The city – which had a population of 27,000 before the war – is one of the main urban outposts Ukraine recaptured in northeastern part of the country. Kharkiv region in early September after a sudden collapse of one of Russia’s main front lines.
Smiling, Yelistratova said: “The weather is great because we are going home. My mood is great, we are so happy now.”
No sooner had she said this than she began to cry.
“I’m overwhelmed with my emotions. We haven’t been home for five months. I really want to see what’s and what happened,” she said, turning to assure her husband: “I’m not crying, I’m fine with me.”
Yelistratova traveled the 80 km (50 miles) from Kharkov with her husband and daughter on one of the special trains built for residents of the city who wanted to return.
Driver Maksym Kharchenko said the train on the Kharkiv-Balakliia route used to connect Kiev’s airport to the city center, but since the war had halted all air traffic, it could be redeployed to Kharkiv. “The train was launched on September 14. And already in the first train, people were traveling there and back to Balakliia,” he said. “They went there to see what had happened to their houses, to check whether they had been destroyed or not.”
As the train cut through misty forest and passed ruined buildings, most of the passengers sat in gloomy silence.
Back home but still scared
Once in Balakliia, Yelsitraova and her family walked through the battle-ravaged city to their apartment building, which appeared to have suffered minor shelling damage.
The windows and balconies of a neighboring block were smashed in and the facade pockmarked by shrapnel.
“It’s like being in Chernobyl. Nature has taken over,” her daughter said, Olena Miroshnichenko. “Nobody has done anything, for six months nobody has pruned grass and shrubs. Everything is overgrown.”
Once back in their apartment, the family began to inspect the damage. Within minutes, Yelistratova had found shrapnel in a wall.
“It’s scary,” she said.
I still have the feeling that at any moment a grenade could explode or a plane could fly overhead. I’m still scared to be here, she added.