Evacuated Ukrainians forced to return – The Denver Post


POKROVSK, Ukraine — The missile’s impact flung the young woman against the fence so hard it splintered. Her mother found her dying on the bench beneath the pear tree where she’d enjoyed the afternoon. By the time her father arrived, she was gone.

Anna Protsenko was killed two days after returning home. The 35-year-old had done what authorities wanted: She evacuated eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region as Russian forces move closer. But starting a new life elsewhere had been uncomfortable and expensive.

Like Protsenko, tens of thousands of people have returned to rural or industrial communities close to the region’s front line at considerable risk because they can’t afford to live in safer places.

Protsenko had tried it for two months, then came home to take a job in the small city of Pokrovsk. On Monday, friends and family caressed her face and wept before her casket was hammered shut beside her grave.

“We cannot win. They don’t hire us elsewhere and you still have to pay rent,” said a friend and neighbor, Anastasia Rusanova. There’s nowhere to go, she said, but here in the Donetsk region, “everything is ours.”

The Pokrovsk mayor’s office estimated that 70% of those who evacuated have come home. In the larger city of Kramatorsk, an hour’s drive closer to the front line, officials said the population had dropped to about 50,000 from the normal 220,000 in the weeks following Russia’s invasion but has since risen to 68,000.

It’s frustrating for Ukrainian authorities as some civilians remain in the path of war, but residents of the Donetsk region are frustrated, too. Some described feeling unwelcome as Russian speakers among Ukrainian speakers in some parts of the country.

But more often, lack of money was the problem. In Kramatorsk, some people in line waiting for boxes of humanitarian aid said they were too poor to evacuate at all. The Donetsk region and its economy have been dragged down by conflict since 2014, when Russian-backed separatists began fighting Ukraine’s government.

“Who will take care of us?” asked Karina Smulska, who returned to Pokrovsk a month after evacuating. Now, at age 18, she is her family’s main money-earner as a waitress.

Volunteers have been driving around the Donetsk region for months since Russia’s invasion helping vulnerable people evacuate, but such efforts can end quietly in failure.


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