On Ukraine frontline, villagers scramble over bombed bridge
Having trudged 15 kilometres, 75-year-old Stanislav faces a daunting climb as he leaves the war-torn eastern Ukrainian village of Stanytsya Luganska, whose bridge was wrecked by a bomb blast last week.
A stream of exhausted villagers, straining under the weight of their bags, appear on the road but they then grind to a halt at the 30-metre wide chasm created by Friday's explosion.
The only way to reach the other side of the bridge from the collapsed section of road is to clip on safety ropes dangled down by pro-Russian rebel fighters and then clamber up a precarious metal ladder.
"I walked 15 kilometres (nine miles), but not everyone can do it, some are sick," says Stanislav, a grey cap on his head.
He says he was forced to walk the whole way from his dacha, or country house, since no vehicles can negotiate the damaged roads.
He then grabs the ladder to head home to the rebel-held city of Lugansk, which lies on the other side of the bridge.
The car bomb exploded under the noses of the separatists who control the bridge and surrounding area and who accuse the military of being behind the blast.
No-one was injured but the blast was the latest violation of a fragile internationally-brokered truce reached in February.
A kilometre away from the bridge, Stanytsya Luganska is under the control of the Ukrainian army.
As a result, the front line is frozen, with rebels and Ukrainian soldiers both unable to advance.
The bridge, which spans a ravine, is on the only road from the village to Lugansk, making the journey of around 12 kilometres much more difficult for villagers.
With most young people having long ago fled the fighting, most of the remaining villagers in are elderly.
- 'This has to stop' -
Although she is one of the younger residents at 56, Marina's face reveals her exhaustion.
"I've done 12 kilometres on foot and it's very hard," she says, gasping for air after lugging up two shopping bags bulging with food.
"What happened with the bridge is not normal, we need peace. This has to stop."
Only last week, cars, cargo trucks and intercity buses travelled the road with ease.
Vladimir Kucher, 64, his blue mountain bike on his back, believes normal life is far away.
"Compared with before (the ceasefire), it's quieter," he says, flashing a gold-toothed smile.
"But as in Serbia or Bosnia, I do not think it will end soon."
"Each side is ready to attack the other," adds the former fire service driver. "It is the ordinary people who suffer."
Meanwhile, traders loaded with bags of potatoes and cigarettes tackle the climb to the sound of nervous laughter, encouragement and advice.
- 'Everything destroyed' -
A rebel fighter nicknamed "Mano" claims he knew for three weeks that Ukrainian forces wanted to blow up the bridge.
Before the car bomb blast, Ukrainian mortars had pushed back rebel positions on the bridge and Kiev forces are stationed nearby, possibly as close as 600 metres (yards) away, according to Mano.
"We guarded the bridge, and now we have to stay to help people," says the bearded 46-year-old.
The broken bridge has also become a magnet for the curious.
"I just came to see for myself because I do not believe the news in the media," says a young Lugansk resident, who wanted to remain anonymous.
"Valeria", a platinum-blonde rebel in combat gear, grows misty eyed as she approaches the bomb site.
"Last year, I came here for a picnic with my children," she says, casting an eye over the rubble and charred trees.
"I don't understand why they blew up the bridge," she adds. "They destroyed everything
"I feel sorry for the people. And for us, it's also a nightmare."
A team of engineers from Lugansk is assessing the damage, but will not say how long it will take to repair.
"Everything will depend on finances," says one engineer.
A baby stroller sits on the collapsed section of bridge, abandoned by a mother two days ago.
"Thank you! See you tomorrow!" shouts one woman to rebels manning the ladder.
In the distance, behind the trees, sporadic gunfire erupts.
© 2015 AFP