‘It’s been like hell’: Life under fire in the Donbass as the war enters its sixth month | Ukraine
Russia’s war on Ukraine has entered its sixth month, and in the eastern Donbass region – the scene of some of the heaviest fighting – the missiles continue to fall.
Sunday morning it was school number six in the town of Kostiantynivka, 30 km from the front line. Two rockets carved huge craters against a three-storey building that was devastated by the explosion.
In her fifth-floor apartment about 100 yards away, Tamara, 85, was awake and boiling potatoes at 4.30 a.m. when the rockets hit.
“I sleep in my clothes so I can get out quickly if there’s an airstrike,” the former nurse said as she passed the site hours later, walking her dogs down the path to fetch water.
“The explosion shook my apartment. I can’t describe the noise. It was crazy. It was like an earthquake. I’m so scared,” she said, on the verge of tears. “I hate this! I hate this! I just want this war to end.
Although residents of Kostiantynivka, Kramatorsk, Sloviansk – all visited by the Guardian on Sunday – said the intensity of shelling had diminished over the past two weeks, the violence continues and the sound of shelling and rocket fire was audible in the distance.
On the northern outskirts of Sloviansk, the closest of the three towns to the front line, Olga was shaking apricots from a tree on a country road to scoop them into a shopping bag.
Not far from where she was picking the fruit, we heard the sound of a shot coming from a Ukrainian cannon, hidden among the trees.
“The last few days have been calmer,” said the 55-year-old, who like Tamara was too scared to give her last name. “I have been here since the first day of the war. It’s been hell. I don’t understand why Russia attacked Ukraine.
The towns, all located in Donetsk province, are seen as key targets in Russian forces’ bid to occupy the entire Donbass region, which encompasses Donetsk and the neighboring city of Luhansk. Few people here imagined that the war that began on February 24 would last this long. Many see little prospect of an end in sight and are afraid of what winter will bring.
Confirming anecdotal evidence from locals, NASA satellite imagery of fires burning along the frontline suggests Russian artillery shelling has recently diminished. Some analysts suggest it could be the result of Ukrainian strikes – using newly supplied Western artillery systems – on munitions dumps and command posts, which degraded Russian capabilities.
Yet residents are not yet ready to believe that this is more than a temporary respite.
Before the war, Mykola Pushkaruk, 43, was a children’s football coach in Kramatorsk. With schools closed, he has no children to coach, although he still plays football every night with men from the city.
“After February 24, my life was turned upside down,” he said. “The city has turned into a military base. The development of the city has stopped. Since then, there have been no more works. People simply survive on their savings and humanitarian aid.
“During the first week of the war, I evacuated my parents to Dnipro. I tried to start a new life there, to get another kind of job. But I failed. So I came back. I volunteer in exchange for food.
Her friend Olena Kolisnyk, 36, runs a flower business.
“Life in this city is dangerous,” she said. “We realize that Russia is trying to capture this city. It’s OK for now but I don’t want to wait for Russian troops to come here. If I think they are coming, I will leave for Dnipro.
She told a story from the start of the war of how a Russian missile flew overhead and exploded in a street. “I survived,” she says ironically. “And it made me feel stronger.”
Where the war goes from here, and for how long, few are willing to venture a guess.
Amid evidence that on the southern front Ukrainian forces are preparing for a long-promised offensive – the main target of which appears to be the occupied city of Kherson on the eastern front of Donbass – Western intelligence agencies suggest that the offensive Russian could run out of steam.
For now, however, the biggest threat to civilians is missile strikes on towns that have turned into garrison towns, full of soldiers, with armor moving on main roads through the surrounding countryside.
At another school on the outskirts of Kramatorsk, hit by a missile strike on Thursday that severely damaged nearby homes, residents were already scavenging for materials to use for repairs, piling up salvaged doors and pieces of wood.
For many, however, the more immediate problem than the missile strikes is the lack of water in many homes and problems with gas and electricity supplies. Walking from a water collection point in a park in Kramatorsk, Natalya Zukerman, 64, and her neighbor, Lyudmyla Yurko, 74, complained about the conditions.
” There is no water. No ice cream and I can’t afford vodka. And vodka is the only thing that gets me through this,” Zukerman said.
“Look at my dress,” Yurko said, tugging at the hem to show how freely it fell. “Before the war, I was chubby. That’s what he did to me.”
Olena Kolisnyk summed up the feelings of many people. “I feel there is a huge tension in Kramatorsk,” she said. “The war continues. And that scares me. »