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. She was dead by the time her father got there.
Two days after her return home, Anna Protsenko died. 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. Friends and relatives held her hand as she wept 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. Some people felt unwelcome among Ukrainian speakers, especially in certain parts of Ukraine.
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.
The living room ceiling was covered with flypaper in a darkened house located near Kramatorsk’s village Malotaranivka. 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 go to a home of the disabled. This was not acceptable to them. They were so eager to get away, they forgot his wheelchair. He was too large to ride 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 describes it as good enough. The neighbors will wrap their windows in plastic film to provide basic insulation, and then clean out the fireplace from soot when winter arrives. 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. Pokrovsk is served by a daily evacuation train, which leaves daily to reach western Ukraine. A second train arrives daily carrying people who want to go 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 was unable to find employment after the attack. She plans to go back to the coal mine where she worked previously.
Dnipro was already overwhelmed with refugees and the costs of renting a place to stay were another worry. “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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Many people quit trying to settle elsewhere after waiting in Pokrovsk as taxi drivers.
“Half my work for sure is taking these people,” said one driver, Vitalii Anikieiev. “Because the money is gone.”
According to him, the woman was returning from Poland in July after she felt unat home there. Her house was still there when they arrived at her village close to the front line.
“She cried,” Anikieiev said. “But she decided to stay.”
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