.

As a result of bombing, water and gas supplies have been hit. But the mayor says local services are managing to mend a lot of the damage, ensuring most of the city has water and heat. Mr Sukhomlyn says the city also has a reserve source of water which will be used at this time of emergency.

The constant attacks on the city forced many to flee, either to western Ukraine or other countries. But at the same time, the Zhytomyr region itself has been sheltering evacuees from regions further east. Many are now using it as a transit point before evacuating further.

Zhytomyr has also become a hub for attempts to deliver aid to the towns and villages to the north-west of Kyiv, which have been hard-hit - and in some cases completely destroyed - by the fighting.

Russian invading forces put maximum effort into cutting off roads between Kyiv and Zhytomyr. While the city and surrounding areas are heavily bombed, ground fighting is still around 60km to the east, on the outskirts of Kyiv.

'The ground shook'

But the bombings are taking a heavy toll on Zhytomyr's population.

One resident, Nina, says during the first week of fighting, her street - mostly made up of single-storey private homes - was entirely destroyed. Three of her neighbours were killed and dozens more were injured. A local hospital was also bombed which meant the amount of medical help which could be provided was limited.

"It sounded like the plane was very low, nearly touching us," Nina tells the BBC. "The ground was shaking. How could they not see they are bombing residential areas?"

There is a military base in the Zhytomyr region which could have been a target for a Russian attack but it is a long way from her destroyed home.

As soon as she heard the air raid warning siren, Nina ran with her children to a neighbour's house and managed to hide in their basement.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Zhytomyr before the invasion, showing the city's 19th-Century Orthodox cathedral

Image source, EPA

Image caption,

Since the invasion began, much of Zhytomyr's key infrastructure - including this school building - has been destroyed

But her neighbours - a mother with three children - did not manage to get to the shelter in time.

"The mother is in a bad state - her head and stomach were hit by flying glass, she has shards in her lungs."

After suffering a bad leg injury, Nina's daughter's boyfriend and has had to have a metal plate fitted into his knee.

Nina has since left Zhytomyr and is heading to Poland. She can't stop crying: "Our only hope is now in God", she says. Her daughter is choosing to stay in Ukraine with her boyfriend.

What will happen next?

Zhytomyr and the surrounding region have been bracing themselves for a possible direct attack from Belarus.

For a few days there were reports that a ground offensive was a distinct possibility. The Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko claimed, without evidence, Ukraine was getting ready to attack his country.

Even though Zhytomyr mayor Serhiy Sukhomlyn says he has no time for Mr Lukashenko's accusations, he stresses that the city is well-protected against a ground offensive.

War in Ukraine: More coverage

"Nowhere else in Ukraine are there such fortifications as we have here. We are ready."

For him more pressing tasks are at hand.

The city is constantly repairing water and energy supply lines to make sure that those who remain here - about half of the population, according to the mayor's estimates - can continue living in Zhytomyr.

Media caption,

Watch: Serhiy Melnyk points to the rubble where his house stood