The war in Ukraine turns one hundred days without a solution to the conflict in sight
Lilia and her two children stop for a few minutes before continuing on their way, unloading the bags of food they have just collected inside what was, until the beginning of the war, the main cultural center of Kriví Rih, and chatting with some of the the volunteers who have helped them rebuild their lives since they left the small town in Kherson province on March 23. By then the morale of the three was broken: the children’s father supported the Russian occupation, Lilia’s parents refused to leave on the grounds that their house was all they had and, having made the decision to leave, they had to wait for three days at a checkpoint for the not always courteous Russian soldiers to let them go.
“My family is also my children and that’s why I left,” says Lilia. She takes a deep breath, holding back a few tears as her 19-year-old daughter, Valeria de Ella, squeezes her hand. Little Stanislav, nine, looks at them and clings to the waist of her sister, as skinny and tall as her mother. “I did it because for me it is important to cultivate the soul of my children and this is impossible in that place where there is no freedom of expression,” this 36-year-old woman tells, who in the middle of the conversation brings to light her decision to leaving her husband (it was a cordial separation, she explains) and leaving her parents behind. An act of courage that not everyone has.
The fear of what may happen to those who remain in the occupied territories is a constant among the displaced in areas such as Kherson. Most of the province fell to Russian forces just days after the invasion began on February 24. One hundred days after the invasion and the war, President Volodímir Zelenski assured yesterday that 20% of the country is occupied.
President Zelensky assures that 20% of the country is in the hands of the Russian occupiers
“When I can communicate with them we only talk about simple things, we know that the orcs –a derogatory name they use for Russians– they have equipment to monitor calls”, explains Lilia. Her last big concern is that her parents have changed their minds and want to leave, but they don’t have a vehicle to do so. “It is very difficult to live there,” she says. They impose their will by force, hundreds of people have come from Crimea to occupy the homes of those who left, there is little food. I don’t want to live like this, without being able to breathe.” Like Lilia, thousands of Ukrainians have seen their elderly parents trapped with no means of escape. “In their mentality, after 50 they are old and believe that they will no longer be able to rebuild their lives,” she explains.
Since the beginning of the war, the country has been faced with a great paradox: millions of people have been separated but never before has the country been so united. Samples of this unity are especially evident in Kriví Rih, which until February was famous for being a mining town, home to the country’s largest steel mill – ArcelorMittal, with 85% of national production – today it is recognized for being the birthplace of President Zelenski, whom many point to as one of the factors for the consolidation of that unity.
“We used everything we had to defend ourselves, but they came very close,” says Olexánder Vílkul, a former deputy prime minister of Ukraine who is in charge of Kriví Rih’s military administration. During those first days of war, hundreds of Russian tanks advanced in the direction of the city. Vílkul prefers not to give details of the strategy used then, although he admits that they used the vehicles and other resources of the factories to stop the enemy advance.
“When I can talk to them, I only do it about simple things,” says Lilia, who has her parents on the other side
If Kriví Rih had fallen, all of central Ukraine would have been exposed, especially strategic cities like Dnipro or Zaporiya. “The reality is that we had few forces here because most of our men were stationed in Donbass,” explains Mikolaiv, a businessman who rejoined the army after the invasion. But determination held them back, and as the weeks went by it pushed them back. The latest counter-offensive is still underway and in recent days some twenty villages north of Kherson have been recovered.
“Here we all have the same tireless character as Zelenski, we all come from working-class families who know what sacrifice and separation are,” explains Anton, one of the many volunteers in defense of the city. Most of these men, as in the rest of Ukraine, are separated from their wives and children. Many have sent their families west or abroad. This dynamic began to change since the Russian forces were expelled from the Kyiv region and from some sectors of Kharkiv; more than two million are believed to have returned.
Olexánder Vílkul, who like all politicians has changed suits and ties for military clothing, is another example of a break, in his case with Moscow, an orbit to which he belonged for years. His party was famous for its closeness to the ideas of the Kremlin. On March 20, he received a call from one of the politicians who had been his partner in the cabinet of President Yanukovych, who was ousted from office in 2014 during Euromaidan. He told him to surrender, that Kriví Rih was going to fall and that if he worked with them he would have a high position in the new administration. The same call received dozens of politicians and governors. “I gave them the same answer as the soldier who was on the island of Serpents. Let them go eat my…”, says this man who was appointed head of the military administration of Kriví Rih. “The Russians were very arrogant, they thought that everyone who speaks Russian would support them, but look what happens in cities like Kharkiv, they have fought to the death there. Look how we fight here in Kriví Rih,” explains Vílkul, who says that the patriotism of Russian-speaking Ukrainians is equal to that of those whose mother tongue is Ukrainian.
“They thought that all Russian-speakers would support them,” says a politician detached from Moscow of the Russians
In Ivano-Frankivsk, in the west of the country, Maria tells another side of the story. Her parents are part of that large group of Russian-speakers who decided to stay in Luhansk province, which is more than 90% controlled by Moscow. “My story goes back to 2014, they decided to stay and since then they have been brainwashed on Russian state television,” says Maria. In these years she has only visited them once. She kept talking to them on the phone, though never about politics. “Two days before the war started they called me and told me to be calm, that we were almost going to be able to see each other. I understood that they wanted and believed that Russia would win”, explains María, who has a couple of tears falling. The messages from her parents tormented her so much that she ended up blocking them, now she is haunted by the fear that she may not see them again. They are already old. “That is what I have decided, I am Ukrainian and I want to live in Ukraine”, she concludes.
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