Donetsk, Ukraine – Fighting in Ukraine’s war-battered east continues to intensify with rocket barrages again raining down and peace talks on hold as the civilian population suffers through a harsh winter with few supplies.
Pro-Russia rebels attempted to seize the industrial city of Donetsk’s airport over the past week, leading to heavy fighting in and around it. A civilian bus was also hit by a rocket killing 13 people in the town of Volnovakha, and four Ukraine servicemen died in fighting on Sunday.
More than 4,800 people have been killed since the conflict started last February in Donbass, as the region along the Ukraine-Russia border is known, according to the World Health Organisation. A recent UN report said more than 1.2 million have been displaced.
Recent international attempts to hold peace talks between the two sides have failed, and a ceasefire signed in September has regularly been violated.
While fighting has surged, an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe official told Al Jazeera both sides have been talking, and he expressed optimism that a lasting peace in the region will eventually be achieved.
|Fighting raged at the airport of Ukraine’s city of Donetsk [Reuters]|
“Everyone is saying that there is no dialogue, but I have seen and witnessed dialogue over the past few days,” said Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the OSCE mission to Ukraine.
“Ukrainian military officers are in Donetsk, physically here in Donetsk, and they talk eye to eye with the DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] leadership alongside the Russian officer colleague, so there is dialogue.”
However, in Donetsk and elsewhere, the civilian population continues to bear the brunt of renewed fighting.
Fireman Andrei Anatolyevich works near the airport, which Ukraine’s military said on Monday it had secured after a week-long battle. Anatolyevich told Al Jazeera that one of his colleagues was wounded by an artillery shell last week that exploded near a fire truck.
“He is fine now, the doctors operated on him and he’ll be fine. He’ll be out in about a week. Doctors had to remove some shrapnel from his arm,” Anatolyevich said.
Elderly people in the area have been affected the most, he said.
“Most of the people who have remained there are old folks who have nowhere to go. More than 70 percent of houses in the village are empty. After the shelling, neighbours run from house to house to check if people are still alive.”
Victor Mihailevich has been an ambulance driver for the last 30 years. He said the bombardment in Donetsk had taken a heavy psychological toll on civilians. “People are suffering… With all the shelling and explosions, you just don’t know where they are coming from. I can’t manage to sleep during the night.”
Down the road in Luhansk
Nestled between the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Russian Federation is the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), which was also heavily bombarded during the summer months.
The deterioration of infrastructure is noticeable further east, where roads filled with potholes make an obstacle course for military and humanitarian convoys.
Oleg Popov, whose nom de guerre is “Communist”, is a militia commander and government official. He said the goal for the region is to keep independence, but move “towards Russia”.
“Part of the Novorossiya project is where we’ll have eight republics, that’s the minimum. These will be independent people’s republics; just like in the USA you have many states… We are going to be a separate LPR within the Novorossiya confederation with very close economic, political, and military union with Russia,” Popov said.
Chief of Staff of the People’s Council Leah Kovalenko told Al Jazeera many of Ukraine’s laws would remain in force and legal systems of other countries were being reviewed.
“In terms of legislation we looked at Russian Federation and Ukrainian laws since there are many Ukrainian laws which are appropriate and are seen as beneficial,” Kovalenko said. “For other legal aspects we also looked at Belarussian, Abkhazian and Crimean laws.”
The people have already made their choice through the May referendum and the November election. The people must not be betrayed.
Lead investigator of the Prosecutor General office Leonid Tkachenko discussed restoring law and order in Luhansk People’s Republic amid the rise of militias and criminal gangs.
“Those who do not want to serve in the people’s militia and refuse to surrender their weapons will be automatically considered as illegal groups. Their activities will not be tolerated,” Tkachenko told Al Jazeera.
Caught in the middle
Hostilities experienced among the civilian population is not wholly attributed to Russia-backed separatist fighters. In the town of Novosvitlivka, 18km southeast of Luhansk, Iryna Tchernyakova said dozens of civilians hide inside the Orthodox Church during heavy fighting. The building was hit by artillery and one person later died from injuries.
While she praised Ukraine’s National Guard, she had few good things to say about a notorious Ukraine militia that later moved into the area.
“There was also a group called Aidar, some 15 men came here… They had a different attitude though they were Ukrainians and in uniform… They had us at gunpoint, they turned to my husband Igor, an Afghan war veteran, and accused him of helping the separatists.”
Amnesty International said in a September report the Aidar Battalion was responsible for war crimes that included abductions, possible executions, theft, and extortion.
“Then Aidar took us at gunpoint and told us to get down on our knees if we didn’t want to be shot as collaborators. Later they told us to leave the church, but I asked them: ‘Where should I go?'”
Many internally displaced people in Donbass are living in rented accommodation or with family and friends.
“Today the republic is going through challenging times. On the streets we have winter. We are focusing on heating and feeding the civilian population,” said LPR Prime Minister Gennadiy Tsypkalov.
He acknowledged conditions are unstable and harsh, but added things could be worse.
“We have a saying here: ‘Better a bad peace than a good war,’ and most of all what we want is peace,” Tsypkalov said. “The people have already made their choice through the May referendum and the November election. The people must not be betrayed.”