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Russia’s Bombing Their Homes. They Refuse to Leave.

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 8/4/2022 Stefan Weichert
Stefan Weichert © Provided by The Daily Beast Stefan Weichert

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine—The sound from the first Russian missile gave a quick warning, and 38-year-old Svetlana Buts tried to grab her 13-year-old son in a desperate attempt to help him. Then came the shockwave that blew out all the windows in their home and shook the whole house. The second missile hit shortly after, on the other side of the street, and pulverized it.

Glass splintered everywhere, Buts told The Daily Beast the day after the attack.

“Thank God nobody in my family was hurt. My mother is paralyzed and was just in her bed. She also survived. There was no siren to warn us. It came so suddenly,” said Buts, who lives in Kramatorsk, a large city in eastern Ukraine.

At least two people were killed in the blasts, which destroyed several buildings across from Buts’ house. The front line is only about 15 miles away, and Russian missiles often hit Kramatorsk as Vladimir Putin’s army tries to push forward.

Locals help each other repair a house that was damaged by the missile attack. Stefan Weichert © Provided by The Daily Beast Locals help each other repair a house that was damaged by the missile attack. Stefan Weichert

The Russians have been creeping closer over the last few months, and the Ukrainian government is urging people to evacuate. Yet Buts doesn’t want to leave, like many others in the neighborhood, despite the danger of airstrikes and missile attacks. And two Russian missiles won’t make her change her mind. She doesn’t know where to go.

“Where will I go with my paralyzed mother? We have no money. What should we live on?” she asks and starts to add up all the prices of food items in the shop.

She doesn’t think that she would be safe anywhere. Buts knows it isn’t safe for her family to stay in Kramatorsk, but she doesn’t see any better alternative.

“If I left abroad, I would need to learn a new language. Drop everything. I also have animals. What to do about them? It is my land. My motherland is here,” says Buts, who lost her husband about a year ago and is the only provider.

“I just dream of peace. I cannot describe how I feel. It is a pain, just pain.”

‘It’s Not Safe Anywhere’

It is unclear how many people remain in Kramatorsk. Before the Russian invasion, it was the main city in Ukraine’s contested Donetsk region, with 150,000 people. Most have evacuated, but some remain and are trying to get by. They often rely on their kitchen gardens to supplement their income, and Buts’ family is no different.

Kramatorsk has been hit with several strikes over the last few months. In April, 59 people died when a missile hit the train station, where evacuations were taking place.

In the neighborhood of Bilen’ke, where Buts lives, most people decided to stay. There are only a few empty houses. The locals tell The Daily Beast that the Ukrainian military had been using the buildings which were hit by the missiles. Some blame the Ukrainian army for their destroyed houses, asking why the military hides among civilians.

Eighty-year-old Nina Liman was in her garden picking apples when the missiles hit. She could hear some buzzing before the blast and saw one of the missiles. She ran to take cover.

A man repairs power cables that were downed by the missile strikes. Stefan Weichert © Provided by The Daily Beast A man repairs power cables that were downed by the missile strikes. Stefan Weichert

“There were fragments. My shed is damaged, the toilet is broken. The shower is also damaged. Windows got blown out. Everything collapsed on the second floor,” she says.

She also doesn’t want to leave, adding that she has health issues.

“I don’t have a fear of dying. And where should I go? It is not safe anywhere. You heard about how they bombed the train station, where people were evacuating. It is not safe.”

“I just put my trust in God. When I live with God, I am not alone. If it is God's will, he will keep me alive,” says Liman, who adds that she would have been dead if she had been inside.

‘It Will Never Be the Same Again’

In June, a survey by the Wall Street Journal-NORC found that 89 percent of Ukrainians find it unacceptable to make peace with Russia if it means giving up territory.

Sixty-six percent said they believed the Ukrainian military could push Russia back to the pre-invasion borders.

On the streets of Bilen’ke, people are divided on the question of who is to blame for the war. A couple say that they somehow are waiting for the Russians to arrive.

Sixty-three-year-old Lena, who doesn’t want to provide her last name, says that she blames Russia for the invasion but wants a peace deal to end the war.

All her windows are blown out, and she cannot afford to replace them. So instead, she and her husband are nailing wooden boards on the windows to shield themselves from the outside.

Volunteers help fix a damaged house. Stefan Weichert © Provided by The Daily Beast Volunteers help fix a damaged house. Stefan Weichert

“I will never forget that day. I am shivering with anger. It will never be the same again,” she says but adds that she doesn’t want to evacuate.

“This is my home. My land. And where would I go? Where would it be better? I simply do not believe any place in Ukraine is safe. It is dangerous everywhere.”

She points out that even western Ukraine has been hit by Russian rockets. For example, in Vinnytsia, which is southwest of Kyiv, she points out that a Russian missile strike killed 26.

“Maybe it is true that it is more unsafe here, but it is not safe anywhere. Here, I at least have my home. It is better than being homeless somewhere else, where it is also unsafe.”

The Russian Warning

Lena understands that the situation in Kramatorsk could be dire, and very soon, if the Russian army comes any closer. For now, the city is outside of artillery range, which shields it from the worst bombardments. The towns closer to the front line are much worse.

She says that she knows that her city could face the same destiny as Mariupol and Severodonetsk, which have been almost completely destroyed after the heavy fighting. According to the mayor of Mariupol, 90 percent of the city has been destroyed.

“If it happens here, I will see what I will do. But for now, I am staying,” says Lena.

37-year-old Andrey has had enough and has decided to leave. Stefan Weichert © Provided by The Daily Beast 37-year-old Andrey has had enough and has decided to leave. Stefan Weichert

Recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered those remaining in the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Donetsk region—around 200,000 to 220,000 people—to evacuate.

“The more people leave the Donetsk region now, the fewer people the Russian army will have time to kill… We will use all available opportunities to save as many lives as possible and to limit Russian terror as much as possible,” said Zelensky.

The Ukrainian government says there is no possibility of heating for people in the winter. However, Lena says that she will still not leave.

“I am staying here. This is my home,” says Lena.

‘I will be gone soon’

For those who are evacuating, the decision is a hard one. Thirty-seven-year-old Andrey, who lives nearby, is planning on leaving. He sent his wife and kid away at the beginning of the Russian invasion and says that he will now join them. At first, he decided to stay in Kramatorsk so that he could keep his job and provide for his family, but the two Russian missile strikes that partly destroyed his home made him reconsider.

“The problem is that it isn’t easy to find a new job. It is hard to move and adapt. At home, we have our gardens, providing vegetables. We don’t have to pay rent,” he says, “When you leave, you need to pay rent, and it is difficult without a job.”

“But I have decided to leave anyway. I am just gathering my stuff. But I don’t know how to make it. We have used all our savings, all our reserves,” Andrey adds, “We have gone through so much. Seen so much that we can never forget. It is impossible to forget it.”

He just wishes that the war would end. But a peace deal seems unlikely now, and the battle rages on. Russia is trying to push for more territory, and the Ukrainians have said they are launching a large-scale counteroffensive in southern Ukraine to retake Kherson.

“We are productive people in Ukraine,” says Andrey, “We will be able to rebuild everything, and I hope to return. But for now, I need to be calm and wait. Stay safe and try to survive against this Russian monster, so I can’t stay here. I have to go.”

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