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In battered Kramatorsk, most people have left, but some stay to help

Kramatorsk, Ukraine, is a ghost town, but Mykola Khimy, 25, has stayed.. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — There are few people left here to witness how the fruit trees have blossomed and where tulips have sprung up in the long grass. Tens of thousands have fled. Aside from rustling leaves and the barking of a dog, shelling in the distance is one of the few sounds left.

With Ukrainian forces battling to repel the advance of Russian soldiers 10 miles away, Kramatorsk resembles a ghost town — streets empty, shops shuttered, buildings mostly vacated. But in the town hall and the hospitals, some are determined to stay.

Looking up at his largely abandoned apartment block and its overgrown gardens, Mykola Khimy, 25, mulled the question of why.

“A lot of people still need help,” he said. “I can handle this right now. At least in this situation, I can handle it.”

The young man is one of scores of volunteers who comb the neighborhoods for residents in need. They deliver food and medicine. They are doing what they can to persuade the old or infirm to leave.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 sparked international outrage. But in the country’s east, at least, the fight has been flaring for years. Large stretches of the Donbas region, where Kramatorsk is located, have been controlled by Russian separatists since 2014. At least 14,000 people have been killed in the armed conflict since then.

But for residents staying in place now, the risks are graver than before.

Ukrainian officials say thousands of civilians have been killed in two months of war. Russian forces stand accused of war crimes, including the intentional targeting of civilians and hospitals. In territory the Russians have occupied, residents have recounted stories of forced conscription in some places and torture and summary executions in others.

Kramatorsk’s population has dwindled from 200,000 to 40,000, officials say, and most of those who remain are elderly.

Volunteers and doctors who stay to look after them have often faced resistance from their own families.

“It was like my own private war,” Khimy said. He had argued with his grandparents for hours, reminding them that it was unsafe. He was also mindful that he would feel more able to look out for others when he had only himself in the house to worry about.

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It took weeks and more money than Khimy had ever imagined — more than an average monthly salary — but eventually on April 8 he found two seats on a bus for them. He was meant to be helping at the train station that day as thousands of residents awaited evacuation, but he decided to accompany his grandmother and grandfather first, in case they changed their minds.

Once that was done, Khimy said, he planned to meet a volunteer at the train station.

Even at the bus stop, his grandparents were hard to persuade, but finally they were aboard, and the bus pulled out.

His phone rang minutes later.

“Are you okay? Are you okay?” His friend was sobbing. The Kramatorsk train station had been bombed by Russian forces, she said, and scores of civilians were dead.

When the call ended, more messages poured in. One of the volunteers — the one he was supposed to meet — was unaccounted for. They found him dead on the platform, wearing the high-visibility jacket he had donned for the job.

“That was the heaviest day,” Khimy said. “You just think of all the roads not taken leading up to that moment. I had found seats for my grandparents. I’d achieved something.”

He still wonders whether the volunteer killed on April 8 had arrived early to wait for him there.

For many local officials, staying put is seen as a duty. In 2014, many left after Ukraine’s Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country. “Back then the system just collapsed, so this time we need to make sure that the system still functions,” said Tatiana Ignatchenko, a spokeswoman for the local government.

As Washington Post reporters visited the town hall this past week, an air raid siren started wailing — the fourth time that day — and Ignatchenko scrambled down into a bunker. “We understand that the risks are tenfold higher than 2014 because the Russians’ weapons systems are overwhelming now,” she said, perched on the rickety bed frame used for off-duty soldiers. “Right now, there is no safe place in Ukraine.”

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At least 70 health facilities have been attacked since Russia invaded, according to the World Health Organization. In the Donetsk region, Kramatorsk’s Hospital No. 3 is the largest still standing.

From behind his desk in an upstairs office, Oleksiy Yakovlenko glanced at the map of the region that he keeps on the wall. “We’re waiting for them to do the same here.”

With other hospitals out of action, soldiers and civilians arrive at the hospital daily. The morgue is filling up. “We have to keep this place operational,” Yakovlenko said.

On nightly calls, his family begs him to leave. “And I respond to them that I have honor,” he said.

“If I receive the order to evacuate, then I’ll go,” he said. “But until that day, I’m staying here.”

For Ignatchenko, the daily casualty counts that cross her desk feel personal. A woman with the energy of someone who cannot, or will not, stop moving, she is from Mariupol — the besieged city believed to be the site of some of the most extensive civilian casualties of the war.

“To keep it together, I just treat all this information as pure fact,” she said. “You can’t do anything about a fact. You just have to think about how you can help and block out your emotions.”

On some days after the train strike, Khimy, the volunteer, said he felt numb. One night he showered in water so hot it felt boiling.

Ignatchenko’s response to the trauma is to just keep busy. “If my emotions came out, I couldn’t bear them,” she said.

Outside, the air raid siren stopped, and a few cars appeared back on the roads.

Children scampered out from a near-deserted housing block to play. Their family had wanted to leave Kramatorsk, but they had no place to go, their mother said. “They are scared, but what can we do?” she said with a sigh. “There are only a few families here now, and that’s how it is.”

Farther down the street, a middle-aged couple were taking their cocker spaniel for a walk. Their son was fighting on the front lines not so far away, said Boris Zanusluniy, 54. “We don’t want to leave yet, but the car is packed and we’re ready to go if the Russians try to occupy here.”

His wife, Danya, frowned. “I wish we’d left already,” she said.

If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was intended to weaken the country, for some in Kramatorsk, it has instead made their sense of belonging stronger. As Khimy headed out past the fruit trees to check on an old friend’s apartment, he was reflective. “You know, this is something new for me. I don’t know that it’s about bravery, but since the start of this war, I just feel like I care more.”

His friends worry about him, but they also tease him. “One of them said to me the other day: ‘Are you a character from “Game of Thrones,” talking now all the time about your people?’” He smiled. “When people leave here, I tell them to stop their crying. When we meet again, we will all build back this city.”

Eugene Lakatosh contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this article misidentified the Ukrainian volunteer in Kramatorsk. He is Mykola Khimy, not Nikolai Olekseivish. This story has been corrected.

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