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'You Think It's Normal Carrying a Weapon in Here?': Divided Ukrainian Frontier Towns Brace for More War

VICE News reports from Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, a once unremarkable city transformed by a conflict that is now once again knocking at the door.

by Harriet Salem
Feb 12 2015, 11:12am

Photo via AP

A woman's body lies sprawled in the snow. Nearby, a monstrous 12-meter unexploded smerch rocket protrudes from the ground. The silent locals of Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine, gather to snap photos on their phones. They are in total shock but not surprised. 

War has been knocking at Kramatorsk's door for a long time, and local authorities told VICE News that more bomb shelters are now being prepared as fighting edges ever closer.

One year ago this was an unremarkable city. Built around a rail junction in second half of the 19th century, around 60 miles north of Donetsk, it became an important production center for machinery used in the coal mining and metallurgy industries. The city's architecture, mainly Soviet-era rows of identical concrete housing blocks, is typical of the region. Like most people from Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking east, Kramatorsk's residents were proud of their diligent nature, strong work ethic, and quiet lives.

All that changed on April 16, 2014, when armed men clad in balaclavas occupied Kramatorsk's administration building, police station, and a small military airport. Painting the entrance sign to the city in blue, red, and white — the colors of the Russian flag — the separatist forces declared it part of the so-called "Donetsk People's Republic," a few hundred square miles of land stretching to the Russian border.

The entrance sign to Kramatorsk in the spring partially repainted in red, blue, and white — the colors of the Russian flag. Photo by Harriet Salem. 

Government forces recaptured Kramatorsk, along with several nearby rebel-held towns and cities including Sloviansk and Artemivsk, in summer 2014 after several months of battles that claimed hundreds of lives.

The Ukrainian forces established military bases across the new front and opened a base for its "anti-terror operation" in Kramatorsk. In a highly visible display of patriotism local authorities hastily redecorated the towns in the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag. Even Lenin statues — a Soviet-era relic found outside most Ukrainian town halls — have not escaped the paintbrush.

After Kramatorsk and several other frontier cities and towns were recaptured by the Ukrainian military last summer, Lenin statues were painted in the yellow and blue of the country's flag. But below the surface there are deep divisions. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Yet the paint job has not managed to cover over the deeper cracks. Vika, 34, left Kramatorsk for a month during the summer with her 13-year-old daughter but returned after the Ukrainian army retook the city. Some of those who supported the separatists, including her ex-husband, have since fled to Russia or the rebel-held territory, she says, but many more have remained. 

"We all recognize the faces of people who cheered for them. It was maybe about 30 to 40 percent of the city. Most are still here, they're quiet for now but if they come back then they will support them again," she told VICE News.

In a dingy hotel lobby, a microcosm of the conflict plays out in a near-deserted bar. "You think this is normal carrying a weapon in here? Do you think you own the place?" a man sitting at the counter berates a Ukrainian soldier passing by. The soldier riles at the comment but says nothing. 

Several floors of the hotel have become a de facto barracks for the military, with armed men strolling around the lobby and riding the elevator. The squabble causes the usually cheerful waitress to suddenly break down in tears. "What are we to do when our only choices are Putin or Poroshenko?" she sobbed.

The feeling of fear and desperation in Kramatorsk has intensified in recent weeks as rebel forces near victory in the strategically important Debaltseve pocket less than 50 miles east of here. As the fighting edges ever closer the frontier town's populations have swelled rapidly as tens of thousands of people displaced by fighting in the rebel-held territories have arrived.

A mother cradles her child in a train carriage in Sloviansk where they are living with scores of other internally displaced families until they find permanent accommodation. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Often carrying little more than the clothes on their back and a few personal possessions, the new arrivals are nearly all dependent on humanitarian aid provided by NGOs.

Svetlana Kovalenk, 44, has been living with her five children and pet cat in a two tiny rooms in an Artemivsk high-rise since November. The family was forced to flee their home in rebel-held Gorlovka in November after heavy shelling destroyed part of their house and cut off water and electricity. Her 19-year-old daughter is pregnant and she is also caring for 6-year-old Ilya who has cerebral palsy and was left behind by his natural mother.

The basic accommodation funded by the UNHRC houses more than 300 people. Some residents, like the Kovalenk family, live semi-permanently in cramped private rooms while others pass through a transient dormitory downstairs. There is only one shower for the whole building.

Svetlana describes herself as a patriot but says she is at her wits' end. "I love my country. I'm proud to be Ukrainian," she told VICE News, while draping her daughter in the country's yellow and blue flag. "But our government has done nothing for us. Everything you see here is what we have. For our food, for our house, we depend on volunteers. The doctor says Ilya is very ill, he needs medicine but we have no money for it."

Outside, the boom of outgoing artillery fire echoes in the not-too-far distance. "Of course we're terrified that the war is coming here. How much more can we take? We'd like to move again but where?" said Svetlana.

Ilya, 6, has cerebral palsy and is being cared for by his neighbor after his mother left him behind. The family he lives with was forced to flee their home in Gorlovka after heavy shelling cut off water and electricity. Ilya's adopted mother told VICE News she has no money to pay for the medication he needs. Photo by Harriet Salem.

Others are less forgiving. "Nobody even came to tell us about the green (humanitarian) corridor. We just heard it was quiet outside and made a run for it," said Olga Ausudiskutsa, 45, who fled less than 48 hours ago with her husband, son, and 19-year-old pregnant daughter-in-law. "The government has just forgotten us. This is not a war, they are not shooting each other with guns, they are just having an artillery firing contest with each other and dropping it on our houses." The family, currently staying in a dorm room, say they have no idea where to go next

In nearby Sloviansk — once the heartland of the separatist movement and a city that the rebels have vowed to recapture — the situation is so dire that new arrivals, including families with young children, are being housed in crowded old railcar at the station.

Vera Kubryak, 88 was evacuated from heavy fighting in Debaltseve by volunteers in only her nightclothes. She is currently living in an old train wagon and has no identity documents with her. Photo by Harriet Salem. 

Vera Kubryak, 88, was loaded onto a bus by volunteers evacuating people from fierce fighting in Debaltseve wearing just her nightclothes. She brought nothing with her, not even her false teeth or identity documents. The pensioner, near totally deaf, remains in better spirits than many of her carriage companions, loudly informing everyone that she is delighted to be around young people again. Yet volunteers say that as she's on her own with no documents, they simply don't know what to do with Vera next, other than hope someone will claim her.

Back in Kramatorsk, as darkness falls crowds of people, many carrying suitcases and plastic bags of belongings, gather at the train station. The Poltov family, already displaced twice, is waiting for the 17.44 intercity to Kiev. "We'll stay with friends for at least a week, after that I don't know. We don't have much savings so we need to be careful how we spend it," Olga, a 35-year-old mother of three, told VICE News, while balancing a squawking budgerigar in its cage on top of their luggage.

Tugging at her mother's coat, 9-year-old Maria asks a simple question. "Mama, can we go home soon?" She gets no answer.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem