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The world worries of a Russian incursion. In Donbas, Ukrainians already live with war

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're continuing our journey to a different part of this vast country. We've come to hear from ordinary people. And to get here, we have traveled nine or 10 hours - first by train, then by car - deep into Ukraine's eastern region of Donbas, where people look at you a little funny if you ask whether they're worried about war with Russia because they are already living it, have been living it since 2014, when Russia-backed separatists moved in and declared breakaway republics. They have been fighting ever since.

Our trip took us as close as we could get to the front line, the village of Stanytsia Luhanska. This is the crossing between those breakaway republics and the rest of Ukraine. It's calm when we visit - uneasy calm, but a few shops are open, a COVID testing site. You don't have to look hard, though, to see what war with Russia has done to this place.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KELLY: Here's what you see as you walk - a police station crumpled, a school shelled, the playground outside untouched but rusting. We're told stay on hard pavement. Don't step off. There are still active landmines.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

KELLY: We get to this residential street - or what is left of a residential street. It's house after house after house with the roof blown in, the windows blown out, bullet and mortar holes pocking the walls. We see a few people. They kind of scurry away when we come up. There's just a few houses that have been redone.

And then people clearly trying to live in houses have managed to brick up or just put what looks like plastic over windows. And it is cold, and they're living here. You can see the damage from the fighting, the devastation that is still here, still very present in life here. And there is still life here.

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: As we walk, we notice an older man peeking out, maybe curious about the strangers on his street. We flag him down.

DAVYDOVYCH: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

KELLY: Hi. Is this your house?

There are no holes, no broken glass, fresh peach paint, plants in the windows. This is Davydovych. That's his middle name. He does not want his real name on tape. He's worried he'll be recognized, worried about repercussions.

DAVYDOVYCH: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: He tells us only three people live on the street now. And it is a long street. He's 66, though, like a lot of people here, he looks older by a decade. Davydovych has lived in this town his whole life, in this house since the 1980s. He says life here used to be good, but now he navigates his neighborhood by remembering where people he knew were killed.

DAVYDOVYCH: (Through interpreter) On that street, the man died there. The woman died there.

KELLY: I ask him who he blames for the fighting, for life being turned upside down, and he quotes a Ukrainian proverb back to me.

DAVYDOVYCH: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: It means, roughly, when the leaders are fighting, the people will suffer.

What will you do if more fighting comes?

DAVYDOVYCH: (Through interpreter) I don't know. I'm just fed up with it.

KELLY: I'm broken inside, he says, and his eyes are filling up with tears. Davydovych tells us, just this morning, he heard shooting nearby. He doesn't know from which direction or who was doing the shooting. He sighs in a way that suggests he's given up trying to keep track. And he talks with us for a long time, like a man who had forgotten what it's like to have people around to listen.

When we finally climb back in the car, the sun is on its way to setting. We need to head back west to the station to catch an overnight sleeper train to Kyiv. It's the same drill on the way out as on the way in - checkpoints. They go smoothly.

Between the fourth and the fifth, we arrive in one last city, Severodonetsk. This is where Sasha, our driver, lives with his wife, their kids. Remember; he's the one who told us you start to value freedom when you do not have it, when you lose it. They fled here from those occupied territories back closer to the Russian border. His mom is still there, and he's worried for her safety. So we've agreed to use his first name only.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And then we're going to eat here.

KELLY: Perfect. And this is Sasha's town.

It's dinnertime, so Sasha volunteers to take us to a popular spot, a local brewery with club music thumping.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: We stuff ourselves on Georgian khachapuri bread - fat with cheese and egg and potato - dumplings, borscht spiked with sour cream and sharp green onions. Over coffee - our train leaves late; for once, we're not in a hurry - I ask Sasha for his story. Now, again, we are paying him to drive us. We would not normally interview him. But he has been shuttling us around all day, and he is actually living the story we're here trying to report.

We discover we were both born in Germany because both our dads were in the military, on different sides during the Cold War. He was born in Potsdam in what was East Germany, where the Soviet Army was stationed. I was born in the west, in Augsburg, in a U.S. Army field hospital.

I mean, you're young. How old are you?

SASHA: (Through interpreter) Forty-one.

KELLY: Forty-one. If Russia attacks again, will you try to get your family somewhere safe? Would you stay and fight for your country? What do you think?

SASHA: (Through interpreter) Yeah, I'm going to take my family and leave.

KELLY: He will take his family and leave again. I ask about his new life here.

Are you happy here now? Will you stay?

SASHA: (Through interpreter) I feel safe. I feel free. I can go whenever I want and - but you still need to think about financial stuff.

KELLY: Money and work is difficult.

SASHA: (Through interpreter) I'm constantly looking for work, for opportunities.

KELLY: Before he took his family and fled, Sasha owned several grocery shops. He considered himself middle class. Now, not so much.

Do you blame someone for your life being so changed, so disrupted? Russia? Ukraine? Bad luck?

SASHA: (Through interpreter) I blame Russia - Russia and Mr. Putin 100%.

KELLY: And then he says, I'm tired. We have heard this from almost everyone we talked to in eastern Ukraine. So many people have said it over and over that I begin to hear their voices in my head rising together into something like a song, an anthem uniting the people of Donbas, no matter their political loyalties, no matter who they believe is to blame for their problems or for this current crisis. We are tired, the refrain would go, of war, of fighting, of worrying. We are so very, very tired.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIROLA'S "PERPETUAL LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.