Avdiivka, Ukraine – Within the ruins of his fourth floor apartment, Anatoliy Karabass slowly manoeuvres around the carpet of debris covering his once pristine floor. As he walks, a misstep yields a squeak. It’s the sound of a children’s toy left behind by one of his grandchildren.
Inside the apartment, it’s so cold that every breath he takes condenses as it leaves his body. The vapour trails off into the distance with his words. What was once a warm and comfortable home is now unlivable after a direct hit from a 122mm shell blew a hole in the exterior wall. The windows and the balcony were also ripped apart, effectively leaving a six-metre hole across his apartment, with only a few patches of brick between.
From the middle of his apartment, Anatoliy can now look out on to the tree line that sits just 500 metres away. Somewhere in that direction is the heavy gun that fired the shell which destroyed everything for which he had worked. The sounds of the intense fighting in that direction are still audible throughout the day.
“That poor old man,” says his 71-year-old wife, Elena Karabass, as she stares over at her husband, standing teary-eyed and distraught in his home. “He worked his whole life for his family, and now it’s all gone.”
Escalation in fighting
Several kilometres outside the nearly besieged town of Avdiivka, in Eastern Ukraine, on the morning of February 3, as the violence escalated here, seven Ukrainian military tanks, and scores of what looked to be freshly burned patches in the snow could be seen. They indicated numerous Ukrainian firing positions. The fighting had become exponentially more intense.
Later that day, Alexander Hug, the Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, would say that this level of fighting in Ukraine had not been seen since 2014-2015. Official reports stated that weapons banned long ago had come back in full force, including the terrifyingly lethal BM-21 multiple launch rocket system known as “Grad” or “hail” for the way it falls from the sky.
Evidence of the destruction was everywhere in Avdiivka.
Earlier that week, the shelling had taken out the town’s power, leaving residents without electricity, heat and water. Two makeshift humanitarian aid centres were set up in the town’s centre to help residents cope with the freezing cold temperatures, which hovered around -10 to -20 degrees Celsius all week.
It was at one of those chaotic humanitarian aid centres where Anatoliy and Elena first seek help from a Ukrainian rescue worker named Vladislav Gusyin. A weeping and frantic Anatoliy begs Gusyin, “My apartment has been destroyed, what do I do? Where do I go?”
The rescue worker directs Anatoliy and Elena to the city administration building, a short walk away in the tiny town centre. As they begin to walk, Gusyin tells Al Jazeera that he has seen many people as upset as Anatoliy this week, and Gusyin is feeling the pain himself that day, after the loss of one of his own men the night before. The 25-year-old was killed when shrapnel from a shell ripped through the ambulance he was in.
“He was just a 25-year-old rescue worker,” says Gusyin, referring to the colleague who had died. “He had a wife and a young child.”
At the city administration, Anatoliy and Elena gather with scores of others who had had their homes affected by the shelling. As with all the others, they are asked to file a report, filling out their address, their belongings, and a brief assessment of the damage.
“Damage? It’s gone. Everything!” shouts Anatoliy, as his wife takes over to fill out the paperwork. It will be the first of three reports they will file that morning, the mundanity of the paperwork keeps Elena calm and focused, but infuriates Anatoliy.
As they walk to fill out their next report at a police station a few minutes away, Elena explains that the couple had been sleeping in their daughter’s apartment on the first floor when the shell hit. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking to you right now,” she says.
Anatoliy recently had a heart attack, and so they decided to spend their nights in the first-floor apartment, rather than force Anatoliy to walk four flights of stairs. To accommodate her parents, their daughter had moved her own family into their dacha in a nearby village.
Her husband, walking briskly ahead, drops his pace and waits for his wife to catch up so he can share a thought. “Three years ago, they hit our neighbour! Three years ago. And now us. Can you believe it?” he says, completely exasperated at this point.
As he walks on, Elena tells us that on the first day of war in Avdiivka, June 27, 2014, their neighbour’s apartment was hit and destroyed. With their own, that makes four destroyed apartments in their building. As lifelong residents of Avdiivka, they have watched their town wither away and neighbours die in the last three years, but they have stayed put.
At the police station, the elderly couple has to wait patiently as others file their reports. Among them, police officers in full military camouflage and kalashnikov rifles mill about. In this frontline city, a regular police force will not suffice, specialised and highly militarised units are required.
Soon, they are ushered into a meeting room, where they sit with a district policeman, who opens by asking, “Elena Karabass, tell me what was destroyed.”
Elena looks back at the officer, thinks for a split second before throwing her hands up, “Everything!” she shouts.
In the dark room with low hung ceilings and badly scratched parquet floors, another officer sits by to witness the testimony. One dutifully takes notes from Elena and Anatoliy, who now sits with his head hung low. His mood switches from sombre to angry to annoyed every few minutes during the 20-minute long report.
The signs and sounds of war
The couple leaves the station to embark on the walk home, but as they leave the station steps, their daughter comes running. With tears in her eyes, she hugs her father and mother. She has yet to see the extent of the damage, and only knows what her father has relayed over the phone this morning.
Walking up to their building, the signs and sounds of war are all around. Debris litters the ground in a nearby building, where a woman was killed by the impact of a shell overnight.
At their own building, a flock of emergency workers walk about, inspecting the damage caused by the explosion in Anatoliy and Elena’s apartment. On the other side of the building sits another apartment which has been obliterated by a shell. From the street, passers-by can see right in through an enormous gaping hole.
Residents shout at journalists gathered around the building.
“Tell the truth! Tell them the Ukrainian army bombed us,” they yell.
Another resident dismisses their yelling and says to ignore them: “They only believe what Russian TV tells them to believe. Why would the Ukrainian army shell itself?” The rift in Avdiivka between neighbours who support the Ukrainian military and those who support Russia-backed separatists is omnipresent.
As they enter their apartment, and their daughter sees the damage for the first time, she once again breaks into tears. Anatoliy turns to her and says, “Look, the only thing left untouched is the sewing machine!”
Shortly afterwards, a trio of militarised police officers makes their way into the home. They are here to confirm what Anatoliy and Elena reported earlier at the city administration and at the police station.
One of them, 35-year-old Vyacheslav, rummages through the debris on the floor. He pulls something off the floor and opens it in the palm of his hand.
“It’s a 122mm. A gift from Russia,” he says.
As they leave, it becomes eerily clear that this is it for Anatoliy and Elena. After they have filed their report, this chapter in their lives has closed. There will be no insurance payout to get them back on their feet, no relocation – nothing. And for Anatoliy, he just wants one thing before he leaves.
“Come on honey, let’s take one more picture here,” he jokes to Elena. “As a memory of this!”
Through her tears, Anatoliy’s daughter falls into a little fit of laughter at her dad’s joke.