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In War-Shattered, Ukrainian-Controlled Donetsk, Bus Service Offers Lifeline For Those Left Behind

People wait for the Proliska bus in the Donest region village of Illinivka.
People wait for the Proliska bus in the Donest region village of Illinivka.

KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine -- A group of people wait at the side of the road in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region with their bundles of supplies, including food and medicine, waiting for a bus organized by an NGO to take them back to their homes.

The village of Kostyantynivka is about 25 kilometers west of Bakhmut, which largely lies in ruin after months of a relentless and brutal Russian military assault to take what many experts say is a city with little strategic importance.

It's also near Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, two key cities that Russia's military is eager to capture to gain further control of the Donetsk region.

Kostyantynivka has also suffered terribly from Russian shelling. Six civilians were killed and eight people injured on April 2 when Russian missiles and rockets damaged 16 apartment buildings. Another Russian strike on March 24 killed five people there.

Despite being targeted by shelling, Kostyantynivka, with a prewar population of nearly 70,000, still retains many of the services, including doctors and pharmacies, that smaller nearby villages lack, plus an openair market where people sell what they can, often from their garden plots.

But getting there was a challenge, with bus service largely cut since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

For Olena from Zorya, 25 kilometers south of Kostyantynivka, the new bus link has been a lifeline.

"The season has started and people have to get to the market in Kostyantynivka. Someone sells meat, someone sells milk. This is how we get there to sell what we have to try to survive," Olena explained on the crowded minibus. "We're all happy that at least one bus runs once a week," she told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, adding that she also tapped a local ATM to withdraw money from her bank account.

Olena from Zorya
Olena from Zorya

The bus service is coordinated by the UN's Ukraine Humanitarian Fund and Proliska, a Ukrainian NGO that says it operates 62 buses not only in the Donetsk region, but the Kharkiv, Kherson, Sumy, Zaporizhzhya, and Dnipropetrovsk regions as well, servicing a total of 200 settlements with more than 30,000 people taking advantage of its free social transportation services, according to its count.

Serhiy came to Kostyantynivka to buy medicine for his disabled grandfather, pick up a pension payment for a neighbor who had both legs amputated, and buy a loaf of bread for himself.

"But the main thing is medicine," Serhiy explained to RFE/RL, who adds that prior to the free bus service he paid for rides to the town, an expensive outlay.

Serhiy from Kalynove
Serhiy from Kalynove

In the towns and villages that span the 1,000-kilometer front line in eastern Ukraine, many families have refused to leave their homes, despite the intense fighting and shelling often close by or literally on their doorstep.

Serhiy says those left in his home village of Kalynove are elderly, with disabilities, or bedridden, like elsewhere in eastern Ukraine near the front line.

"They have nowhere to go. They are lonely and have no one to take care of them. They have no plans to leave. I have both my grandfather and mother, who suffered a stroke. I have to take care of them," Serhiy explained.

Like the others, Serhiy hopes for an end to the Russian invasion and for a return to peace, so he and his family can return to full-time agricultural work.

Also from Kalynove is Lyudmyla, who says the village has been without electricity for a year now, adding to the hardships amid what she says is frequent sounds of war, including artillery fire from the intense nearby fighting.

Lyudmyla from Kalynove
Lyudmyla from Kalynove

Doctors visiting Kalynove ended with the war, Lyudmyla says, adding that she had three teeth pulled by a dentist in Kostyantynivka, and, like the others, took advantage of the ATM, in her case to withdraw a pension, some of it used to buy groceries and medicine.

Nadia, from Stara Mykolayivka, some 30 kilometers south of Kostyantynivka, talks about the constant fear from the nearby fighting, but says she is stuck with no way out.

"We don't have any transportation. And we need to pick up our pensions, go to the pharmacy for medication. And we have the church, too. How can we live like this? It makes you cry," the elderly woman with a brightly colored, flowered head scarf said.

Lyudmyla Ivanivna from Zorya says the free bus service has ended the feeling of isolation that people like her felt in smaller villages threatened by Russia's military invasion.

"And if there wasn't this bus, we would be sitting at home, buying expensive things at our local store. And with what? We live as best as we can," she said.

Lyudmyla Ivanivna says she has no plans to leave, even though her village of Zorya has been hit by shelling and is without running water for a year now.

"We are located between Avdiyivka, Kostyantynivka, and Bakhmut. There's shooting, artillery. It's terrible and very scary," she said, adding that everyone flees to their cellars when the fighting flares up.

"But life goes on. We hope for the best; that victory will be ours."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Serhiy Horbatenko of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service
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    Serhiy Horbatenko

    Serhiy Horbatenko has worked for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service since 2015 and was awarded by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy with an Order of Merit for his coverage of Russia's invasion. He previously worked as a journalist for Public Television of the Donbas; as a regional representative for the commissioner for human rights of the Ukrainian parliament in the Donetsk region; and as an editor at the TV channels TOR and C + (Slovyansk). He is a graduate of Donbas State Pedagogical University.

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