Life on the bat­tle­field — Ukraine sis­ters cling on in war’s epi­cen­ter

The China Post - - ARTS LIFE - BY YU­LIA SILINA

Scream­ing shells have lev­eled most of the build­ings around them and elec­tric­ity van­ished more than a year ago.

Yet two wrin­kle-faced sis­ters refuse to leave the soul-numb­ing epi­cen­ter of eastern Ukraine’s war zone — a scene of dev­as­ta­tion so to­tal that even ma­raud­ers have lit­tle but me­tal fences and power ca­bles to steal.

“Where else can we go,” An­ton­ina Vikulina ex­claims when asked why she and her sis­ter Valentina still live just a block away from the ru­ins of what was once the air­port in the pro-Rus­sian rebels’ de facto cap­i­tal Donetsk.

The sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans had spent their lives work­ing at the hub — re­built for the 2012 Euro­pean soc­cer cham­pi­onship at the whop­ping cost of a bil­lion U.S. dol­lars and once the busiest in the for­mer Soviet coun­try’s in­dus­trial east.

The gleam­ing ter­mi­nal and its run­way car­ried enor­mous strate­gic im­por­tance af­ter fight­ing broke out in the wake of the Fe­bru­ary 2014 ouster in Kiev of a Rus­sian-backed pres­i­dent.

Pro-Western gov­ern­ment troops clung on to its new ter­mi­nal at the cost of hun­dreds of lives for seven months.

The in­sur­gents de­stroyed what was left of the sprawl­ing site in a decisive Jan­uary push that Kiev is con­vinced was spear­headed by elite Rus­sian units.

The Krem­lin de­nies this and iden­ti­fies the fa­cil­ity as part of the Donetsk fight­ers’ self-de­clared “re­pub­lic.”

But Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Petro Poroshenko has vowed to one day seize back the area — a prom­ise that has alarmed Kiev’s Western al­lies and kept neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents on the con­stant look­out for in­com­ing shells.

The dis­trict re­mains one of the few to have wit­nessed al­most no re­duc­tion in vi­o­lence since the sides signed up to a broad truce agree­ment six months ago.

“We live on a bat­tle­field,” says a fel­low pen­sioner who iden­ti­fies her­self only as Galina out of se­cu­rity wor­ries.

“The war came here on May 26, 2014. And it has not left us since.”

‘Duty-bound’

The United Na­tions says the fight­ing in east Ukraine has killed at least 6,800 peo­ple and driven 1.4 mil­lion more from their homes.

Donetsk once had more than 900,000 res­i­dents who worked in lo­cal coal mines and en­joyed leisurely walks through the bustling city cen­ter.

Western mon­i­tors es­ti­mate that the city now has half its orig­i­nal res­i­dents.

And only a hand­ful still cling on to their flats in the Soviet-era build­ings sur­round­ing the air­port’s blood­soaked grounds.

Some of those left be­hind say they feel duty-bound to pro­tect their mea­ger be­long­ings from be­ing grabbed by the of­ten-drunk troops and mili­tias that com­man­deer var­i­ous parts of sur­round­ing streets.

But this sense of be­long­ing comes at a heavy price. Each one of them puts their life on the line when they step out­side in search of the coal needed to cook what­ever food hand­outs ei­ther sides’ sol­diers are able to af­ford.

“We have been liv­ing with­out gas and elec­tric­ity for more than a year now. And all the rebels can give you is bread. So I have to go to the (Ukrainian) mil­i­tary part of our dis­trict to pick a few pieces of coal,” says the 75-year-old sis­ter An­ton­ina.

“But you have to avoid streets that have wide open spa­ces. Those parts are filled with snipers — both Ukrainian and the rebel army ones.”

The hand­ful of Ukrainian vol­un­teers from the Re­spon­si­ble Cit­i­zens or­ga­ni­za­tion say they have seen even the bravest lo­cals forced out of their homes by heavy fire ex­changes that sim­ply refuse to stop.

AP

A Rus­sia-backed rebel stands guard af­ter sunset near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Sun­day, Aug. 2.

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