In his home near Ukraine's front line with Russia, Yurii makes a stand

By Mari Saito

DOLYNA, Ukraine (Reuters) - In Dolyna, there used to be 500 residents. Today, there are only a handful.

The picturesque village, near the border of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, was one of many in the area that became fierce battlegrounds in the spring and summer of 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine. Almost all of the residents fled.

In a jubilant period in the fall of that year, Ukrainian forces pushed back Russian troops and retook the village just north of Sloviansk.

Yurii, who taught woodworking at the local school, is one of the few residents who have since returned. He and his wife moved to Dolyna 30 years ago when she was transferred to the village as a teacher. Here they had three children, built a home, and made a life together.

Initially, the 68-year-old did not believe Russian troops would invade.

“Brotherly country, all that,” he said, recounting how he believed before 2014 that Russia and Ukraine were friends and noting all of the acquaintances he used to have in Russia. Russian-backed separatists staged a battle to control the Donetsk and Luhansk regions a decade ago.

But now, Yurii says, the Russians “see how everything is fine in our country, how everything in our country is improving, and they want to destroy it.”

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As Russian forces press their offensive in northeastern Ukraine, Yurii – and other residents of villages and towns dotted across the region – face a potentially fatal choice: flee and leave all that is familiar behind, or stay and risk occupation or death.

For many civilians contemplating this decision, this would be their second or third evacuation.

More than two years after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, top Ukrainian military officials admit that the situation on the eastern front has significantly deteriorated. Russian forces are now on the outskirts of Chasiv Yar, a strategic hilltop town in the Donetsk region, and the Russian military has massed troops in villages outside the city of Kharkiv.

Ukraine, which signed a 10-year security agreement with the U.S. this month, says it has stabilized the situation outside of Kharkiv. This followed U.S. approval for Ukraine to hit Russian targets over the border with American weapons.

In the big Kyiv-held cities in Donetsk, civilians living under frequent attacks from Russia were trying to go about their lives as best they could when Reuters reporters visited in April. Grocery stores and local markets were packed with mostly elderly residents, while some children still ran around in playgrounds.

Yurii and other villagers spotted Russian tanks approaching in the early days of the war in 2022. He and many others later fled. When Yurii returned to the village months after evacuating, the school where he and his wife both worked for decades lay in shambles.


The school gymnasium, a particular point of pride for Yurii, now sits in ruins. A thick layer of dust and broken brick covers the floor, and golden rays of sunlight stream in through gaping holes in the roof.

Outside, the sloping fields in the village that farmers used to plant with potatoes and wheat are now covered in landmines. Little red signs adorned with skulls stick out of the grass all over the village, warning people not to stray off the gravel road. Ivan, another villager who returned to Dolyna, was working in April clearing mines from fields for farmers who had fled.

Though all of the children are long gone and his wife evacuated to western Ukraine, Yurii keeps watch over his empty school to ensure vandals don’t steal any remaining books or equipment. All across the Donetsk region, remaining Kyiv-held cities and towns – Lyman, Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, Kostiantynivka – are under frequent attacks from artillery, glide bombs and missiles.

The devastation is evident everywhere: As of January, some 222,000 private homes and over 27,000 apartment buildings in Ukraine had been damaged and destroyed, many of them in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, according to a report by the Kyiv School of Economics.

Russia’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Russian soldiers are now less than 40 kilometers from Dolyna.

“I’m not afraid,” says Yurii, his gold front teeth glinting in the afternoon sun. “Maybe I'm used to it, maybe it’s because I’m in my own home.”

Logically, it seems, he cannot stay. There is no electricity and no running water. Yurii faces a conundrum: He desperately wants his neighbors to return but can’t convince them to when they don’t have basic utilities. On the other hand, authorities will not restore electricity or water unless more residents return, he says.

With Russia continuing its attacks on the Kharkiv region and its troops slowly advancing in the Donetsk region, it’s unlikely any of them will return any time soon.

In the evening, when Yurii walks his dog back up to the school, the village is silent. The road he takes is lined with houses, now missing walls and windows. As he walks on, a flight of swallows dance overhead.

Yurii is asked often why he continues to stay. Instead of answering directly, he recalls the wars and upheavals of the past. The small library in Yurii’s school is filled with books about the suffering of the people of the Donetsk region. One leather-bound book, now covered in ash, lists the names of men and women persecuted under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Another is filled with names of men from Donbas who died fighting German soldiers during World War Two.

Despite its bloody history, Yurii says, there is so much beautiful nature here.

“We have hills, a river, some ponds. Look over there,” he says, walking up to a grassy field behind the school and pointing towards a gradient of rolling green hills.

As he does every day, he removes his shirt, hangs his towel onto a metal fence, and begins running a lap around the school field. He repeats this a dozen times until he is smiling, covered in sweat. By the time he walks off the field and trudges home, the sun has set behind the trees and the crescent moon sits high in the sky.

Later, alone at his kitchen table, he listens to the sound of shelling in the distance.

(Reporting by Mari Saito. Additional reporting by Kamila Hrabchuk. Edited by Peter Hirschberg.)