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In villages close to the breakaway Moldovan region of Trans-Dniester, many residents fear they could be dragged into Russia's war on Ukraine. For some, the current events bring back painful memories of conflict.
"We're very upset, in a state of permanent stress," says Valentina Tomas, a chemistry teacher and principal of the local high school in the Moldovan village of Ustia.
Recent reports of explosions in the breakaway Moldovan region of Trans-Dniester, just a few kilometers away, are giving her and many other locals sleepless nights. Last week, the Ministry of State Security came under fire, and shooting was reported near the ammunition depot in Cobasna.
For many in Ustia, the conflict has brought back painful memories of the war in the early 1990s, when Russian-backed separatists declared Trans-Dniester's independence from the Republic of Moldova.
Russian soldiers are stationed in Trans-Dniester to this day. At a checkpoint close to Ustia, two soldiers stand next to an armored vehicle. One of them is looking though a telescope. They belong to what is supposed to be a peacekeeping mission — the Russian military presence in Trans-Dniester that has been here for 30 years.
Ustia saw heavy fighting during the war. Valentina Tomas was among those who had to flee her home back then.
The village is situated on the banks of the Dniester River. On the other side is a checkpoint. The international community does not recognize Trans-Dniester and still considers it part of Moldova. After the self-proclaimed government in Tiraspol declared a red level terrorist threat last week, the region has become highly dangerous.
Valentina Tomas is worried about the children in Ustia, as well as her colleagues. In recent years relations with people in Transnistria on the other side of the river have been cordial, she says. "We have colleagues there, brothers and sisters that we visit."
But now people in Ustia are anxious. "We might be attacked from the other side of the river," says Valentina Tomas.
Most locals here earn a living with agriculture. Local mayor Maxim Verdes says the region's main export to the EU is cherries. He's less worried than Tomas about the war spilling over into his village, "We're staying calm," he says. "These days people are better informed than they used to be, they have access to more news."
The mayor says that so far, no one has been worried enough about the Ukraine war and subsequent tensions in the region to leave Ustia. He hopes that the situation in Moldova will remain stable.
But comments made by a senior Russian commander in late April suggest his optimism is misplaced. Major General Rustam Minnekayev was quoted in Russian state media as saying that Moscow was aiming to take full control of southern Ukraine, which would secure it access to Trans-Dniester. He also referred to the alleged oppression of the Russian-speaking population in the breakaway region.
Kyiv is purportedly ready for an escalation in Trans-Dniester. But last week Moldovan President Maia Sandu pledged to take all necessary measures to prevent escalation and to protect citizens, stressing that the spate of explosions were linked to "tensions between different forces within the region interested in destabilizing the situation."
Iulian Groza, director of the Institute for European Policies and Reforms in the Moldovan capital Chisinau, also sees the events in Trans-Dniester as a provocation aimed at destabilizing the region and stoking panic. He believes it's backed by Russia, which is keen to see pro-Kremlin leadership in Trans-Dniester willing to follow Moscow's orders.
"But at the moment I see no reason why Russia might be interested in the war in Ukraine spreading towards Trans-Dniester," says Groza. "That would involve the Republic of Moldova in the war, since it is still our territory. Russia would pay a high price, in terms of sanctions, and there would also be a risk of military losses because Ukrainian troops are well-prepared." He doesn't believe Russia is planning to open up a second front in Moldova.
But Valentina Tomas and others in Ustia remain anxious. "The life I have built here could be destroyed," says the school teacher. She's horrified by reports about refugees from Ukraine. What she fears more than anything is being forced once again to flee her home.
This article was originally published in Romanian.