ZAPORIZHZHYA, Ukraine -- Svitlana Kim, an 18-year-old who left her hometown of Berdyansk soon after Russian troops occupied it, was refurbishing a big white room at the Zaporizhzhya Youth Center one recent morning. The bright space will be turned into a hub for the integration of people who -- like her -- have been driven from their homes by the Russian invasion.
The days before she came to Zaporizhzhya, the Ukrainian-held capital of a region that Russia groundlessly claimed to have annexed in September, were “frightening, hard, and incomprehensible,” Kim said.
She escaped in late March along with her brother and sister, and their mother joined them in May. But her father decided to stay in Berdyansk, an Azov Sea port city that is also in the Zaporizhzhya region, southeast of the capital.
"He’s had enough of moving around," Kim said of her father, who is 69 and relocated to Ukraine from Tajikistan after civil war broke out there in the 1990s.
The family hopes to reunite, but it will be only possible if a much-hoped-for Ukrainian counteroffensive aimed at severing the "land bridge" that gives Russian forces access to the occupied Crimean Peninsula materializes -- and if Berdyansk, which was occupied three days after the invasion began a year ago, is liberated in the process. If that happens, it could change the course of the war.
Kim is among thousands of displaced people in Zaporizhzhya -- and millions across Ukraine and abroad -- who are hoping to return to their cities and towns in the country’s east and south someday. By pushing millions of people from their homes, Russia has created a force determined to help Ukraine achieve a decisive battlefield success and drive its forces out.
The ordeals of the past year have been a huge challenge, Kim said.
“But after all this, I feel I am a part of a bigger force," she said.
'Moses of Melitopol'
Oleksandr Lyubyshko believes that the liberation of his native Melitopol, a city due south of Zaporizhzhya and west of Berdyansk, is a matter of time.
Lyubyshko, a 37-year-old businessman, has been dubbed the “Moses of Melitopol” for his role in evacuating thousands of people from Russian-occupied territory.
He left the city after Russian tanks rolled in in early March and decided to help as many people as possible to escape the increasingly dire conditions of the Russian occupation.
Thanks to his knowledge of the area, contacts, and organizational skills, he said, he and his associates were able to provide information about dangers and detours that helped about 50 drivers get people out safely over a period of several months.
A year later -- with all the possibilities of travel between Ukrainian-held and Russian-controlled parts of the Zaporizhzhya region gone -- he has pivoted to helping the military forces operating here. He says he helped more than 50,000 people evacuate, and some of them now help him raise funds to supply equipment to soldiers. He maintains the evacuation chat group he set up, he said, so that he can someday send a final message announcing that Melitopol is once again in Ukrainian hands.
"No one has done as much to make the whole of southeastern Ukraine decisively pro-Ukrainian as Putin himself," Lyubyshko told RFE/RL in Zaporizhzhya, where he lives alone for now. With his wife and four children in Hamburg, Germany, his family is “stuck between the old life and the new”, he said.
Longing For Home
A year into the invasion, many people forced to flee the occupation of the region are the limbo -- unable to go back home but not ready to settle in a new place.
Natalya Alekiseyeva, 51, and Natalya Koval, 42, are among the 135,000 people registered as Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the city of Zaporizhzhya. Both women, who talked to RFE/RL while weaving camouflage nets for the army at the Youth Center, have loved ones in the military.
Alekiseyeva's son has been a soldier since he joined the army almost 10 years ago. But over the past year, she has asked him to send her messages confirming that he is alive almost every day. Koval's husband is a military doctor currently serving near Vuhledar, where some of the heaviest recent fighting has taken place.
Alekiseyeva said she would like to return with her husband and daughter to Burchak, her native village, some 60 kilometers south of Zaporizhzhya. As long as there is anything to go back to, she said, she does not lose hope of returning to her past life.
Koval's family house in Mykhaylivka, a village near Burchak, was robbed and turned into quarters for Russian soldiers. She left out of fear for her teenage daughter’s safety, she said, and she also had conflicts with her colleagues from the national dance ensemble who collaborated with the Russians.
There are 5.3 million displaced persons in Ukraine, according to the International Organization for Migration. As of January 23, 74 percent had declared that they want to return home, while 11 percent planned to integrate in their current locations. Others had no specific plans or intended to resettle elsewhere.
Many of the displaced are doing their best to help Ukraine win the war.
Before Russia's invasion in February, the Zaporizhzhya Regional Youth Center, one of the biggest institutions of this kind in Ukraine, hosted educational events, concerts, and competitions. Now its vast premises are used to integrate IDPs, distribute humanitarian aid, and provide support to the army, Kostyantyn Chernyshov, 24, the project manager who leads the institution, told RFE/RL.
After the invasion, hundreds of people came to the center to make Molotov cocktails, he recalled, leaving him wondering where that will of resistance came from.
Zaporizhzhya is often associated with Zaporizhzhian Cossacks, who created a semiautonomous borderland polity in the 16th century that fought against Crimean Tatars, Ottoman Turks, Poles, and the Russian Empire, which ultimately annexed the area in 1775.
But the modern, predominantly Russian-speaking, city with a population of more than 700,000 developed as an industrial center over the 20th century, attracting laborers and qualified professionals from different nations.
Chernyshov, who has Jewish and Greek roots -- two of the earliest ethnic groups in Ukraine -- believes that the “freedom-loving spirit” of the region comes from the diversity brought by the immigrants in the past.
"When the full-scale war started a year ago, the sentiment in Zaporizhzhya was that it is we -- and not Putin -- who will determine our future," he said.
Offensives And Counteroffensives
Just 35 kilometers from the front line, Zaporizhzhya has been pounded with cruise missiles, S-300 air-defense missiles repurposed for ground attacks, and “kamikaze” drones since the first day of the invasion. Dozens of people have been killed in the attacks, and numerous buildings damaged or destroyed.
Without stopping the bombardments, Russia carried out a referendum in late September in the part of the region that it controls -- a vote dismissed by Kyiv and the West and much of the international community as a sham. Putin then announced that Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya, Kherson, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions -- none of which Russian forces fully control -- had become part of Russia. He has repeatedly reasserted this false claim, which is now enshrined in Russian law, and said in a February 21 address that the war is being fought on Russia's "historical lands."
"Everybody understands that we are next on Putin's list," Chernyshov said. "But the last year showed that things don't always go according to his plans."
While the possible Ukrainian counteroffensive is not yet under way, it’s unclear whether Russian forces will try to push closer to the city of Zaporizhzhya in the near future. Recent reports from the southern front, which runs through the region south of its capital, say they are strengthening the defense of Melitopol -- a strategically critical city key for the control of roads and railways connecting the Donbas to Crimea.
The displaced Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, said that Russia has been bringing new troops into the city -- Wagner Group forces, mobilized personnel, and battalions from the North Ossetia and Daghestan regions -- and has prepared several lines of defense there.
According to the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank, transporting "irregular forces who are likely battle weary, poorly trained, or both" to the area indicates that the Russian military leadership has de-prioritized making new territorial gains in the Zaporizhzhya region, focused instead on maintaining its positions.