Bombed-out east Ukraine city faces bleak winter
Winter is on the way, and the people left in the eastern Ukrainian town of Pervomaisk are anxious.
The city, on the frontline in the five-month-old conflict between Kiev forces and pro-Russian separatists, has been shattered, with hardly a building still intact.
Houses have burned down and parks are pocked with mortar craters; few cities in the region around the rebel stronghold of Lugansk have been hit as hard as Pervomaisk.
In the fleeting autumn sunshine, a woman, her hands black with soot, carries buckets of rubble and other debris out of her badly damaged home.
The 48-year-old, who gave her name only as Linda, tells AFP things were even worse for her neighbours.
"We hardly had time to grab the dog and run to our friends' place," she said. "We come back from time to time to clean. We hope to be able to find something to re-do the roof and put plastic over the windows, but we'll see."
All across the city, as elsewhere in the conflict zone, gas lines lie broken and twisted, exposed to the air.
"They say the gas has been restored in Lugansk," Linda says. "We hope it will come back here too before the cold."
The self-declared "mayor" of Pervomaisk, who goes by the name of Genia, drives by in a black SUV.
Rolling down his window, he tells Linda: "Go to city hall. Tell them what you need. I will try to send you men and supplies."
Genia, a Cossack wearing a hunting outfit and the group's trademark astrakhan cap, believes that Pervomaisk is in such bad shape "because we resisted too much" against Ukrainian forces who advanced to the area in July.
"We stopped the Ukrainians, so they took revenge," he said.
A truce that supposedly took effect on September 5 has been repeatedly violated, and Genia estimated that about half the city's population of 40,000 had fled.
The other half stayed because they are too poor to take refuge elsewhere, he said.
But Genia, a miner in civilian life, pledged: "We won't leave people in homes without glass in the windows this winter. We will make repairs, get people together for the work if necessary. We will need help."
Beside him on the passenger seat is his nagayka, the braided whip that is part of the traditional Cossack horseman's gear.
In the back his ceremonial sword with a mother-of-pearl handle is wrapped in cloth, lying beside three rocket launchers -- and his eight-year-old son, who is playing with a rubber snake.
In the trunk there is a 12.7 mm machine gun, along with cases of ammunition.
"Tell the Ukrainians we're ready for them!" Genia exclaims.
His commander, self-styled 'Colonel' Pavel Dremov who operates from nearby Stakhanov, told AFP that 800 civilians died in Pervomaisk over the summer, as well as 14 fighters.
They were buried with little ceremony, mostly in back gardens, he said.
In Pervomaisk, a charred church squats between two buildings. Further on, a gutted gym still has a marble plaque on the wall bearing the image of Oleksandr Beresh, a gymnast from the city who won a bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
- 'No terrorists here' -
In the main square a vendor sells onions and potatoes to weary-looking women and a supermarket has reopened.
On the outskirts of town, the Karl Marx electric motor factory is not about to reopen anytime soon.
Part of the plant has collapsed, and a rocket probably fired from a plane has left a crater some 10 metres (35 feet) across.
Oleg, an engineer employed at the plant, said the bombing happened on September 5. "Can you tell me why? There are no fighters here, no terrorists as they call them. Only workers. What they want in fact is to destroy the infrastructure of our region."
Further on, a couple emerge from the woods dragging dead branches to use as firewood. They pass by an unexploded green rocket some 30 centimetres in diameter, lodged into the ground up to its tailfins.
© 2014 AFP