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Some Ukrainians will not flee from areas targeted by war

KRAMATORSK – Burnt cars and broken trees smolder after a rocket hit Kramatorsk, a city in eastern Ukraine. A body lies on the ground covered with a sheet. The injured residents sit stunned and covered in blood. A crater has been carved into the center of a once peaceful, sunlit courtyard.

At the other end of the besieged city, Valery Ilchenko sits under the shade of the trees and solves a crossword puzzle. The 70-year-old widower now has difficulty walking and this daily ritual of fresh air gets him through the day.

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

“I have nowhere to go and I don’t want to. What was I going to do there? Here at least I can sit on the bench, I can watch TV,” he told The Associated Press in an interview in his one-bedroom apartment, where he lives alone.

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Moscow and Kyiv are fighting for control of the Donbass, a fertile and industrial region in eastern Ukraine where conflict with Russian-backed separatists has raged since 2014. In recent weeks, Russia has made significant gains and is poised to fully occupy Luhansk Province, which together with Donetsk Oblast make up the region. Attacks on key cities such as Kramatorsk and Slavyansk have increased dramatically, killing and injuring dozens of civilians every week.

Since the beginning of the war, Ilchenko has not been able to call his son and grandson, who live in Moscow. Although still somewhat independent, Ilchenko is almost immobile. Volunteers ensure that he receives regular supplies of bread, water and cigarettes; the neighbors call from time to time.

The windows of his apartment were blown out in an earlier attack. As he spoke, the air raid siren wailed. But Ilchenko smiled and shrugged.

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

Pushing for an evacuation, Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kirilenko said it would allow the Ukrainian army to better defend the cities, adding that about 80 percent of the region had left by Monday.

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

Observers say Slavyansk and Kramatorsk could end up like Severodonetsk and Lisichansk, cities now under Russian control after a bombardment so ferocious that they are virtually uninhabitable.

“This time I will be stricter – people have to leave,” Kirilenko said.

Yet for many, the desire to stay is strong because they are retired or on such low incomes that they fear they cannot support themselves far from what Kirilenko calls their “comfort zone.”

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Others worry that they will not be welcome in western Ukraine, a concern based on the perception that some of their countrymen resent the mostly Russian-speaking easterners and blame them for the war.

A few harbor pro-Moscow sympathies – either out of nostalgia for the Soviet past or from watching Russian state television. Still others do not believe that their lives will change significantly under the Russian or Ukrainian flag.

Slavyansk Mayor Vadim Liakh told the AP that whatever the motivations of those who stay, “we see that when their homes are destroyed, with only slippers on their feet and a plastic bag, they leave. They don’t think about the money.”

Like Ilchenko, Maria Savon has no intention of leaving Kramatorsk. Waiting in line for food under the blinding sun, the 85-year-old is a hunched and frail figure. When she speaks, however, her high-pitched voices carry across the square.

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“Why should I leave? Where one is born, one must die. This is our land. We are not needed there, since time immemorial. Old people, as far as I know, even ask about their native land before they die,” she said, her voice shaking with excitement.

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

Her feelings illustrate the complexity of public opinion in Donbas.

“To tell you the truth, I feel sorry for the young people, for the young people who are dying. I would take this Zelensky and tear him apart, along with Biden, with America, with all those fascists,” she said.

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

“Of course, it would be a shame to leave. Without the apartment, what would I leave to my children? We will wait until this is over,” said the man, who identified himself only as Victor for fear of reprisals.

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Then there are those like Lena Ravlis, 38, both terrified to stay and terrified to leave.

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

Yet as Russian troops march westward, a steady stream of people flees the cities targeted by the war. Hundreds depart daily by train from Pokrovsk. Liach, the mayor of Slavyansk, said they were being given food and places to stay in western Ukraine and could register for compensation.

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

“We’ve waited too long. But in the end I decided to save my child and myself. They fired at us with every weapon there was,” she said.

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The streets of Kramatorsk are eerily quiet. Most shops are closed and the last working cafes are boarded up. This once-bustling city with a pre-war population of around 150,000 is almost empty in anticipation of 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.

A former soldier in the Soviet army, he is furious with the Russians and wants them “kicked out as soon as possible”.

As Ilchenko spoke, his neighbor, also a solo pensioner, prepared to cook potatoes for lunch on a makeshift outdoor stove, since there is no cooking gas in the neighborhood. Another woman lives on the top floor of the building.

“That’s it, the others are gone,” Ilchenko said.

“Let them go. It’s better than being bombed,” he added. “I just want them to know where they’re going. What if there is the same as here? You can run from the bombs. But bombs are bombs, they don’t choose.”

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Some Ukrainians will not flee from areas targeted by war

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