The ceasefire in Ukraine is not being observed everywhere, much to the detriment of the remaining civilians. More often than not it is the women who ask - when will this finally end? Frank Hoffman reports from Shyrokyne.
Machine gun fire can be heard everywhere in Shyrokyne. Pro-Russian rebels holed up there can see their enemies near the edge of town. In some areas, just 500 meters separate them from soldiers loyal to Kyiv. The front line of the war in Ukraine runs straight through Shyrokyne, in the country's southeast. Mariupol, which is controlled by the Ukrainian army, is a mere ten kilometers to the west. However, the rebels are laying claim to the harbor town on the Sea of Azov. The government in Kyiv assumes that the next large-scale battle will take place there. And that the rebels intend on taking Mariupol with the support of Russia, which seeks to establish an overland route to the Crimean Peninsula. The road to Mariupol runs straight through Shyrokyne.
Tatjana Babikova still lives on Stepnaya Street - the last of her family to do so. She is standing near the house where she was born, and speaking with observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This time, the rebels allowed OSCE representatives into the city. This is not always the case, despite the fact that the truce agreed to in Minsk in the middle of February stipulates complete and unhindered freedom of movement be afforded to representatives of the international community.
What kind of ceasefire is that?
Shyrokyne is one of the places where fighting has continued daily despite the ceasefire. "One person cannot possess enough energy to endure this," says Babikova, then another burst of gunfire echoes. The 63-year-old woman asks, "What am I supposed to do? How should I feel? Yesterday they were shelling, a grenade landed in an apartment building, what kind of ceasefire is that?"
Two rebels are standing across the street, weapons ready. Babikova opposes the rebels, and supports the pro-European government in Kyiv. She is living in enemy territory. Part of her family has emigrated to Canada. She recently bought a piece of farm land with money from relatives - it lies on the other side of the front line, in an area controlled by government forces. For Babikova, the OSCE observers are guarantors of security, and a moral authority. "Children," she says to the observers, "please protect us with everything that you have. With your moral claims. Our country, our children, lost their values long ago." Again, the crackling of machine gun fire can be heard from the other side of town.
Most of the remaining are women
More than 30 civilians still live in Shyrokyne, but most of its residents fled months ago. Half a year ago the town was completely controlled by Ukrainian troops, but now, after seemingly heavy fighting, rebels have taken up positions in its center. Hardly a house along the town's main street has a window left in it. There is no electricity, and no drinking water. Once in a while the International Committee of the Red Cross comes to provide locals with assistance - irregularly, and namely when the rebels let them in. That is the case today with the OSCE observers, who do their utmost to regularly visit those citizens that remain. It is the only protection that they can offer.
Most of those remaining, like Tatjana Babikova, are women. "I think this is the end for me. Not long ago a Russian was here and made a list with all of our names and addresses, he said he had a mother like me." She told him that her husband was Russian, and that her children were therefore half Ukrainian, half Russian. Perhaps that might help, perhaps they will leave her alone. Fear, however, is corroding her daily life: "Perhaps I won't live to see the end of the day. I am not supposed to tell you all of this." It is said that Babikova was threatened a few days after the OSCE visit, that the rebels would kill her if she spoke out again.
All quiet in the Luhansk Oblast
More than 400 kilometers of front line stand between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops. The OSCE mission in the Ukrainian capitol Kyiv reports that most locations along the so-called "line of contact" are abiding by the ceasefire. But very few in Eastern Ukraine believe that this will remain the case for long. In Luhansk, the second rebel controlled region on the northern edge of the separatist occupied area, gunfire is indeed rare. The working city of Shchastya marks the border on the Ukrainian side. It is quiet there. But a soldier at the checkpoint says, "The rebels will keep fighting. From their point of view the area that they have conquered is far too small." The rebels control 40 percent of the region. Two-and-a-half months ago Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France sat down to negotiate the Minsk ceasefire. Very few believe that it will actually hold. However, more and more people simply want peace.
Back in Shyrokyne, Galina, the oldest of the women there, asks an OSCE observer standing at her garden gate: "When do you think the war will be over?" The observer can only shrug: "Please believe me, we are working on it." It's not the first war that the 80-year-old woman has had to endure. The last one ended 70 years ago.