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Those in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, are struggling as the city runs out of food and gas


To eastern Ukraine now and the city of Kramatorsk. A Russian offensive in the region continues to drive civilians away. By some estimates, three-quarters of the population has fled. For those who remain, life is a daily struggle. The city is short on food and gas, and the destroyed buildings and frequent explosions remind residents that the Russian military is not far away. NPR's Tim Mak reports from near the front lines of the fighting.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: We were looking at a destroyed residential building when we met Maxim Kornyenko. It was 10 o'clock in the morning, and he had alcohol on his breath. Here was a man who had lost almost everything, pouring his heart out to me and my interpreter.

MAXIM KORNYENKO: (Through interpreter) I'm walking around psychotic. I'm not in a good condition. That life brought us to this.

MAK: He pointed out the shell of the building he used to live in. There's a rug dangling on his old balcony. It was thrown out of his apartment during a missile attack. We stood near trees destroyed by fire in what was once his yard and what remains of his car, burnt to a crisp. Maxim and his mother refuse to leave Kramatorsk. They're now both living in his mother's apartment.

KORNYENKO: (Through interpreter) Half of life, we've been working for this apartment, so how can we abandon it now?

MAK: Adding to the struggle of everyday life is finding enough to eat. Local officials say about 70% of the grocery stores are closed. Those that are open have little food left.

KORNYENKO: (Through interpreter) We eat soup, borscht which my mother cooks. And then once in a while, we get the humanitarian help.

MAK: The aid provided by the local government is hardly enough to survive on.


MAK: A long line of residents fights for position at a food distribution site in what was once a school. Among the people gossiping, shouting, griping is Elena Dulgig.

ELENA DULGIG: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: Elena and her mother had come by twice before but were unable to get any food. Normally, Elena just sits at home with little to do but worry. She lost her job at a local factory the day after the invasion began in February. The ground fighting is happening a number of miles outside the city, and Elena does not think that Russian ground forces will make it into Kramatorsk itself.

DULGIG: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: "I pray to God every day and pray that everything will be all right," she told us. But most of all, she wants an end to the fighting. She wants peace.

DULGIG: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAK: Her son is in Kharkiv, another region near the front lines, and she worries about him. She wants the war to end so her grandchildren can come visit. Right now, that's impossible. All day, there are explosions in and around the city. At night, the bombardment is accompanied by sharp flashes of light in the distance.


MAK: We interviewed the mayor of Kramatorsk, Oleksandr Goncharenko (ph), from his bomb shelter as air raid sirens blared outside. You could hear the explosions even from underground, and he says he's becoming emotionally numb to it.

OLEKSANDR GONCHARENKO: In one or two months, nobody from us will get some emotions because of this war.

MAK: It was in this city that Russian missiles landed at the train station, killing 59 people and injuring 104 more, the mayor's office told me. The blasts caused mayhem among evacuees, thousands of whom had gathered to flee the violence in eastern Ukraine. Victoria Goncharenko - no relation to the mayor - was working in her shop just down the street.

VICTORIA GONCHARENKO: (Through interpreter) I saw many dead bodies. Where the rocket hit, there used to be a green tent. Volunteers were giving out tea, coffee and biscuits from there. The tent - and they were covering bodies with it, with the green material. I saw a lot of toys, bloody toys.

MAK: Victoria's shop sells, of all things, tombstones and artificial flowers to be left at graves. But ironically, during the war, business is way down. There are practically no customers left. She's alone with just the moments of that awful event.

V GONCHARENKO: (Through interpreter) It was horrifying. We went down the street over there. The cars were burning, burnt bodies. Seeing all these corpses, it was very scary.

MAK: She says, when the war ends, she wants to rethink her business.

V GONCHARENKO: (Through interpreter) I want to be selling living flowers, maybe bonsai trees, plants, stuff like that.

MAK: She's confident of a Ukrainian victory and the restoration of the city in peacetime. She predicts that when people come back to Kramatorsk, they'll want to see something beautiful.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF HIPPIE SABOTAGE'S "OM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.