War in north-east Ukraine disrupts daily life.

War in north-east Ukraine disrupts daily life.

Life Amidst Destruction: The Ongoing Struggle in North-Eastern Ukraine

Ukraine War

People across a vast stretch of north-eastern Ukraine face a grim new reality. Much of Kharkiv province was occupied last year by the Russians before being liberated in September. Yet few of those who fled have returned. Those who have, or who never left, find themselves in smashed-up towns or spookily empty villages, living in constant fear of missile attacks—and the return of all-out war.

In recent weeks, several hundred evacuees, including 194 children, from the small town of Vovchansk have passed through the city of Kharkiv (the capital of the province of the same name) before being dispatched elsewhere. Their town, now supposedly free, lies hard by a part of the border where, in May, a Ukrainian-sponsored Russian militia made an incursion into Russia’s Belgorod region. Russia has not stopped shelling over the frontier since its forces were driven out of the area, but the attacks have increased since Ukrainian forces began their counter-offensive in early June.

Evacuees

Since the Russians were driven back from the suburbs of Kharkiv, the city, Ukraine’s second biggest, has seen a recovery of sorts. Nataliya Zubar, a political activist, estimates that hundreds of thousands who fled at the beginning of the full-scale invasion have returned, although one-third of the city’s original inhabitants have not. Furthermore, out of the 1.2 million people currently in the city, 200,000 have been displaced from elsewhere. These individuals may never return to their homes in small towns, where there are even fewer jobs and opportunities than in Kharkiv, or to rural areas, where mines and unexploded ordinance have made it dangerous to farm.

Another significant reason people are not returning is schooling. In Kharkiv, where all education has been online since the invasion began, there is a fierce debate about whether to allow some teaching to resume in-person in September, even though most schools lack proper shelters. However, in Izium, 125km southeast of Kharkiv, there is no such discussion. Volodymyr Matsokin, the deputy mayor, reveals that four of the town’s nine secondary schools have been destroyed, and the rest are so badly damaged that they cannot function. Online schooling for the remaining children is a patchy affair due to unreliable internet services in front-line towns.

On the roads, there is a constant flow of troops moving to and from the front. Municipal and apartment buildings in towns like Lyman and Kupiansk lie in ruins, with little work available. Many of those who remain rely on meager pensions and social-security payments. The fear that began with the invasion has not dissipated with liberation. Grad missile-launchers race through towns, and retaliation from Russia can come at any time.

In Lyman, your correspondent encounters Valentin, an electrical engineer. Returning home from his shift along an otherwise empty street where half the windows are boarded up or broken, he reveals that power has at least been restored to all homes. However, there would not be enough power for industry if there were any. Of the estimated 25,000 original residents in Lyman before the invasion, only 7,000 remain. The “anarchy” of the occupation, when the town was garrisoned by drunken, ill-disciplined troops lusting for loot, turned many of the pro-Russian inhabitants against Russia.

In Kupiansk, behind the counter of a tiny grocery shop, Tatiana shares her story. She fled from Donetsk when it came under effective Russian control in 2014 and no longer speaks to her pro-Russian family living on the other side of the front line. When asked if she fears the Russians could return, she gives a grim nod.

Soldiers in Kupiansk and Lyman admit that although the front lines in this region have not moved much, morale is holding up. However, it is becoming clear to all that the war will not be over soon. Recent battles have been particularly bloody. Ukraine does not disclose casualty figures, but combat medic Daniil Zhmuidov believes that 1,500 soldiers died in the Lyman sector alone in the first two weeks of July.

Andrey, a soldier in Lyman, expresses frustration that the counter-offensive is not yielding rapid advances. Unrealistic expectations were built up by people like Kyrylo Budanov, Ukraine’s military-intelligence chief. Andrey states that it would have been better “not to say anything” rather than risk disappointment. Despite his frustrations, he accepts that this is their new life.

Life amidst destruction in north-eastern Ukraine is a constant struggle. The people who have returned face shattered communities and daily threats of violence. Many have lost their homes, schools, and livelihoods, with no prospects for a better future. As the war continues, these resilient individuals strive to rebuild their lives, cherishing the hope that peace will one day prevail in their war-torn region.