Tag Archives: Luhansk

6 killed, 15 wounded in east Ukraine city #Russia #Ukraine #Ceasefire


By LAURA MILLS.
Black smoke ascends around the Donetsk's International Airport as shelling continues between pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian army on September 14, 2014.Black smoke ascends around the Donetsk’s International Airport as shelling continues between pro-Russian forces and the Ukrainian army on September 14, 2014. © AFP

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Shelling killed six people and wounded 15 others in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, the city council said Monday — the worst reported violence since a cease-fire between Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian troops took effect on Sept. 5.

Nonetheless, the cease-fire deal has brought some normalcy to parts of eastern Ukraine and allowed prisoners on both sides to go home.

Another 73 Ukrainian soldiers were freed Sunday night in an exchange with the rebels, Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said Monday. Donetsk rebel leader Andrei Purgin was quoted by Interfax news agency as confirming that 73 rebels had been released in return. It was the largest reported prisoner exchange amid the fighting that began in mid-April.

Fighting around Donetsk’s government-held airport has left many northern neighborhoods in the crossfire. Over the weekend, Ukraine said its troops repelled an attack of 200 rebel fighters, but suffered no military casualties.

A Pro-Russian rebels bike arranged with a communist flag, left and Russian motorcycle club A Pro-Russian rebels bike arranged with a communist flag, left and Russian motorcycle club “Night Wolves” flag is driven in a parade in the town of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Some semblance of normality is returning to parts of eastern Ukraine after a cease-fire agreement sealed between Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels earlier this month, although exchanges of rocket fire remain a constant in some areas. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Two northern neighborhoods in Donetsk were shelled heavily Sunday, leading to the casualties and damaging both homes and offices, the city council said.

While the neighborhoods hit by shelling are under the control of the rebels, the Ukrainian government blamed the militants for the civilian casualties.

“Neither today nor yesterday nor in the previous days did Ukrainian forces shell any residential areas and settlements,” Lysenko said in Kiev on Monday.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who are overseeing the implementation of the cease-fire, said Sunday they were 200 meters (650 feet) away as four shells burst in Donetsk. The team saw one woman lying on the ground.

A Pro-Russian rebels truck with an anti-aircraft weapon is driven in a parade in the town of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Some semblance of normality is returning to parts of eastern Ukraine after a cease-fire agreement sealed between Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels earlier this month, although exchanges of rocket fire remain a constant in some areas. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)A Pro-Russian rebels truck with an anti-aircraft weapon is driven in a parade in the town of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Some semblance of normality is returning to parts of eastern Ukraine after a cease-fire agreement sealed between Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels earlier this month, although exchanges of rocket fire remain a constant in some areas. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

The first civilian casualties in Donetsk underscore how fragile the peace may be. Both sides have made it clear that they are rearming in case the fighting starts anew.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey told Channel Five that the delivery of weapons from NATO countries, agreed upon earlier this month, was “underway.” Those comments were also made by another senior official but later denied by four of the five NATO countries he had mentioned.

On Monday, Poland’s Defense Minister Tomasz Siemonia said while Poland is not currently selling arms to Ukraine, an arms deal will be the theme of talks when Heletey visits Warsaw this month. He offered no date for the visit.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine began a month after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March. It has claimed at least 3,000 civilian lives and forced hundreds of thousands to flee, according to the U.N.

A Pro-Russian rebels truck arranged with a communists flag, left and a flag with an Orthodox style icon depicting Jesus Christ is driven in a parade in the town of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Some semblance of normality is returning to parts of eastern Ukraine after a cease-fire agreement sealed between Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels earlier this month, although exchanges of rocket fire remain a constant in some areas. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)A Pro-Russian rebels truck arranged with a communists flag, left and a flag with an Orthodox style icon depicting Jesus Christ is driven in a parade in the town of Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014. Some semblance of normality is returning to parts of eastern Ukraine after a cease-fire agreement sealed between Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels earlier this month, although exchanges of rocket fire remain a constant in some areas. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Associated Press.

Shells rock east Ukraine city despite cease-fire #Russia #Ukraine #CeaseFire


by The Associated Press.
A picture taken on September 9, 2014 shows a Ukrainian tank destroyed by shelling from pro-Russian militants in the eastern Ukrainian Oblast of Lugansk.A picture taken on September 9, 2014 shows a Ukrainian tank destroyed by shelling from pro-Russian militants in the eastern Ukrainian Oblast of Lugansk. © AFP.

LUHANSK, Ukraine — Months of daily shelling reduced the east Ukraine city of Luhansk to a ghost town, silent but for the explosions.

On Sunday, following a cease-fire agreement signed Sept. 5, residents in the second-largest city held by pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine emerged in a rare show of jubilation that was half celebration, half simply relief at the reprieve in the violence.

The same wasn’t true of the largest rebel stronghold of Donetsk, where fighting around the government-held airport has caught many residential neighborhoods in the crossfire. The city council of Donetsk confirmed in a statement Sunday that there were civilian casualties, but couldn’t specify how many.

Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council spokesman Volodymyr Polyovyi told journalists that government troops had repelled an attack on the airport by about 200 fighters.

The cease-fire deal has been riddled by violations from the start, and both sides have made it clear that they are regrouping and rearming in case the fighting starts anew.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke by phone late Sunday and “expressed concern about violations of the cease-fire regime,” according to a statement published on the Ukrainian leader’s website.

In Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia annexed from Ukraine in March, residents voted for regional parliamentary elections dominated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s backers, although the results weren’t yet available.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey told Channel Five on Saturday that delivery of weapons from NATO countries, agreed upon earlier this month, was “under way.” Another senior official announced the arms deal last week, although four of the five NATO countries he had mentioned denied those claims.

But despite repeated violations of the cease-fire and tough talk on all sides, the peace deal has allowed for a return to some kind of normalcy for cities like Luhansk, as shell-shocked residents emerge from the basements where they have been hiding for weeks and come to grips with the damage incurred by nearly five months of fighting.

Luhansk’s population of about 250,000 people, reduced because of the war, celebrated “city day” on Sunday, which opened on a somber note as priests led hundreds of residents in prayer in commemoration of those killed during a government-mounted siege of the city.

Damage to basic infrastructure left much of the city without power and running water since early August. Around Luhansk, smashed windows, burned-out buildings and craters in the road are testimony to an imprecise, often indiscriminate shelling campaign.

Across the road from the regional military enlistment office, now transformed into the headquarters of a rebel battalion, the roof of a multistory apartment building was caved in from a direct strike. Many such civilian facilities, such as restaurants, gas stations and car showrooms, are now reduced to shattered shells.

After a garbage recycling plant was damaged, trash began piling up on the streets. But while the damage remains, the streets have begun to be cleared away and electricity has returned to some parts of the city as the fragile peace sets in.

Speaking at the open-air service outside the Lady of Sorrows Church, local separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky mourned those who had been killed and in an unusually conciliatory public statement called for forgiveness for those responsible.

A Russian aid convoy carrying mainly food arrived in Luhansk on Saturday, and men in camouflage standing under a scratched-out sign reading “Strong Ukraine” on Sunday were handing out chocolate, drinking water, soap, toilet paper, diapers and other supplies to a large crowd of residents patiently waiting in line. At a nearby table, war veterans were poured complimentary shots of vodka.

As the men in fatigues handed out wares, their guns lay nearby, some propped up against the wall. Their efforts appeared as much an aid initiative as a public relations exercise necessary to prop up local support in a city where the rebel presence has caused such intense misery.

A rebel official, a Muscovite who gave his name only as the nom de guerre Makhra, told The Associated Press the aid was from Russia.

“People have gone hungry here for almost two months. We decided to celebrate city day,” he said. “In a few days, power and water should be turned back on. So people are being given hygiene products so they can properly feed themselves.”

Lilya Miroschenkovo, a 73-year old retiree waiting in line, said she hasn’t received her pension since May and has had to make do since then with her last monthly payment of $85.

“It is a good thing that vegetables were more or less affordable this year,” she said. “Meat, sausages, oil — I have bought nothing like that. It is just vegetables in one soup after another.”

At midday, a group of rebel fighters led a motley convoy made up of Night Wolves biker gang members and several battered military vehicles on a ride through the city. While a Night Wolves truck modified to look like a wolf leading the column blared out cacophonous heavy metal, vans trailing at the back played rousing Soviet-vintage military songs.

The caravan toured the city, and residents came out to wave and cheer. As it reached its final destination by the city hall, itself bearing evident signs of a bomb strike, the convoy was greeted rapturously by a crowd of several thousand people.

As conceded by even one separatist fighter, originally from the Crimean Peninsula, support for the armed rebel movement has been far from universal in Luhansk.

“Many people come to us and ask: ‘When will the war end?'” said the fighter, who identified himself by the nom de guerre Maestro, while sitting atop an armored personnel carrier.

“Our answer is always the same,” he said. “As soon as you get … off the couch, stop swilling beer and go fight instead.”

Laura Mills reported from Kiev.


The New York Times.

#Ukraine’s Prime Minister says country still in “state of war”


by LAURA MILLS.
Russian trucks with Russian flags, intended to carry humanitarian aid for eastern Ukraine are stationed ready for another possible trip near Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has largely held. (AP Photo)Russian trucks with Russian flags, intended to carry humanitarian aid for eastern Ukraine are stationed ready for another possible trip near Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, Rostov-on-Don region, Russia, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. The ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has largely held. (AP Photo)

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine is “still in a state of war” with neighboring Russia despite a cease-fire between Kiev’s forces and Moscow-backed rebels in the east, the country’s prime minister said Saturday shortly after a second convoy of Russian trucks rolled into Ukraine.

Speaking at a conference with politicians and business leaders in Kiev, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “goal is to take the entire Ukraine.”

“He cannot cope with the idea that Ukraine would be a part of a big EU family. He wants to restore the Soviet Union,” Yatsenyuk said.

He didn’t mention the second convoy of Russian trucks that entered rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine earlier Saturday, reportedly filled with almost 2,000 tons of humanitarian aid.

The last truck crossed onto Ukrainian soil early Saturday from the Russian border town Donetsk, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) miles east of the Ukrainian city with the same name, Rayan Farukshin, a spokesman for Russia’s customs agency, told the Associated Press by phone. He could not confirm the number of trucks, but news agency ITAR TASS reported that about 250 trucks were heading toward the city Luhansk.

The Russian emergency ministry, which coordinated previous humanitarian aid deliveries to Ukraine, could not be reached for comment about the convoy.

Col. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, told journalists Saturday that the convoy had crossed “illegally” onto Ukrainian territory.

“Ukraine border guards and customs were not allowed to examine the cargo and vehicles,” he said. “Representatives of the Red Cross don’t accompany the cargo, nobody knows what’s inside.”

Lysenko’s relatively mild comments on the second convoy and the silence of more senior Ukrainian officials shows how dramatically the mood has shifted in the Kiev government since August. President Petro Poroshenko has been at pains to prove that last week’s cease-fire deal has yielded improvements on the ground in east Ukraine. On Friday, he lauded the deal, which has been riddled by violations since it was imposed last week, as a “fragile but efficient peace process.”

In August, Ukrainian officials said that a first convoy of humanitarian aid from Russia would be seen as an invasion of the country, and loudly protested any attempts by Russia to unilaterally bring in the aid. Eventually Russia sent its trucks across the border and into rebel-held territory without the oversight of the International Red Cross, contrary to an agreement signed between Ukraine and Russia.

A representative of the ICRC’s Moscow office said they had not been informed about the current convoy, either.

“We were not officially notified of an agreement between Moscow and Kiev to ship the cargo,” Galina Balzamova said Saturday.

A Ukrainian army helicopter flies over their positions in Debaltsevo, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. The cease-fire between the separatists and the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine has largely held. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)A Ukrainian army helicopter flies over their positions in Debaltsevo, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Sept. 12, 2014. The cease-fire between the separatists and the Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine has largely held. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Lysenko said that six Ukrainian servicemen had died since the truce. He also confirmed that 12 rebel fighters had been killed by Ukrainian forces near Sea of Azov city of Mariupol, where he said they were doing reconnaissance work — the first such admission that they have inflicted casualties on the rebel side since the cease-fire began.

In a statement posted online early Saturday, the Donetsk city council said that there had been fighting near the airport throughout the night. Two shells had hit residential buildings in the area but no casualties were reported.

Continuous rocket fire could be heard overnight in downtown Donetsk, and a column of three GRAD rocket launchers — all its rockets still in place — was seen moving freely through the rebel-held city on Saturday morning.

(Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Peter Leonard in Donetsk, Ukraine contributed reporting).


Associated Press.

Shaun Walker: Armoured Russian vehicle seen inside #Ukraine


Personnel carrier bearing blue circle and yellow writing of peacekeepers was seen after Ukrainian convoy was destroyed last week.

Shaun Walker in Lutuhyne.
A pro-Russia soldier seen near an APC with the mark of peacekeeping troops in Lutuhyne, near Luhansk. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova/GuardianA pro-Russia soldier seen near an APC with the mark of peacekeeping troops in Lutuhyne, near Luhansk. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova/Guardian

The Guardian has found more evidence of Russian military hardware operating inside Ukraine, spotting an armoured vehicle marked with the symbol of the Russian army’s “peacekeeping forces”.

The armoured personnel carrier was well inside Ukraine, in Lutuhyne, a town near Luhansk, where a Ukrainian military convoy was destroyed by artillery and Grad missiles last week.

Amid the remains of the destroyed Ukrainian column, three soldiers stood by an intact armoured personnel carrier on Tuesday afternoon. The men, who refused to be photographed, said they were from Russia and were not regular soldiers, saying they were paid mercenaries. They did not say who was paying them.

Their vehicle was marked in three places with a blue circle and the yellow Cyrillic letters MC – the Russian abbreviation for “peacekeeping forces”. Many of these have been seen moving on the other side of the border in recent weeks, and the vehicle’s presence was yet more evidence of what Moscow has continually denied – that its soldiers are active in east Ukraine.

In many cases, separatists have claimed that columns are not Russian military vehicles but trophies stolen from the Ukrainian army. However, the distinctive MC peacekeeping signs are only featured on Russian vehicles, used on peacekeeping missions in the Caucasus and Transnistria.

“Ukraine’s only peacekeeping missions are with the UN, and those vehicles are painted white. If it has the blue and yellow symbol, it has to be Russian,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a Ukrainian military analyst at Kiev’s Razumkov Centre.

Half an hour after the APC was first spotted, one of the soldiers could be seen painting over the MC signs with black paint. When the Guardian returned to the scene on Wednesday, the vehicle was gone.

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, said 70% of Russian forces had already left Ukraine after taking part in a surge against the Ukrainian army that pushed Kiev into signing a ceasefire agreement.

Driving on the road from Donetsk to Luhansk, several small convoys of trucks and armoured vehicles were visible that looked very different to the irregular rebel forces, and appeared to be manned by regular Russian troops. The men by the armoured vehicle in Lutuhyne did not look as well equipped as other Russians seen in Ukraine in recent weeks; one of them was even wearing trainers, but it appeared clear that at least the vehicle came from official Russian military stock.

Last month, the Guardian witnessed a Russian armoured column cross the border near the Izvaryne border post. Russia denied it had happened, claiming the convoy was a border patrol that stayed on the border. Later, when Russian paratroopers were captured inside Ukraine, Moscow also said it was a border patrol, claiming they had got lost and crossed the border “by accident”.


The Guardian.

#Ukraine: #Despair in #Luhansk as residents count the dead #PriceofWar


The worst-hit city in eastern Ukraine is struggling with the aftermath of violence as a semblance of normality returns.

Shaun Walker in Luhansk.
Coffins prepared for burial outside the morgue in LuhanskCoffins prepared for burial outside the morgue in Luhansk. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova.

Each time a body arrives, Anatoly Turevich opens a file on his computer and adds to his list. Often the only detail he is able to add is “man” or “woman”. There are 511 entries. Turevich, the 62-year-old director of Luhansk’s main morgue, has seen a lot in his three decades of work, but the past few months have been more grisly even than the mining accidents he was used to.

Luhansk, a town of more than 400,000 inhabitants, has been the worst-hit city in east Ukraine during the recent conflict. Capital of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, the city spent more than a month encircled by Ukrainian forces. As battles raged between local rebels, with Russian support, and the Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions, more than half the city fled, to relatives in other cities or refugee camps in Russia. Those who stayed were generally those too frail to move or those with absolutely nowhere to go.

Turevich picks a number at random, launching a series of photographs of blackened remains that bear only a passing resemblance to the human form. Relatives of the missing can flick through the gruesome catalogue and see if they recognise their loved ones. If a body is too disfigured for photographic identification, the morgue has taken DNA samples, though it has no ability to analyse them. At some point in the future, they will be sent somewhere that does, Turevich hopes.

Of the seven specialists at the morgue, five left when the fighting started, while the sixth drove over a mine on his way to work, and is now in hospital. That left Turevich to handle the influx of corpses on his own.

“I could have left, but then who would do this work?” he asks, before cutting the interview short. A van carrying 15 decaying bodies has just arrived. They have been dead for weeks, but the roads were far too dangerous for their relatives to transport them. The list will now total 526. Turevich says the vast majority are civilians, and almost all have died from shrapnel wounds.

After a fragile ceasefire between Ukrainian and rebel forces agreed last week, people are finally able to bring out their dead. Turevich expects many more busy days in the near future.

In the courtyard, more than 50 wooden coffins are neatly stacked under a cloud of flies. All are full; sometimes a chunk of yellowed torso or bloodied clothing is visible through the gap between lid and casket. A generator now works intermittently, keeping the bodies inside the morgue partially refrigerated. For much of August there was no power at all. “People think we must get used to the smell,” says Turevich, whose office is also infested with flies. “You never get used to the smell.”

Post-apocalyptic

The ceasefire agreed a week ago has meant the shelling has ceased for the first time in two months. A semblance of normality is returning to the city. At its vast locomotive factory, closed after shells landed inside its territory, there is hope that work might start up again as early as Monday. In the basement training room, which has served as a makeshift bomb shelter for more than 100 people, only five were left on Wednesday, the rest having returned home as the explosions finally stopped.

But there is a long way to go. Luhansk has a post-apocalyptic feel, as people stumble into the brightness from the bomb shelters, and thousands of those who left arrive back on buses, their possessions bundled into large bags. There are few cars, as petrol is scarce, so many people are on bicycles or trudging long distances on foot.

Lyubov Zheleznyak near a house cellar where a brother and sister, Vitaly and Marina Yushko, burned to death in early AugustLyubov Zheleznyak near a house cellar where a brother and sister, Vitaly and Marina Yushko, burned to death in early August. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova

There has been no water or electricity in the city for more than a month. Almost every cafe and restaurant has been shuttered for weeks. At the few open stalls, people wait in snaking bread queues for the first time in two decades. They draw water from wells; on street corners generators are hooked up to a spaghetti of wires from which mobile phones can be charged. To actually make a call, they have to find one of the few isolated spots on the city outskirts where one bar of reception is available. There, dozens of people gather waving their phones in the air as if in a bizarre ritual, hoping to get a signal and finally make contact with relatives who worry they may be dead.

In the suburb of Yubileynoe, 90 residential apartment blocks suffered some kind of damage in recent months, while 16 took direct hits. It is unclear who will pay for the huge structural repair work required. The residents certainly cannot afford it, the local rebel government has not offered, and Kiev has no control over the territory. Their best hope for now appears to be a volunteer group using equipment from the local coal mine.

“The aim of the Ukrainian army was to destroy everything, so that people would be on their knees and beg to be allowed to return to the fascist Ukrainian state,” says 47-year-old Vyacheslav Pleskach, a rights activist who is now volunteering to help those whose houses were damaged in Yubileynoe. “There was nothing of military value here at all, nothing. They were just shelling the most vulnerable people, day and night.”

Others note that the rebels would often wheel artillery to positions in residential areas, fire at Ukrainian positions outside the town, and speed off. By the time the return fire came, the rebels were long gone and civilian homes suffered. Viktor, who sent his wife to Kiev but refused to leave the flat in central Luhansk he had worked so hard to buy, claims often the rebels themselves would fire at residential areas.

“Once there was just a few seconds between the outgoing sound of mortar fire and the explosion,” he says, from the small candlelit apartment he could not bear to leave. “It came from very close. It had to come from within the city, which means the rebels.”

Amid the passions, rumours and disinformation, understanding who shot where and when is extremely difficult. But there seems little doubt that both sides are responsible for civilian casualties, and by firing on civilian areas, Ukrainian forces have made any eventual process of reintegration even harder, as anger grows.

Viktor in the apartment in Luhansk he refused to leave. Photograph: Maria TurchenkovaViktor in the apartment in Luhansk he refused to leave. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova.

In the suburb of Bolshaya Verkhunka, the devastation is absolute. After a battle in early August, the Ukrainian National Guard took up a position on one side of the suburb; the rebels were on the other. Each side relentlessly attacked the other, over the heads of the residents. Almost every house on the main street is destroyed.

In the house 65-year-old Nikolai Zapasny built with his own hands between 1975 and 1981, some of the walls are missing, much of the roof has gone, and all the windows broken. The interiors, painstakingly decorated in a chintzy manner unthinkably luxurious for such a locale, have been destroyed by shrapnel; the walls turned into Swiss cheese. “I always wanted these sofas. Look how nice they were, and now look at them,” says his wife, tearfully. “We hadn’t even paid off the loan.”

His beloved car, a sky-blue Volga 21, kept in mint condition for three decades, is now a tangle of gnarled metal; even his bicycle is destroyed. For two months, he and his wife have been cowering in a dank basement as the house above them was slowly pulverised. “Both sides were shooting, all the time. Nobody from either side ever came in to ask us who was living here. They would have found no bandits, just old people.” Zapasny’s wife sobs uncontrollably, while he simply stares into the middle distance, unable to comprehend how his entire life’s work has been shot to pieces.

“We don’t care what country we live in. We just want them to stop killing us,” says their 58-year-old neighbour Lyubov Zheleznyak, a widow. Her house was relatively unscathed, but is still riddled with bullets and all her windows are blown out. Pensions have not been paid for months; she has no money for food, let alone repair works.

Further down the road, Vitaly and Marina Yushko, a brother and sister both in their early 30s, were hiding from the shelling in their cellar in early August when the house took a direct hit. Rubble fell over the entrance to the cellar, jamming it shut, while flames engulfed the remains of the house. Unable to escape, the pair burned to death.

It was not possible to move the bodies because of the constant fire, so the neighbours buried the charred remains of Vitaly and Marina in a shallow grave in their back garden. Nobody informed the authorities, as there was no way to make contact with them, a sign that the real death toll could be much higher than the numbers given at the morgue.

After a sustained battle a week ago, the National Guard fled the area, part of a broad and bloody Ukrainian retreat Kiev says was spurred by the rebels gaining an injection of Russian firepower. Evidence of the retreat is visible on the roads out of Luhansk. Burnt-out armoured personnel carriers and tanks stand at regular intervals on the road. At Lutuhyne, more than 20 vehicles were incinerated by artillery and Grad rockets, their twisted and blackened remains now picked over by children scavenging for scrap metal.

Nikita, 10, plays with a burned rifle at a site where a Ukrainian military convoy was destroyed. Photograph: Maria TurchenkovaNikita, 10, plays with a burned rifle at a site where a Ukrainian military convoy was destroyed. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova

‘Our hearts ache with despair’

Nobody in Luhansk knows what the future holds. Many people do not want to talk about politics. Nobody knows whether in six months’ time they will be part of Ukraine or part of a breakaway state, and there could be recriminations for calling it the wrong way and backing one side. Meanwhile, people try as hard as possible to pretend that everything is fine.

“Parents see the schools opening, and it gives them the impression that everything is all right; it helps them,” says Valentina Kiyashko, the city’s director of education, an imposing yet kindly matriarch with a shock of peroxide hair and an implacable manner. “I behave as if everything is normal because people know me and they like to see that everything is fine. But of course inside it’s hard. Everything feels constantly shaken up.”

She herself has been sleeping on the floor of the bathroom or in the entrance hall to her flat; as has her 86-year-old mother. Several times shells landed in the courtyard of her apartment block.

Of more than 60 schools in Luhansk, only six have opened. Some have been severely damaged, in others there are simply no children as they have all been evacuated. All the teachers who were asked to report for the new school year have done so, despite the fact that none have received a salary for the past three months.

At an annual competition for singing, dancing and painting among the city’s different schools, the turnout is less than a quarter of last year’s, but everyone is determined to put on a show despite the circumstances. A dance ensemble is decked out in matching blue uniforms; a young girl with her hair tied in ribbons valiantly battles her way through a violin sonata.

Pupils from different schools at a singing and dancing competition in Luhansk. Photograph: Maria TurchenkovaPupils from different schools at a singing and dancing competition in Luhansk. Photograph: Maria Turchenkova

The festivities are interrupted by a poem written and performed by the adult son of the headmistress, stanzas of shrieked anguish and raw emotion about hearing a Grad rocket attack, the imprecise launchers that hail down up to 40 rockets in one salvo.

“Our hearts ache with despair … There is no earth, there is no sky … Grad! Grad! Grad!”

The children look on in shock while most of the teachers are choked with tears.

In Luhansk, emotions are never far beneath the surface. A teacher begins sobbing at the question of whether the region should stay part of Ukraine or separate; another cannot bear to talk about one of her students, whose parents drove over a mine in their car. His mother died instantly; the child’s legs were blown off and he later died in hospital.

In a scruffy field not far from the morgue, there are mounds of freshly dug black earth, dozens of simple wooden crosses with plyboard signs; names and dates of birth scrawled in black marker. Protective gloves and masks, worn by the gravediggers, are discarded in the grass. The lonely silence is broken periodically by low booms from the airport; rebels exploding ordnance left behind by the Ukrainian army when they fled.

There are men, women, pensioners, children. Many simply have “unknown” and a number; some day perhaps relatives will recognise a body on Turevich’s list and match it with the number on the grave. A huge, open trench is partially filled with coffins; a dozen of them arranged in a neat line. There is space for many more.


The Guardian.