As we leave a thick, snow-covered forest and approach the railway junction town of Lyman in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, two Ukrainian fighter planes roar low overhead.
It has been almost four months since Russian troops were pushed 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) to the east and forced to flee from this location. Though much of this town lies in ruins, it is still vulnerable to Russian missiles. Every few minutes, artillery booms can still be heard close to the front lines.
“On the seventh floor, I reside. In the early hours of today morning, around five, the rocket struck the fifth storey. But I’m okay “Alexander Rogovitz, a 73-year-old retired businessman and the sole occupant of a sizable apartment building on the outskirts of town, makes this statement.
He stoops down to provide some dried food to the eight cats, seven of whom are stray cats that were left behind by neighbors.
These people who have held on amidst the snow and wreckage appear to share a common tenacity and strong sense of community.
A 45-year-old railway worker called Valeri Dmitrenko is busy chopping wood in an adjacent courtyard next to a sizable bomb crater to heat the basement where he and 21 neighbors have been taking refuge for the past nine months. Lyman still lacks central heating and running water, and the daytime temperature has remained consistently below freezing.
What are our options? Ira and Valeri have adopted a stray puppy they named Princess Diana, and Valeri shrugs while petting her head. In his spare time, Valeri assists neighbors in their severely damaged apartment building by fixing broken doors and windows.
Ira frantically passes by carrying buckets filled with water she had pumped from a well in the yard.
Ira, a 41-year-old accountant, declares, “I still find it uncomfortable to stay outside, in the open, for long,” and then he descends a dark flight of stairs into the claustrophobic cellar of 6 Railway Street.
Contrary to local officials’ warnings, citizens are slowly returning to freed Ukrainian towns along the front line despite the fact that significant fighting is still taking place in the Donbas. In Lyman, which Russian soldiers obliterated last year, 13,000 people are shakily surviving the brutal winter.
Last June, 41,000 civilians left Lyman as Russian forces drew near, leaving about 10,000 behind. The majority of them were elderly, underprivileged, or, like Ira and Valeri, had sick family members who would not leave. About 60 individuals crammed into the same cellar on Railway Street for the following four months.
“It was occasionally challenging. All people are unique. We’re not used to living all together like this, therefore some people grew hostile “Ira states. The fact that, in Ira’s estimation, nearly a third of those who had decided to remain in the dungeon were pro-Russian and actively hoped that Ukraine would lose the conflict added to the tension.
“Yes, there were those who backed Russia. However, they left after Ukraine began to liberate land. They left with the so-called Russian authorities, taking their kids with them. Probably out of fear for what would happen to them here, “Ira says.
After Lyman was freed on October 3 by Ukrainian forces, Alexander Zhuravlov, the town’s mayor, immediately returned to find that “80%, maybe 90%” of the buildings had been burned or damaged. The railway tracks that run through the heart of the city are still clogged with damaged overhead cables.
The majority of the town and the surrounding villages have had their electricity restored in recent months thanks to the mayor and his team. Pensions are now promptly paid, and some businesses have resumed operations.
Government officials and humanitarian organizations have delivered wood stoves and given out logs. One assistance organization delivers hundreds of packed meals every day for free distribution. In Lyman, there are about 700 kids, and the mayor thinks that 3,000 more people have moved back since the town was freed. He’s telling the others to stay away, though.
“Currently, we do not advise visitors to come back. In contrast, safer neighborhoods and cities are better for them. For the time being, there are no comfortable housing options here. People will be welcomed in other countries and will have access to housing and food, “He adds as he approaches the scene of a two-week-old missile attack that completely destroyed a nine-story apartment building.
The mayor claims that “a handful” of Lyman residents who are thought to be working for the Russian occupiers are still being dealt with by the local police. But he thinks that the events of the previous year have caused many residents who were in favor of Russia to rethink their minds.
“I believe those individuals now recognize their error. They were misled by the media because they were exposed to Russian propaganda on television every night and believed it to be true. They were the minority, and they’ve already had a change of heart. They realize that the Russian world is different from what they had been made to believe “Zhuravlyov says.
When asked about the security situation in Lyman since it was freed, a 62-year-old woman named Valentina seemed to mirror that change of attitude as she waits in line for meals at the neighborhood hospital. Pro-Russian residents have frequently expressed their support in recent months by saying that both sides are equally responsible for bombing towns and that it is therefore hard to place blame.
“The bombardment is still going on. The town is still being shelled. Nobody has told us who is firing, “She starts.
However, Valentina abruptly changes her mind.
“It must be the Russians, I suppose. Of course,” she replies, adding, “We’re Ukrainian. This town is in Ukraine. There are open stores. Our pension payments are timely. The government has not given up on us.”