Vladislav Kopatskiï, 24, takes the groceries out of the trunk of his car and first takes a quick look at the horizon in search of traces of smoke, which would indicate recently fallen Russian missiles.

He then leaves to distribute humanitarian aid in the village. But his arrival is often coldly received – or worse.

Many residents who remained in Novomykolaivka, near Kramatorsk, despite heavy fighting and evacuation orders from the Ukrainian authorities, support the Russians.

The older ones, who grew up in the Soviet era, still have a deep distrust of kyiv.

Kopatskiï explains that several inhabitants have already been arrested, suspected of having communicated to the Russians the GPS coordinates of the Ukrainian rear bases.

“Unfortunately, it happens,” he said, coming out of an improvised underground shelter where a family had just spent three days, under Russian bombardment.

He says “try to talk” to pro-Russian residents, “but people who grew up in the Soviet era are difficult to convince (…) They have a point of view, and do not budge”, according to him.

– “They swing our geolocations” –

A view, fueled by Kremlin propaganda that portrays Ukrainians as “neo-Nazis” under Washington’s orders, makes Kopatsky a potential target in these frontline villages.

Ukrainian soldiers in contact with the inhabitants estimate that between 30 and 45% of them support the Russians.

“They swing our geolocations to the Russians, that’s for sure!” laments a soldier, nicknamed “Zastava”, during a short break after five days at the front.

“I remember an old man came up to us and we were immediately smitten afterwards,” he says. “The oldest of the inhabitants do not want to support us”.

The Donbass is mostly populated by Russian speakers, whose roots in the region date back to the dispatch of Russian workers after World War II.

This history has shaped the identity of Donbass, which has kept strong economic and cultural ties with Russia after the fall of the USSR and the independence of Ukraine.

“There are villages which are neighbors and which do not support the same camp”, sums up “Zastava”.

– “Both sides are responsible” –

But history lessons, Andriï Oleiïnik, a native of Novomykolaivka, does not care.

The 48-year-old, in a wheelchair, has spent the past week listening in the dark to warplanes overhead and shells exploding in nearby farms.

His wooden cabin in his garden was hit. Since then, he has been even more angry with kyiv and Moscow for not seeking peace.

In his house there is a heavy atmosphere: the windows have been condemned for weeks to limit the risk of glass explosions.

“The Russians have withdrawn from kyiv, so for the people there, the war seems to be over,” he fumed.

“If the inhabitants of kyiv still lived what we live here, everything would be different,” he wants to believe. “I blame both governments. Both sides are responsible. We don’t matter to them.”

Part of the resentment towards Kyiv also stems from the region’s economic situation, which was hit hard by deindustrialization before the war with pro-Russian separatists began in 2014.

– “Back to hell” –

Andriï and his wife, Yelena, have been trying to leave for the past few days with their sons in a nearby village after gathering their savings and buying their neighbor’s dented car.

But this village was hit in turn by air strikes, four days after their arrival.

“So we went back,” explains Ielena. “After all, home is home.”

Another important problem is fuel shortages, which limit travel. The few service stations still in operation in the region ration sales to 10 or 20 liters per car.

“Where can we go?” asks Andriï aloud. “We added 20 liters to the car. That would allow us to travel 100 to 150 kilometres. But in this whole area, there is war,” he said.

A policeman in the region, seeing families returning with their belongings despite the bombardments, can hardly hold back his tears.

“They go back to this hellhole because they have nowhere to go,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They say: if I have to die, I have to die.”



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