Nadezhda Sereda feels punished for staying during the Russian occupation of her village in eastern Ukraine, which has since been taken by Kiev forces.
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Since Russian soldiers breached Ukraine’s defenses and took Stariy Karavan in the Donetsk region last May, the retired worker and her dozen neighbors have had no electricity or running water in their homes, whose facades have been shattered by artillery fire.
The recapture of this small town and several others in the region three months later created even more problems for Nadezhda Sereda.
“Our leaders began to divide us between those who stayed under the occupation and didn’t see them as human beings, and those who left Ukraine and supposedly really love Ukraine,” she says, exasperated.
The 66-year-old woman took to the streets to greet the volunteer doctors, who had to cross a pontoon and a bumpy road before reaching her home on the outskirts of the village.
“They are angels,” she enthuses when addressing this privately funded team. “They’re the only ones coming here.”
Residents of Stariy Karavan continue to lack gas for cooking and rely on radio and very limited cell phone service for information.
Resentment is strong.
“When the Russians arrived, it wasn’t as if we had betrayed us or talked to them about anything,” emphasizes Valentyna Tchoumakova, Sereda’s neighbor. “We just stayed quiet at home.”
Sereda’s concerns reflect broader social divisions in impoverished areas where danger reigns, such as Stariy Karavan and the more distant village of Brusivka.
Lost in the midst of forested areas, these settlements are cut off from the rest of Ukrainian state-controlled territory by a meandering river whose bridges were destroyed by the war.
At the other end of the forest, the Russian troops have regrouped and are trying to break through.
Other Russian brigades advance further north towards Koupyansk in Kharkiv region.
The resurgence of the Russian threat is one of the reasons Mykhaïlo Dobrichman, a volunteer doctor, is taking his mobile clinic to these remote countries.
His volunteer group, Base UA, has organized evacuations from some of the hottest places in Ukraine.
“But today we meet very few people who want to go,” complains the 33-year-old.
“On the contrary, more and more people are coming back.”
The isolation of Stariy Karavan and the growing threat from Russia may explain why so few of Ukraine’s limited resources reach Sereda and its neighbors.
dr Dobrichman tries to understand and no longer objects to the refusal of older villagers to give up their homes and vegetable gardens.
But he is not so patient with young families with children. “These are the most critical cases,” he says.
“When we see children, we come back several times to convince the families to leave. We’re trying to get help from the police,” he continued.
“These children are our future.”
Nadezhda Sereda is furious that someone might think she is a spy for the Russians.
“Our government despises us,” she says. “Everyone has their own reasons why they want to stay,” she adds. “I just want to be treated like a human being. Is that too much?”
In Brusivka, Mykola Brus, who lives in similar conditions, literally worships Ukraine and its soldiers.
Her village bears her family’s name and her roots are as strong as Nadezhda’s.
“Guys, the soldiers here, they’re always helping us,” says the 69-year-old about the small groups of soldiers stationed out of sight in the fields.
“The soldiers take turns looking after me. “They’re checking to see if I’m still alive,” he says without any irony.
But even he has a hard time remembering the last time a civilian administration official visited these regions.
“We have the soldiers,” he calls, shrugging his shoulders.
“They come at any time of the day. They bring me food, borscht (Ukrainian soup), they help me with everything.”