A Ukrainian soldier gestures as he talks with children on Aug. 18 in the small eastern city of Popasna in Lugansk Oblast, a city recently freed by Ukrainian army forces from Russian-backed militants.
For an estimated 200,000 desperate people who are still living in Luhansk, it’s a tough choice: to continue living amid war or attempt to flee through a designated “safe” corridor that is downright dangerous.
In both cases, the risks are huge.
At least 17 people were killed when shells struck their convoy – burning some alive inside – on Aug. 18 when they tried to escape from Novosvetlovka, some 20 kilometers from Luhansk. Several eyewitnesses interviewed by Ukraine’s Army TV said that Russian-backed insurgents were behind the attack on fleeing refugees, whose truck flew white flags. The rebels, however, accused Ukrainian troops of killing the civilians.
The following day, only 100 people had the courage to use the humanitarian corridor to leave Luhansk, which is five to seven times fewer than usual, says Iryna Veryhina, executive governor of Luhansk Oblast.
“Maybe they were afraid of events in Novosvetlovka, or maybe people just hope that Luhansk will be freed in the coming days,” she told the Kyiv Post by phone.Kyiv Post+ is a special project covering Russia’s war against Ukraine and the aftermath of the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Residents of Luhansk have anticipated the arrival of Ukrainian troops since early April, when the separatists first seized control of government offices. But few imagined the current scenario of violence and stalemate that played out.
As violence increased and the Ukrainian army moved to encircle the city, its population shrank by half, with scores dying from shelling from both sides. Up to 1,500 people were killed in Luhansk Oblast as of Aug. 7, Veryhina said. The United Nations estimated losses in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts at more than 2,000 people since the conflict started.
“Many who have the means have already fled, but others, especially the frail and the elderly, are left in an increasingly desperate situation,” Human Rights Watch said in its dispatch on Aug 15.
Those who left have little or no money to buy anything, as banks have shuttered and salaries and pensions halted. As a result of weeks of shelling, power, telecommunications and running water have been cut. Moreover, many shops are closed and food and water are in short supply.
The shops that are still open are selling off the last of their stock and there are no new shipments of food, fuel and medications, the city council says. Residents hope convoys of humanitarian aid from Kyiv and Moscow will arrive soon to relieve their suffering.
Residents spend hours each day queuing for what’s left, mostly bread produced by a local bakery with a power generator to keep its machines working, according to a Luhansk city council report. The city hospitals are still open and tend to the wounded as best they can.
Veryhina, the governor, said some people refuse to leave relatives to their fate. “There are also some, who don’t want to leave the city out of principle, or don’t want to leave their houses fearing looting,” she said. Verygina herself stays in Svatovo, a city north of Luhansk Oblast that has always been under government control.
Verygina says that as of two weeks ago there had been at least Hr 2 billion worth of damage inflicted. She did not have more recent estimates but said “new buildings are being destroyed every day.”
With fierce fighting ongoing in every district of the regional capital, it’s next to impossible to enter the city. Andrea Cellino, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission team leader, told the Kyiv Post that her observers saw massive damage on the roads leading to the city.
“Train service is disrupted, major links are not functioning,” she says.
A woman cooks over a campfire due to natural gas cuts in her building on Aug. 3 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Popasna, Luhansk Oblast, freed by Ukrainian forces from Russian-backed militants.
Luhansk refugees are trying to share news from the city through social networks.
“They (rebel fighters) don’t allow us to make calls; they shoot up the places where there is any network left. Our phones are being charged in the fire station. It’s possible to make a call from old phones, but the new smart phones don’t connect,” Slavik Morgunov, a Luhansk resident who fled recently, wrote on Vkontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook, on Aug. 20. His post was based on a conversation with a friend still in the city.
“The water is delivered when there is no shooting. They started to shoot less. They are running a lot with guns around the districts,” he added.
Even local media are forced to report stories about their own city based on information from social networks, publishing whatever news and photos they can find, alongside contacts of taxi drivers and volunteers who are able to transport people from the city.
People also share reports about the Ukrainian army reaching the outskirts of Luhansk, as well as news about Russian tanks and armored vehicles entering the city from the east.
“There is no (Ukrainian) army in the city center,” wrote Valentina Mikhailova, another Vkontakte user, adding a sad smile. “There are many terrorists in the city administration building instead, because they have their main headquarters there.”
(Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Grytsenko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).