Starovarvarivka, Ukraine - The Ukrainian artillery started its thumping rhythm again, pounding civilian and rebel targets in the separatist-held town of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine. Without flinching, a Ukrainian soldier tapped a cigarette out of his pack at a checkpoint near Bylbasivka and told us to wait.
A bus full of people heading back into this eastern Ukraine town stood nearby as the soldiers checked documents. The men and women had fled the fighting, but were now risking going back to collect belongings left behind in the embattled town. "I don't recommend you go in there," said one.
This scene should not have been taking place at all. On June 20, newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared a unilateral ceasefire, but continued attacks by both sides have weakened chances of the halt taking effect in Ukraine's destabilised eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Over the past few weeks, fighting has not slowed as the Ukrainian army has encircled the breakaway provinces. A little more than a week ago, the army fought to retake the port city of Mariupol and a portion of the border, but daily fighting and random shelling continues to rock towns and cities throughout the region.
Continued combat will make it difficult for the West and Russia to halt the conflict as it could take on a momentum of its own - with people inside the 10km buffer zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border finding their own reasons to continue the fight. If the EU, US and Russia cannot halt the violence soon, it may prove to be too late.
"We need to ensure that all fighting is stopped," Putin said in comments published on the Kremlin website. "Ultimately the political process is the most important. It is important that this ceasefire lead to dialogue between all opposing sides in order to find compromises acceptable for all," he said on Monday.
Russia's foreign ministry said: "A durable ceasefire is needed as an irreversible condition for starting practical steps towards a binding dialogue between the authorities in Kiev and representatives of protesters in southeast Ukraine," after a phone conversation between Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Monday.
But in some areas, the Ukrainian army's heavy-handed tactics and seeming lack of strategy are alienating a growing number of people - a part of the population that Poroshenko will need to bring to the table in order to halt the conflict.
Last Monday, more artillery could be heard as Ukrainian units hit the villages of Shchastya and Metalist just to the north of Lugansk. Two stolen amphibious tanks blocked the road while a freight truck burned white after an early morning attack.
As the artillery paused, about a dozen terrified refugees streamed through the checkpoint, escaping the morning's bombardment at Metalist. A fighter, who said he was a former Russian army officer, stood guard looking down the highway.
In a parking lot in the woods past the checkpoint, the refugees - officially described as internally displaced persons or IDPs - gathered together. The rebels offered them water. A minibus, running its normal route in this abnormal situation, stood ready to carry the IDPs into Lugansk and an uncertain future.
"Right now we're just trying to get to a safe place," said Andrei Pshenichnyi, a furniture designer from Shchastya. "We plan to stay with acquaintances in Lugansk, but if we can pull it off we'll go to Russia," he said.
But while Pshenichnyi, a former Ukrainian paratrooper, said his wife and nearly three-year-old son would possibly leave the country, he did not rule out that he would stay and fight.
"I think that Russians should help Russians," he said. "I would serve. In principal that could happen. What else should I do? We don't have our own army right now, not as strong as the Ukrainian army."
'We're all Russians'
From his small town north of Lugansk, Pshenichnyi has been following the events in Kiev with growing worry after the overthrow of former President Viktor Yanukovych during the revolution on the Maidan earlier this year. He blames Kiev for the current unrest. "If Kiev had allowed for federalisation, none of this would have happened," he said. Now he sees no reason for Ukraine to remain a unitary state.
"We're all Russians. Ukrainians are Russians too. Ukraine is a historical construct," he said. "No one could have imagined this happening after Crimea. But then they outlawed Russian and we demanded federalisation."
From Odessa to the Urals, it's one language, one religion, one worldview.
"From Odessa to the Urals, it's one language, one religion, one worldview. From Odessa to Lvov, it's utterly different. We thought we could come to an arrangement," he said. "People can come to an arrangement if they want. If they don't want to, there is nothing to be done. That's why Poroshenko won't be able to come to a compromise."
After a few slow shots of vodka in his kitchen in the village of Starovarvarivka, near Kramatorsk, Aleksander Ott stood up from his stool and turned to a picture of his wife. She was killed by gunmen wearing unmarked uniforms in mid-May.
He whispered prayers and wiped tears from his cheeks as he sat back down at the table in his small farmhouse.
Though military investigators have still not met with him and he has not heard from the UN's Human Rights Commissioner, he blames the Ukrainian army for the killing - as do most people in this village, the site of recent violence near Slovyansk.
Even if there is peace eventually, Ott sees no way back to normal life before the fighting. "If a soldier killed your wife, could you ever allow that soldier to protect you? Would you ever kneel to the government that soldier represents? No, you wouldn't and I won't," he said. "After this, there can be no unitary Ukraine. Maybe a federal system, or independence - but a united Ukraine can no longer exist."
Ott supported Ukraine before his wife was killed - as did many in this remote part of the countryside. But he also does not support the Donetsk People's Republic, the pro-Russian state that separatist fighters have declared here. "If I didn't have to stay here to take care of my son, I would be fighting in Slovyansk. I wouldn't be fighting for this stupid People's Republic of Donetsk though; I would be fighting against the Ukrainian army. That's all."
Now Ott's hatred for Kiev has solidified - and as fighting continues and more stories like his are repeated, the anti-Kiev position is adopted by more people - making the way to peace all the more difficult.
Some are trying not to be affected by the ever-rising tide of violence and destruction - even in the face of ruin. Early last week, as the Ukrainian army was shelling Metalist, a series of artillery shells struck a residential neighbourhood in Kramatorsk, just to the south of Slovyansk. The chief nurse at the central hospital's trauma ward said six people were killed and 13 were wounded in the attack. No one was able to say whether it was carried out by the Ukrainian army or by rebels.
All the windows in Nikolai Dovbnya's multistorey driving school on Shkadinova street in Kramatorsk were blown out during one of a growing number of random artillery strikes. Shrapnel peppered the walls inside and out and had torn chunks from the cement. On Dovbnya's desk a few shards were sitting in his in-tray.
Now we have husbands supporting one position and wives supporting another position.
"I will not replace the windows until the war is over," Dovbnya said. His school - where he has been the director for 10 years - will probably stay closed until then, too. But even though this leaves him with no source of income, he said he would continue to support a united Ukraine.
"Now we have husbands supporting one position and wives supporting another position," he said. But he sees few alternatives. "There is no future for the DNR. This future is the future of Abkhazia," he said - citing the separatist state that broke off from Georgia after a brief but vicious war from 1992-1993. Today Abkhazia remains recognised by only Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru and suffers from poverty and isolation.
But it is not just a question of economics. "Where do we go from here?" he said. "There is no future for citizens walking around with guns. If you try to build a republic on armed power, then it will always be based on that. If you break the law once, you'll break it a second time. Then there will be no law for anyone. Then the law will be the law of the Kalashnikov."
Source: Al Jazeera