Russia is bombing their homes. They refuse to leave.

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KRAMATORSK, Ukraine – The sound of the first Russian missile gave a quick warning and 38-year-old Svetlana Buts tried to grab her 13-year-old son in a desperate attempt to help him. Then came the shock wave that blew out all the windows in their house and shook the whole house. The second rocket slammed into the other side of the street shortly after, pulverizing him.

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Glass shattered everywhere, Buts told The Daily Beast the day after the attack.

“Thank God no one in my family was hurt. My mother is paralyzed and was just lying in her bed. She too survived. There was no siren to warn us. It came so suddenly,” said Buts, who lives in Kramatorsk, a large city in eastern Ukraine.

At least two people were killed in the blast, which destroyed several buildings opposite Buts’ home. The front line is only about 25 miles away and Russian missiles often hit Kramatorsk as Vladimir Putin’s army tries to advance.

Locals help each other repair a house damaged by the missile attack.

Stefan Weichert

The Russians have been getting closer and closer in recent months and the Ukrainian government is calling on people to evacuate. Yet, like many others in the area, Buts does not want to leave, despite the danger of air strikes and rocket attacks. And two Russian missiles won’t make her change her mind. She doesn’t know where to go.

“Where should I go with my paralyzed mother? We have no money. What are we supposed to live on?” she asks and starts adding up all the food prices in the store.

She doesn’t think she’s safe anywhere. Buts knows it’s not safe for her family to stay in Kramatorsk, but she sees no better alternative.

“If I were to go abroad, I would have to learn a new language. Drop everything. I also have animals. What to do against them? It’s my country. My motherland is here,” says Buts, who lost her husband about a year ago and is the sole breadwinner.

“I just dream of peace. I cannot describe how I feel. It’s a pain, just pain.”

‘It’s not safe anywhere’

It is unclear how many people are left in Kramatorsk. Before the Russian invasion, with 150,000 inhabitants, it was the most important city in the disputed Donetsk region of Ukraine. Most have been evacuated, but some remain and try to make ends meet. They often rely on their vegetable garden to supplement their income, and Buts’ family is no different.

Kramatorsk has been hit by several strikes in recent months. In April, 59 people died when a rocket hit the train station, where evacuations were taking place.

Near Bilen’ke, where Buts lives, most people decided to stay. There are only a few empty houses. Locals tell The Daily Beast that the Ukrainian military had used the buildings hit by the missiles. Some blame the Ukrainian military for their destroyed homes and wonder why the military is hiding among the civilians.

Eighty-year-old Nina Liman was picking apples in her garden when the rockets hit. She heard some buzz before the blast and saw one of the missiles. She ran for cover.

A man repairs power cables that were downed by the missile strikes.

Stefan Weichert

“There were fragments. My shed is damaged, the toilet is broken. The shower is also damaged. Windows have been blown out. Everything collapsed on the second floor,” she says.

She also does not want to leave, adding that she has health problems.

“I am not afraid of dying. And where should I go? It’s not safe anywhere. You heard about how they bombed the train station, where people were evacuating. It is not safe.”

“I just put my trust in God. If I live with God, I am not alone. If it is God’s will, he will keep me alive,” says Liman, adding that she would have been dead had she been inside.

‘It will never be the same’

In June, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal-NORC found that 89 percent of Ukrainians find it unacceptable to make peace with Russia if it means giving up territory.

Sixty-six percent said they believe the Ukrainian military could push Russia back to its pre-invasion borders.

In the streets of Bilen’ke people are divided about who is to blame for the war. A couple says they are somehow waiting for the arrival of the Russians.

Lena, 63, who does not want to give her last name, says she blames Russia for the invasion but wants a peace agreement to end the war.

All her windows have been blown out and she can’t afford to replace them. So instead, she and her husband nail wooden planks to the windows to protect themselves from the outside.

Volunteers help repair a damaged home.

Stefan Weichert

“I will never forget that day. I shiver with anger. It will never be the same,” she says, but she does not want to evacuate.

“This is my home. My country. And where would I go? Where would it be better? I just believe that no place in Ukraine is safe. It’s dangerous everywhere.”

She points out that even western Ukraine has been hit by Russian missiles. For example, in Vinnytsia, southwest of Kiev, she points out that 26 were killed in a Russian missile attack.

“Maybe it’s true that it’s less safe here, but nowhere safe. At least here I have my house. It’s better than being homeless somewhere else, wherever it’s unsafe.”

The Russian Warning

Lena understands that the situation in Kramatorsk could be dire, and very soon, as the Russian army gets closer. For now, the city is out of artillery range, protecting it from the worst bombardments. The cities closer to the front lines are much worse.

She says she knows her city could face the same fate as Mariupol and Severodonetsk, which were almost completely destroyed after the fierce fighting. According to the mayor of Mariupol, 90 percent of the city has been destroyed.

“If it happens here, I’ll see what I’m going to do. But for now I’ll stay,” says Lena.

37-year-old Andrey has had enough and has decided to leave.

Stefan Weichert

Recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered the evacuation of those remaining in the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Donetsk region — about 200,000 to 220,000 people.

“The more people that leave the Donetsk region now, the fewer people the Russian army will have time to kill… We will use every available opportunity to save as many lives as possible and limit Russian terror as much as possible,” Zelensky said.

The Ukrainian government says there is no possibility to heat people in winter. However, Lena says she’s still not leaving.

“I will stay here. This is my home,” says Lena.

‘I’ll be gone soon’

For those who are evacuating, the decision is difficult. Thirty-seven-year-old Andrey, who lives nearby, plans to leave. He sent his wife and child away at the start of the Russian invasion and says he will now join them. At first he decided to stay in Kramatorsk so he could keep his job and provide for his family, but the two Russian rocket attacks that partially destroyed his home made him reconsider.

“The problem is that it is not easy to find a new job. It’s hard to move and adjust. At home we have our gardens with vegetables. We don’t have to pay rent,” he says, “When you leave, you have to pay rent, and it’s hard without work.”

“But I have decided to leave anyway. I’m just collecting my stuff. But I don’t know how to make it. We’ve used all our savings, all our reserves,” Andrey adds, “We’ve been through so much. Seen so much that we can never forget. It is impossible to forget.”

He only wishes the war would end. But a peace deal now seems unlikely and the battle rages on. Russia is trying to take more territory and the Ukrainians have said they are launching a large-scale counter-offensive in southern Ukraine to retake Kherson.

“We are productive people in Ukraine,” says Andrey, “We will be able to rebuild everything and I hope to return. But for now I have to keep calm and wait. Stay safe and try to survive against this Russian monster, so I can stay here don’t stay. I have to go.”

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