Ukrainians in occupied Lugansk struggle to rebuild their lives elsewhere

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KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — No one came to rescue Arif Bahirov.

After months of fierce fighting for control of the Luhansk region, a devastating Russian assault on what remained of battered Ukrainian military positions threatened to cut off one of the last escape routes from Bahirov’s nearly surrounded hometown, Severodonetsk. Carrying only a small backpack, he began a perilous 50-mile journey by bicycle.

Bahirov, 45, who worked in public relations, was familiar with this ‘road of life’ having volunteered for months to help evacuate hundreds of residents from Luhansk, a sprawling region east of Ukraine, on the border with Russia. He had seen many Russian missile attacks targeting cars and trucks here, but now as he rode he clung to one thought: “No one would shoot a man on a bicycle.”

It was late May and he was exhausted. Too many days of begging neighbors to flee in the midst of incessant shelling. Too many sleepless nights and not enough food. He tried to stay focused as he circled the bomb craters and jagged fragments of shrapnel, listening for incoming and outgoing fire.

” I did not think. I was listening to my surroundings,” he said.

About 20 miles away, he heard the familiar rumble of a low-flying Russian plane. Someone was shooting at a man on a bicycle. He dived for cover in a ditch filled with wildflowers and a bomb went off less than 300 feet away.

Four and a half hours later, he arrived, panting, at a checkpoint outside the town of Bakhmut, where a startled Ukrainian policeman inspected his documents and waved him through.

More than a month after fleeing, Bahirov has yet to come to terms with what he experienced when his city was destroyed. Although he was able to return, his apartment and everything in it were destroyed by Russian shelling. “I only have what I put in my backpack. I have to start all over again from the beginning,” he said, speaking from his temporary home hundreds of kilometers away in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.

Russian forces almost completely occupied Luhansk, displacing 300,000 civilians, killing thousands and burning entire towns to ashes. Russian bombardments and Ukrainian counter-attacks scattered survivors across Europe.

The complete capture of Luhansk would mark the first time an entire region has fallen to Moscow-backed forces and their separatist proxies since the Feb. 24 invasion. Recent gains in eastern Ukraine bring Russian President Vladimir Putin closer to his stated goal of capturing Donbass, made up of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions.

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On July 3, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the “liberation” of Luhansk, but its regional governor, Serhiy Haidai, reported that Ukrainian forces were resisting the Russians in a “very small” area.

Luhansk, an ethnically and linguistically diverse region, is part of industrialized eastern Ukraine. The region has been at war since 2014, after Moscow-backed separatists seized a large swath of territory and established the self-proclaimed “Lugansk People’s Republic”. This conflict has displaced tens of thousands of people and severely damaged towns and villages. In a sign of the region’s complicated ties with Ukraine and Russia, Russian state media has aired videos of some locals applauding the arrival of Russian troops.

The region’s capital and most populous city, Severodonetsk was one of the hardest hit. By the end of May, around 90% of the city’s buildings and all of its “critical infrastructure” had been damaged, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.


Area owned

by Russia-

supported

separatists

before

Feb. 2022

Control zones from July 12

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI Critical Threats Project, Post report

Area owned

by Russia-

supported

separatists

before

Feb. 2022

Control zones from July 12

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI Critical Threats Project

Area held

by Russia-

supported

separatists

before

Feb. 2022

Control zones from July 12

Sources: Institute for the Study of War

Maryna arrived in town on February 23 to celebrate her mother’s birthday. The Washington Post identifies him only by his first name for the safety of his family members who are currently living under Russian occupation.

The 27-year-old, who hoped to one day become mayor of her hometown, was trapped in the city for a month after the Russian invasion. The relentless shelling of Ukrainian military positions in an industrial district near their home shook the walls of his family’s apartment. “I could feel it in my lap,” she said.

During the day, her parents would look for groceries in the few stores that remained open. They stopped when Russian artillery struck outside a grocery store, killing a man standing near his parents.

The family slept seated, well-dressed, on the couch in the living room, fleeing to the hallway or the bathroom whenever shells crashed near their building. They first thought that the Ukrainian army would quickly save them, but they were trapped there for a month.

Maryna said her father, once deferential to Russia, had been changed by the ordeal. “Why are the Russians coming here to kill me to protect us from the Ukrainians?” he said. The 60-year-old even tried to enlist in the Ukrainian army but was turned away due to his age.

When their family made plans to escape, her father refused to leave. “This is my house. The Russians came here. Why should I leave? said her father, according to Maryna.

“It was hard for us to accept, but we had no choice,” she said.

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Maryna and her mother fled the city, but her father moved into a shelter in the basement of their building with 30 other people. At the end of May, three months after the start of the war, the town had no water, electricity or telephone.

In late June, Maryna received a video from her father: “I don’t know how much longer I can take this,” he said, amid the crash of artillery shells outside.

“I’m just waiting for a call to make sure my dad is alive,” she said. In the brief messages they were able to exchange, they stopped talking about escape. “I don’t even know how to get him out,” she said.

Parts of the region were spared total devastation. In early March, Russian forces took the village of Yevsuh without a single shot after Ukrainian forces withdrew, according to Yulia Naydysh, a small business owner and local journalist.

With Ukrainian cellphones cut off soon after the invasion began, his family’s only connection to the outside world was Russian state television. In his community, no one came out to protest Putin’s actions; there was no territorial defense. The city did nothing to prepare for war.

Naydysh, then 19, voted in the 2014 sham referendum organized by Kremlin-backed separatists in Lugansk. She moved to Russia, fearing that the Ukrainian government would attack her village. “I still haven’t forgiven myself. When the war started, I thought it was my fault,” she said in a phone interview.

She returned to her city in October 2021 and said her loyalty was now to her home country. But during the two months she lived under Russian occupation, she felt like the only ardent supporter of Ukraine.

She and her father had been bickering over fake Russian state reporting accusing Ukraine of atrocities. She said countless hours of watching television made her father believe Kremlin propaganda.

In late April, with the separatists firmly in control of her village, she convinced her father, who desperately needed medical attention, that it was finally time to leave. She agreed to take him to live with his brother in Russia, then she planned to return to a safer part of Ukraine.

“I walked around and said goodbye to my house. I was saying goodbye to everything I had,” she said. “At that time, I felt disappointed in my country and my father.

She brought her father to Russia, enduring an interview with suspicious agents of Russia’s FSB intelligence agency. Then she managed to find her way to safety in Latvia. There, she was captivated by news reports showing videos of protests against Russia in Lugansk. She plans to return to Kyiv soon. In the end, she wants to return home.

“We are at a turning point for the people of Luhansk,” she said. “In the past, people forgave when their neighbors or relatives held pro-Russian views. From now on, those who collaborated with Russia will be forced to flee.

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