On anniversary of Ukraine war, shelling still shattering lives
Maria Gladchenko stood by the smouldering ruins of her home after the conflict in east Ukraine that began a year ago once again tore through her neighbourhood.
“There’s nothing for us to do now but start our lives over,” the 60-year-old retired school teacher sighed, pointing to the burnt-out remnants filled with the stench of fire.
It was the third shell in a year to hit the house, located near the flashpoint Donetsk airport in separatist-held eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian rebels are fighting government forces.
“Around here the ceasefire was never respected,” she said, referring to a February truce between the two sides that has largely held despite isolated clashes, notably in this part of Ukraine’s former industrial heartland.
“There is endless firing, sometimes heavier than others. Last night at first it seemed a long way away and then it got closer. Around 9 p.m. a shell hit the roof and fire spread very quickly,” Gladchenko said.
Her eyes brimming, she says she and her husband may be alive but have lost everything they owned.
“We couldn’t save a thing and now we can’t live here anymore.”
More than 6,000 people have died since pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine seized government buildings on April 6, 2014, sparking a conflict that has divided the country in two and triggered an economic and humanitarian crisis.
– ‘Shooting never ceased here’ –
The Gladchenko house is on Velozavodskaya street, not far from the railway station and the once state-of-the-art airport, a zone where pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian troops a few kilometres away trade fire on a daily basis despite the February truce.
On Monday, a dozen neighbours who came by to help the couple in despair were removing the household’s smoking remains, charred beams, the carcass of a bed, twisted bits of metal, as monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) looked on.
“The firefighters turned up very quickly but it took them four hours to put out the blaze. They carried on even when the shelling continued. They said our house was destroyed by an incendiary shell,” Maria Gladchenko said.
“In November a shell hit our house. Then on January 11 another one fell in our garden,” she added.
The walls of the house and those around carry traces of the shellings while windows shattered by fire are plastered in cardboard or sheets of plastic.
AFP reporters in Donetsk say shooting has intensified around the city in the last days, specially at night. Artillery fire could be heard throughout much of the evening and until after midnight overnight Sunday to Monday.
Viktor Tsolodobnikov, a retired engineer aged 70, was one of the neighbours who popped in to offer sympathy to the Gladchenkos.
“It’s hard for us to believe in this ceasefire! The shooting has never really ceased here, and in the last days it’s become worse than usual,” he said.
“But after months of bombings in our district we’ve learnt at least one thing: we now know the difference between cannon fire, tank fire and Grad missiles. It’ll probably come in useful for a good while yet,” he said.