Even as Russia retreats in the east, some Ukrainians stay behind

Pakhmot, Ukraine – Volunteers patiently listened to a pensioner and put a frozen chicken into her shopping bag.

Olena Tiffanyuk, 70, a skinny woman with a curvature, explained in tears that she needed more than food. She needed medication. “I have a son, he’s 48, who has paranoid schizophrenia,” she said. “I need medicine for him.”

As the towns and cities of eastern Ukraine empty out in the face of Russian onslaught, some residents choose to stay in. Like Ms. Tiffanyuk, some are trapped in medical imperatives. Or they are too poor to leave. Or, disillusioned with the longstanding corruption of Ukrainian officials, they believe that things could not be worse under the Russians.

Bakhmut, only 10 miles from the front, is largely deserted. There are few cars on the streets except for military vehicles. Shops and banks are covered. Only one or two cafes and department stores are still open.

The only pharmacy is in the hospital where wounded soldiers are brought from the front. And recently, blood-stained stretchers were carried on a wall where a wounded soldier smoked a cigarette with his friends, his face bloodied and swollen, covered with bandages.

But in the midst of war, even with the thunder of artillery not far away, civilians still walked the streets, sometimes even with a child dragging them.

Mrs. Tiffanyuk said that her son, who was barely leaving his room, was refusing to leave. She said his medicines were running out and that the only open pharmacy in town did not stock the medicines he needed. He only had four days left and he was cutting strips from his remaining discs.

“He doesn’t understand the whole situation,” she said. “He doesn’t even know his address. I can’t leave him, and I will never leave him.”

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called on civilians to leave eastern Ukraine as Russia has directed all its power to seize the area. But part of the population stubbornly refuses to leave.

“Those who wanted to go are already gone,” said Ruslan, 42, a volunteer with the Union of Ukrainian Churches, which leads people to shelters in western Ukraine. He said his group had evacuated 1,000 people from Bakhmut district over the past month.

He said that of the 20 people who requested evacuation with his organization on Saturday, only nine accepted the offer. He just risked driving to the frontline town of Seversk to gather people, but came back empty. “No one wants to go,” he said.

He demanded that only his first name be published for fear of retaliation from the Russian side.

Most of the rest are poor, elderly and infirm, volunteers and health workers said.

“We often see the elderly asking for all kinds of support,” Islam Al-Araj, director of the psychosocial support program in Ukraine for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told ICRC. “They are the most vulnerable and have a lot of health problems, and they have added psychological problems on top of that.”

Ms. Al-Araj said most Ukrainian health facilities across the country, including psychiatric facilities, were still operating and receiving external support. But with the shifts in combat, reaching those in need has become more and more difficult.

“That context is changing in a very fast way, we don’t know all the sites and we can’t access all the sites,” she said.

Many of the residents interviewed said they could not rent an apartment elsewhere, and feared they would lose everything they owned if they abandoned their homes. They also expressed mistrust in promises of assistance from aid groups or the government.

“They say they don’t have the money, and people will cheat them when they get there,” Ruslan said.

“Some of them are waiting for the Russians,” he added. Let’s face it, there are those who are sitting in the basements of their house and waiting for someone to bring them humanitarian aid. For them, it does not matter who is passing the aid package to them, Russia or Ukraine.”

Police officers who served until last week in the town of Severodonetsk said they saw the mood change as Russian forces approached the outskirts of the city. They gave up on the last evacuation when residents demanded additional guarantees.

“We are not forcing anyone,” said regional police chief Ole Hryhorov. “Some sympathize with the other side.”

He said Russian forces were flying drones over the town to gather information on Ukrainian sites and some residents were working as informants for Russia. He said that some residents, who were already anticipating a Russian power grab, were reluctant to speak to foreign journalists.

In the town of Seversk, north of Bakhmut and close to the front line, a shop owner suddenly turned away customers and closed in the middle of the morning for “inventory”. A volunteer who bikes medicines to families said people are afraid of every interaction.

Many Ukrainians interviewed expressed strong dissatisfaction with their government. Many said they could barely live on their pension, which comes to $70 a month.

Lyudmila Krylishkina, 71, displaced after her house was burned down in a missile attack, cries as she complains about not being able to get her pension in Bakhmut. Since the stores only took cash, she said, she could not buy food for herself and her parents.

“They need to think about people,” she said. “We understand that there is war but how are we supposed to live?”

Another woman who was waiting to be evacuated complained that only voluntary organizations help people, and that government officials do nothing. She asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Disillusionment with previous corrupt governments helped propel President Volodymyr Zelensky to power in Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion, popular support for him has risen as the country overwhelmingly backed his determination to fight. However, there is still a deep and hidden disdain for the government and officials in Ukraine.

Ms Tvyanyuk said she spent 12 years fighting for justice after a corrupt court ruled against her and her daughter. Her daughter successfully sued her ex-husband for alimony and childcare, but the police never implemented the court order and the judge helped falsify documents to overturn the ruling.

“The police protect the courts, and the courts protect the police,” she said. “This happened under Ukrainian rule, and now I don’t know if it would be better under Russian or Ukrainian rule.”

“We don’t know what to expect,” said Ihor, 44, an unemployed worker sitting outside his apartment. But he said he and his partner Olha, 60, would stay and live under Russian rule if its forces captured Bakhmut, adding, “What else is there?”

He complained that Ukrainian leaders were corrupt and looted the country and its workers. “They stole and put everything in their pockets,” he said. “And if Russia takes over, it will.”