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Ukraine’s herculean task: helping millions whose homes are in ruins or Russia’s hands

On Tuesday, a man surveyed the damage to a relative's home after a Russian shelling attack in Sloviansk, in eastern Ukraine. More than 7.1 million people are estimated to be displaced inside Ukraine, posing a challenge that will loom long after the war, and roughly 5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled west across borders into the European Union, a migration through the continent unseen since World War II.MAURICIO LIMA/NYT

When she fled her home in eastern Ukraine, Hanna Obuzhevanna, 71, gave her keys to her neighbor to water the blooming cyclamen on her balcony, thinking she would be back in just a few weeks.

Three months later, she is still sleeping with her two sons in a room of an old church building in the city of Pavlograd, in central Ukraine. Back home, a missile wrecked her bedroom, soldiers destroyed her piano, and the town is in Russian hands.

“I am sitting in someone else’s damp room. I am wearing someone else’s sweater. The dishes are not mine. I am sleeping on a bed that is not mine. Outside the window, everything is also foreign. I miss my home so much,” she said. “But there is no way I will go back there if there are Russian occupiers.”

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Obuzhevanna and her family are among more than 10 million Ukrainians uprooted from their homes — roughly one-third of the population whose cities are now crater-pocked ruins, occupied territory, or in the crosshairs of artillery.

About 5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled west across borders into the European Union, a migration through the continent unseen since World War II, but another humanitarian crisis has transformed life inside Ukraine: that of the millions of people who, like Obuzhevanna, have sought refuge in other parts of the country.

Ukraine faces a herculean challenge to help them.

The country is struggling to fend off a formidable aggressor that has just seized one province and is moving to take another, undaunted by heavy casualties on both sides. It is trying to navigate a devastating economic crisis, with the cost of rebuilding alone estimated at $750 billion. And all the while, with the outcome of the war unknown, Ukraine needs to somehow help the displaced millions either return to their homes or find new ones entirely.

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Most of the internally displaced people are now coming from the country’s east, especially the Donbas region, where the Russian offensive has already emptied the land of about half its prewar population. On Wednesday, Russia continued its shelling of cities in Donetsk province, including Sloviansk and Bakhmut, pursuing its campaign to capture the rest of the Donbas.

With that advance, more people are being forced from their homes every day simply to survive. Ukraine’s regional military government said that Russian bombardment had killed at least five civilians in the province over the past 24 hours.

With no diplomatic solution to the war in sight, despair is growing among the displaced. With each passing day, as more and more towns are reduced to the conditions of Mariupol, the southern city pulverized by weeks of Russian siege, many are becoming increasingly worried that there might be nowhere to go back to at all.

Some of the territory where the war is playing out in the east has been fought over for years. In 2014, pro-Kremlin separatists declared two breakaway republics there.

Now many people displaced by the invasion fear that their land may never return to Ukrainian control and are divided about what they would do in that scenario. Some say they will still find a way to return. Others insist they would rather lose everything than live under Russian control.

Most realize that even if Ukraine retakes their hometowns, there could be little left behind by the Russian army’s scorched-earth tactics — which have demolished houses, water lines, and power plants — other than dust and debris.

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Boarding trains and buses, civilians have poured out of cities and towns across eastern Ukraine, fleeing for the relative safety of the west and the capital, Kyiv. Some have left in humanitarian convoys, navigating treacherous roadways under the threat of gunfire and shelling. Others have left on foot, literally running for their lives.

“There are now no schools, hospitals, businesses,” said Vladislav Obuzhevannyi, Obuzhevanna’s son, who lived in Rubizhne — a city that, along with its province of Luhansk, was taken by Russia. “Now it’s a dead city.”

With a meager government subsidy, Obuzhevannyi and his mother could not afford to rent a place. They call the old church building where they are staying the “chicken coop,” but the building, made available to them by a local priest, was the only option available to them for free.

Shelters have sprung up in public buildings. Gyms and university dorms have been converted, and some modular homes have been set up. The majority of internally displaced people, much like refugees abroad, are women and children, and many face shortages of food, water, and basic necessities, according to the United Nations. A shortfall in international aid has further strained local resources, UN experts say.

“The state was not ready for such a scale of displaced persons in many areas,” Vitaly Muzychenko, the deputy minister of social policy for Ukraine, said at a news conference this week.

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Many Ukrainians were not ready, either, and were able to take only the barest essentials when they fled.

When the war began, some packed just their documents and a handful of belongings, hopeful they could be back soon. Parents who were along the front and unable to leave because of jobs in the military or essential industries sent their unaccompanied children west, in the care of their teachers. Others simply ran as bombs fell around them, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

In east Ukraine, the uncertainty of war was already painfully familiar in communities where the conflict between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian troops has raged for eight years.

Ukrainians there could never be sure when violence might erupt, how long it might last, and when they might get back if they had to flee. Some gave instructions to relatives or friends to feed pets they left behind. Some left out tools to start repairs once they came back.

But this time, many fear they never will and have begun to try to adjust to this new reality.