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Ukraine's civilians: 'All I want is peace'

Ukraine government shelling of rebel-controlled areas has left hundreds of civilian casualties.

Last updated: 04 Aug 2014 11:15
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Slovyansk, Ukraine - The concrete floor slab dangled precariously from one piece of rebar, bent from the strain. On the very edge of the gaping tear ripped into the apartment building by heavy artillery, a wardrobe teetered. A curtain fluttered in the breeze, caught on a pile of bricks. A mattress lay mashed under a chunk of concrete. A Ukrainian emergency worker rappelled down the slab and began cutting the rebar with a screeching saw. It gave way suddenly, crashed to the ground and raised a giant cloud of dust. People from the building sat with their kids and dogs, and watched.

This was the most destroyed multistorey building in Slovyansk - an epicentre of fighting in eastern Ukraine that fell to government forces about a month ago. Around 14 buildings like this suffered structural damage in the city, though the Ukrainian army's shelling destroyed a large number of private homes.

"I don't care who is in power. All I want is peace," said Anastasia Lukovskaya, as she sat with her husband and daughter on the grass, watching the deconstruction of their destroyed apartment. "I want my child to not jump at every sound."

While Lukovskaya may only want peace, the Ukrainian army's killing of hundreds of civilians through the use of heavy weaponry in populated urban areas makes winning that peace increasingly difficult. Even if Donetsk and Lugansk, the capitals of the breakaway, pro-Russian provinces, fall soon, Kiev still has to tackle the harder fight - winning back the hearts and minds of the population.

A report released by the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights last week reported that 799 civilians have been killed in the fighting in the east and that 2,155 have been wounded since April - many by errant Ukrainian army shells.

"The current intense fighting using heavy weaponry in and around population areas, has devastated towns and villages, demolishing residential buildings and killing an increasing number of their inhabitants," read the report. "The social impact of the violence and fighting should not be underestimated," it said. "As it reclaims territory in the east that was formerly held by the armed groups, the Ukraine government faces a daunting task of rebuilding communities ravaged by the months of fighting, instances of intense violence against protesters and the polarising impact of the ongoing propaganda war," it read.

The government seems to understand that it needs to carry out this "daunting task", but the army continues to shell cities that still have large numbers of civilians living in them.

'We are all people'

If my dad wasn't there to stop the blood - there was so much blood - well, anything could have happened to me.

- Nastya, 21, artillery victim

"Every war ends in peace, the question is, at what cost," said Sergei Libster, the head of the trauma unit at Hospital Number Two in Lugansk, as the army's artillery thundered in the background, pounding the edges of the embattled city. "There are very, very many dead and wounded. When bombs and rockets land, they all come to us. I've been working as a doctor for 40 years. I thought I had seen everything in this life, but no," he said.

Every place in the 60-bed trauma ward in Lugansk was full. Civilians lay on extra beds in the corridor, recovering after operations to remove shrapnel. In one room, four women recovered, ranging from their mid-50s to the early 20s.

"We were preparing a place to hide in a pantry on the first floor, in case they decided to bomb us," said Yuliya, 54. "We were outside when I heard this, 'Oooooo!' What a blast! Things were thrown everywhere. I fell down and I felt something hit my knees," she said. "I couldn't move. I didn't understand what had happened." The artillery shell shattered her knee and killed a 40-year-old man on the second floor of the building.

In another bed, Nastya, 21, dabbed her tear-covered cheeks. "A shell fell near the house. We have a one room flat. My mom was sleeping. Thank God it didn't fall and kill my little sister. She's six [years old]," she said. "My dad saved my life. Shrapnel came flying into the house. If my dad wasn't there to stop the blood - there was so much blood - well, anything could have happened to me," she said. "I'm alive because of them and now they can't leave the city because I'm lying here," she added, sobbing pitifully.

Angry, but too weak to get off her back and with steel pins through her leg, Yuliya interjected: "I want everyone to know that we are all people. They have been shooting peaceful people - and in Slovyansk, and in Snizhne, and in Kramatorsk, and in Lugansk and Donetsk," she said, listing the cities and towns hardest hit by the fighting. "They've been shooting everywhere with guns and bombs. We haven't done anything," she said.

War or occupation?

About 10 days after rebel fighters fled to Donetsk and the Ukrainian army retook Slovyansk, dozens of people sat on the main square, recharging laptops, mobile phones and battery powered lights from a series of sockets usually used to light up the town's Christmas tree. Ukrainian news resounded across the concrete expanse from tiny speakers, while armed soldiers milled about. Residents gathered at the front of the mayor's office, taking down new government phone numbers for everything from free psychological counselling to anonymous numbers for the purpose of handing over weapons.

We have to pay a lot of attention not to moving people onto the side of the government, but to the side of Ukraine.

- Andrey Nikolaenko, deputy governor of the Donetsk region

"What, it's not a war? This is an occupation. If this isn't an occupation, why do the guys walk around here in bulletproof vests and weapons?" said Sergei Matviyenko, who was at the square with his girlfriend, charging their phones. "Yesterday there were more soldiers here on the square than there ever were rebels before the city fell. So, what, it's not an occupation?"

But the government is trying, to a degree, even while shelling continues in Donetsk and Lugansk and fighting rages near the crash site of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. "Before the Ukrainians came, the Russian news was spreading rumours that they would do bad things, like beat the men in the streets and rape the women, but then they came and brought meat, bread, water and other food. They're still bringing it," said Dmitry Dobrodukh, 17, who was forced to stay in Slovyansk throughout the siege because he did not have a passport - a document needed to leave the city through Ukrainian army lines.

"We have to pay a lot of attention not to moving people onto the side of the government, but to the side of Ukraine. They need to see themselves as Ukrainians, not Russians. That's the main idea," said Andrey Nikolaenko, the first deputy governor of the Donetsk region as he toured the town.

Inside the darkened foyer of the mayor's office, Semyon Semyonchenko, the founder and commander of the Donbas Battalion, a volunteer unit formed under the National Guard, was drinking a cup of coffee from a dispenser. "You think that just because you see the Ukrainian flag that we've won?" he said. "The people don't respect the authorities," Semyonchenko said. "It will be very hard to regain the people's trust."

Follow John Wendle on Twitter: @johnwendle

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Al Jazeera
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