KRAMATORSK, UKRAINE (AP) – The children flicker like ghosts on the empty playgrounds in weedy courtyards deep in a city whose residents have been told to get out now.
Six-year-old Tania has no more playmates left on her street in the eastern Ukraine city of Kramatorsk. She sits on a bench only steps away from the city’s train station that was attacked by Russia in April, killing more than 50 people who had gathered there to evacuate.
The remnants of a rocket from that attack bore the inscription in Russian: “For the children.”
Tania and her parents aren’t afraid to stay. In the shade near the now-closed station, they enjoy whatever quiet remains between the booms of outgoing artillery trying to keep out Russian forces.
“The bombs land all over the country. It’s doesn’t make sense to escape,” said Tania’s father, Oleksandr Rokytianskyi. Chatting to herself while settling in with a lavish box of coloured markers, Tania added, “Bang, bang!”
It’s not unusual for older residents of eastern Ukraine to refuse to heed calls to evacuate to safer places elsewhere in the country.
What’s jarring, however, is to see children – even a baby stroller – near the frontline. It is unknown how many remain as the Russians press their offensive in the region.
Children cannot escape the war, even in cities considered safe. Tania’s parents spoke on the day a Russian missile struck Vinnytsia, far from the front in central Ukraine, killing 23 people including three children – a four-year-old girl named Liza Dmytrieva and two boys aged seven and eight.
Children who remain close to the fighting have their fates tied to that of their parents, and the dangers can be unexpected.
Outside a hospital, 18-year-old Sasha sits with a 15-year-old friend. Sasha’s right arm is bandaged, and he peers at the world from blackened eyes. He has scrapes all over after being struck while crossing the street by one of the military vehicles rumbling through the region.
The Ukrainian soldiers helped find him an ambulance, he said, his speech impaired by his injuries.
Sasha doesn’t know why he’s still living here. His mother decided the family wouldn’t leave.
Like some in eastern Ukraine, he didn’t share his last name out of concern for his security. “I’d rather stay because I have friends here,” he said, but if he had small children, he would take them out.
In the four-bed hospital room that Sasha shares with other patients, an older man named Volodymyr has his right hand thickly bandaged. He said he was in his garden in a village near Bakhmut when cluster bombs exploded. His family, including his 15-year-old child, plans to stay.
But “the small ones need to be evacuated”, Volodymyr said.
“The small ones, they haven’t seen much in life.”
Maksym, a wounded soldier recuperating from a concussion suffered during shelling, agreed.
For the first time since Russia’s February 24 invasion, he has left the forest trenches and is able to speak by phone with his teenage daughter, who is safe in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia, several hours’ drive away.
This is also Maksym’s first chance to see what passes for normal life in Ukraine in almost six months, and he is surprised to see children still so close to the fighting.
“They’re kids,” he said, with the same gruffness he uses to call the entire war “non-sense”.
Dr Vitalii Malanchuk said a “quite high” number of children are patients at the hospital.
He finds it uncomfortable that some people who should be evacuating see his presence as a reassuring reason to stay.
As the latest air raid siren wails at a Kramatorsk playground and artillery booms, a girl in pigtails squeals and runs from the determined chase of a little boy. A small merry-go-round spins.
Dmytro and Karyna Ponomarenko wait for their daughter, nearly five-year-old Anhelina, along with her pink bike with training wheels.
There are no safe places, they said, and Kramatorsk is home. They feel it’s hard to leave and expensive to start anew elsewhere. Some residents who left are now returning, they said, preferring to take their chances. They will stay as long as they can, even as the Russians inch closer. “She is used to the sirens, but the explosions still bother her,” Dmtryo said of Anhelina.
They tell her it’s thunder, but somehow she has learned to fear the planes, even Ukrainian ones.
There are fewer children to play with day by day, but Anhelina entertains herself, her father said.
“Hyperactive,” he added with a weary fondness.
With evening coming, the family leaves, walking by the statue of a tank that’s now outnumbered by real ones on the streets.
Shadows edge across the cracked concrete square. The air raid siren is still going.