Ukraine: Anger and anguish consume Donbas under constant artillery fire | International

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Terrified, Lubov Skoopenko stares wide-eyed at the massive scar on her apartment block. Sticky black smoke oozes from her hole. "This was a grenade launcher," says an officer as a group of firefighters struggles to extinguish the fire caused by the shelling of the Avdiivka building. There have been no deaths and the emergency services have taken several injured by smoke inhalation and toxic materials. Skoopenko is nervous. She is 70 years old and since her husband passed away she has been living alone for five years. She wants to enter her house. See if she's all right. She lives in the second, in the farthest wing from where the projectile hit very recently. “If it hasn't been this time, it may be the next one that takes us ahead. This is terrible,” she laments, her eyes bright and moist with tears.

The night has been especially intense in Avdiivka, in the Donetsk region, in the eastern Ukrainian area of ​​Donbas. It is the worst that the neighbors remember, who have lived for eight years in one of the hottest areas of the war in the East, in the middle of the line of contact that separated, in a long line of trenches, the Ukrainian Army and the separatists through of which Moscow controls part of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Lugansk. Now, in this new phase of the invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which the most recent objective has been to take all of Donbas and southern Ukraine, after the failure of the offensive on kyiv, Avdiivka is under constant artillery fire, with the Russian Army concentrated a few kilometers from the city. Air strikes have also intensified in recent days, says Vitali Barabash, who heads the Avdiivka military administration.

The pounding of shelling echoes close by as Skoopenko opens the door to his apartment, without water and without heating, like the entire city where electricity comes and goes intermittently. The crystals are fine. The piano, too. There doesn't seem to be any major damage. The woman, who leaves her gray cap with glitter inside the house, lights the kitchen fires from time to time to keep warm and the smell of gas permeates the house a little. Spring has sprung and cherry blossoms contrast with the destruction on almost every street—new and old attack scars—but despite the greenery and the timid sun, the nights and early mornings are chilly. “Look how we live. There is no right, ”she laments. She is a music teacher and until 59 days ago, when Russia started the war, she continued to give classes to complete her meager pension. She no longer has students.

Members of the security forces outside a building bombed minutes earlier in Avdiivka, this Saturday.Albert Garcia (THE COUNTRY)

Putin has not made significant progress in this new phase of the invasion, although he has taken control of several small towns and villages in the east of the country in recent days and is besieging many others. Seeks to make them tiny Mariupoles, besieged points, with hardly any communications, without supplies and under constant attacks to force the troops stationed in those areas to capitulate. The Governor of the Ukrainian region of Lugansk, Sergei Gaidar, has been asking citizens to leave that area for several days.

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The battles, especially along the almost 500-kilometre contact line around which Ukrainian troops remain entrenched in defensive positions, are expected to be bloody on very flat and muddy terrain, military analysts have anticipated. The war has entered a time, moreover, in which the ups and downs and exhaustion also play an increasingly substantial role.

The kyiv and Western espionage services maintain that Moscow's objective in taking Donbas is to advance from the southeast - which they control in the absence of completing the capture of Mariupol - through the Zaporizhia region and, on the other hand, from the town of Izyum, already taken by Russian forces, to the south. In its offensive against Donbas, a mining area and very rich years ago, which has now become an area strewn with poor and almost ghostly cities, the Russian Army tries to involve the Ukrainian forces in a pincer movement with this strategy.

The Kremlin has also stepped up bombing in the south of the country. This Saturday, five people have died, including a three-month-old baby, in a Russian bombing against a residential area of ​​the city of Odessa, on the Black Sea, according to President Volodímir Zelenski's chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. An attack with two missiles, in the middle of Orthodox Easter celebrations. “Nothing is sacred”, Yermak has said on his Telegram channel, “evil will be punished”. It is on the southern flank, where it seeks to seize Ukraine's access to the sea, that Russia has achieved its greatest victories after taking Kherson — the only provincial capital in its hands — at the beginning of the two-month-old war. Moscow controls the Sea of ​​Azov and has seized a large swath of land linking Ukraine's Crimean peninsula - which it illegally annexed in 2014 - with Donbas. The only focus of resistance is the Azovstal steel plant, in the destroyed Mariupol, where dozens of civilians take refuge in underground tunnels, according to the authorities, and Ukrainian forces remain entrenched.

Emergency teams rescue a woman after the bombing of a residential building in Odessa, this Saturday.
Emergency teams rescue a woman after the bombing of a residential building in Odessa, this Saturday. HANDOUT (AFP)

It is noon in Avdiivka. Time to run errands. To collect water. From trying to get past the only three stores open in town. Sergei Trubachev has already taken a short tour of the center and has taken the opportunity to fill a jug of water that he has loaded on his battered bicycle. His wife calls his mobile every few minutes to ask where he is going. The sound of her attacks has her in anguish, says the retired miner. Trubachev would have left the city with his family many days ago, but he explains that he has a disabled daughter and the evacuation of the entire family is “very difficult”. “Also, where are we going to go?” he poses with a sad half smile that reveals a pair of golden teeth.

The exodus has been enormous: of the 30,000 people who lived in Avdiivka before the war, only about 6,000 remain, according to local authorities. Most of those who stay are older people who don't want to leave the house they've lived in for most of their lives. Like Skoopenko, who has a daughter in kyiv and a grandson in the city of Donetsk — some 25 kilometers from Avdiivka, which was once his dormitory town — controlled for eight years by the Kremlin through the separatists. She doesn't talk to him much these days, she says. But he is young and he is worried that he will be taken away and forcibly recruited to fight alongside Russian troops and under separatist symbols, in one of those trucks with the gloomy white Z painted on them that burst through the asphalt in occupied cities. .

With the constant artillery fire and the painful nights, many people have settled almost permanently in the city's shelters. In the center, in one of the largest, in the basement of a building a few meters from a school attacked two weeks ago, a group of angry women cry out against the government. "I don't know who does good and who does evil, what I do know is that we are under bombs here," says one with short brown hair, dressed in a gray tracksuit. "We've been like this for eight years. We want peace, not politics. Part of the fault lies with the government that has provoked Russia, ”says another, which shows that she lost two fingers of one hand in a bombing in 2014, at the beginning of the Donbas war.

Several neighbors fill water bottles in Avdiivka this Saturday.
Several neighbors fill water bottles in Avdiivka this Saturday. Albert Garcia (THE COUNTRY)

On the outskirts, even closer to the line of contact and Russian positions, Ludmila Kozak says that she has no refuge in her building. She lives on the tenth floor, so when the attacks get worse she goes down to the hallway on the second floor, where some neighbors have put some chairs and an old sofa. In the beehive of flats where she lives there are only about twenty people left, says the woman, adjusting coquettish horn-rimmed glasses. She has been retired for a long time. She used to work in a nearby factory and now she tries to get by on some humanitarian aid and what little she can buy in Avdiivka. “Everything is shot. Here we have prices of the capital. And that's not the worst thing, the worst thing is that the ATM doesn't work and I can't get the pension, ”she says. "If we don't die for one thing, it will be for another."

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