The willowy Ukrainian grandmother was praying for God to spare her life when a missile imploded her kitchen and cratered her vegetable garden.

Maria Mayashlapak scanned the devastation and counted her blessings -- a response shared by countless others who have lost almost everything but their lives three months into Russia's invasion.

"I was reciting my morning prayer for God to keep me from getting hurt," the 82-year-old recalled next to the splintered remains of her cottage kitchen in Ukraine's eastern city of Bakhmut.

Maria Mayashlapak feels more relieved than upset after losing her home but escaping with her life three months into Russia's invasion Maria Mayashlapak feels more relieved than upset after losing her home but escaping with her life three months into Russia's invasion Photo: AFP / ARIS MESSINIS

The family's mewing kitten was still trapped somewhere in the rubble and the once-leafy backyard resembled an open-pit mine.

The half of the house still standing looked in danger of either caving or sliding into the muddy crater left by the missile.

Rows of trees stood bowing with their crowns blown off by the force of the morning blast.

More rumblings on the horizon signalled the slow but steady pace of Russia's advance deep into the inner reaches of the Donbas war zone.

Some parts of the Ukrainian war zone are introducing mandatory evacuations because of civilians' reluctance to lose their homes Some parts of the Ukrainian war zone are introducing mandatory evacuations because of civilians' reluctance to lose their homes Photo: AFP / ARIS MESSINIS

"I looked up from my prayers and heard a frightening sound," the grandmother said.

"Every day I pray to God asking to avoid injuries. God heard me. God is watching over me."

The Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, providing important road links to the rest of the war zone, is now within range of Russian fire The Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, providing important road links to the rest of the war zone, is now within range of Russian fire Photo: AFP / ARIS MESSINIS

Mayashlapak's relief is making life difficult for Bakhmut's deputy mayor Maksim Sutkovoi.

The 40-year-old was theoretically meant to be pulling civilians out from a series of towns in the Bakhmut area that have come within range of Russian fire in the past week.

But he stood with his hands in his pockets on a deserted square selected as the daily gathering point for evacuees.

The roads around Bakhmut are being shelled from all sides, tightening the noose around the nerve centre of the Ukrainian resistance The roads around Bakhmut are being shelled from all sides, tightening the noose around the nerve centre of the Ukrainian resistance Photo: AFP / ARIS MESSINIS

"People do not want to leave," Sutkovoi said next to a half-empty bus waiting to take civilians to more peaceful parts of Ukraine.

"We have reached the point where we are making evacuation mandatory," added Bakhmut military administration chief Sergiy Kalyan.

The two local leaders estimate that 100,000 of the district's 220,000 residents -- many of them living along a north-south road now under Russian assault -- were still clinging on to their homes.

Russia has been repeatedly targeting a huge oil refinery on the outskirts of the besieged east Ukrainian city of Lysychansk Russia has been repeatedly targeting a huge oil refinery on the outskirts of the besieged east Ukrainian city of Lysychansk Photo: AFP / ARIS MESSINIS

Those staying behind say the missile strikes and bombings start every morning around sunrise and continue until lunch.

"Thankfully the Russian artillery has not reached us yet," Kalyan said next to the evacuation bus.

"But otherwise we are under aerial attack."

A crater the size of an open-pit mine stands in place of a vegetable garden, destroyed by a missile strike on a residential district of east Ukraine's Bakhmut A crater the size of an open-pit mine stands in place of a vegetable garden, destroyed by a missile strike on a residential district of east Ukraine's Bakhmut Photo: AFP / ARIS MESSINIS

Taxi driver Maksim Taran stared at a couch protruding from the sheared off section of a building that once held his apartment and expressed many of the same emotions as the grandmother on the other side of town.

The 33-year-old said his father was meant to have been sleeping on that couch the night something crashed through the five-story apartment complex.

The entire middle section of it collapsed.

No one was injured because most of the block's 200 residents had already moved out.

But Taran was back at the site three days later to determine which of the remaining apartments he could still use.

"My father is alive because he got delayed on the road," Taran said with his gaze fixed on the protruding couch.

"I am probably more relieved than anything else. We lost property. That can be restored."

His neighbour Roman Ognev wrapped his arm around the taxi driver's shoulder and broke out into a merry laugh.

"We are survivors," the 51-year-old businessman said.

Bakhmut's fall would give the Russians control of a crucial junction that now serves as an impromptu command centre for much of the Ukrainian war effort.

Its roads offer a direct route to all sections of the front as well as Kramatorsk -- the government's increasingly besieged administrative centre for the east.

The Russians have been battling for days to cut off Bakhmut's link to the twin industrial cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk to its north.

Long stretches of that road are now shrouded by plumes of noxious smoke rising over burning oil refineries and destroyed Ukrainian military outposts.

The highways heading south are being shelled by local forces that have been fighting a Russian-backed insurgency since 2014.

The noose is tightening and the Ukrainian forces fortifying their positions in the surrounding forests are digging in for a fierce defence.

So are Bakhmut's remaining residents.

"We set our alarms for 6:00 am because that is the time to head to the bunker," Ognev said outside the ruined apartment block.

"And then we go back up and get a few more hours of sleep."