KOPYANSK, Ukraine (AP) — The thunder of mortars reverberates in the distance as 5-year-old David approaches his mother with an innocent request: Can he play with the baseball bat a relative gave him as a gift?
Valeria Pototska rolls her eyes and tells her son no for the umpteenth time. It’s a game for big kids, you scold her. The boy, who doesn’t hold back much when guns not far from his hometown in northeastern Ukraine fire more shots, frowns and rides around on his bike.
Other children in the neighborhood frolic on a playground in Kobyansk-Vozlovy, seemingly immune to the war 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away. Ukrainian authorities this month I ordered a mandatory evacuation The village and thirty other populated areas with war returned to Kharkiv province. Even now, most residents refuse to go as the battle approaches their backyards.
“It’s natural,” Pototska said of the soundtrack of guns punctuating their daily routine. Olena Kanevets, the friend sitting next to her, nodded and smoked. “It was the powerful who made the decision to leave,” Kanevets said.
The August 10 evacuation directive applies to 37 settlements occupied by Russian soldiers early in the 18-month war. Ukrainian counterattack I freed them in SeptemberAnd raise the morale of the occupied country. Citing a Russian attempt to return to the area, the military administration of the Kobyansk region told some 12,000 residents to seek safety elsewhere.
Only a few hundred responded to the warning. Of the thousands who did not, some were paralyzed by the daunting task of moving. Others said they took into account the hardships of displacement and decided to confront renewed hostilities instead. He signed several documents stating that they are staying at their own risk.
Their reasons range from existential to routine: fear of facing poverty and loneliness in distant, expensive cities. A reluctance to give up homes in which they have invested their savings for an overcrowded shelter. The need for more time to tidy up the garden or to take care of the livestock.
The city of Kobyansk, which the Russians also occupied for more than six months last year, is now under a partial evacuation order. Katharina Chista, the principal there, said she plans to stay put even if the order is extended citywide because she is tired of running away from war.
When Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, Chista fled the port city of Mariupol under fire and ended up in Kobyansk, where her parents live. The 39-year-old refuses to pack up and move again.
Russian airstrikes frequently target Kopyansk and hit the city’s main school building in October and December, so Chista is preparing an online curriculum for the new academic year.
“Maybe that’s who I am,” she said, sitting in her office, dressed in a pure white dress and her hair neatly pulled back. “Some people should stay here to be patriots of the city, to develop it, to survive.”
Kharkiv provinceThe region bordering Russia re-emerged as a fighting hotspot in mid-July. That’s when the Russian military began assembling offensive forces, tank units, and other resources in the direction of Kobyansk, hoping to pressure Ukrainian forces fighting south and retake territory that Ukraine had recaptured, according to Ukrainian military officials.
Ukrainian military officials say their forces have prevented the Russians from advancing, but there is heavy fighting on the outskirts of the village of Senkivka, 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) from Kobyansk.
To illustrate the dangers to locals, they said, Russian units bombed civilian infrastructure and homes while chasing down Ukrainian soldiers fighting hidden in wooded and agricultural landscapes. Almost constant bombing kills several residents every week, according to the Kobyansk military administration.
The evacuees are being taken to a shelter in Kharkiv, the provincial capital The second largest city in Ukraine. Red Cross volunteers say the number of requests to move has risen dramatically in places that have been bombed heavier, but many locals are still stranded.
“Until the moment the bombing approaches, people refuse to leave,” said volunteer Volodymyr Fedolenko.
For Oleksandr Ivanovic, 70, the moment came when a shell hit his home in the village of Hrishivka, leaving the roof in tatters. He was picking weeds from the front porch at the time. “What can I say, leaving my house is very painful,” Ivanovic said.
Tatyana Shapavalova, 59, who lives two houses away, got into an evacuation truck with her neighbour. I thought their part of Ukraine It will remain relatively quiet after the Russians withdrew from most of Kharkiv province last year, but the artillery attack on August 13 proved it wrong.
“We hoped the Ukrainian army would push the Russians away, but every day we hear them getting closer and closer,” Shapavalova said.
Lyudmila Ermichuk, a resident of the village of Kivcharevka, requested evacuation with her 84-year-old mother. Her sister decided to stay behind. “They plan to clean up their garden, and then maybe go to Kharkiv,” she said from the Red Cross base in Kobyansk.
In villages near the front line, residents told Fedolenko they did not want to give up their farm animals. He added that they spend most of their time in underground shelters under the destroyed houses.
“I have to tell them: Your life is more important than your chicken,” he said.
In Kupyansk-Vozlovy. The long war has created an atmosphere that is both calm and deadly. The roar of artillery fire disturbs intermittently the rustle of soft foliage in the late summer breeze. Municipal workers mow the lawn next to the bombed school buildings.
Residents who lived under occupation for half a year said the experience was terrifying. “The Russians acted like royalty,” Pototska said. Many said they would evacuate the area if a return of Russian forces seemed imminent, but until then they were hopeful that Ukrainian forces would defeat them.
Pototska’s friend Kanevets sent her 12-year-old son Yaroslav to a 10-day summer camp in western Ukraine to “give him a respite” from the bombing. The war forced him to mature very quickly, she said, but “he has friends here, it’s his home, so I think it’s best to stay.” “He’s not afraid.”
“Old man,” Kanevets said affectionately of her child.
Four months ago, Natalia Rosolova’s 14-year-old son, Dmytro, begged her to leave after a night of heavy bombing. She told him, “We need to stay longer.”
Rosolova, 38, recalled the conversation when an air raid alert went off in her neighbourhood. She explained that she works as a paramedic and “there are very few of us left here”. As she speaks, her youngest son’s toys are strewn about in a sandbox in the backyard, and somewhere the sound of a shell falls.
If the time comes when the family has to flee, their bags are packed and ready to be taken from Dmytro’s bedroom.
“Maybe I’m not strong enough to make such difficult decisions,” said the mother with tears in her eyes. “But I am not the enemy of my children. If there is a need to leave, we will leave.”
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