POKROVSK, Ukraine — The missile’s impact flung the young woman against the fence so hard it splintered. Her mother found her dying on the bench beneath the pear tree where she’d enjoyed the afternoon. Her father had arrived before she could get there.
Anna Protsenko, who returned home two days earlier than expected was murdered. The 35-year-old had done what authorities wanted: She evacuated eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region as Russian forces move closer. However, it was difficult and costly to start a new life.
Like Protsenko, tens of thousands of people have returned to rural or industrial communities close to the region’s front line at considerable risk because they can’t afford to live in safer places.
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Protsenko tried the method for 2 months and then returned home to get a job at Pokrovsk. Family and friends comforted her and wept as her casket was closed beside her grave.
“We cannot win. They don’t hire us elsewhere and you still have to pay rent,” said a friend and neighbor, Anastasia Rusanova. There’s nowhere to go, she said, but here in Donetsk, “everything is ours.”
The Pokrovsk mayor’s office estimated that 70% of those who evacuated have come home. In the larger city of Kramatorsk, an hour’s drive closer to the front line, officials said the population had dropped to about 50,000 from the normal 220,000 in the weeks following Russia’s invasion but has since risen to 68,000.
The damage caused by shelling to Malotaranivka’s house, where Tamara Markova, an 82-year old resident, and Mykola Rieskov, her son, were injured in the attack. After fleeing, they returned home.
It’s frustrating for Ukrainian authorities as some civilians remain in the path of war, but residents of the Donetsk region are frustrated, too. There were some who felt uncomfortable speaking Russian among Ukrainian speakers.
More often than not, the issue was lack of funds. Some Kramatorsk residents waited in line to receive humanitarian aid. They claimed they are too poor for evacuation. Donetsk and its economy have been dragged down by conflict since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists began fighting Ukraine’s government.
“Who will take care of us?” asked Karina Smulska, who returned to Pokrovsk a month after evacuating. Now, at age 18, she is her family’s main money-earner as a waitress.
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Volunteers have been driving around the Donetsk region for months since Russia’s invasion helping vulnerable people evacuate, but such efforts can end quietly in failure.
A dark home was found in Malotaranivka, just outside Kramatorsk. Flypaper was hanging from the ceiling of the living room. To keep the draft out, pieces of cloth were placed in cracks on windows.
Tamara Markova (82) and Mykola Riaskov, her son, said that they only spent five days in Dnipro’s central city as evacuees this month, before returning home to try their luck.
“We would have been separated,” Markova said.
According to the shelter, she was to be transferred to a nursing center, while her son (who had suffered a stroke) would stay in a home that cares for the disabled. This was not acceptable to them. He was left behind by them in their rush to go. The wheelchair was too heavy to be carried on the bus.
‘It was much easier under the Soviet Union’
Then they do what is necessary. If the air raid siren sounds, Markova goes to shelter with neighbors “until the bombing stops.” Humanitarian aid is delivered once a month. Markova says it is good enough. To protect their homes from the cold, neighbors will put plastic films on their windows and clear the chimney of any soot. Maybe they’ll have gas for heat, maybe not.
“It was much easier under the Soviet Union,” she said of their lack of support from the state, but she was even unhappier with Russian President Vladimir Putin and what his soldiers are doing to the communities around her.
“He’s old,” she said of Putin. “He has to be retired.”
Before Anna Protsenko’s death in the Russian rocket attack on her 35-year old body, a priest prays over it before she is buried on the outskirts Pokrovsk, July 18, 2022.
Donetsk also sees people returning due to homesickness or uncertainty. There is an evacuation train that leaves Pokrovsk daily for western Ukraine. However, another train arrives every day with those who are determined to return home. The evacuation train runs at no cost, but the return is charged.
Oksana Terkovnyi, 10, took the train back home two days after her daughter was killed in the attack at Dnipro on July 15. Tserkovnyi found it hard to find work after the attack. She plans to go back to the coal mine where she worked previously.
Another concern was the cost of living in Dnipro. It is already filled with evacuees. “We stayed with relatives, but if we needed to rent, it would have been a lot more,” Tserkovnyi said. “It starts at 6,000 hryvnia ($200) a month for a studio, and you won’t be able to find it.”
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According to taxi drivers, many passengers give up trying to relocate elsewhere when they wait for the train in Pokrovsk.
“Half my work for sure is taking these people,” said one driver, Vitalii Anikieiev. “Because the money is gone.”
He said that he met a Polish woman in mid-July who had felt out of her place back home. They reached their village, near the frontline. There was a large crater that had once been her home.
“She cried,” Anikieiev said. “But she decided to stay.”
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