Battlefield life: sisters cling on in Ukraine war’s epicentre
Screaming shells have levelled most of the buildings around them and electricity vanished more than a year ago.
Yet two wrinkle-faced sisters refuse to leave the soul-numbing epicentre of eastern Ukraine’s war zone — a scene of devastation so total that even marauders have little but metal fences and power cables to steal.
“Where else can we go,” Antonina Vikulina exclaims when asked why she and her sister Valentina still live just a block away from the ruins of what was once the airport in the pro-Russian rebels’ de facto capital Donetsk.
The septuagenarians had spent their lives working at the hub — rebuilt for the 2012 European football championship at the whopping cost of a billion dollars and once the busiest in the former Soviet country’s industrial east.
The gleaming terminal and its runway carried enormous strategic importance after fighting broke out in the wake of the February 2014 ouster in Kiev of a Russian-backed president.
Pro-Western government troops clung on to its new terminal at the cost of hundreds of lives for seven months.
The insurgents destroyed what was left of the sprawling site in a decisive January push that Kiev is convinced was spearheaded by elite Russian units.
The Kremlin denies this and identifies the facility as part of the Donetsk fighters’ self-declared “republic”.
But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to one day seize back the area — a promise that has alarmed Kiev’s Western allies and kept neighbourhood residents on the constant lookout for incoming shells.
The district remains one of the few to have witnessed almost no reduction in violence since the sides signed up to a broad truce agreement six months ago.
“We live on a battlefield,” says a fellow pensioner who identifies herself only as Galina out of security worries.
“The war came here on May 26, 2014. And it has not left us since.”
– ‘We pray and wait’ –
The United Nations says the fighting in east Ukraine has killed at least 6,800 people and driven 1.4 million more from their homes.
Donetsk once had more than 900,000 residents who worked in local coal mines and enjoyed leisurely walks through the bustling city centre.
Western monitors estimate that the city now has half its original residents.
And only a handful still cling on to their flats in the Soviet-era buildings surrounding the airport’s blood-soaked grounds.
Some of those left behind say they feel duty-bound to protect their meagre belongings from being grabbed by the often-drunk troops and militias that commandeer various parts of surrounding streets.
But this sense of belonging comes at a heavy price. Each one of them puts their life on the line when they step outside in search of the coal needed to cook whatever food handouts either sides’ soldiers are able to afford.
“We have been living without gas and electricity for more than a year now. And all the rebels can give you is bread. So I have to go to the (Ukrainian) military part of our district to pick a few pieces of coal,” says the 75-year-old sister Antonina.
“But you have to avoid streets that have wide open spaces. Those parts are filled with snipers — both Ukrainian and the rebel army ones.”
The handful of Ukrainian volunteers from the Responsible Citizens organisation say they have seen even the bravest locals forced out of their homes by heavy fire exchanges that simply refuse to stop.
“Most of those that we used to help out with medicine and basic hygeen products have left,” says group member Dmitry Shibalov.
“I know that our volunteers rarely reach those parts these days.”
But Antonina and Valentina seem to have grown almost immune to the dangers.
A tank shell exploded not far from the wood-fired stove Valentina was using outside her building to boil some potatoes on a recent visit by an AFP team.
The rail-thin woman barely flinches.
“We do not even hide in basements because those have been flooded,” she says dryly.
“We simply pray and wait.”