“Shells can hit and destroy things but we will always rebuild. There’s no electricity, but we will find a way” says Natasha, manager of a social canteen set up to provide free meals to the hungry, just one hour after it was hit by a Grad artillery rocket on the morning of February 9th. “My girls are heroes”.
In that instant, a deafening blast ripped through the crumbling structure, once again sending plaster and half a dozen terrified volunteers onto the rubble strewn floor. Scrambling away from the windows, traumatized women were sent screaming, cursing, and praying for their lives.
This was my second trip to Pervomaisk, a rebel-held town on the border of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic. An intense and protracted artillery bombardment has forced more than three quarters of the town to flee, whilst many of those who remain have been confined to dark and cramped cellars and bomb shelters for months.
Finally, the barrage stopped, having destroyed the neighboring building just 20-30 meters away and shattering every windowpane in a school on the opposite side.
“Run, run- bomb shelter!”, screamed Pasha, our guide and a member of the Kazaki National Guard.
Immediately we sprinted across the cratered courtyard and into a Soviet-era bomb shelter; except for Natasha, who stayed above ground to relay information about her volunteers to their families. Pasha also waited outside the safety of the bomb shelter until the noise of the incoming rockets subsided, despite sickeningly high levels of personal risk.
Electricity is almost non-existent, gas pipelines to many neighbourhoods have been ruptured by rocket and howitzer strikes, and the town is without water. Some initiatives set up by the late mayor Yevgeny Ishenko provide basic amenities to the remaining population are still in place, including water delivered to bomb shelters by a small and aging fleet of Soviet-era tankers.
Another initiative provides bread. On the previous trip to Pervomaisk I witnessed a bread delivery, and the sight of elderly women and desperate children queuing in the cold to receive a handout of half a loaf of bread evoked a unique sense of sadness and anger.
The bombardment had seen a lull since the fragile ceasefire that followed the Minsk Protocol on 5th September, and residents had begun to emerge from their subterranean dwellings. But that tentative lull has long since been shattered and daily strikes have resumed. Precise figures for the number of dead are impossible to obtain, but the incumbent vice-mayor of neighbouring Stakharnov, Sergey Kiselyov, quoted the figure of 787 by the time of the September 5th Minsk Protocol, before the renewed surge in violence in January. He now estimates that as many as 1,000 civilians may have been killed in Pervomaisk alone.
Although the town is predominately civilian, its frontline location has seen it play host to intensive activity by separatist forces of the Lugansk People’s Rebublic. Howitzer batteries can be heard firing from the outskirts of the town whilst armoured vehicles and personnel move freely through the centre. This may explain why the town is so often targeted by Ukrainian forces stationed in nearby Popasna, less than 10km away to the west. But military positions are seldom struck while entire apartment blocks are levelled on a daily basis.
Photo and Video Credits: Maximilian Clarke