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Hardened by 8 years of war, many Ukrainians are staying put

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Now to Eastern Europe, where Russian military forces are continuing to advance along Ukraine's eastern border. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have fled cities and towns there, but many are staying for now. NPR's Emily Feng reports from eastern Ukraine.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: We meet Mikhael here on a train platform in the Ukrainian town of Pokrovsk. His arm is around his wife. They've just said goodbye to her son, who's taken a daily train evacuating residents.

MIKHAEL: (Through interpreter) Two bombs flew into the yard in April. One detonated. The second didn't explode. It was at night. Thank God no one stepped on it.

FENG: This is not new for Mikhael. Ask Ukrainians like him, and they'll tell you the war with Russia didn't begin on February 24 when Russian troops began advancing on Kyiv. They'll say the war began eight years earlier, in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine's eastern Donbas region.

MIKHAEL: (Through interpreter) My flat in Donetsk was bombed. The Russians took my garage. Everything is bad there.

FENG: So in 2015, Mikhael fled, and he got a second chance in Pokrovsk, where he met his wife one year after fleeing. But now Russian soldiers are inching closer to his new home. Pokrovsk is one of the next towns on their warpath. But Mikhael doesn't want to be made a refugee twice over, so he's staying put this time. We're only using people's first names in this story because they're afraid Russian soldiers could identify them if they capture the territory.

MIKHAEL: (Through interpreter) Back then, in 2015, when we heard the shelling, we'd instinctively crouch. We still do, but we got used to the shelling. I'm not as scared anymore. When it ends, we just stand back up and continue working.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

FENG: Outside the town's church, people still mill about. Many are from the nearby cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, where shelling is more intense. We meet Svetlana, leisurely chain-smoking on a park bench, indifferent to the war. In 2014, she left the east and the war there to live in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv. This time, however, she's not budging.

SVETLANA: (Through interpreter) Home is home. The walls will protect me. I will only leave if the entire city becomes a dumpster fire.

FENG: Would you stay if the Russians come? - my producer Katya asks.

SVETLANA: (Through interpreter) We would survive. People in the Russian-backed separatist republics have survived. What else would we do?

FENG: People here have been toughened by eight years of war, and for many, their only goal is survival.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Pokrovsk, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.