Trench life at last rebel checkpoint before Donetsk airport

13th November 2014, Comments 0 comments

For weeks now, Pavel has spent his nights sleeping in a trench, eating what little he can find and washing himself from a cooking pot.

This is the life of some 15 rebel fighters manning the last checkpoint before the ruins of the international airport in Ukraine's separatist bastion Donetsk, where government troops are struggling to cling on to the strategic position.

Their makeshift barricade lies between the railway tracks and a residential district that was deserted as daily artillery duels between government and rebel troops ravaged the area.

Pavel says he has been here for a month since leaving his wife and children in Russia after being "inspired" by footage on state TV of pensioners suffering under government bombardments.

Since he volunteered to join the Kremlin-backed rebels in the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, he sleeps on an old mattress in a muddy hole in the trench.

"We can hold three people in there," the 27-year-old former jockey tells AFP.

Some of his comrades are slightly luckier.

They pass the nights in a squalid two-room flat in one of the few buildings nearby that has been spared the shelling.

Food can be a problem for the men close to the frontline -- asked what they have to eat, they resort to joking.

"Red caviar!" says a fighter in a Russian hat, sending those around him into fits of laughter.

In reality, the supplies they have stored in a broken fridge are far humbler: honey, bread and pickles delivered to them by their commander.

Once a week, two of the men take it in turns to head into town for a brief break from the tiresome life at the checkpoint.

- Boredom of war -Punctuated by the thud of nearby mortar fire and rocket explosions, the daily routine is one of drudgery and cold.

The airport was first bombed in May as part of fighting in the east which has been taking place since April and killed over 4,000 people.

The fighters say they are here now to check any passing vehicles, of which there are very few, and assist the local residents.

But there are even fewer of them.

They pass their days chatting around a brazier, chain smoking cigarettes and drinking cups of tea.

Sometimes they strap on their Kalashnikovs to patrol the deserted streets and small houses nearby which have been mostly destroyed, stepping over piles of broken branches and electricity cables.

Everywhere they go, stray dogs bark.

Some poke their noses out under gates as they pass, others follow a few metres behind the men.

The sound of heavy firing suddenly echoes through the street.

Nobody seems to pay too much attention.

"That?" says one rebel.

"It's normal.

"Pavel stops at the end of a path between a metal building riddled with bullet holes and a mortar crater some two metres wide.

This is where the airport begins.

"That is the dead zone," he says.

The land, he claims, is mined and Ukrainian artillery positions are just 500 metres away.

On the way back, a young woman with red hair wanders through the drizzle and ruins carrying a loaf of bread.

A German Shepherd dog and a cat trail behind her.

Liliana, 30, a former trolleybus conductor, says she leaves her temporary home in a camp for displaced people to come here every day in search of food for her two dogs.

"I don't hear the bombs anymore," she says.

Pavel and his comrades do not pay attention to her.

They want to return to their trench before the rocket fire starts again.

© 2014 AFP

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