Thousands of civilians who fled the front lines in Ukraine.jpgw1440

Thousands of civilians who fled the front lines in Ukraine return

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SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — After Russia invaded, Kateryna Gordeeva did what most of her neighbors in this battle-torn frontline town did: she left. With a mother in Italy and money to travel, Gordeeva and her 7-year-old son joined the exodus that turned Slovyansk into an almost ghostly city with empty streets and frequent explosions.

But a few months ago – when the war was still raging, the shells were still falling and Russian fighters were only 25 miles away in Bakhmut — she came back. And open a new restaurant.

“I’m not afraid of shelling or explosions,” said 39-year-old Gordeeva, standing in the blinking light of the kebab shop she and her husband opened in January. “Italy was safe, but I spent all the time looking at the internet cameras in my house. I wanted to be here where my life is.”

She didn’t come back alone. Gordeeva and her son German are part of a surprise reverse exodus that, war or not, has swelled the populations of several of the most contested cities in eastern Donbass and restored at least some of the ranks that fled after the invasion.

Driven by financial hardship, family ties and homesickness, tens of thousands of returnees have partially resettled the area where Moscow is waging its fiercest fighting and likely to launch its next major offensive, with intent on claiming the entire Donetsk region.

The number of civilian residents in Sloviansk and neighboring Kramatorsk has doubled since the nadir following last year’s mass evacuations, according to regional officials, reaching more than 50,000 and 80,000 respectively. A wave of returnees has pushed the population of nearby Kostyantynivka to 45,000, a military administrator said.

The returnees did not come close to restoring the cities’ pre-war populations (220,000 in Kramatorsk, 110,000 in Sloviansk and 70,000 in Kostyantynivka). But they have added thousands of civilians at risk of being injured or killed in neighborhoods already ravaged by Russian strikes.

The three cities form a crescent west of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian troops are fighting a bloody battle to stop the Russian advance. All three cities continue to be hit by Russian shells and rockets, including an explosion that destroyed an apartment building in Kramatorsk earlier this month, killing four and wounding 18.

Four strikes have hit Sloviansk this month, while the number of babies being born — at a sandbag hospital that cares for both civilians and soldiers wounded in combat — has more than tripled from a summer low to 20 a month.

As Russians advance near Bakhmut, Ukrainians dig fallback defences

Regional officials who have conducted media campaigns and even gone door-to-door to encourage people to leave the country – particularly families with children – express both frustration and sympathy for those who insist on re-inhabiting the war zone.

“Evacuations save lives; we want people to leave,” said Serhii Horbunov, deputy head of the Kostyantynivka military administration. “But people want to be here. It’s her home.”

The influx has brought an unexpected bloom of urban vibrancy to cities that were virtually deserted just a few months ago. Gordeeva’s new kebab shop is across from a new hotel and a block from a new sushi cafe.

Streetlights remain off to conserve energy and hamper Russian drones, but now more windows are lit from dark apartment blocks. So much daytime traffic has returned that Sloviansk officials turned on the lights for the first time in months — although they had to wait for the return of a technician who knew how to reset the system.

On a recent morning, eight people were waiting on a corner for the walk signal countdown: one pushing a stroller and another holding a barista-brewed cappuccino from Golden Cup, a one-room cafe that was recently expanded into a full cafe -Service restaurant by taking over an empty adjacent storefront.

In Kramatorsk, a well-stocked hookah bar and pizza restaurant that reopened in October was packed on Valentine’s Day, tables filled with young people in military and civilian clothes. Families with children walked on sidewalks cleared of snow by city workers.

Groups of school-age teenagers who had been separated were hanging out in person at cafes and parks after months of only seeing each other in Zoom classes or playing online video games.

“Without the explosions and the air raid sirens, I would say it’s almost normal,” said Arthur Babayants, 16, who returned to Kramatorsk with his parents and brother in September after spending six months in a dormitory housed in a Evacuation center was converted further west.

They came back when the dental clinic where his mother is an x-ray technician called to say she had to come back. Business was better, but not at prewar levels, so he and his uncle waited in a downtown plaza for humanitarian aid—boxes of canned beans, cooking oil, and pasta distributed by the city.

Ukraine is preparing on all fronts for Russia’s next major attack

Like most returnees, Babayant’s family returned in the fall after Ukrainian counter-offensives that drove Russian occupiers out of large parts of the Kharkiv region and the city of Kherson. The victories sparked national optimism and allowed the government to repair some of the war-damaged infrastructure.

The three cities were able to reconnect to water and gas lines from the liberated areas in the north. The combination of winter heat and rising patriotism made many overlook the reality that fighting remains as intense as ever.

“It doesn’t feel safe, no,” said Babayants, who recently looked out his bedroom window in time to see a neighboring factory destroyed by a Russian missile. “But we know the army will protect us.”

Nina Bugakova, 67, stood behind him and said she came back because she couldn’t afford the rent in the village where her children and grandchildren found refuge. And she hated being away from the only city she knew more than the terrible booms and the fear of death.

“My whole family is buried here, including my husband,” Bugakova said. “The scariest thing is that I could end up buried under rubble.”

Ties to the place are deeply rooted in eastern Ukraine — a mostly native Russian-speaking region with factories and coal mines where many residents never travel, said Sloviansk Mayor Vadym Lyakh.

“It’s built into their psyche that they will definitely be here,” said Lyakh, who runs the city on behalf of the military emergency administration.

The Russians leave War Russia in a historic exodus

More residents means more demands on the skeleton crews that keep things running, he said, and more Strain on infrastructure that Russia has been constantly bombing since October. But enough workers have returned to meet the need, the mayor said.

Enough drivers returned to drive buses on 70 per cent of routes, although some residents have complained that they only run every two hours instead of every 30 minutes.

Lyakh gave an unapologetic shrug. “We are still at war,” he said.

The mayor said he expected many of the returnees would make their second escape if the military situation deteriorated further. Vostok SOS, a volunteer evacuation team, said they had already seen some regular customers.

But some of those who have gone and returned are reluctant to leave, although many have said that should it happen, the fall of Bakhmut could be the catalyst.

It would take more for Gordeeva to pack up again. She said she needed to see the enemy invade her hometown with her own eyes.

“See, when I see the Russians coming in their APCs, we’re getting out,” she said. “I’m not crazy.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The newest: Fighting in eastern Ukraine continues while Russian forces make slight progress in their attempt to encircle the town of Bakhmut. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked Western allies for fighter jets as Russia launches a spring offensive. Read the latest here.

The fight: Russia has been targeting Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure with rocket and drone attacks since October, causing frequent power, heating and water cuts in the country. Despite fierce fighting, neither side has made significant gains for months. Western allies agreed on a new wave of sophisticated weaponry, including Leopard tanks, in hopes it could change the balance of the battlefield.

A war year: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has sparked a historic exodus of his own people, with data showing at least 500,000 and perhaps nearly 1 million have fled Russia since the conflict in Ukraine began. Despite this and extensive sanctions, the Russian economy has remained more resilient than many expected. However, there are signs that Putin’s luck is running out.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the war began – here is some of their most impressive work.

How can you help: Here are ways people in the United States can support the people of Ukraine, and what people around the world have donated.

Read our full coverage of the war between Russia and Ukraine. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive videos.

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