Appointed by President Volodymyr Zelensky, the 46-year-old leads the Lugansk region, which is home to the city of Severodonetsk, where Russian and Ukrainian forces clash in the streets, and that of Lyssychansk, where artillery fire are almost permanent.
“The situation is difficult, in the city (of Lysytchansk) and in the whole region”, he said in an interview with AFP, because the Russians “are bombarding our positions 24 hours a day”.
In Lysytchansk, there are signs of preparations for street fighting: soldiers are digging holes and putting up barbed wire, and police are placing burnt-out vehicles across the streets to slow traffic.
“An expression says: you have to prepare for the worst and the best will come by itself”, underlines Mr. Gaïdaï. “Of course we have to prepare,” adds the man who has repeatedly warned that the Russians would end up surrounding Lyssytchansk by cutting off its main supply routes.
“It’s a war, anything can happen,” he said.
From Lyssytchansk, the Ukrainian artillery fires on the Russian positions in Severodonetsk, and the Russians respond to them with mortars and rockets.
– ‘No safe place’ –
“Look how Severodonetsk has resisted: you can see that they (the Russians) don’t completely control it… They can’t go any faster (nor) place their big guns and tanks there”, explains the governor.
Like other Ukrainian officials, he hopes that Ukraine’s Western allies will deliver “as soon as possible” more “long-range weapons”. “It’s good that the West helps us, but it comes late,” he regrets.
The governor could theoretically go to see the situation in Severodonetsk with his troops, “but it is extremely risky”.
In fact, “there is no safe place in the entire Lugansk region,” he admits, as explosions echo around.
His body armor is full of cartridge cases, and he keeps a semi-automatic rifle in his car. “If necessary, I will fight,” he said.
Born in Severodonetsk, Sergiï Gaïdaï was appointed by President Zelensky after his election in 2019.
“I’m here to help people as much as I can,” he says of the wartime job as an administrator that requires him to “keep (his) emotions to (him)”.
“It’s painful for me to see my hometown being destroyed,” he says. Just like seeing war kill people he knew: “I’m a human being, but I bury it all deep inside me.”
– “Need to talk” –
Life is very hard for some “10%” of Lyssytchansk residents who have remained there, who no longer have a telephone network, running water or electricity, cook over a wood fire and have taken refuge in cellars.
“We try to persuade them to leave”, but “some categorically refuse”. And only a “small percentage” hope that Moscow will make the region a “Russian world”, according to him.
Governor Gaïdaï communicates daily on the state of the conflict, in particular on social networks such as Telegram or Facebook.
“We need to talk”, to counter Russian propaganda but also so that the people of the region “understand that we have not abandoned them, that I am there with them”, he underlines.
He also sees another possible use for his many communications: helping to convict Russian President Vladimir Putin, “when we bring him to justice at (the International Criminal Court in) The Hague”.