Life in a 'safe' Ukrainian town as war grinds on
Many residents of Kobeliaky say the town hasn’t changed much.
Vladyslav, a 23-year-old sergeant in the Ukrainian military, still remembers the day when the missiles started falling on Feb. 24, 2022.
"On the day of the invasion, I was at work in Odesa, on the night shift. I experienced the beginning of the war second by second, in a company of rockets and explosions that were hitting the oil refinery," he told ABC News. "At the time of [Russia’s] invasion, I hadn't even finished my university studies yet. I have completed university now, dates change, but time is still frozen in that moment."
Despite being outside of Ukraine’s conscription age, which is 25-60 years, he voluntarily went to the front. Vladyslav quickly learned to fight and survive – something he never needed in his quiet hometown of Kobeliaky.
"Life in Kobeliaky isn't dynamic or exciting … life here flows from weekend to weekend, and you create your weekends yourself," he explained.
Kobeliaky, a cozy town in eastern Ukraine, is home to around 10,000 people. Many residents say the town hasn’t changed, yet most will admit it isn’t the same anymore.
"In Kobeliaky, the population has decreased due to people leaving but it has also increased due to the displaced people. They have sad, contemplative and empty eyes. The gaze is heavy," said 18-year-old Yaroslava, who grew up in Kobeliaky and returned there to escape the shelling in Kharkiv, where she was studying.
Even though the location changed, her fear still remained. "I slept dressed, in case something happened ... but it didn’t last long. You get used to it quickly," she said.
Yaroslava started volunteering and took up a job to pay for her donations to the Ukrainian army. These activities were a way for her to calm her mind while supporting her boyfriend at the front.
"Every siren ... deep down you think, OK, now it's going to hit," said Yaroslava. "I used to weave camouflage nets. I rubbed my fingers to blood. I could spend 12 hours there just to distract myself."
Located about 112 miles from the closest front line, Kobeliaky itself has never been bombed, an uncommon sight these days in Ukraine. Yet the scars of war are still visible throughout the town.
"We don't have graduations at all. No first bells, no last bells … there are no children near the school. The school is mainly remote. There are no discos at all ... you can see that everyone is chronically exhausted," she said from a coffee shop that opened several months ago to help boost the local economy.
There are also older volunteers like 50-year-old Serhiy Sribnyi, who cannot enlist due to health issues. He runs an outdoor equipment store in Kobeliaky and has donated almost all of his inventory to the Ukrainian army since last year.
Every day he makes hoes, mills, feeders, potbelly stoves and troughs as presents for Ukrainian soldiers. He said he's helped "thousands" of soldiers since the war began. Whenever a soldier passes by his store, Sribnyi stops to give them a gift.
"Right now, I'm weaving nets. My hands are almost numb due to arthritis. But I'm weaving, and it feels good in my soul," Sribnyi told ABC News.
He went on, "The more you help, the more you want to."
Sribnyi already has big plans for expanding his charity after the war ends: "I won't stop helping, it's in my blood now."
These same nets and equipment that Sribnyi makes end up being used by soldiers like Vladyslav to defend the front lines. The contrast between Vladyslav’s quiet hometown and the hell of Marinka, where he is currently stationed, is stark, a place that he describes as smelling like gunpowder, blood and dust. Nonetheless, he wants to stay and fight for what’s been taken away.
"Whatever I could miss, I don't have. Russian aggression didn’t leave me anything except the desire to fight it and defeat it," said Vladyslav, who does not regret enlisting despite being shot at by Russian forces and suffering shrapnel wounds and contusions. "I went not to war, but to defend my home."
These days, Vladyslav only returns home when he’s injured. One day he may actually come home to live.
"This horror will end and, against the background of civilian, peaceful life, I will ultimately understand what has changed," he said.