Ukraine: Living on the front lines
Under nightly mortar fire, thousands of elderly and impoverished civilians continue living on and between the front lines in East Ukraine’s ‘gray zone.’ Diego Cupolo reports from Donetsk.
Caught in the crossfire
Every evening, the shelling begins around sunset. The front lines near Donetsk see nightly mortar and machine gun fire as the conflict between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists’ rages on. Caught in the crossfire are many elderly civilians who are too impoverished to go elsewhere. Ivan Polansky, above, surveys the damage on his home in Zhovanka.
‘Waiting for a shell’
Residents of Zhovanka in the so-called ‘gray zone,’ a thin strip of land separating warring militaries, line up to see a visiting doctor. Medics hold pop-up clinics in the town once a week. "Each day, you are waiting for the shell to land on your house and you never know when it’s going to come," said local resident Ludmila Studerikove.
Without electricity and heating
Zhovanka was once home to 1,000 people, but the number has dwindled to about 200 since the war began in mid-2014. It has been three months since residents have had electricity and gas. "Sometimes I’m so scared that I lay in bed at night and just shake,” Studerikove said. “My husband stays by my side and holds my hand."
Nowhere else to go
Olexander Voroshkov, program coordinator for the regional charity SOS Kramatorsk, said residents continue to live in half-destroyed homes with leaky roofs, even through the winters, because rent in nearby Ukrainian cities has skyrocketed since the beginning of the conflict. "Rents in Kramatorsk are now similar to those in Kiev, but the salaries are much lower than in Kiev," Voroshkov said.
Reliance on humanitarian aid
Women line up to receive medicine and multivitamins in Zhovanka. Food and humanitarian supplies are delivered to the town by charity organizations, as crossing checkpoints sometimes requires people to wait more than a day in line. "We had everything; we had fresh air, nature. It was very nice here. Now we just have the cold," said local resident Vera Sharovarova.
Adapting to DNR frontlines
Vera Anoshyna, left, speaks with neighbors in Spartak, a town in what is now the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Anoshyna said she has done her best to adapt to the conflict. "If you don’t have water, you find it," she said. "If you don’t have electricity, you find a solution. But you never know where the next bomb will land."
Six broken ribs
Svetlana Zavadenko stands before her home in Spartak. She was injured when the walls collapsed after several mortars exploded in her yard. Neighbors had to dig Zavadenko out of the rubble and she was sent to the hospital with six broken ribs and a ruptured liver. She smokes “Minsk” brand cigarettes and laughs when asked what she thinks about the war.
'We lost hope'
Zavadenko recovered from her injuries and lives alone with several pets. Spartak has not had electricity, gas, or water services since 2014, so she uses a grill to cook her food. For firewood, she goes to an abandoned furniture factory nearby and collects plywood. "Last winter we thought [the war] would finish, but now, honestly, we lost hope," she said.
Possibility of a drawdown
Damage from shelling on the outskirts of Donetsk. Despite past failures in deescalating the war, a new ceasefire may be in sight after an October peace summit in Berlin, where Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he was ready to end hostilities in eastern Ukraine and would withdraw troops from the region.
'We lost too many soldiers to stop now'
Even if both sides agree on a ceasefire, they will face opposition from their militaries, who claim their sacrifices were too heavy to simply put down their weapons. "We lost too many soldiers to stop now," said Vladimir Parkhamovich, colonel of the 81st Airmobile Brigade in the Ukrainian military. "If they give us an order [to stop] we’ll consider them traitors."