Ukrainians defy fear of second Russian occupation in Kupiansk: ‘If I die somewhere, I’d rather it was at home’

Residents have been ordered to evacuate as Kremlin forces attempt to retake the strategic city but many have chosen to stay: ‘We are unbreakable’

Russian offensive in Ukraine
Volodymyr, 51, with some of the goats he lives with at his home in Petropavlivka, on March 15.Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega (Special Correspondent)

A huge ashtray with more than 20 cigarette butts sits next to a few crumbs of bread on Olga’s kitchen table. Half a meter away, behind the white curtains, the shattered glass of a window is visible. With no access to medication to cope with the stress, the 46-year-old admits she resorts to alcohol. Outside, the constant thud of the explosions that shake Kupiansk on a daily basis can be heard. For six months, this town served as a sort of capital for the Russian occupation of the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine. A counter-offensive last September allowed Kyiv to wrest back control of Kupiansk. However, Ukrainian troops were unable to drive the Russian invaders out of the area completely and the enemy has besieged the town ever since. The local authorities and residents are well aware that Moscow intends to retake Kupiansk, which occupies a strategic point between Kharkiv and Luhansk and where barely 20% of its pre-war population of 30,000 inhabitants remain, according to figures from the local administration.

The hope and relative optimism that prevailed after the liberation in September has receded. The nights, when the bombardments cause insomnia, are endless, says Olga (who prefers not to give her surname, like others interviewed for this story) as she makes a bonfire in the street to grill some skewers of meat in the company of a neighbor. The house next door was destroyed by a missile a couple of weeks ago. The war engulfed Olga’s life and that of thousands of inhabitants in this district more than a year ago. Nevertheless, she has no plans to leave her apartment on the first floor of her practically empty building. The authorities have ordered the evacuation of citizens from Kupiansk and its surrounding villages. They have been offered transportation, accommodation and food in a safe area away from the front lines, but, like Olga, not everyone has agreed to leave.

Olga, a 46-year-old resident who refuses to leave her house in Kupiansk.
Olga, a 46-year-old resident who refuses to leave her house in Kupiansk.Luis de Vega

Russian and Ukrainian forces are fighting on a front around five miles from the city, according to the interim mayor, Andrii Besedin. “The terrorists [in reference to the Russians] only attack civilians, they won’t fight the army. The main problem here is the shelling of hospitals, schools, infrastructure... Everything that is required for civilians to have any hope of remaining here,” Besedin says from his office, decorated with the signed flags of the various units involved in September’s counter-offensive.

Besedin, 40, was appointed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy after his predecessor rolled out the red carpet for the Russians to occupy Kupiansk. With the “traitor” mayor having fled to Russia, Besedin makes it clear that the current authorities are not going to make it easy for Russian troops should they arrive again at the city’s gates.

The Oskil River that flows through the city acts as a natural barrier. Next to the destroyed bridge, a temporary one has been constructed to allow passage to the eastern bank, where the hostilities are concentrated. There, some people live an almost ghostly existence in towns and villages just a mile or two from the front such as Petropavlivka, from whose deserted dirt streets the sound of the Ukrainian Army’s Grad missile batteries can be heard. Alina, pulling a cart loaded with soil, is the only person visible on the public road. She mumbles that she has no means to leave before continuing her way home.

The open-air market in the city of Kupiansk, March 15.
The open-air market in the city of Kupiansk, March 15.Luis de Vega

Volodymyr, 51, is another of those who remains anchored in Petropavlivka. For six months he has been carrying an unhealed wound on his right foot from a shrapnel impact from an explosion near the school building. He wanders around in military fatigues and without shoes, lying on the ground with one of his knees bent to display the injury hidden by his sock.

Volodymyr, who once worked as a photographer in Hungary, now lives alone in a house he shares with his animals, especially goats and their offspring, which he proudly shows off. He says he will not abandon them. What was once a living room is now a corral presided over by a sideboard holding vases, keys and other personal effects. The windows of the room have been blown out by explosions and the ceiling is half caved-in.

On the way out of Petropavlivka, 80-year-old Maria, whom EL PAÍS met during a food distribution by aid agencies in November, still lives with her dogs. She manages to survive thanks to what volunteers provide, although sometimes, she explains, it is difficult to know which houses are still inhabited. Like many others, Maria’s house, which stands at a crossroads where a burned-out tank lies, has also been damaged by shelling. She says the authorities have come several times to persuade her to leave but what she wants more than passage away from the battle zone is a new pair of shoes.

A motorcyclist crosses the almost deserted town of Petropavlivka.
A motorcyclist crosses the almost deserted town of Petropavlivka.Luis de Vega

“It makes no sense for civilians to remain there. They are a mile or two from the fighting and evacuations are essential in that area,” says Besedin, although he clarifies that Petropavlivka does not fall under the Kupiansk district demarcation. But there are residents who refuse to abandon their homes and who have lost their perception of danger. Removing them by force is a delicate issue. “We have to talk to them, show them the escape route, where they are going to live and how we are going to help them. Unfortunately, these people have been there for a long time, they are exhausted and it is not easy to explain to them that the best thing to do is to leave,” says Besedin.

Many people who remain in the area, like Maria, depend on humanitarian aid. In Kupiansk, a group of residents are standing in line next to the fire station at a small café that has become a distribution point for the NGO World Central Kitchen, run by Spanish chef José Andrés. Oleksander, 26, travels every day from the city of Kharkiv, over 70 miles away, to hand out around 400 rations of food. “Almost all of it is picked up by elderly people,” he says. Yekaterina, a 40-year-old local worker, hopes Russian forces do not show up again, but she’s not entirely convinced.

Among the residents waiting their turn to collect food, the mood is one of defiance. “If I die somewhere, I’d rather it was at home,” says Viktor, 67. “It’s impossible to live here, but we’re not leaving,” adds Aleksii, 61.

Volodymyr, 51, shows the unhealed wound on his right foot that was hit by shrapnel in September.
Volodymyr, 51, shows the unhealed wound on his right foot that was hit by shrapnel in September.Luis de Vega

At the open-air market, 38-year-old Alona sells military clothing and equipment at her stall. She was in the textile business for two decades but the war has forced her and her husband to adapt. Now they offer products for soldiers, who account for most of the foot traffic in the streets. The couple have sent their daughter, 16, and son, 18, to England until the war is over. “We are unbreakable,” she replies when asked if they have considered leaving. Their store was burned out during an attack on the neighborhood near the Oskil River bridge. “I hope our army won’t let [the Russians] return,” Alona adds.

Those who are determined to hold out represent the minority. Before the invasion, Kupiansk had around 30,000 inhabitants. Today, around 5,000 remain. The district as a whole, which was home to 57,000 people before the war, now has fewer than 11,000, according to data provided by the mayor. “I am a patriot. My whole family is from here. Kupiansk is my city. Let them leave us alone,” Olga says with her hands folded and tears welling up in her eyes.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS