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LYSYCHANSK, Ukraine – After months of rebel occupation and weeks of Ukrainian liberation, the residents of this shell-shocked border town say they hope simply to rebuild their former lives — but fear that war could return to their doorstep.
Many homes and entire neighborhoods bear scars from the two-day fight for Lysychansk, a down-on-its-luck industrial town on the western bank of eastern Ukraine's largest river. Three weeks after the fighting ended in a rebel defeat, residents still are waiting to regain access to essential utilities in their homes, if they still have any. Hundreds of houses and apartments were gutted, or blown to smithereens, by tank and mortar shells while their inhabitants cowered in reinforced basements.
"We still don't have running water or gas. We only have electricity. How are people supposed to live?" said Alexander Tretyakov, 53, who emerged from his own basement shelter last month to discover that a tank shell had collapsed the entire top floor of his home.
Tretyakov said some neighbors fared worse. "They went into the basement in slippers alone and came out to see that nothing was left of their house," he said.
Many in this predominantly Russian-speaking town of 105,000 are sympathetic to the rebels' cause but have accepted the Ukrainian army's victory as the better option because they don't believe they could live peacefully under rebel rule.
Tretyakov said he expects the Ukrainian government to pay to fix his home, but fears rebels could recapture the town, rendering any repairs now pointless. He's keeping his basement windows covered in three layers of bricks, backed by buckets of water, just in case his family finds itself on the front line again.
"We are not going to take these barricades down until this war ends. We don't know whether it ever will," he said.
For the time being, scenes of resurgent normality are playing out in Lysychansk alongside street rubble and high-rise residential battle zones. A children's hospital on the edge of town lies in ruins. Everywhere, windows remain shattered or patched with plastic sheeting.
The ATMs have resumed dispensing Ukrainian hryvni, the national currency, and long lines of customers are forming for what may be their first access to cash in many weeks. Most shops in the town's five shopping centers have reopened, but prices are punitively high and stocks limited. Many travel on foot with shopping bags, partly reflecting how the retreating rebels stole private cars for their escape toward the Russian border barely 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.
One supermarket offered yogurt — lots of it, shelf upon shelf, one brand only. At a pharmacy, a woman seeking heart medicine was told her prescription was out of stock, and was offered an uncertain alternative.
The pharmacist, who would provide only his first name of Andrei, constructed a Potemkin village of his few remaining products on shelves protected behind glass. In reality, he said, panic-buying meant he was out of basic essentials.
"The people have bought out absolutely everything. What they need as well as what they don't need. They took any medicine they could, because they did not know when all this will end," he said.
Outside, in sweltering humidity and temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit), families were toiling to patch roofs, cover windows and rebuild walls as they contemplated autumn's sudden descent toward sub-zero weather.
"We borrow (money) from here and there, because after a month, rain and winter will come. What can we do then? We need to fix the house somehow," said Anastasia Shevchenko, 65, whose home was razed by an explosion while she and her husband took shelter in her brother's basement next door. "The boiler has been damaged. Everything has been destroyed. It all needs to be replaced."
As she spoke beside the shrapnel-pocked basement door, a younger relative worked on a ladder applying mortar to a new cinder-block wall, the start of a home.
In another part of town, a blackened shell of an apartment building bore testimony to particularly fierce fighting between separatists based in a fire station on one side and Ukrainian forces on the other. A pile of rubble at the foot of the building kept growing as returning refugees hurled bits of concrete out the open window holes.
In a relatively unscathed nine-story tower block next door, dozens of elderly couples and families had returned, some after weeks spent sheltering in the basement. Many were telling stories of relief that no loved ones were claimed. They said only one household, an elderly couple, remained in their third-floor apartment during the shooting, because the wife was paralyzed and the husband wasn't strong enough to move her. Both survived unscathed.
But one 62-year-old woman, drawn reluctantly into a larger discussion on park benches outside, recalled her struggle during the fighting to get her husband buried. He was killed, she said, when a Ukrainian shell hit a nearby shop and shrapnel struck his head. He, like many curious men, had gone outside during an apparent lull in shooting.
The woman, who identified herself only as Maria because she feared possible retaliation from Ukrainian soldiers, said she wanted to bury her husband the day after he died. Instead, his body was left lying where it fell, within eyesight of her front door, while she bicycled to a neighboring town to find a working mortuary.
Like many residents, Maria offered no love for the Ukrainian liberators, only relief that the shooting had stopped. She said the region deserved self-government within Ukraine.
"Are we really separatists? It is not a crime if people wanted federalization," she said. "And this is what they (Ukrainian forces) did to us. This pain will stay with us for all of our lives."