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Ukrainians from war-torn cities wonder if they'll ever be able to return home

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ukraine's leaders say that areas captured by Russian forces are only temporarily occupied and that those who fled them will return. But some who escaped one city, which has become a symbol of Russia's destruction, wonder if they can ever go home. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Anna Krylova and her teenage daughter Maya stroll through a big park in Ukraine's capital, reminiscing about their hometown, the southern port city of Mariupol. It's now occupied by Russia.

ANNA KRYLOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: They get emotional talking about the place they call our Mariupol. Anna had a good job at one of the steel factories. Maya was in art school. They say they loved watching the dreamy sunsets on the Azov Sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: And they play me the romantic music a friend would perform at seaside restaurants. As we walk, Anna wipes away tears.

A KRYLOVA: (Through interpreter) Mariupol held my whole life - good memories, bad memories, my childhood, both of my marriages, the birth of my daughters. It was absolutely everything to me.

KAKISSIS: Russian troops destroyed Mariupol early in the war, even bombing a maternity hospital. Thousands are said to have died, buried in mass graves. The Krylovas hid for weeks under the steel plant where Anna worked. They faced constant bombing and shelling from Russian troops.

A KRYLOVA: (Through interpreter) We spent all of our time in the plant trying to survive the attacks. Now we're spending all our time trying to survive what comes afterwards because we have nothing left.

KAKISSIS: They keep hearing that Mariupol is a symbol of bravery, that it will soon be back in Ukrainian hands and that the West will help rebuild it. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy even said that Europe's biggest musical event, the Eurovision Song Contest, could be held in Mariupol next year. Anna Krylova shakes her head.

A KRYLOVA: (Through interpreter) If Mariupol was in Ukrainian hands, I would stay and clear every last bit of rubble. I wouldn't care how long it took, and I would never even consider leaving Ukraine. But let's get real. How long will the enemies be there?

KAKISSIS: She says all of Ukraine feels unsafe right now. Russian troops are advancing in the east. They even bombed a building in Kyiv near the apartment where she and Maya were staying. So the Krylovas uprooted again, and they moved to Italy as refugees. Anna calls from their new seaside town where she's looking for work.

A KRYLOVA: (Through interpreter) Our leaders want to give us hope, but we have eyes. We can see everything that's happening. I do believe we will eventually win. But not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow - someday in the future.

KAKISSIS: The U.N.'s migration agency estimates that the Russian invasion has displaced about a third of Ukraine's population. Most want to return home. A recent public opinion poll showed that nearly all Ukrainians reject the idea of giving up occupied land to end the war. The Ukrainian government says it wants to launch a counteroffensive to recapture occupied land in the south, where Mariupol is located.

SERGEI ORLOV: Up to new year, I am sure we will return to Mariupol, and we start to rebuild and renovate our city.

KAKISSIS: That’s Sergei Orlov, deputy mayor of Mariupol's government in exile. We meet at a university in the southern city of Zaporizhizhia, where he set up a temporary office.

ORLOV: Mariupol will be a symbol of development, symbol of how should a modern, renovated Ukrainian looks like.

KAKISSIS: Orlov is part of a city council that renovated Mariupol after pro-Russian militants briefly occupied the city in 2014. Mariupol transformed from a gray industrial town into a colorful seaside metropolis with parks and art.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: Orlov still has several promotional videos, including one showing children running in town squares with fountains and flowers.

ORLOV: In previous year, we were a cultural capital of Ukraine - a lot of big festivals, music festivals.

KAKISSIS: All that was destroyed this year by Russian troops, who also left dead bodies lining the streets. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to send a message with that kind of destruction, says Joanne Mariner of Amnesty International, whose team researched war crimes in Mariupol.

JOANNE MARINER: It's sent a message to the entire country. Like, this is what happens when you try to stand up to Russia, the incredible punishment they'll face if they do so.

KAKISSIS: Thousands are still trapped in the remains of the city. There are reports of cholera outbreaks and food shortages. Some former Mariupol residents say the city is so damaged they cannot imagine a resurrection.

ARTYOM CHEKHONATSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: It's just war and ruins, says 12-year-old Artyom Chekhonatskiy, who lives in Kyiv.

YEGOR CHEKHONATSKIY: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Mariupol is over. It's history, says the boy's father, Yegor. Hundreds of miles away in Italy, Anna Krylova is learning a new language...

A KRYLOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: ...While also hoping that a Ukrainian offensive will soon reclaim occupied areas.

A KRYLOVA: (Through interpreter) Maybe they will take back Mariupol and clear out an area for the Eurovision next year. Maybe Zelenskyy and the other politicians know something I don't. I'm just an ordinary person.

KAKISSIS: Her daughter, Maya, is less optimistic. She sends me one of her drawings. It shows a girl praying as her city disappears behind her window.

MAYA KRYLOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: I am also hoping that what they say is true, Maya says. But I just don't see us coming back. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.