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Along the front lines in Ukraine, cut off from resources, a resilient city holds on

A man stands in front of a crater that was made from a missile strike in Slovyansk on Sunday morning.
Claire Harbage
/
NPR
A man stands in front of a crater that was made from a missile strike in Slovyansk on Sunday morning.

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — When you enter this small city in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, a metal sign above the road greets you saying, "Slovyansk is Ukraine." After more than six months of Russia's invasion, it still is.

The front line of Russian-held territory in the east — where fierce fighting has reached a stalemate in recent weeks — is just about 10 miles away. Ukrainian officials have ordered evacuations, saying resources are too scarce and it's just too dangerous to stay. Three residential areas of Slovyansk are without electricity, which won't be able to be repaired in the near future. There is a dire shortage of fuel and constant shelling most nights.

Left: In January, a brightly lit kiosk stays open into the night. Right: In August, the kiosk is closed and vines grow over it.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Left: In January, a brightly lit kiosk stays open into the night. Right: In August, the kiosk is closed and vines grow over it.

Despite all this, and a mostly shuttered city center, nearly 20% of residents — about 20,000 people — remain, according to Svitlana Viunychenko, the mayor's spokesperson.

Among them are Oksana Morgun and her longtime friend Oleksandr Olaiarov. They're biking home together, for safety; a habit they started when the war began.

"We sleep separately [as couples] but everything else is together," says Morgun, who, along with her husband, is neighbors with Olaiarov and his family. She has a bag of grapes tied to her bright orange bike. Many people here travel by bike since electricity is spotty and there's no public transit anymore.

Oleksander Olaiarov (left) rides his bicycle with Oksana Morgun through the center of Slovyansk.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Oleksander Olaiarov (left) rides his bicycle with Oksana Morgun through the center of Slovyansk.

The two friends are constantly in touch, especially at night, when the city is shelled.

"When night comes and the thunder from the missiles begins, we are on the phones: 'Everything is fine? Everything is fine? Everything is fine?' we ask each other," says Morgun. "It's really difficult. We survive, we don't live."

Left: In January, a man walks through a painted pedestrian tunnel. Right: In August, the shop next to the tunnel is boarded up.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Left: In January, a man walks through a painted pedestrian tunnel. Right: In August, the shop next to the tunnel is boarded up.
A bed of roses grows in the central square in Slovyansk.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
A bed of roses grows in the central square in Slovyansk.

Most shops in the city center are boarded up, the public gardens and parks are overgrown and buildings are damaged from recent shelling. A few coffee shops remain open, mostly fueled by the groups of Ukrainian soldiers stopping in for a coffee and to relax before heading back out to the front.

"We are stationed nearby," explains a soldier who goes by the call sign Petrovich. He doesn't want to use his full name for safety reasons. He says the lines haven't moved much in recent weeks, and a stalemate for troops means you're constantly on edge without much happening.

Soldiers walk through the entryway to a coffee shop in downtown Slovyansk.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Soldiers walk through the entryway to a coffee shop in downtown Slovyansk.

A recent missile strike here left a crater along a residential boulevard, and damaged eight residential buildings and a school, according to the mayor. The damage drew several onlookers, mostly older residents who live in the buildings nearby.

Liudmyla Fakhrutdinova and her neighbor stopped by to look on their way home from picking up humanitarian aid at a local church. Their bags are filled with food and clothes, thanks to Ukrainian and international donors. She says she had just finished watching a movie the night before when she heard the blast. She and her neighbors have been spending nights in the hallway of their building since their bedrooms have windows.

Left: In January, the lights of residential buildings come on in the evening. Right: In August, a woman looks up at the damage from the morning's strike on the residential building.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Left: In January, the lights of residential buildings come on in the evening. Right: In August, a woman looks up at the damage from the morning's strike on the residential building.

For Viktoria Batychenko, looking at the damage is painful.

"I feel total despair," says Batychenko, as she sobs. "I think about the people who lost their homes."

Her grief is deepened, she says, because of the history here. Slovyansk was the first city to be seized by Russia-backed fighters in 2014. Ukraine claimed it back soon after and Batychenko says they worked hard to rebuild.

"We're Ukrainians," she says, "we've always been part of Ukraine. I want to live in Ukraine."

Nearby Liubov Mahlii, 75, with an orange kerchief tied around her head, is listening to the conversation. She points to a building just beyond the missile's crater. "This is my house," she says. "I saw the missile last night. But we're used to it by now."

Liubov Mahlii recites a poem she wrote about peace in the Donbas while she stands across from a building that was shelled that morning.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Liubov Mahlii recites a poem she wrote about peace in the Donbas while she stands across from a building that was shelled that morning.

She lives in the fifth-floor apartment by herself. Her husband passed away and her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have all left Slovyansk for the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and other parts of Europe.

For months, water was out in the city, so Mahlii had to carry jugs up five flights of stairs. About two weeks ago, officials reestablished the water supply, so she finally has water back in her apartment, though, she says, it's finicky.

Left: In January, people walk past an open kiosk in central Slovyansk. Right: In August, the kiosk is shuttered and a man rides his bike.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Left: In January, people walk past an open kiosk in central Slovyansk. Right: In August, the kiosk is shuttered and a man rides his bike.

Still, she's not planning on leaving anytime soon. Who would watch her home, keep her apartment safe? she asks.

"I can't leave," she says. "I don't want strangers in my home."

She passes the days writing and reciting poetry.

She shares one with NPR, about bringing peace to her home:

"I'm looking forward to peace

Although it makes us wait so long

Our patience has not run out yet

Peace is near, we eagerly await

Let there be peace

That is so hoped-for

And let the storms go too

Long live Donbas and Slovyansk!"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Viktoria Batychenko walks her bike in central Slovyansk where missiles hit in the morning on Sunday.
Claire Harbage / NPR
/
NPR
Viktoria Batychenko walks her bike in central Slovyansk where missiles hit in the morning on Sunday.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Hanna Palamarenko