Ukrainians escape encircled strategic town

Thousands of traumatised people have fled shelling in Debaltseve as warring sides battle for another key city.

Ukraine crisis
A bus column evacuating displaced people from the Debaltseve and Uglegorsk cities [EPA]

Kramatorsk, Ukraine – Elina, 28, lived without water or electricity for two weeks amid the winter cold on eastern Ukraine’s new front line.

She fled the strategic city of Debaltseve, which has been the focus of a pro-Moscow rebel offensive. According to Amnesty International, only 7,000 people are left in Debaltseve, which used to have 25,000 residents.

“Dead people just lying on the streets … the city was always [being] shelled,” Elina told Al Jazeera, who said she was too afraid to give her last name.

Elina described people boiling snow for water and making fires on the streets to cook food because there was no gas. Many houses did not have windows because they were blown out by shelling, and businesses and services had been shut down, with the last hospital closing about two weeks ago.

We had no schools, we had no medical centres, we had no work … just destruction.

by Elina, displaced person

“All day and all night, people stayed in basements,” she said. “We had no schools, we had no medical centres, we had no work … just destruction.” 

The pro-Russian separatists will gain access to road and rail connections for their two main strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk if they take control of Debaltseve.

No future

The rebels are trying to encircle the town, leading to fears of heavy fighting and casualties.

On Saturday, Kiev said there seemed to be a growing number of separatist fighters near Debaltseve.

More than 5,000 people have been killed since the Ukraine conflict broke out in April, when Russia-backed separatists took control of parts of the east in an attempt to create a state called “New Russia”.

France and Germany have urged the two sides to agree to a new peace deal after the recent fighting made it clear the September ceasefire had collapsed. Leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany will meet on Wednesday in Minsk, Belarus. 

However, locals such as Elina are not thinking about politics, but how to survive. She said many had worked at the railroad station in Debaltseve and were left without jobs when it closed.

“In Debaltseve, [there] will be no future – no schools, no work, and now the people have to start new lives,” said Elina. 

She said people did not want the Ukrainian fighters there, nor the Russia-backed rebels, and all they are interested in was peace.

The fighting had affected her four-year-old son who fled with her but remains silent because he is too scared to talk. “He [didn’t] know what was happening, he was really afraid … because someone was shelling the city.”

The United Nations said renewed fighting is putting the number of displaced at almost one million and while many have evacuated, many others are still trapped.

For those who managed to flee, leaving the town was fraught with difficulty.

People stand in line at a centre to register as an internally displaced person. The UN estimated there are almost 1 million IDPs in east Ukraine [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]
People stand in line at a centre to register as an internally displaced person. The UN estimated there are almost 1 million IDPs in east Ukraine [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

Irena Leluk, a railroad worker, said when she left Debaltseve she was afraid because the road out had been shelled. Leluk said she heard a story of how people were killed in their car while driving out of the city. The fighting, however, was too fierce to stay.

“They were always shelling, all day and night. During the day, we could be in the house. At night, we had to be in the basement.”

She said public transportation was not running and schools were shut down, a problem for her 7-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. The family will stay in Kramatorsk so the children can go to school.

Days of ‘hell’

Leluk is one of hundreds who have fled to the town of Kramatorsk, about 100km from Debaltseve.

Tanya Lugovaya, a volunteer at a centre for displaced people said there has not been an influx of such a large number of people since September, at the height of the fighting.

“In the last three weeks, we have welcomed nearly 1,000 people,” she said. People often arrive with just papers – a passport – without clothes or shoes. She said this is especially true for people fleeing Debaltseve.

While some rent apartments, others end up in a shelter in Kramatorsk run by the United Nations. Outside the two-storey building, men pack new mattresses into a van. At the entrance is a sign asking people not to shut the door loudly.

On the first floor is a room with 17 beds while an adjoining room has six.

Galina Berkovets fled the fighting from Debaltseve [Kristina Jovanovski] 
Galina Berkovets fled the fighting from Debaltseve [Kristina Jovanovski] 

On the second floor, a woman who did not want to give her name told Al Jazeera how she fled her home near the Donetsk airport, which was the centre of some of the fiercest fighting.

The most recent upsurge in violence started in January, as the rebels made a final push to gain control of the airport.

“The last four days … were really like hell, they were shooting all day,” she said.

While the shelter is a welcome relief for many, there is little privacy and new obstacles – such as finding work – await those who have fled.

“We really want to find a job and get money and get an apartment because, you know, new people are coming to this centre, then more and more people and you can see yourself [it’s crowded],” said the woman.

Also on the second floor, 59-year-old pensioner Galina Berkovets lives here with her three grandchildren while their mother is hospitalised in another town to get treatment for tuberculosis.

Berkovets escaped Mironovsky, about 20km from Debaltseve. She said the shelling started at about 5am and the family had to live in their basement for protection. “Without electricity, without gas … we didn’t shower for days.”

Berkovets said when she was leaving the city, she witnessed chaotic scenes with insufficient space on buses for the large groups that wanted to leave the town.

She described how before the conflict, her house was in a large field where children could play, but now it resembled a “scary farm” with no windows because of the shelling. While she hopes to return, Berkovets said she does not know what will be left.

“We are hoping everything will be alright and Ukraine will be reunited… [But] if we [have] war like this, we don’t know what will be.”

Source: Al Jazeera