Bread brings comfort to east Ukraine's ravaged town
In a fresh sign of life returning to the battered east Ukraine city Debaltseve as fighting subsides, the bread factory is open again, churning out golden loaves despite a hole blasted in the roof by artillery fire.
"Since the fighting ended, people came out of their cellars and began to return to the city, but they still had no food, no money," said Sergei Monakov, the manager of the factory, which reopened at the weekend.
"They have nothing. More than anything they want bread. People are hungry," he added.
Debaltseve became the centre of a withering crossfire last month between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian soldiers. Though many residents fled the fighting, some remained in their basements for weeks drinking water skimmed from puddles and mostly without food.
But the fighting stopped when rebels captured the key rail hub, which prompted condemnation as it came after the EU-mediated ceasefire was signed in Minsk on February 12. Kiev said most of its soldiers pulled out on February 18.
This week Ukraine security spokesman Andriy Lysenko claimed rebels were already using the railway junction to pull in hardware for later use near the main rebel city Donetsk.
Civilians ended up paying a high price for the strategic victory won by the pro-Russian fighters. Nearly three weeks on, banks are closed, homes are in ruins and Monakov's loaves are one of the few things they can look forward to daily.
"We are left with nothing. This is like a breath of fresh air for us, it means a lot," said one resident, Lyubov, 54, who came to pick up her bread with two children.
About a hundred people were queueing for the loaves on the central Lenin Square, where a red Soviet flag now flies next to the local monument to Lenin.
Women handed out the brick-shaped bread for free as recipients showed their passports and scribbled names down in a messy ledger.
"With this we can survive," said Tatiana, who said she spent over a week taking shelter in a cellar. "If only they also gave out some potatoes or meat."
"For several days there was no more bread in the city," said Oksana, who was in charge of distribution. "Thank God we still had flour, we survived as best we could."
- '1,000 loaves a day' -
In the factory, a man stirred the dough in an enormous container before tossing it into a machine that divided the gooey mass into chunks.
A team of women in blue aprons then gingerly loaded it into baking pans, which were slid into the oven.
The factory has only five workers now, half of the staff it had before the conflict. And the roof on one of its buildings was nearly destroyed by a Grad rocket.
Delivery trucks were also destroyed and even Monakov was slightly injured.
"We had no shortage of gifts!" he laughed, referring to the rockets and shells. "Thankfully they didn't hit any vital buildings."
"Our product today is focused on humanitarian aid, about 1,000 loaves per day," said Monakov. "Whatever we produce on top of that is sold and we can buy ingredients and pay salaries to the employees."
He said the worst of the food shortage has passed and Debaltseve was "on its way to stabilisation." Volunteers have been handing out donated buckwheat, sugar, sunflower oil and baby food to locals.
Life is gradually resuming, as the debris gets swept from the streets and the electricity is on again. But people still fear the fighting will return and they shudder at the memory of what they have endured.
"What we've been through, I do not wish it upon my worst enemy," said Lyubov, tearing up.
© 2015 AFP