‘Like Chornobyl’: Wary Ukrainians return to ruined towns after Russian retreat

BALAKLIIA: Joy, trembling and grief flashed across Nataliia’s face Yelistratova as she sat next to her husband on a special train back to her hometown of Balakliia, which Ukraine recaptured last week after six months of Russian occupation.
The town – which had a population of 27,000 before the war – was one of the key urban outposts that Ukraine recaptured in the northeast. Kharkiv in early September after the sudden collapse of one of Russia’s main front lines.
Smiling, Yelistratova said: “The weather is great because we are going home. My mood is great, we are very happy now.”
As soon as she said that, she started crying.
“I’m overwhelmed by my emotions. We haven’t been home for five months. I really want to see what’s there and what happened,” she said, turning to reassure her husband: “I don’t cry, I’m fine.”
Yelistratova is traveling 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Kharkiv with her husband and daughter on one of the special trains for the townspeople who want to return.
Engine driver Maksym Kharchenko said the train on the Kharkiv-Balakliia line used to connect Kyiv’s airport with the city center, but due to the war’s cessation of aviation operations, it could be redeployed to Kharkiv. “The train was launched on September 14. And on the first train, there were people going to and from Balakliia,” he said. “They went there to see what happened to their house, to check if they were destroyed.”
As the train passed through the misty forest and past destroyed buildings, most of the passengers sat in murky silence.
Going home but still scared
On reaching Balakliia, Yelsitratova and her family walk through the war-torn town to their apartment complex, which appears to have suffered minor damage from shelling.
The windows and balconies of a neighboring house were smashed and the facades were marred by shrapnel.
“It’s as if we’re in Chornobyl. Nature has taken over,” her daughter said, Olena Miroshnichenko. “Nobody did anything, for half a year, no one cut the grass and bushes. Everything was overgrown.”
Upon returning to their apartment, the family began inspecting the damage. Within minutes, Yelistratova found a shrapnel on the wall.
“It was scary,” she said.
I still hold this feeling, that at any moment a shell could explode or an airplane might fly over. “I am still scared to be here,” she added.

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