By Kara Anna
Pokrovsk, Ukraine (AFP) – The impact of a missile pushed the young woman over the fence so hard that it cracked. Her mother found her dying on the bench under the pear tree as she was enjoying the afternoon. By the time her father arrived, she was gone.
Anna Protsenko was killed two days after returning home. The 35-year-old did what the authorities wanted: she evacuated the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine With the approach of the Russian forces. But starting a new life elsewhere was inconvenient and expensive.
Like Protsenko, tens of thousands of people who have returned to rural or industrial communities close to the region’s frontline are in great danger because they cannot live in safer places.
Protsenko had tried it for two months, then came home to take a job in the small town of Pokrovsk. On Monday, friends and family caressed her face and cried before her coffin was sealed next to her grave.
“We can’t win. They don’t hire us somewhere else and you still have to pay the rent,” said a friend and neighbor, Anastasia Rosanova, “there’s nowhere to go, but here in Donetsk, everything is ours.”
The Pokrovsk Mayor’s Office estimated that 70% of the evacuees have returned home. In the largest city of KramatorskAbout an hour’s drive from the frontline, officials said the population dropped to about 50,000 from 220,000 in the weeks following the Russian invasion, but has since risen to 68,000.
It is frustrating for the Ukrainian authorities as some civilians are still on the way to war, but the people of Donetsk region are also frustrated. Some described feeling unwelcome as Russian speakers among Ukrainian speakers in some parts of the country.
But more often than not, lack of money was the problem. In Kramatorsk, some people queuing for humanitarian aid boxes said they were too poor to evacuate at all. Donetsk and its economy have been dented by conflict since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists began battling the Ukrainian government.
“Who will take care of us?” asked Karina Smolska, who returned to Pokrovsk a month after being evacuated. Now, at the age of 18, she is the main source of money for her family as a waitress.
Volunteers have been roaming around the Donetsk region for months since the Russian invasion to help vulnerable groups evacuate, but such efforts could quietly end in failure.
In a damp house in the village of Malotaranivka on the outskirts of Kramatorsk, scattered coils of flycatchers hang from the ceiling of the living room. Pieces of cloth were stuffed into the crevices of the windows to prevent ventilation.
Tamara Markova, 82, and her son, Mykola Ryaskov, said they only spent five days as evacuees in the central city of Dnipro this month before deciding to take their chances back home.
“We were going to break up,” Markova said.
The temporary shelter they were staying in said she would be moved to a nursing home and that her son, whose left side was frozen after suffering a stroke, would go to a home for the disabled. They found this unacceptable. In a hurry to leave, they left his wheelchair behind. She was too old to take the bus.
Now they do. If you hear the siren from the air raid, Markova goes to take cover with the neighbors “until the bombing stops.” Humanitarian aid is delivered once a month. Markova calls it good enough. When winter comes, the neighbors cover their windows with a plastic film for basic insulation and to clean the stove from soot. Maybe they will 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 more unhappy with Russian President Vladimir Putin and what his soldiers are doing to the surrounding communities.
“He’s old,” she said of Putin. “He should retire.”
Homesickness and uncertainty also lead to a return to Donetsk. Yumi evacuation train leaves Pokrovsk for the relatively safer western Ukraine, but another train arrives daily with people who have decided to go home. While the evacuation train is free, the return train is not.
Oksana Tserkovny took the train home with her 10-year-old daughter two days after the July 15 deadly attack in Dnipro, where they stayed for more than two months. While the attack was the spark back, Tserkovnyi found it difficult to find work. Now she plans to return to her previous job in a coal mine.
Costs in Dnipro, already full of evacuees, were another concern. “We stayed with relatives, but if we needed to rent it would have been much more,” said Tserkovny. “It starts at 6000 hryvnias ($200) a month for a studio, and you won’t be able to find it.”
Taxi drivers waiting for the train to arrive in Pokrovsk said many people are giving up trying to resettle elsewhere.
One of the drivers, Vitaly Anikiev, said, “Surely half of my work is to take these guys.” “Because the money was lost.”
In mid-July, he said, he picked up a woman who was returning from Poland after feeling out of place there. When they reached her village near the front line, there was a hole where her house was.
“She cried,” said Anikiev. “But she decided to stay.”
Associated Press journalist Ina Farnitsa contributed.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the fighting in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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