By Elizabeth Piper and Stefaniia Bern
KYIV (Reuters) – Laden with bags, trolleys and the odd pet, Ukrainians are returning to the capital Kyiv, some tearful, others nervous about going home after Russian troops withdrew from the outskirts of their city.
A week after Russian forces pulled out of villages to the north of Kyiv, leaving behind razed buildings and corpses in some of the streets, officials have warned people not to return to the capital quite yet, fearful of a renewed offensive.
Yet for several of those returning on Thursday at the busy main train station in central Kyiv, the desire to see elderly parents or to continue their jobs outweighed any lingering safety concerns.
Some workers returned without their families, leaving wives and children in the relative safety of western Ukraine, others were making a quick dash to pick up more of their belongings and cars before heading out again. A few said they had returned to stay, at least for now.
“I want to see my parents, they’re elderly,” said Olena Oleshyntseva, who arrived at Kyiv’s train station after staying in neighbouring Moldova for safety. She started to cry as she whispered: “I am their daughter.”
For 24-year-old Ksiusha Lysyk, who works as a manicurist, the feeling was the same. She just wanted to see her parents.
“I missed Kyiv, I missed home,” she said.
On a sunny Thursday, there were more signs of something more akin to normal life returning to Kyiv. Joggers headed out for their morning runs, women walked together with their dogs and the church bells summoned believers to a morning service.
Some played chess in the park as an air raid siren sounded.
Six weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine getting to within 20 km (12 miles) of Kyiv, many of the shops along the capital’s main Khreshchatyk thoroughfare remained closed.
Army checkpoints and roadblocks still punctuate roads in the city, reminding residents that a return to normal life may still be a way off.
‘WHY BE SCARED OF THE DEAD’
Around half the population of Kyiv, a city of about 3 million before the war, have fled, the city’s mayor Vitali Klitschko said earlier this month, warning people to give it a little time before returning.
But even beyond Kyiv, in its surrounding towns and villages, the desire to return home is strong.
In Bucha, where Ukraine accuses Russian troops of killing some civilians, Oleksandr Pulnev, 38, picks through what remains of his apartment for the first time since March 9.
A television, a wifi router and his laptop have gone, he said. Picking up his wife’s pink sneakers from a pile of clothes strewn across the floor of his flat, Pulnev said it would take time to put everything back together.
“It’s just unbelievable,” he said, pointing to the way his apartment door was ripped off its hinges.
Russia says it launched a “special military operation” to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies say the invasion was illegal and unjustified.
Moscow denies targeting civilians in Ukraine and has said the deaths in Bucha, in the Kyiv region, were a “monstrous forgery” staged by the West to discredit it.
Back in the capital, at Zhytniy market, one of Kyiv’s oldest, in a crumbling Soviet building where the floors are uneven and the counters are cracked, the rows of stalls, selling fruit, meat, cheese and even socks are slowly filling up again.
Ihor Ostapenko, who runs a stall selling fruit, vegetables and herbs collected from around the Kyiv region, was defiant about the possible threat of a renewed invasion and dismissive of the warnings from city officials as he returned to work.
“There are fewer people these days,” he said, as he laid out handfuls of herbs. “Why should we be scared? Russia has gone. Why should we be scared of dead bodies?”
Cafes and restaurants are reopening, with one restaurant, ZigZag, in Kyiv’s hipster district, once again setting up tables and chairs on the pavement outside.
“There are many more people now. Many people have returned to Kyiv. About two weeks ago the city was completely empty, devoid of people,” said Kostia Yastreb, a manager at the cafe.
“A week ago, there were 20 people a day. Now we are welcoming about 60 people a day, and the number will continue to rise, I’m sure.”
But for those who have stayed, there is still an uneasy feeling that may take time to overcome.
Mikhailo Smetana, a graphic designer, packed his and his wife’s things after the Russian invasion on Feb. 24 but never felt it was the right time to leave.
“I don’t regret that we didn’t leave,” he said outside the backstreet cafe where he volunteers providing food to the elderly who, when the local shops closed because of the invasion, couldn’t buy food, and shelter for those who had fled eastern Ukraine in the building’s large basement.
“I only unpacked this morning.”
(Additional reporting by Mari Saito in Bucha; Writing by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Janet Lawrence)