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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Life Again, With "Interruptions": Springtime In Liberated Ukraine

In the parts of eastern Ukraine liberated by Ukrainian forces' lightning counteroffensive six months ago life is bittersweet, including a constant lack of electricity and water — and the constant risk of shelling.

Photo of the Russian war on Ukraine: city of Izium is destroyed by Russians

The city of Izium was heavily damaged by Russian occupying army after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since being liberated six months ago, some

Katerina Amelina

IZYUM — In this riverside city, bulldozed buildings interlace with those gutted by fire. In-tact houses are the exception in Izyum, and those that are undamaged have windows boarded up with plywood.

As of July 2022, Russians hit the eastern Ukrainian city with missiles some 476 times. This is more than Mariupol or Mykolaiv.

We drive past the remains of a high-rise building, bombed by Russian forces in March of last year. Fifty civilians died under the rubble.

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“There has been no electricity all day; something has broken down again,” Andriy Yuriyovych says. Andriy takes care of one of the main basement-shelters in Izyum. After Feb. 24, 2022, and during the occupation, 62 people sheltered in the basement, hiding from Russian shells and soldiers.

“They constantly threatened everyone,” Andriy says. “One of them shouted ‘Don’t come out, or I’ll throw a grenade into the basement.' There were children in the basement. The youngest resident of the shelter at that time was Nicole, a two-month old. The baby had never known sunlight, only the light from a candle," Andriy says.

​A single basement

“She and her mother lived around the corner. She cried constantly, but didn’t disturb us. Sometimes we would play cards by candlelight and Nicole would start crying. I would take her in my arms and rock her comfortingly. No one could calm her down like I could,” Andriy says proudly.

On certain days, because of the shelling, people would not leave the bunker to make a fire. “We had to fill a bottle with water and warm it against our own bodies to try to dilute the baby formula as much as possible for Nicole to eat.”

You rarely meet anyone in the streets.

Nicole and her family left for Russia. “It was the only safe way out for them,” Andriy says.

Now, Andriy has a whole underground hostel and humanitarian warehouse. It has beds, refrigerators, a kitchen corner and a small living room. Paintings are hung on the walls of the shelter, some painted by Andriy himself, some by local artists. Many were drawings given to him by children who had been hiding there from the shelling.

Post offices, pharmacies and shops are already up and running again in Izyum. Communication works well and electricity, water and gas is generally reliable.

“The last shelling was September, thank God,” Andriy’s friend, Oleksandr says. “People are slowly returning to the city for the spring, although you rarely meet anyone in the streets. Previously, people were prevented from returning because of the cold. But now its getting warmer, and the soul wants to go home.”

​Schools in Donetsk

On the roads, you see the wreckage of the battles: the remains of burnt equipment, and signs reading “Beware: Mines” stand next to gutted trees, broken villages where almost every house has been pummeled to the ground. There are no people to be seen.

The village of Rubtsi, in Lymansk, also survived the occupation from April to October, and suffered considerable destruction. Russian forces destroyed a third of the residential buildings, all of the infrastructure, a school, fire station, agricultural enterprises and equipment.

Locals have had no electricity for more than a year.

Now, fortunately, the village is not being shelled. Springlife is already returning: people sit on benches outside, emergency workers fix electric wires and roads have been partially restored.

Along with gas and water, locals have had no electricity for more than a year. Gas was provided recently and electricity is on the way. "There will be light, and there will be water. It is easier for those who have a well, but all the others were without water all this time," says Andriy, a local resident.

In a building, there is an improvised school. In a small, stuffy room, a class of students of different ages sit at their desks — those who do not have the means to connect to online lessons at home. The school has light, communication and warmth. About 20 children attend the school, of whom 17 are local, while the rest come from nearby villages.

"We started studying in November. The children study according to the program of the All-Ukrainian online school. We try to keep up," says teacher Nataliya, who supervises the children.

Photo of a Russians strike, Chasiv Yar school

An alphabet book is seen among the rubble on the premises of a local school damaged in the shelling of Russian troops.

Yuliia Ovsiannikova/Ukrinform via ZUMA Press Wire

Sloviansk-Kramatorsk-Druzhkivka: Under the enemy’s sights

Spring is starting to be felt more in the cities, and life is becoming more visible. In Sloviansk, people are walking the streets, with some in a hurry on business. Many soldiers are among them, in the town's coffee shops and restaurants. Businesses are running again, and even a large children's toy store is open. There are now places to visit above ground. Communications are working in the city, but still with regular interruptions due to shelling.

As we walk down the street and drink coffee, the air raid alarm goes off twice. Here, 45 kilometers from Bakhmut, the war is more apparent her than in Kyiv. Especially when you pass a house, half of which was destroyed by a Russian missile in September. But few people here pay attention to the alarm signal, and Sloviansk continues to live at its own pace, without breaks for shelter.

Still, the city is hit often: during the shelling on March 27, a man died, 25 people were injured and seven residential buildings were damaged.

"About a month ago, the central street was almost deserted, but now people are coming back for the summer. Everything's coming alive," says military medic Lasha. The military here, he says, is talking about a counteroffensive, but no one knows when, how and where it will happen.

In Kramatorsk, the streets are crowded. The city lives its own life, just 50 kilometers from the front. Public transport is running, and shops and pharmacies are open, with working electricity, water and gas. Like in Sloviansk, things are normal, but life is still sometimes interrupted by war.

Of the 150,000 people in Kramatorsk, 68,000 remained. About 5,000 of them are children.

We have no other option but to fight until victory.

In March, Russian forces blanketed the city center with cluster munitions and bombed residential buildings, killing two civilians and injuring 10 more. On the night of April 10, Russians attacked the city cemetery. The day before, the neighboring town of Druzhkivka was hit by a rocket attack, injuring two people and damaging eight homes. On March 27, the town's orphanage was completely destroyed.

Druzhkivka is the last stop on our route. It is spring in the city, and there are not many people on the streets. Nearby, workers are sweeping the yard of a grocery store, making small talk. Against the background of birdsong, explosions can be heard.

To this accompaniment, combat medic Serhii shares his observations on the situation at the front: “Here, it is barely possible to hold the defense. What will happen with the offensive, and what we’ll attack with, we don’t know. But the only thing we know for sure is that we simply have no other option but to fight until victory.”

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