SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — After Russia invaded, Kateryna Gordeeva did what most of her neighbors did in this battle-rattled front-line city: She left. With a mother in Italy and money to travel, Gordeeva and her 7-year-old son joined the exodus that left Slovyansk a near-ghost town of empty streets and frequent explosions.
But a few months ago — with the war still raging, the shells still falling and Russian fighters just 25 miles away at Bakhmut — she came back. And opened a new restaurant.
“I’m not afraid of shelling or explosions,” said Gordeeva, 39, standing in the blinking lights of the kebab shop she and her husband launched in January. “Italy was safe, but I spent all of the time looking at internet cameras on my house. I wanted to be here, where my life is.”
She did not come back alone. Gordeeva and her son German are part of a surprise reverse-exodus that, war or no war, has swelled the populations of several of the most embattled cities in eastern Donbas, restoring at least some of the ranks that fled after the invasion.
Driven by financial need, family ties and homesickness, tens of thousands of returnees have partially repopulated the area where Moscow is waging its fiercest fighting and is expected to launch its next major offensive — intent on seizing the entire Donetsk region as its own.
The number of civilian residents in Slovyansk and adjacent Kramatorsk has doubled since bottoming out after last year’s mass evacuations, according to regional officials, reaching more than 50,000 and 80,000 respectively. A surge of returnees has driven the population of nearby Kostiantynivka up to 45,000, a military administrator said.
The returnees have not come close to restoring the cities’ prewar populations (220,000 for Kramatorsk, 110,000 for Slovyansk and 70,000 in Kostiantynivka). But they have added thousands of civilians who are at risk of injury or death to neighborhoods already being pounded by Russian strikes.
The three cities form a crescent just west of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian troops are fighting a bloody battle to keep the Russians from advancing. All three cities continue to be hit by Russian shells and rockets, including a blast that demolished an apartment building, killing four and injuring 18, in Kramatorsk earlier this month.
Four strikes have hit Slovyansk this month, while the number of babies born — in a sandbagged hospital that serves both civilians and soldiers wounded in combat — has more than tripled to 20 per month from a summer low.
Regional officials who have mounted media campaigns and even gone door-to-door to encourage people to leave — families with children in particular — express both frustration and sympathy for those who insist on reinhabiting the war zone.
“Evacuations save lives; we want people to leave,” said Serhii Horbunov, deputy head of the military administration of Kostiantynivka. “But people want to be here. It’s their home.”
The influx has provided an unexpected bloom of urban liveliness to cities that were all but deserted a few months ago. Gordeeva’s new kebab shop is across the street from a new hotel and down the block from a new sushi cafe.
The streetlights remain off to save energy and hamper Russian drones, but more windows now shine from dark apartment blocks. So much daytime traffic has returned that Slovyansk officials have turned the stoplights on for the first time in months — although they had to wait for the return of a technician who knew how to reboot the system.
On a recent morning, eight people were waiting at a corner for the walk signal to count down: One pushed a baby carriage and another held a barista-brewed cappuccino from the Golden Cup, a one-room coffee shop that recently expanded into a full-service restaurant by taking over an empty adjacent storefront.
In Kramatorsk, a well-appointed hookah bar and pizza restaurant that reopened in October was packed on Valentine’s Day, the tables filled with young people in military and civilian garb. Families with children walked on sidewalks cleared of snow by city workers.
Groups of school-aged teenagers who had been separated were hanging out in person at cafes and parks after months of seeing each other only in Zoom classes or while playing online video games.
“If not for the explosions and the air raid sirens, I would say it’s almost normal,” said Arthur Babayants, 16, who returned with his parents and brother to Kramatorsk in September after spending six months sharing a college dorm converted into an evacuation center farther west.
They came back when the dental clinic where his mother is an X-ray technician called to say they needed her to clock in again. Business was better, but not at prewar levels, so he and his uncle were waiting in a downtown square for humanitarian aid — boxes of canned beans, cooking oil and pasta being handed out by the city.
Like most returnees, Babayants’s family turned homeward in the autumn, following Ukrainian counteroffensives that drove Russian occupiers from much of the Kharkiv region and from Kherson city. The victories sparked national optimism and allowed the government to repair some of the war-torn infrastructure.
The three cities were able to reconnect to water and gas lines from liberated areas to the north. The combination of winter heat and surging patriotism led many to overlook the reality that the fighting remains as intense as ever.
“It doesn’t feel safe, no,” said Babayants, who recently looked out of his bedroom window in time to see a neighboring factory demolished by a Russian missile. “But we know the army will protect us.”
In line for aid behind him, Nina Bugakova, 67, said she came back because she couldn’t afford rent in the village where her children and grandchildren found refuge. And she hated being away from the only city she has known more than she hates the awful booms and the fear of death.
“All of my family is buried here, including my husband,” Bugakova said. “The scariest thing is that I might end up buried in rubble.”
The attachment to place runs deep in eastern Ukraine — a mostly native Russian-speaking region of factories and coal mines where many residents never travel, said Slovyansk Mayor Vadym Lyakh.
“It’s built into their psyche that they are going to be here no matter what,” said Lyakh, who runs the city on behalf of the emergency military administration.
More residents means more demand on the skeleton crews that keep things running, he said, and more strain on infrastructure that Russia has bombed constantly since October. But enough workers have come back to meet the need, the mayor said.
Sufficient drivers returned to run buses on 70 percent of routes, although some residents have complained they run only every two hours instead of every 30 minutes.
Lyakh shrugged unapologetically. “We are still at war,” he said.
The mayor said he expects many of the returnees to make their second escape if the military situation deteriorates much further. Vostok SOS, a volunteer evacuation team, said they have already seen some repeat clients.
But some of those who left and returned are loath to leave again, although many said the fall of Bakhmut, should it happen, might be the trigger.
For Gordeeva, it would take more than that to pack up again. She said she will need to see the enemy enter her hometown with her own eyes.
“Look, if I see the Russians coming in their APCs, we will get out,” she said. “I’m not crazy.”