Ukrainians in rebel east brace for winter among the ruins

Farm worker Vitaly digs wearily at the cold earth in the half-ruined village of Stepanivka in war-torn eastern Ukraine.

“I will plant something in spring — if I survive until then,” the 62-year-old sighs.

Around him, the scars of heavy fighting that left dozens dead in this tiny mist-shrouded hamlet over the summer are everywhere to see.

“At the point that we’ve reached now, everything has to be rebuilt,” he says, leaning on his shovel and casting an eye over his damaged house.

The building has partly collapsed and he has tried to fill in a hole in one wall with a rusty sheet of metal before the inevitable snows come.

Torn electricity cables trail across his beetroot plot and past a mortar casing: like a third of the roughly 1,300 residents here, Vitaly is without electricity.

The days have already began to drop below zero. It is minus two degrees Celsius now and temperatures in winter can go as low as 20 below.

Trapped in the conflict zone, residents here are forced to rely on supplies from the rebels running the area to help them through the harsh months ahead.

“We received some warm clothes and food,” says Zimalina, 16, who lives in a one of the few untouched houses with her parents.

The separatist authorities — sitting upon huge deposits in this industrial region — have promised “free coal” for those living under their control, she says.

– House intact, heart broken –

Around the village, some people work with hammers to try to restore their tattered homes. Many residents have left and not yet come back to see the devastation.

A group of technicians, who say they have been sent by the separatist authorities, connect electricity cables to the house of a frail lady as she watches.

Raisa Savchenko, 67, says she fled the fighting but then returned to find her home badly damaged.

“There were no windows and no roof” when she got back, she says, and the “ceiling had collapsed.”

A son came from Russia to try to work on the repairs, she says, as the smell of boiling potatoes fills her kitchen.

In each room she has supplies for the winter piled up: cabbages, nuts and jars of pickles.

“I also have coal,” she says.

Nearby, Yury Pozishenko’s house may still be intact but his heart is broken.

He says he cries every day for his son, Sergei, who was killed in a Ukrainian offensive in late July on the village.

Sergei had been trying to move his car to a safe place as the shelling got nearer. A sniper shot him, his father says.

“He tried to get up but he could not. He died in our arms in five or ten minutes.”


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