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Revisiting Donbas, a frontline in Ukraine-Russia crisis

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

So this part of Ukraine we've been talking about, the eastern region of Donbas and this particular village where the kindergarten was shelled today, the village of Stanytsia Luhanska - I was just there end of January. To get there, we had traveled 9 or 10 hours east from Kyiv, first by train, then by car. We went because we wanted to hear from people whose lives had already been turned upside down by war with Russia. The fighting has been ongoing there - fits and starts - since 2014.

Well, it feels worth hearing these voices again today, worth hearing directly from Donbas. Again, this was recorded earlier, but you will hear how weary the people we met already were before today's violence, and you'll get a sense of what it looks like - what we heard, what we saw, which included a police station crumpled, a school - a different one - shelled, warnings to stay on pavement because there are still active land mines around town.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KELLY: We get to this residential street, or what is left of a residential street, as 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.

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

DAVYDOVYCH: Hello.

KELLY: Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: 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: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: He tells us only three people live on his block now, and it is a long block. 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: (Non-English language spoken).

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. (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: "I am broken inside," he says, and his eyes are filling up with tears. Davydovych tells us just that 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 head back west and visit one more city along the way - Severodonetsk. This is where Sasha, our driver, lives with his wife, their kids. 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.

It's dinnertime, so Sasha volunteers to take us to a popular spot, a local brewery with club music thumping. Over coffee, I ask Sasha for his story. Now, we are paying him to drive us. We would not normally interview him, but he is actually living the story we are here trying to report.

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

SASHA: (Through interpreter) Forty-one.

KELLY: Forty-one?

SASHA: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: 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. Before 2014, 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 am tired. We heard this from almost everyone we talked to in eastern Ukraine when we were there 2 1/2 weeks ago. So many people said it over and over that I began 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.