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A young aid worker from Bakhmut, Ukraine, mourns the loss of the city but won't leave

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To most of the world, the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is a scorched-earth killing field, the longest and bloodiest battle of Russia's war on Ukraine. But for one young rescue worker, Bakhmut is home. NPR's Joanna Kakissis caught up with him near the frontline in eastern Ukraine.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: For the last year, Eduard Skoryk has had a familiar routine. He gets up early, puts on a helmet and flak jacket and jumps into a van with a sign that reads, evacuations. Then he drives toward the frontline.

EDUARD SKORYK: (Through interpreter) I've adapted to live only in the moment. I don't think very far ahead. I see the situation here and now. I see that help is needed now.

KAKISSIS: Skoryk is 31 and cautious, especially when he's talking about feelings. He's thin but athletic, like a long-distance runner. We follow his van on a half-paved road to the town of Toretsk. It's about 22 miles south of Bakhmut. These days, it sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBS EXPLODING)

KAKISSIS: Scottik and a couple of other volunteers are near a church that was recently bombed. They're here to evacuate a frail, elderly couple.

SKORYK: (Through interpreter) The evacuation started a year ago. Then the frontline kept coming closer to us. So far, our team has evacuated something like 30,000 people, most of them from Bakhmut.

KAKISSIS: He pauses - Bakhmut, his hometown, a hometown that now lives mostly in his memory.

SKORYK: (Through interpreter) My life was in that city. I had so many friends. My most vivid memories were my teenage years. I got a motor bicycle when I was 13, and I remember riding around the streets of Bakhmut and all the villages around it.

KAKISSIS: Early in the morning, he would head to the abandoned alabaster mines in the countryside, then back to his city, passing by Bakhmut's famous sparkling wine factory, then stopping at his favorite hangout spot, the river embankment.

SKORYK: (Through interpreter) What a magnificent place. There was this whole alley of roses. There were also cafes, beautiful trails and beautiful trees. It was so atmospheric, and I can't really describe its beauty in words.

KAKISSIS: "You had to be there," he says, and he looks sad. Edvard Skoryk's Bakhmut was alive - his blue-collar neighborhood of high-rise apartments where the local tough guys taught him to kickbox, the school where he learned about Bakhmut's mining riches.

SKORYK: (Through interpreter) And this one place that every single local knew, a nightclub called the Khutorok.

KAKISSIS: He shows me a video.

SKORYK: (Through interpreter) Outside, it looked like a big log cabin. Inside, it was decorated like an old-fashioned Ukrainian restaurant with embroidery and everything.

KAKISSIS: Skoryk and his family left Bakhmut last May, four months after Russia's full-scale invasion. A few weeks later, he heard that a Russian missile killed a classmate there. That prompted Skoryk to offer his neighbors a chance to evacuate. He recorded those encounters on his phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: In one video, a teenager in a white coat says her family won't leave because they tell her war is everywhere in Ukraine. In another, Skoryk hands out several loaves of bread to a woman riding a bike, who also refuses to leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SKORYK: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

SKORYK: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: In the last video, taken late last year, a distraught grandmother agrees to leave but asks, how can I leave my home?

SKORYK: (Through interpreter) Then I drove past my house, although it was not on my way. It wasn't damaged yet. It was like a farewell moment. It was the last time I stood on my street in my home neighborhood while it was still intact.

KAKISSIS: He hasn't been able to return since January, though he's heard a few hundred people remain there. But he has seen videos and photos showing his school, his neighborhood, his favorite club, his beloved alley of roses all destroyed, all burned to the ground.

SKORYK: (Through interpreter) I've had to put my memories on pause. I cannot yet feel grief or worry, no matter how cold this may sound.

KAKISSIS: Because Bakhmut, he says, was his whole life. Grieving its loss feels too enormous, and he has too much to do right now, like help the elderly couple in Toretsk. The couple is Lyudmilla and Viktor, who have lived here for 50 years. Viktor is on a stretcher, and Lyudmilla needs a walker. She wears her best jacket and lipstick to honor the home she will never see again. Skoryk takes her hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SKORYK: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "Don't worry, my dear," he says. "Take my hand, and everything will be OK." Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Toretsk, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF NXWORRIES SONG, "WHERE I GO (FEAT. H.E.R.)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
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