Ukraine News: Some refuse to leave even as war approaches


Burnt cars and damaged trees after a missile attack on Kramatorsk, a city in eastern Ukraine. A body lay on the ground, covered with a sheet. Injured civilians sat dumbfounded and covered in blood. A crater has been carved in the center of a quiet and sunny courtyard.

Across the besieged city, Valerii Ilchenko sat in the shade of a tree, solving a crossword puzzle. The 70-year-old widower now has difficulty walking, and this daily ritual in the fresh air helps him get through the day.

Just last week, the governor of Donetsk province urged the remaining 350,000 inhabitants of the province to move to safer places in western Ukraine. But like many other civilians, who have come under fire during the nearly five-month war, Ilchenko has no intention of leaving – no matter how much the fighting goes on.

“I have nowhere to go and neither do I want to. What will I do there? Here at least I can sit on the bench, I can watch TV,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in the one-room apartment where he lives alone.

Moscow and Kyiv are fighting for control of Donbas, a fertile and industrial region in eastern Ukraine where conflict with Russian-backed separatists has flared since 2014. In recent weeks Russia has already made significant gains and is ready to completely occupy the Luhansk province, which together with the Donetsk region make up the region. Attacks on key cities like Kramatorsk and Sloviansk have increased dramatically, killing and wounding civilians on a weekly basis.

Since the war began, Ilchenko has been unable to call his son and grandson, who live in Moscow. Although still somewhat independent, Ilchenko was almost motionless. The volunteers made sure he was given regular bread, water and cigarettes; Neighbors call from time to time.

The window of his apartment had been blown out in an earlier attack. As he spoke, an air raid siren sounded. But Ilchenko just smiled and shrugged.

“Where will I run when the sirens start? I don’t have a basement, so where is it? In this building, we are all right here,” he said.

In urging the evacuation, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said it would allow the Ukrainian army to better defend the towns, adding that about 80% of the area had already left on Monday.

“Once there are fewer people, we will be able to focus more on our enemy,” Kyrylenko said, adding that the shelling had intensified and was “very chaotic.”

Observers suggest that Sloviansk and Kramatorsk could end up like Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, cities now under Russian control after bombardment so intense that they are practically uninhabitable.

“I will be stricter this time – everyone should leave,” Kyrylenko said.

However, for many people, the urge to stay is very strong, because they are retired or whose income is so low that they fear that they will not be able to support themselves, which Kyrylenko calls ” their “safe zone”.

Others worry they won’t be welcome in western Ukraine – a concern based on the perception that some of their countrymen are disgruntled with the predominantly Russian-speaking resurrected people and blaming them for their lives. war.

Some sympathize with Moscow – from nostalgia for their Soviet past or from watching Russian state television. Still others do not believe that their lives will change significantly under the flag of Russia or Ukraine.

Sloviansk mayor Vadym Liakh told the AP that regardless of the motivations of those who stay, “we find that when their house falls apart, with only a slipper on their foot with a plastic bag, they leave. . They don’t think about money.”

Like Ilchenko, Maria Savon has no plans to leave Kramatorsk. Queuing to buy food under the blazing sun, the 85-year-old man was stooped and fragile. However, as she spoke, her high voice resounded throughout the square.

“Why do I have to leave? Where one is born, one must die. This is our land. We were not needed there, from the olden days. Old people, as far as I know, even ask to return to their homeland before they die,” she said, her voice tearing with emotion.

Savon said she wants to live in a country ruled by Ukrainians – not Russians – but she is also skeptical of the West. She wants President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to cut ties with Europe and US President Joe Biden, and agree to a ceasefire with Moscow.

Her feelings testify to the complexity of public opinion in Donbas.

“I will tell you the truth, I feel sorry for the young people, the young men who are dying. I’m going to take that Zelenskyy and tear him apart, with Biden, with America, with all those fascists,” she said.

A retiree fishing on the Kazennyi Torets River said he loves his hometown but is too old to fight.

“Of course, it would be a pity to have to leave. If I don’t have an apartment, what will I leave for my children? We’ll wait until this is over,” said the man who identified himself as Viktor for fear of reprisals.

Then there are people like Lena Ravlis, 38 – afraid to stay and afraid to go.

“Of course it’s dangerous here, but the way out is also very dangerous,” she said, referring to the horrific April attack on Kramatorsk’s train station that left 59 civilians dead and more than 100. injured, including children.

However, as the Russian army moved westward, a steady stream of people was leaving the towns caught in the lines of war. Hundreds of people depart daily on a train from Pokrovsk. Liakh, the mayor of Sloviansk, said they were given food and shelter in western Ukraine and could apply for compensation.

One woman who asked to be identified only by her name, Olena, also for security reasons, said that when she fled Sloviansk last week with her young child, she was shocked by the devastation this.

“We have waited too long. But in the end I decided to save my baby and myself. They are shelling us with every weapon in existence,” she said.

The streets of Kramatorsk are eerily quiet. Most of the shops have closed and the last working cafes have been moved up. This once vibrant city with a population of about 150,000 before the war was mostly empty before the Russian advance.

Ilchenko said he sometimes feels lonely. “It’s bad when the blues get you, and other times it’s good,” he said sadly.

Once a soldier in the Soviet army, he was furious with the Russians and wanted them “deported as soon as possible”.

As Ilchenko says, his neighbor, also a single retiree, was ready to cook potatoes for lunch on a makeshift outdoor stove because there was no gas in the district. Another woman lives on the top floor of the building.

“That’s it, the rest is gone,” said Ilchenko.

“Let them leave. Better than being bombed,” he added. I just wish they knew where they were going. What if it’s like it’s here? You can run away from the bombs. But bombs are bombs, don’t pick them up but choose”.

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