Thursday, October 5
Al Jazeera’s Alex Gatopoulos travelled to four front-line locations in October. This is the first of four dispatches.
Our intrepid driver Denis is taking us to Huliaipole, a front-line town in southeastern Ukraine that has borne the brunt of recent fighting. Alongside me in the car are Al Jazeera correspondent Zein, cameraman Alasdair, our security consultant Luke and Dimi, our fixer extraordinaire, without whom we’d get very little done.
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A weary soldier manning a checkpoint pulls us over. The police are called, and a small car arrives to escort us the rest of the way to meet the town’s mayor.
We pull up to a door set into the side of a ruined apartment block. This is the entrance to the town’s aid centre, less than 1km (0.6 miles) from the first Ukrainian trenches. Life for the people who have remained here has moved underground. We head down a long flight of dark stairs and turn into a long corridor to find water filtration plants and hot water boilers for a row of showers. Chairs have been placed inside some of the stalls for those who can’t stand.
Farther along, a laundromat hums. There is even a salon where elderly ladies chat as they wait to get their hair done.
Inside a makeshift cinema, a keyboard and speakers sit to one side. A wall is dotted with children’s drawings of forests, flowers and Ukrainian flags. Someone has put up balloons. A canteen at the back of the space serves coffee and biscuits.
We interview the mayor, Sergiy Yarmark, who has helped set up this station and is proud of what has been achieved. People sleep in basements dotted all over Huliaipole but come here to wash, clean their clothes and preserve what little they have of their old lives.
Zein asks him what day hurt him the most. He tears up as he speaks of his best friend, who was killed nearly a year ago. A friendly yet sombre place, everyone here has similar stories, similar heartache.
Back on the street, only animal life is visible. Pigeons arc and wheel over the tops of gutted buildings, blackened by shelling. Below them, nothing remains of a burned-out shop that once sold children’s clothing but the sign.
We shelter from the sun in the shadow of a building. Dogs bask in the grass under trees that have begun shedding leaves.
The ever-present hum of generators – the only power source in the town – is the only sign that people still live here, tucked away in basements.
Most of the shelling happens at night. A man, taking advantage of the daytime lull, nervously carries a plastic bag full of laundry to the aid centre and heads downstairs.
The only other people outside crowd around the centre’s door. Policemen talk with villagers around a plastic tub full of old paper coffee cups. Every now and then, soldiers drive up for a chat with the canteen workers who have come up into the sunlight to smoke cigarettes.
We cross the main boulevard on foot. There is only eerie silence. A single bomb has smashed a building in front of us, the blast so powerful it shattered the structure across the road and shredded a line of trees. By the rubble is a tourist sign, virtually intact. It reads: “I Love Huliaipole.”
We are driven to an animal sanctuary where the windows are covered with United Nations-provided polythene sheeting. The building doubles as a clinic for local pets. We interview the owner of a dog who is being prepped to be neutered. Suddenly squeamish, I step outside. The smallest dog in the world trots past, blissfully unaware of what is happening to its compatriot.
Again, the generator hum – life is here.
The tempo of the outgoing artillery fire picks up from batteries nearby, and we decide to leave. An interview with the vet is wrapped up. An elderly woman emerges from the sanctuary to head back home on her bicycle. She opens up her shopping bag to show us the forlorn, neutered dog cowering inside.