December 4, 2023

When she fled her home in eastern Ukraine, 71-year-old Hana Obogevana gave her neighbor her keys to watering cyclamen on her balcony, thinking she would be back in a few weeks.

Three months later, she is still sleeping with her two sons in a room in an old church building in the central Ukrainian city of Pavlograd. At home, a missile destroyed her bedroom, soldiers destroyed her piano and the city in Russian hands.

“I am sitting in someone else’s damp room. I am wearing someone else’s jacket, the dishes are not mine, I sleep on a bed that is not mine. Outside the window, everything is foreign too. I miss my house very much,” she said. “But it is impossible for me to go back to There if there are Russian occupiers.”

Ms. Obuzhevanna and her family are among the more than 10 million Ukrainians uprooted from their homes — nearly a third of the population whose cities are now cratered ruins, occupied land or in the crosshairs of artillery.

About five million Ukrainian refugees have fled west across the border into the European Union, a transcontinental migration unseen since World War II, but another humanitarian crisis that has changed life inside Ukraine: the lives of millions of people who, like Ms. Obogevana, have sought refuge in other parts of the country.

Ukraine faces an enormous challenge to help them.

The country struggles to fend off a formidable aggressor, who has just seized one county, and is moving to seize another, without being intimidated by heavy losses on both sides. It is trying to weather a devastating economic crisis, with the cost of rebuilding alone estimated at $750 billion. All the while, with the outcome of the war unknown, Ukraine needs to somehow help the millions of displaced people either return home or find entirely new homes.

Most of the internally displaced now come from the east of the country, especially the Donbass region, where the Russian offensive had already emptied about half of its pre-war population. Russia continued, on Wednesday, its bombing of cities in Donetsk province, including Sloviansk and Bakhmut, in Campaign to seize the rest of Donbass.

With this progress, more people are being forced to leave their homes every day, just to survive. The regional military government of Ukraine said that Russian bombing had killed at least five civilians in the region in the past 24 hours.

With no diplomatic solution to the war in sight, desperation is growing among the displaced. With each passing day, with more and more cities reduced to the conditions of Mariupol, the southern city devastated by weeks of the Russian siege, many became increasingly concerned that there might be nowhere to return at all.

Some of the war lands in the east have been fought for years. In 2014, pro-Kremlin separatists declared two separate republics there.

Now, many of the people displaced by the invasion fear that their lands may never return to Ukrainian control, and they are divided over what to do in this scenario. Some say they will find a way back. Others insist they would rather lose everything than live under Russian control.

Most realize that even if Ukraine regains control of their hometown, there will be little left of the Russian military’s scorched-earth tactics — which have destroyed homes, water lines and power plants — other than dust and debris.

Aboard trains and buses, civilians poured in from cities and towns across eastern Ukraine, fleeing for relative safety in the west and the capital, Kyiv. Some have left in humanitarian convoys, navigating treacherous routes under the threat of gunfire and bombardment. Others left on foot, literally running for their lives.

“Now there are no schools, hospitals and companies,” said Vladislav Obogevani, the son of Mrs. Obogivana, who lived in Robezhny, the city captured by Russia, along with the Luhansk province. “Now it is a dead city.”

His office was destroyed by Russian artillery, and he hoped that his apartment would also be destroyed so that it would not fall into enemy hands.

Mr. Obuzhevannyi is haunted by memories of breakfasts in the warm and bright apartment.

“I want to better forget so that the memories don’t hurt me,” he said. “It hurts to remember how much love I put into it.”

With scant government support, Mr. Obuzhevannyi and his mother were unable to rent a place. They call the old church building where they reside a “chicken coop” but the building, made available to them by a local priest, was the only option they had for free.

Shelters were spread out in public buildings. Gyms and college dorms have been converted, and some modular homes have also been built. The majority of IDPs, like refugees abroad, are women and children, and many face shortages of food, water and basic necessities, According to the United Nations. UN experts say the lack of international aid has further strained domestic resources.

“The state was not prepared for such a volume of displaced people in many regions,” Vitaly Mozychenko, Ukraine’s deputy minister for social policy, said at a press conference this week.

Many Ukrainians were also unprepared, and were able to take only the smallest necessities when they fled.

When the war began, some packed their documents and a handful of their belongings, hoping they could return soon. Parents who were along the front and unable to leave, due to jobs in the military or essential industries, sent their unaccompanied children west, in the care of their teachers. Others simply ran while bombs were falling around them, carrying nothing but clothes on their backs.

In eastern Ukraine, the uncertainty of war was already painfully familiar in the communities where the conflict between pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces had raged for eight years.

The Ukrainians there can never be sure when the violence might erupt, how long it might last, and when they might return if they had to flee. some Instruct relatives or friends to feed the pets they left behind. Some left tools to start repairs as soon as they return.

But this time, many fear they will never do it, and they have begun to try to adapt to this new reality.

Oksana Zelenska, 40, who was a nursery manager in Kherson, a southern city now occupied by Russian forces, fled her home in April with her children, a co-worker and the children of a co-worker. Her husband stayed behind, and she would like to return, but at least for now, she is staying in the West for her children.

When she first arrived, Ms. Zelenska began volunteering in the community kitchen she used, peeling potatoes and preparing food for the dozens around daily. “When we came here, I needed to do something,” she said. “It was hard, and I didn’t want to sit around feeling depressed.”

In Pavlograd, Mrs. Obuzhevanna misses riding her bike out of town at home and tending to her neat botanical garden there, surrounded by fruit trees. But recently, near the “chicken coop” of a house in the church, I found a square of impure land.

Now, I was able to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, onions and zucchini. Reminding her of her old routine, she said, “wreaks me a little sad.” But, she said, “I slowly got used to it.”

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