Avdiyivka re­turns from brink of dis­as­ter

Kyiv Post - - Front Page - BY WLLL PONOMARENK­O [email protected]

AVDIYIVKA, Ukraine – The war-rav­aged city of Avdiyivka fi­nally got some peace this week. As the guns fell silent, re­pair crews re­stored elec­tric­ity to the strate­gi­cally vi­tal city of 20,000 res­i­dents, home to a gi­ant coke plant that fu­els Ukraine’s steel in­dus­try.

Some res­i­dents patched roofs shat­tered by shell shrap­nel. Oth­ers lined up for hu­man­i­tar­ian aid pack­ages.

But the sit­u­a­tion re­mains tense in the city, some 700 kilo­me­ters south­east of Kyiv, and the frag­ile cease-fire between Ukrainian troops and Rus­sian-backed forces might not last long.

“What we see now is not very en­cour­ag­ing,” a mem­ber of the OSCE’s Spe­cial Mon­i­tor­ing Mis­sion in Ukraine told the Kyiv Post this week. Be­cause the mon­i­tor was not of­fi­cially au­tho­rized to com­ment, the per­son asked not to be iden­ti­fied.

“The mil­i­tary ten­sion re­mains very high, and a new out­break of war­fare could hap­pen any mo­ment now, as the op­pos­ing troops are de­ployed close to each other along the front­line, and their heavy weapons and com­bat ve­hi­cles have not pulled back,” the mon­i­tor said. ““Both sides re­main hos­tile to each other. How­ever, in the past cou­ple of days, we’ve seen that both sides are gen­er­ally re­spect­ing the cease­fire at last. Thanks to this

si­lence, a lot can im­prove here now in Avdiyivka.”

Heavy clashes

Avdiyivka is only 10 kilo­me­ters north of Rus­sian-con­trolled Donetsk. A sharp es­ca­la­tion in fight­ing started on Jan. 29 and lasted for a week.

As Rus­sian-backed forces and the Ukrainian units de­fend­ing the city clashed in its south­ern out­skirts, civil­ians in res­i­den­tial ar­eas came un­der at­tack by heavy ar­tillery, in­clud­ing deadly and in­dis­crim­i­nant salvos of Grad rock­ets.

At least 20 peo­ple, both sol­diers and civil­ians, were killed and the fe­roc­ity of the bat­tle again put Rus­sia’s war against Ukraine in the head­lines around the world.

The fight­ing also caused a week­long black­out and cut sup­plies of wa­ter, gas and heat­ing in much of the city, even as tem­per­a­tures plunged to –20 de­grees Cel­sius.

More fight­ing could cre­ate a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe.

Even be­fore the lat­est surge in fight­ing, nearly three years of war had left marks on the city. Many build­ings bear the scars of shrap­nel from ar­tillery shells or Grad rock­ets. Many of their win­dows are bro­ken, boarded up with ply­wood or cov­ered with tar­pau­lin or plas­tic sheet­ing.

One shell fired by Rus­sian-backed forces nar­rowly missed a lo­cal pub­lic school build­ing, goug­ing a huge crater in the school­yard.

In city’s pri­vate hous­ing sec­tor, sit­u­ated close to the front­line near the south­east in­dus­trial zone, there are shell craters up to 1.5 me­ters deep – ev­i­dence of the use of heavy cal­iber ar­tillery for­bid­den un­der the Minsk peace agree­ments.

Natalia Hon­charenko, a house­wife liv­ing in Avdiyivka’s pri­vate hous­ing sec­tor, looks out on her yard, which was shat­tered by the im­pact of a Grad rocket on Feb. 1. Her grain store, fence and out­door kitchen were blown away by the ex­plo­sion.

“Of the 11 rab­bits I used to have, only one sur­vived that shelling,” she said. “Af­ter the ex­plo­sion blew away half of my house, I was so shocked and ter­ri­fied that I couldn’t stop shout­ing. I was just stand­ing among the de­bris by my­self and yelling.”

Hu­man­i­tar­ian aid

The clashes between the sides sig­nif­i­cantly de­creased, both in in­ten­sity and in fre­quency from Feb. 5. In Avdiyivka, any day of rel­a­tive peace is an op­por­tu­nity to re­pair damage to the city and stave off dis­as­ter from its peo­ple.

Af­ter sev­eral failed at­tempts, dur­ing which they came un­der fire by Rus­sian-backed forces, Ukrainian re­pair crews man­aged to fix downed power lines. By the morn­ing of Feb. 6, power had been re­stored across the city, ac­cord­ing to Ukrainian Prime Min­is­ter Volodymyr Groys­man.

Ukraine’s Emer­gency Sit­u­a­tions Ser­vice re­ported that five schools and four kinder­gartens re­opened that day. Lo­cal author­i­ties say that since sup­plies of liq­ue­fied gas ar­rived at Avdiyivka’s fa­mous cok­ing plant, the big­gest in Europe, the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture in res­i­den­tial hous­ing has grad­u­ally in­creased to 22 de­grees Cel­sius. It had sunk as low as 12 de­grees Cel­sius at the height of the shelling. The plant’s fur­naces are the source for much of the city’s cen­tral­ized heat­ing sys­tem.

“As of now, we con­sider the hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion in the city to be ac­cept­able,” Va­leriy Kobush, an of­fi­cial from Donetsk Oblast State Ad­min­is­tra­tion over­see­ing aid ef­forts, told the Kyiv Post.

“Avdiyivka has re­ceived over 230 tons of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid so far, in­clud­ing over 5,000 food pack­ages,” he said. “Aid is con­stantly be­ing sent from all around Ukraine, and from all of the world’s big­gest char­ity agen­cies. Ev­ery day we de­liver at least 1,500 food pack­ages, which is pretty much enough to be sure that peo­ple aren’t starv­ing in Avdiyivka.”

Kobush also said that only 250 res­i­dents asked to be evac­u­ated.

Avdiyivka’s res­i­dents go to one of the two schools used as dis­tri­bu­tion points or to a tent camp set up on the city’s foot­ball field, where the gov­ern­ment pro­vides hot food, fresh wa­ter, tea and shel­ter from the cold. Po­lice in vans dis­trib­uted food to el­derly who could not reach the tent.

Res­i­dents are grate­ful for the aid, but sorry about the cir­cum­stances.

“I wish I had a nor­mal job,” said Maria Ro­manchenko, a young woman stand­ing in line for an aid pack­age near a po­lice van. “Our coal plant used to em­ploy nearly all of us. Now it’s sus­pended due to the war, and we have nowhere to earn a liv­ing. Those who were able to left the city a long time ago, and those weren’t – like me – are stand­ing in this bread line.”

“To be hon­est, I feel ter­ri­bly em­bar­rassed about this,” said Mykola Pa­tru­shev, a 28-year-old fa­ther of two chil­dren. “But I’ve got chil­dren, and my low-paid job doesn’t al­ways al­low me to earn enough money.”

En­emy within?

The peo­ple in line some­times quar­rel with each other. The frayed tem­pers are signs of men­tal ex­haus­tion amid the hard­ship and hor­ror of shelling.

“We need peace and quiet more than any­thing else,” says one old woman in the line, who re­fuses to give her name. “Set us free of war, and nor­mal life will be re­stored in this city in weeks.”

She shows her pass­port to one of the of­fi­cials distribut­ing the aid from the van, and is given a pack­age of food – buck­wheat, oil, tinned meat and fish. She turns and walks away.

But while the fight­ing in Avdiyivka has sub­sided, there’s no sign of an end to Rus­sia’s war on Ukraine. Both sides mis­trust each other. Ukrainian troops de­fend­ing Avdiyivka even think there might be traitors hid­ing among the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion.

“What was hap­pen­ing a week ago was a kind of night­mare,” says one Ukrainian of­fi­cer, who re­fused to iden­tify him­self for se­cu­rity rea­sons. “The city was be­ing shelled re­lent­lessly. But we also know that there’s a rat. When the shelling be­ings, some­one starts strik­ing both mil­i­tary forces and civil­ian ob­jects with a mor­tar from within the city. There’s prob­a­bly some­one with a mor­tar in a hid­ing place who hits us when the time is right for him. We’ve been try­ing to flush this shooter out for weeks, but we can’t just search ev­ery house over there.”

That’s life in Avdiyivka, still on the edge of war.

Men re­pair the roof of a house in Avdiyivka on Feb. 5. City of­fi­cials say 114 houses suf­fered damage from shelling over six days of Rus­sian-backed at­tacks on the Ukrainian-con­trolled Donetsk Oblast city, some 700 milles south­east of Kyiv. Elec­tric­ity,...

A honor guard holds medals of a killed soldier dur­ing the farewell cer­e­mony for seven sol­diers killed near Avdi­ivka on the In­de­pen­dence Square on Feb. 1. (Volodymyr Petrov)

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