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Even as Russia Bears Down in the East, Some Ukrainians Stay Behind

BAKHMUT, Ukraine — The volunteers listened patiently to the pensioner and stuffed a frozen chicken into her shopping bag.

Olena Tyvaniuk, 70, a slight woman with a stoop, explained tearfully that she needed more than food. She needed drugs. “I have a son, he is 48, he is a paranoid schizophrenic,” she said. “I need medication for him.”

As the towns and cities of eastern Ukraine empty out in the face of the Russian offensive, some residents are choosing to stay on. Like Ms. Tyvaniuk, some are trapped by medical imperatives. Or they are too poor to leave. Or, disillusioned by the longstanding corruption of Ukrainian officials, they think things can’t be worse under the Russians.

Bakhmut, just 10 miles from the front, is largely deserted. There are few cars on the streets except for military vehicles; shops and banks are boarded up. Only one or two cafes and supermarkets are still open.

The only pharmacy is at the hospital where wounded soldiers are brought in from the front. Recently, bloodstained stretchers were propped up against a wall where a wounded soldier, his face bloody and swollen, swathed in bandages, smoked a cigarette with friends.

Yet in the middle of war, even as artillery booms not far away, civilians still walk by in the street, sometimes even with a child in tow.

Bloodied military stretchers outside a hospital in Bakhmut, in the Donbas region.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Ms. Tyvaniuk said her son, who barely leaves his room, was refusing to leave. His medication was running out and the only pharmacy open in the town did not stock the medicine he needed, she said. He had enough left for only four days and was down to cutting slices from his remaining tablets.

“He does not understand the whole situation,” she said. “He does not even know his own address. I cannot leave him, and I never will leave him.”

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called on civilians to leave eastern Ukraine as Russia has turned the full strength of its forces on seizing the region. But a portion of the population stubbornly refuses to go.

“Those who wanted to go have already gone,” said Ruslan, 42, a volunteer with the Union of Ukrainian Churches who drives people to shelters in western Ukraine. He said his group had evacuated 1,000 people from the Bakhmut area over the past month.

Yet of 20 people who had requested evacuation with his organization on Saturday, only nine took up the offer, he said. He had just risked the drive to the frontline town of Siversk to collect people, but came back empty. “No one wants to go,” he said.

A volunteer from a church group organizing the evacuation of civilians from frontline towns trying to find medicine for Ms. Tyvaniuk.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

He asked that only his first name be published for fear of retribution from the Russian side.

Most of those remaining are the poor, the old and the infirm, volunteers and health workers said.

“We mostly see the elderly people seeking all kinds of support,” said Islam Alaraj, program manager for psychosocial support in Ukraine for the International Committee of the Red Cross. “They are the most vulnerable and they have plenty of health issues, and they have added psychological issues above that.”

For the most part, Ukrainian health facilities around the country, including psychiatric facilities, are still functional and receiving outside support, Ms. Alaraj said. But as fighting shifts, reaching those in need is becoming more difficult.

“This context is changing in a very fast way,” she said, “and we don’t know all locations and we don’t have access to all locations.”

Many residents interviewed said they could not afford to rent an apartment elsewhere, and feared losing everything they owned if they abandoned their homes. They also voiced distrust of promises of assistance from aid groups or the government.

A Ukrainian soldier walking past cars that were blown up at a complex in Bakhmut when it was bombed by Russian forces.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

“They say they do not have money, and that people will deceive them when they get there,” Ruslan said.

“Some of them are waiting for the Russians,” he added. “Let’s face it, there are those who just sit in their basements and wait for someone to bring them humanitarian aid. And for them it does not matter who passes them a package of aid, Russia or Ukraine.”

Police officers serving until last week in the town of Sievierodonetsk said they saw the mood shifting as Russian forces were poised on the edge of the city. They abandoned a last evacuation when residents asked for extra guarantees.

“We don’t force anyone,” Chief Oleh Hryhorov of the regional police said. “Some sympathize with the other side.”

Russian troops were flying drones over the town to gather information on Ukrainian positions and some residents were acting as informers for Russia, he said. Already anticipating a Russian takeover, some residents were reluctant to talk to foreign journalists, he said.

In the town of Siversk, north of Bakhmut and close to the front line, a storekeeper suddenly shooed away customers and closed her doors in the middle of the morning for “stocktaking.” A volunteer ferrying medicines to families by bicycle said people were fearful of every interaction.

Ukrainian service members at a food kiosk in Bakhmut.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Several Ukrainians interviewed expressed bitter disaffection with their government. Many said they could barely survive on their pension, which amounts to as little as $70 a month.

Lyudmila Krilyshkina, 71, displaced after her home burned down in a rocket attack, wept as she complained that she was not able to draw her pension in Bakhmut. Since the shops were taking only cash, she could not buy food for herself and her parents, she said.

“They need to think of the people,” she said. “We understand there is a war but how are we supposed to survive?”

Another woman waiting to be evacuated complained that only voluntary organizations were helping the people, and that government officials were doing nothing. She asked not to be named for fear of retribution.

Disillusionment with previous corrupt governments helped propel President Volodymyr Zelensky to power in Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion, popular support for him has soared as the country has overwhelmingly backed his determination to fight. Yet there remains a deep, latent cynicism for the government and officials in Ukraine.

Ms. Tvyaniuk said she had spent 12 years fighting for justice after a corrupt court ruled against her and her daughter. Her daughter had successfully sued her former husband for alimony and child care payments but the police never enforced the court order and a judge helped falsify documents to overturn the ruling.

Ms. Tyvaniuk walking home to her apartment after being unable to find medicine for her son.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

“The police protected the courts and the courts protected the police,” she said. “This happened under Ukrainian rule, and now I don’t know if it would be better under Russian rule or Ukrainian.”

“We don’t know what to expect,” said Ihor, 44, an unemployed laborer sitting outside his apartment block. But he said he and his partner, Olha, 60, would stay and live under Russian rule if its troops seized Bakhmut, adding, “What else is there?”

He complained that the Ukrainian leaders were corrupt and had robbed the country and its workers. “They stole and put everything in their pockets,” he said. “And if Russia takes over, that will be finished.”

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