DONETSK, September 16 (RIA Novosti) – The atmosphere in Donbas (Ukraine's southeastern regions) has been tense in the 10 days that have passed since the truce was announced. But despite the fact that shelling continues, the Kiev forces are on the doorstep and conflicting statements by the country's leaders still keep the people on tenterhooks, there are signs of better life everywhere.
HOSTILE TRUCE AND FEEBLE HOPES
The coming of September and the signing of a truce changed Donetsk beyond recognition. The inbound roads are clogged with cars with sacks on their roofs, as refugees return home. The streets are full of pedestrians and cars. Public transport is working like a clock. Buses regularly disgorge people with suitcases, backpacks and bags. They are returning to Donetsk.
During the summer only food markets and shops were open in Donetsk. Buying clothes was problematic. Now boutiques and electronics shops are opening throughout the city. A shoe repair stall has opened in the courtyard of the house where a RIA Novosti correspondent lives. The owner fumbles with the locks he installed early in the summer fearing marauders.
"I don't think there will be many clients at first. People have no money. But the less money you have the more you are likely to want your old footgear repaired. So, things will be all right," the owner says.
People have come to believe that the truce has finally come, that the horror of shelling is behind them. They want to believe in it because they are tired of war and fear. The summer, which many of them had to spend in Crimea or on the Sea of Azov, with relatives, or in refugee camps, is over. And they have run out of money. They long to get back to work, to a peaceful life. But the sounds of shelling reaching the city center from the outskirts make them doubt that the truce will hold.
Both sides in the conflict make no bones about using the truce to regroup. Every now and again the headquarters of the self-defense forces report that columns of Ukrainian army vehicles have been spotted on the approaches to Donetsk, in Debaltseve, Volnovakha, Krasnoarmiisk, and Slaviansk.
In the same reports the self-defense troops mock the concept of the truce, accusing the army of breaking it. "A fierce truce continued near Peski… Intense ceasefire is underway near the Donetsk airport," the defenders write.
Peaceful citizens need the truce for a different reason, above all, to restore the devastated infrastructure and housing. Winter is around the corner. In Donetsk, the water supplies have been restored and there is electricity and gas almost everywhere. There is still no electricity in Luhansk.
Horlivka, Yasynuvata, Ilovaisk, Shakhtarsk and parts of Donetsk have been heavily damaged. Many people simply have nowhere to live. It is still unclear who will restore the houses and who will pay for it. Most importantly, it is unclear whether restoration makes sense. Ukrainian forces are still on the approaches to Horlivka and Yasynuvata. Bombardments could resume at any moment. Not that they ever stopped; they have only become less intense.
THE SAD LIFE OF MERRYVILLE
The vicinity of the Donetsk airport is one of the "fronts" of the confrontation between the Ukrainian Armed Forces and independence fighters, which continues even amid "intense ceasefire." Take the village of Veselyi (Merryville). Moscow journalists have noted that villages in Donbas have "telling" names: the village of Myrnyi (Peaceful), the town of Shchastya (Happiness). For some reason, places with the "happiest" names saw the fiercest fighting.
If you look at the map of Donetsk and locate the huge rectangle of the Donetsk airport, the village of Veselyi in the Yasynuvata District looks like a defenseless spot hiding in the shadows of the huge airport.
The airport has been under the control of Ukrainian troops for several months. Independence fighters are trying to throw them back. "Artillery duels" here continue day and night, with stray shells falling all over the place. Some locals rush for the basements at every sound of an explosion, while others brush it off as a nuisance. "Oh, that"s far away," they say. The village has been without electricity, gas or water for several months. People spend their dark evenings by campfires on which they cook food.
Surprisingly, most of them have stayed in their homes. Stratonavtiv Street, leading to the village is formally part of Donetsk. It is a notorious place. On May 26, after a massacre at the airport, Ukrainian fighter planes and helicopters attacked the avenue. They rained bullets and rockets on everything that moved. Pilots pursued independence fighters as they were running from the airport.
Shelling of Stratonavtiv Street has continued ever since. There are burned-down houses here and there. But some drivers have ventured onto the street after the truce was announced.
We drive down the Stratonavtiv Street to Veselyi together with deputies from the parliament of Novorossiya (the union of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics) who are bringing in humanitarian aid. People live here within 700 meters of the airport runway where the Ukrainian forces roll out their artillery to shell Donetsk.
A local citizen, 20-year-old Alyona, with a bulging belly, approaches a humanitarian aid vehicle. She is eight months pregnant. "We know it's a boy. We'll name him Danilla," she says. The woman lives in Veselyi with her mother and 12-year-old sister. Alyona's husband has joined local independence fighters. He was recently wounded and is now at a hospital. They do not want to leave Veselyi.
"Where can we go? Our homes are here, why should we leave?" Snezhanna Mikolauskas, a middle-aged woman, said talking to a RIA Novosti correspondent.
Snezhanna works as a doctor in Donetsk. Every morning she walks 40 minutes to the nearest bus stop. Buses do not go to Veselyi and trolley cables have been torn in the village. As Snezhanna makes her way, bombs whistle over her head and shells explode.
"Of course I'm afraid. Only fools are not afraid," she says. "But we kind of got used to it. What can you do…You have to go to work."
From the bus stop, Snezhanna heads to the orphanage which has not paid her salary for three months. Kiev has cut off all payments to public sector workers in conflict areas. After a hard day's work she has to make her way back home, the last stretch on foot again. "I can't quit work. We still hope to get paid someday. And I can't leave the kids at the orphanage," Snezhanna said.
The greatest hope Snezhanna, Alyona and their neighbors have is that the shelling will stop. Later, repair people will come to the village and fix electricity and water supplies. Public transport will be working at last, although Snezhanna won't be able to afford to pay three hryvnas (10 rubles) for a ride anyways. But the Donetsk People's Republic promises to start paying wages instead of Kiev.
DIM FUTURE FOR YASYNUVATA
We were shaken even more by the trip to the neighboring town of Yasynuvata, a northern suburb of Donetsk with a population of 30,000. That is, it was 30,000 "before the war," barely one-third of the people has stayed. The city mayor has fled, so have the doctors from the local hospital. There is only one doctor available to the many wounded fighters and civilians, and he happens to be a gynecologist.
Recently, people have been returning to this area as well. There is no place like home, and a bad peace is better than a good quarrel.
We come here with Novorossiya parliament deputies who are bringing in bread. The only direct road to Yasynuvata is blocked by the Kiev forces. No one – neither the parliament deputies, nor independence fighters, nor ordinary citizens – risks taking that road. To get to Yasynuvata you have to make a detour via Makiivka, a satellite city of Donetsk.
The most heavily damaged neighborhoods in Yasynuvata are Zorka and Molodyozhny, located in the north of the city close to the positions of the Kiev forces. Zorka is reminiscent of the "Stalingrad" film set with its burned apartment buildings and destroyed houses. Zorka has long been without water and power supplies and locals cook "humanitarian" food on bonfires.
On Ordzhonikidze Street we meet 57-year-old nurse Nelya Grekova. She used to live on the fourth floor of a five-storey Khrushchev-era apartment building. The brick building has only three floors left. The top floor burned down after being hit by a missile.
"Did I deserve it? I was neither a "separatist" nor a militant. I worked peacefully all my life. Did I deserve such a life in old age?" Nelya says weeping.
She now lives with her neighbors, two floors down. But whether she will be able to spend the winter there is a big question because the house has no upper floor and no roof. It is cold and damp.
"Who is going to restore all this? Kiev certainly won't," Grekova, who has literally been left without a roof over her head, says.
A little further down the road is a nine-storey building with a burnt corner that was hit by a tank shell. The windows in most apartments have been smashed. Meanwhile, autumn has already begun.
Retired 62-year-old Yuri Kruglov is looking out of a broken window. "I know I have to put in glass," he says, brushing away our questions. "But glass is impossible to find in the city. The shops are all closed. You can't even buy plastic. It's very cold in the apartment at night."
Another apartment, located on the seventh floor of the building, has only one occupant, an 86-year-old woman. A missile has damaged the apartment above and the woman's ceiling is now leaking.
"I came in here after a rain and there were 20 centimeters of water in the apartment. It was cold and damp," her 56-year-old daughter Lyubov Litvyakova said, sobbing. She cannot move her mother because the old woman is gravely ill. On top of that, Litvyakova has no means of transport. She cannot even move her mother to the basement, where she and the building's other occupants live.
"Mother lay here all throughout the shelling, while I prayed that she would stay alive. I think at first she was aware of what was going on and was scared. But later she lost her awareness and now she just lies there," Litvyakova said, crying. She is very sorry for her mother, but she is crying not only from pity, but also from a sense of impotence. The apartment is wind-swept as all the windows have long gone.
"These bombs whistle terribly before they explode. The house rocks from side to side. I sit in the basement and wonder how mother is feeling with all this whistling going on. Then I give up and even as the shelling continues, run up to the seventh floor to check up on her," Lyubov says.
It is quiet now in Yasynuvata – a ceasefire is in force. People here hope they will never hear the horrible whistling again. Then they will bring plastic and glass to the shops.