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Ten reasons why we stayed in a warzone

Published on Jul 4, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 36th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on July 4th, 2024. The article was written by Nataliia Nahorna and Dariia Kovtun for Reporters Media and was translated for n-ost by Olesia Storozhuk. Read the original article here.

Those who stay in Ukrainian frontline areas reveal the arguments for why they cannot leave

“Why do they stay there? And with their children!” This is the most frequent question my friends ask when I return from my assignments at the Ukrainian frontline. From the shelled villages where, in half-destroyed houses, people still make their homes. Our people.

Those who stay amid the battles are most often referred to as “awaiters of the russkiy mir [the Russian world/culture]”, who are allegedly waiting to greet the enemy army and who have respect for Putin. We may come across such people in the borderline settlements, of course. They are the most active and visible residents. But there are others who also remain. They have many reasons that force them to stay in the middle of the war, and some are difficult for us to argue against.

1. “No one needs us there”

I have seen people with small children forced to move several times. First, they escaped the occupied territories but stayed closer to their occupied homes. When projectiles damaged their new house, they moved again. And then the missiles landed nearby. After a while, it seemed like it was the same everywhere.

It becomes more difficult to feel a sense of belonging. Being detached from your home, you instantly lose acquaintances, friends, neighbours, your children's teachers, and the doctors you are used to visiting. You find yourself in a strange city. You don't know the bus schedule. Have no work. Have no one, in fact. Someone must give you accommodation and take your word that you have never supported the ideas of russkiy mir. Sometimes, you have to finally start speaking Ukrainian. Displaced men will be looked at suspiciously, because “why are our men fighting while this one came here and is walking around freely?”

Mobilisation is harder in the frontline territories — the military commissars are not very motivated to search for recruits while under a rain of shells. Now, you are officially called a 'displaced person'. You must do the paperwork, look for some aid, a job, money and accommodation, while turning on the TV news in the evening in the hope of seeing your home still standing. You call your neighbours, asking them: “How are you there? Alive? Have you seen our house?”

To find a sense of belonging, you must possess enormous mental and physical resources. Of course, this is war, and no one said it would be easy, but what if you return home while your house is still there — and feel at ease?

People moved to a safer city or village because they had no other choice. But going back home gives you the illusion that you are making your own decision.

2. 'I can't leave the animals'

The most horrific war scene I've seen didn't feature any blood or torn-up bodies. It was not about anonymous graves or victims of torture.

It was at the Kyiv Central Station in early March 2022. People were filling up the trains, carrying their frightened dogs, and terrified cats in boxes, while kids held hamsters in their bare hands. People with several animals stood hopelessly at the platform. They were desperate, as moving away only seemed possible with their animals.

This is the reason I’ve heard so many times since 2014: 'Who has need of us? Especially with our dogs and cats!'

It was most difficult for people who live in their own private houses.

“Well, look,” a friend from the military starts to explain to me (those in the military start most of their stories with “Well, look…”), “There is a man living in Bakhmut who had three dogs and five cats. His neighbours fled leaving their animals, and all of them came to this guy. Now he has a squad of cats and dogs — his own and those of others. Can he leave them? No. What shall I tell him? That his life is more valuable? He won't believe me. I won't believe myself either. I wouldn't leave mine. What can I tell him? He is not abnormal. Maybe, he is the only normal person around, see?”

My reporting team arrived in a village in the Dnipropetrovsk region which was under powerful shelling. A day before, houses were shattered, people were scared, but nobody died or was injured. We met some random locals to ask them how it all happened. At the edge of the village there used to be numerous residents. There was a large herd of cows. A local woman told us that when fleeing, people tried to sell their cows for at least a few thousand hryvnias, but who would buy them? Therefore, those who stayed look after the cattle.

We walked through the village and the empty yards were full of dogs still tied up. We wanted to let them loose, but the woman walked behind us, persuading us that there was no need to do so, as she would visit and feed them — if she survived the next shelling. But we untied them because these shaggy mongrels didn't deserve to die from thirst and hunger.

I am not sure this helped the animals. They could have quickly become wild and could have started doing something unusual, like stealing chicken or attacking humans. If that happened, they would probably have been shot, and such a death may have been easier for them. If death can be easy at all.

3. 'The walls of our home protect us'

This is not true. I have seen proof of the opposite. I become angry because people who stayed between the walls of their home sometimes need to be rescued, and everyone is risking their lives to save them. This myth resembles the belief that the Russians will not fire a projectile or missile at the same place twice. They will. The walls of a home can be hit again, and those who come to rescue the people who won’t leave can die too — such as emergency workers, doctors, firefighters, neighbours, police, and journalists.

Using the argument about the walls of a home, people rarely say everything they mean.

The walls of a home save their inhabitants from homelessness. They save displaced people from needing to hang out in strange apartments, and ask familiar or unfamiliar people for shelter. They save such people from leaving their stuff and maybe never getting it back again. They save them from not seeing tomatoes ripen in their garden, leaving homegrown potatoes in their earth and canned food in their cellar — with such provisions, no one died, at least not from hunger.

What can they take with them? — a winter jacket or photos from their childhood, their daughter's doll or another pair of shoes? For kids, it's even harder. Even if one day they return home, for them, they will have grown up a little: the bed will become too small, the books will not be of interest anymore, and no one will play with the toys.

“We’ve already got used to this,” adults and kids living in frontline cities and villages tell us unanimously. “Come with us, we will show you the fragments of shells we have collected around our house.”

We talk to each other as if nothing has happened. As if people living under shells for months don't need additional support or psychological help. Where would they get it anyway, when even fresh bread is not always available?

Right before the full-scale invasion, I had coffee with a Danish journalist who filmed the war in Syria before. And he told me:

“Just imagine,” he said. “People's houses were destroyed, with one wall left; they got out a table from the debris and had lunch on it. I asked them why they returned, and they said it was their home. I argued there was no house, just a wall, but they would show me a door and a window still intact. I said: ‘But you are alone here!’ And they persuaded me that their neighbours would return soon and they would all live as before. And, imagine, they told me all that as if it was normal. I didn't publish that account. Because in Denmark, people would think I had filmed someone who was crazy.”

I recall these words so many times. To billions of people in the world who have never lost their homes, we are crazy.

4. 'At least we get some humanitarian aid'

In a picturesque village in the Kherson region, people receive humanitarian aid. All sorts of humanitarian aid. Sometimes, even more than they need.

But people know: shellings can destroy their local shop any day. If it still exists, of course. That's why they store pasta, cereals and canned goods in their cellars. Humanitarian aid works as an anchor for the local residents. Where else can they go, where there may be uncertainty, which can scare people more than injury or death?

5. 'Our mother is bedridden'

My university classmate's parents from Siverodonetsk spent one and a half years under occupation. They lost weight and suffered, but stayed at home.

They stayed because my friend's grandmother, their mother, was 99 years old and could not walk.

We tried to get medication for them with the help of volunteers. Now I can't even recall whether we managed.

The older woman didn't live four months to see her 100th birthday.

My friend’s parents began the trip to free Ukraine in October 2023. The journey took them three and a half days through Russia. Finally, in Lviv, their daughters and grandchildren could finally hug them.

Embracing their relatives in Lviv, my friend's parents realised the main thing — their mother didn't die lonely.

6. 'Our house will be burgled'

Once, we visited the village of Zaitseve near Horlivka. For a long time, this village in the Donetsk region was divided into two — one part was administered by the Ukrainian military, while the other one was occupied by those who were then called 'separatists'. Locals would move freely between both parts. In the shops, both hryvnias and rubles were accepted.

There, a volunteer who brought some aid to the village told me his theory about the 'main rule of war'. He told me: “If you see soldiers near your house, no matter which ones, take your stuff and flee — this house is not yours anymore.”

I often imagined myself in these people's shoes. I imagined that if soldiers would come to my house, I would give them my keys. But I can't persuade anyone to act in the same way.

A village in the Mykolaiv region, which was under attack by Russians, had numerous bunkers. As a former military town, it was prepared for war. It took a long time to repel the invasion, and the Ukrainian soldiers told us that the problem was not about the lack of ammunition, nor the enormous number of enemy combatants, but the civilians who were still around.

It is always more difficult to fight when civilians are around. They still need food. Military personnel have to evacuate them if they are injured, or at least help them. And they take up space in the cellars and the bunkers. As a result, the soldiers have nowhere to hide, sleep or leave their gear. “How can we shoot if our people are here?” soldiers say “We fight for them too…”

Sometimes, locals have to decide which flag will be on the military uniform of the soldier who lives in their house.

7. 'This is our land'

This is the most difficult argument, and I understand it the best. I wouldn't want to leave my land either. Some people stay to resist the enemy. To tell invaders to their face to go to hell. To hang their country's flag on a building under siege. To sing Ukrainian anthems, like the girls from the Azovstal steelworks in captivity. To steal the enemy's tanks with tractors.

People also won’t leave because they have the moral right to live on this land and not surrender it to anyone.

I have heard this argument formulated in different ways:

“Here are my ancestors' graves.”

“The Russians won't see me leaving my house.”

“My navel string is buried here.”

8. 'I don't care about politics'

Over ten years of reporting on war, I've heard the argument about indifference to politics from many people.

These people would always add that they “don't know who is shooting”. Or, “If Ukrainian soldiers leave, everything will be fine here’. And another one: “[Politicians] split the two brotherly nations, while life in the Soviet Union was so good.”

I have never heard these 'arguments' expressed in Ukrainian. On the other hand, I’ve also heard: “What good did Ukraine do to me?”

After these phrases, I have never asked people why they don't leave. Such conversations would be pointless.

9. 'My place is here'

I often hear the phrase from Ukrainians that 'only awaiters of Russia stay living [at the frontline positions]'. Then I recall how many people during ten years of war have been fooled by Russian propaganda, are scared by Russian fake news, and are dreaming of seemingly high pensions from Russia.

…And I also remember the stories of absolute self-sacrifice.

The stories of doctors who can't just leave when there are so many wounded by shells in hospital rooms and corridors. The stories of rescuers who go to burning houses — into the flames while under enemy fire.

Or the State Emergency Service of Ukraine female worker who was evacuating children from Toretsk, who explained: “People in minibuses look at me and realise: if I am here, the rescuers are also around. And if something bad happens, someone will come and help. Our city lives as long as we are here.” And then she added she has an apiary closer to the frontline. Even if the Russians were laying mines near the bees, she felt safer.

The woman stood up, went to the cupboard, and took out a half-litre jar of honey and a plastic spoon. I tasted the sweet, sticky, savoury honey. At that moment, a fire engine returned from a mission — half an hour earlier, a projectile landed in a house: the building burnt down, but no one was hurt, which was not bad. The woman insisted that I take the honey with me.

Or take the moment when we leaned against a house with the Kherson region islands and the occupied left bank behind it. A man passed by, looking a bit over forty, dragging his wheelbarrow with empty bottles under the sounds of explosions. Missiles landed somewhere nearby, but he filled up his bottles with water. Of course, one man didn't need so much water. But he had elderly neighbours who couldn't collect water themselves. That's why the man carried water both for himself and for them. He was needed because he was brave and sympathetic, and he had a wheelbarrow. When the occupiers blew up the Kakhovka dam, this street was totally flooded. The water they lacked filled their houses completely.

A man with a boat at the Dnipro river in Kherson also flatly refused to leave. I went to his house, having noticed a flag flying on it. A blue and yellow flag. In the yard, there was a burnt-down summer pavilion. There was a gas cylinder standing in the crater from a strike.

Knowing each other for just a few minutes, we hugged his dog Halia and cried together with his wife, who told us that the flag hung there during the occupation until Russians grabbed their grandson and took him to a torture chamber. They preserved this flag. When in March 2022 Kherson dwellers went to protests, under the sound of shooting, to say “Kherson is Ukraine”, they displayed the flag in the window and rode through the city with it. For people to see that there were fellow Ukrainians living here.

They were a family of 'awaiters'. They also stayed here waiting, though not for the Russians but for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Their house would also be flooded, but the man, whose name I remember but won't say, repeated that he could not leave.

“You see, I have a boat,” he said. “I know this river, I know these reedbeds. And on the left bank, during occupation, there are also our people. Who will help them escape if I leave?”

How many such people are there? Someone with a boat, someone with hope, someone with a packet of pasta for the hungry, someone with a bottle of water for the thirsty, with medication for the ill. People that I would drag out with my hands, and rescue from shelling. Our 'golden' people. But they are staying. Because their place is there.

10. Reason number zero

One could conclude that all people are different and deciding to stay is as hard as deciding to leave. Sometimes, it seems that the former will never understand the latter. Never.

People who refuse to leave most often tell me the same phrase: “You will never understand what it means to leave your home”. Usually, I have no time to tell them about myself and my family's stories.

I was born in Polissia near the Belarus border, north of Chornobyl. Our tiny villages were located in forests, and you would find everything needed to survive there. Numerous berries and mushrooms, hardworking people with homemade milk and eggs, meat and vegetables.

Four years after the explosion at the fourth reactor of the Chornobyl power plant, a radioactive spot was detected where we were living. Our house fell into the 'voluntary resettlement zone' category, and my grandparents' house into the 'obligatory resettlement zone'. That year, my family split up. My mother and father decided that they couldn't leave me and my brother in our native village — the school and the hospital could be closed, while the children must be safe. That's how we became displaced persons.

My grandfather, Lukash, couldn’t leave his ancestors' land. I was a kid, but I remember him saying: “As long as I can hold a gun in my hands, I won't go anywhere”. That's how my grandparents became zalyshentsi — those who stayed.

We moved from the well-fed 1989 into the hungry 1990s. We left most of the stuff, all my parents' savings were lost, and my brother and I transferred from a Ukrainian-language school into a Russian-language one. Our family moved to the Mykolaiv steppe zone with bare land and only a few, scarce trees We had no cellar with potatoes, no conserves, or other basic stuff that allows you not to feel very poor. I never had the much desired Lego or a Barbie doll. We were displaced people without our own accommodation, in a strange flat, without money or any aid. From my early years, I remember what it was like to be a displaced person.

At that time, my grandfather would walk the streets of his empty village in Polissia with a gun and drive away those who arrived to loot slate from roofs and dismantle houses for wood. My grandparents are buried in their ancestors' land. They were the people who lived till the end of their lives in an empty village.

When Russian aviation flew over their village in the spring of 2022, I knew: if they had survived to that date, they wouldn't have left as well. They would have taken out the gun again.

My mother has become a displaced person for the second time — I persuaded her to temporarily go abroad with her grandchildren. At first, she flatly refused. There was only one working argument. I told her: “Remember, 30 years ago, you said that we can't force the adults to leave, but we are obliged to save the children? Mama, will you do that one more time, please?”