In the war-struck city of Izyum, in Ukraine's northeastern Kharkiv region, residents are daring to hope for an end to fighting with Russia in the year ahead.

The town is awash with debris, and many buildings are gutted or have blown out windows, nearly two years since the start of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Izyum was reclaimed by Ukrainian forces in September 2022, after being occupied by Russia in the first months of the war.

Volodymyr, a resident of the town near the frontline, wandered around with his hands in his pockets, contemplating the destruction.

"I believe that everyone shares the same hope for 2024: that we achieve victory quickly and that the war ends," the 41-year-old told AFP.

"This is our main hope: peace and tranquility."

Russian troops initially captured large swathes of the eastern Kharkiv region early in the invasion but Kyiv's forces pushed them back in a lightning offensive.

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Russian forces may have left the area, but Volodymyr's life can not return to how it was before the invasion.

"My brother, his wife, and my aunt, are all dead," he said.

His mother has also died since the Russians arrived in the city in March 2022, and his father's health has deteriorated sharply since, he added.

"We lost the whole family," said Volodymyr.

- 'No longer alone' -

In recent months, life has started to return to normal in Izyum -- even though conditions remain difficult and fighting continues just 60 kilometers (nearly 40 miles) away.

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This winter, some 7,000 people returned to the town, according to local authorities.

Their return has bolstered numbers in conflict-hit Izyum to around 25,000 -- almost half the population before the war.

Twenty-six-year-old Anastasia, who walked with her son in the town, said she was happy to see more people again after the exodus at the beginning of the war.

"We are no longer alone on our walks in the park," she said.

"Despite the state of the city, it has become a little more alive."

However, the situation on the ground remains bleak despite Anastasia's hope for a better year with Ukraine's counteroffensive having failed and Russian troops stepping up attacks.

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But others are unfazed.

"There is hope of course and the certitude that we will win," said Andriy, a 62-year-old who has signed up to fight as a soldier.

"But everything has become complicated ... especially recently."

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