Residents of retaken villages in eastern Ukraine who have experienced Russian occupation and near-constant shelling say they now feel “abandoned” by Ukrainian officials and still lack running water, gas and electricity.
In the Donbass region, the villages of Yampil and Zarichne, recaptured by Ukrainian troops at the end of September, still bear the marks of heavy fighting.
Many houses are destroyed, and the forest around Yampil is filled with charred pine trees and wrecked armored vehicles.
Those who have stayed in their homes in this predominantly Russian-speaking region are mostly elderly.
They say they are still fighting even after the Ukrainian troops returned.
In Yampil, Nina Marchenko, 72, told AFP that a rocket damaged her house during the fighting.
It “went through the roof, through the wall and destroyed the ceiling of the underground storage room,” she says, although happily she and her family were taking shelter at a neighbor’s house at the time.
Marchenko, their 50-year-old son Andriy and his wife Lyudmila have since returned to live in their house and repair the roof themselves.
“We were told that we shouldn’t wait for the local authorities to start doing this,” says Marchenko.
One bedroom is unusable because “water leaks everywhere” when it rains, she says.
The family is crammed together in the kitchen and living room, the wallpaper is peeling off the ceiling due to water damage.
– ‘We beg for bread’ –
The money in the family bank accounts is no help.
They still can’t pull it back, despite the authorities’ efforts to restore some normality.
The family lives on noodles and rice, sometimes on canned meat or pie when they receive humanitarian aid.
They haven’t had electricity since April.
It’s too dangerous to gather wood in the forest because of the land mines, so the family searches nearby ruined houses for fuel for their stove, which is used for both heating and cooking.
Luckily they can still draw water from their well.
“Six rockets fell into the garden. They weren’t Russians, they were Ukrainians,” says Andriy.
His mother has a wish for the future.
“I just pray to God, ‘Please stop the war.’ I don’t want anything more than that,” says his mother with tears in her eyes.
To the south, in a field in Zarichne, three women and a man have filled a wooden box with around two dozen freshly dug potatoes.
All refuse to give their names.
“We don’t believe anyone. Everyone lies to us. Russia lies, Ukraine lies,” says a woman who wears a blue scarf over her hair.
“Everyone promised us mountains of gold. But in the end we were let down,” she says.
“So we beg for bread. We go to the soldiers and ask ‘Give us bread’. The authorities are nowhere to be seen. They are afraid to come here because of the shelling.”
A strike destroyed the house where her two young grandsons lived, she says, although they survived and have now moved away with their parents.
“It was the Ukrainians who fired those rockets … There were no Russians here,” says the woman, claiming that only separatist fighters were at a checkpoint.
– Unexploded Cluster Bomb –
Across the field, 37-year-old Sergiy points to a small gray top hat lying on the ground in front of his house.
A small white flag is planted next to it.
The cluster bomb landed in strikes on November 3 without exploding, he says. He asked the local authorities to come and take it away, but they still haven’t come.
His two daughters, aged 5 and 8, are only allowed to play in the house.
“Most of the time they stay inside. Sometimes they go out – but with us,” he says.
The authorities “promised to pay, but no one has paid. They don’t even provide humanitarian aid, and we’ve been free for a month,” he says.
Local authorities are not repairing damage to private property and have postponed most public works until spring as winter approaches.
Explosions still echo in the valley: the front line is only ten kilometers to the east.
“The Russians are banging on the bridge over there,” says Sergiy, pointing to the river that flows past the village.
From there the road leads east to the small town of Kreminna, around 20 kilometers away, which the Ukrainians are trying to recapture from the Russians.