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Civilians Caught In Crossfire: Safer to stay home or leave?

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Aug. 14, 2014, 11:24 p.m. | Ukraine — by Christopher J. Miller

A boy and a dog look out from a bus stopped at a checkpoint between Kramatorsk and Sloviansk on Aug. 7. Casualties in Russia’s war against Ukraine are on the rise, with nearly 2,000 Ukrainain soldiers and civilians killed. Moreover, nearly 300,000 people have fled the war zone in the east for Russia, Russian-occupied Crimea or other parts of Ukraine.
© AFP

Christopher J. Miller

Christopher J. Miller is an American editor at the Kyiv Post. He is also a regular contributor to Mashable, and has written for GlobalPost, The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent and others. A former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer (Artemivsk, Donetsk Oblast, 2010-2012), he can be reached at millerjchristopher@gmail.com.

DONETSK, Ukraine – A supporter of Kyiv’s government with a house in Donetsk’s western Hrabari district, Anatoliy spent the past 10 nights sleeping in a cellar not wide enough for him to stretch his arms and legs. His dog, Barsik, alerts him by howling when the shelling begins. They’re less than a mile from the front lines.

Anatoly, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals by Kremlin-backed separatists, runs to the dark space 10 feet underground and curls up in the fetal position. The walls of the cellar are lined with shelves stocked with sausage, salo and preservatives, and his makeshift bed there is merely a thick piece of styrofoam with a sleeping bag laid over the top.

He is one of the few residents in his Donetsk neighborhood who decided to stay behind. Hundreds of thousands of others have skipped out of the regional capital with a pre-war population around one million residents.

On Aug. 4, Kyiv announced that it would open “humanitarian corridors” from Donetsk and Luhansk for people like him to escape to safety. 

A woman whose home was shelled near the green corridor in Donetsk suffers a serious wound to the shoulder. (Christopher J. Miller)

But leaving the war zone might be trickier than it sounds. For one, the insurgents say they have no clue about these green corridors. Also, the designated routes are dangerous to navigate, as the Ukrainian army, which has been tightening its circle around Donetsk and Luhansk in the course of the anti-terrorist operation, randomly shells them.

Luhansk’s regional government said on Aug. 12 that nearly 5,750 people had nevertheless fled via a northern corridor since it was opened. As many as 2,160 residents passed through in the past four days alone, it said.

“In particular, 697 of these people left for the community of Shchastya in 128 vehicles on Aug. 8, 752 people in 132 vehicles on Aug. 9, 360 people in 70 vehicles on Aug. 10, and 351 people in 77 vehicles on Aug. 11,” according to the administration.

Oleksandr Omelchuk, a spokesperson for Donetsk Oblast Governor Serhiy Taruta, says the corridor in Donetsk is also open. It’s supposed to be safe for passage between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day.
“As far as I know, people can cross this border from Donetsk in any direction,” Omelchuk said by phone from government-controlled Sloviansk, a former separatist bastion.

But a visit to the Kyiv-designated corridor in Donetsk on Aug. 12 proved particularly precarious. Manning a block post on Petrovskoho Street, a shopkeeper-turned-separatist fighter named Sergey gestured to the road ahead, towards the towns of Marinka and Dachnoe, and then and beyond.

“Some people tried to get through, but they returned after reaching Marinka,” he said.
The town, some 20 miles (more than 30 kilometers) from Donetsk, was the scene of violent clashes between Ukrainian and rebel forces last week. In the end, the Ukrainian troops pushed the rebel fighters back into Petrovsky and reclaimed the city.

But it came at a high cost. More than a dozen civilians were killed when shells crashed into apartment buildings and courtyards. And those buildings that were not blasted by rockets are riddled with bullet holes. Marinka is empty now after residents fled, leaving only feral dogs to roam its cratered streets, which are usually closed to through traffic.

The one-mile stretch of asphalt between its entrance and Petrovsky – its neighbor to the east through which the corridor cuts – is now a no man’s land where civilians aren’t allowed to pass.

At the eastern-most exit of Petrovsky, drivers looking to escape the chaos are greeted by a hastily erected roadblock of dining tables and park benches flipped on their sides, and a sign that reads “Mines.”

When the Kyiv Post visited on Aug. 12, two cars were turned back at the roadblock. One carried a woman who suffered a stroke and was not allowed through. She was taken back to her home after a taxi failed to get her to a hospital where she could receive treatment.

Pavel, a 38-year-old former Ukrainian army officer from central Ukraine who is now a commander in the rebel militia, said his men had blocked the road, “because the Ukrainian army shells it almost every day.”

But Svyatoslav Tsegolko, a spokesperson for President Petro Poroshenko, told the Kyiv Post that the National Security and Defense Council informed him “any shelling along the green corridor is done by terrorists.”

Both sides have artillery in their possession and are using it. While the Kyiv Post could not confirm that Ukrainian forces had fired the shells that hit the Petrovsky district, the angle of the impact shows that they were shot from a westerly direction, where government forces are positioned.

On both sides of the street near the roadblock, shells have plowed into the earth and crashed into more than a dozen homes.

“I was watching television when I heard a shell flying,” said 21-year-old Tatyana, who lives with her mother and grandparents in a home about 200 feet (60 meters) from the designated humanitarian corridor.

With the rocket’s distinct whistling sound coming in her direction – a noise she has come to recognize since they began pounding her neighborhood last week – she pulled the plug on the television and shouted for her mother to recite the prayer they had printed on a sheet of paper resting on the coffee table.

“She only got to the first word before the rocket hit,” she said. “It was like a war film.”

The shell exploded in the family’s yard, sending shrapnel flying through the walls of their home. The metal fragments shattered every window on its south side and struck Tatyana in the neck. Other pieces sprayed the legs and back of Nikolai Petrovich, her grandfather, who had been laying down on a bed at the time.

A woman whose home was shelled near the green corridor in Donetsk suffers a serious wound to the shoulder. (AFP photo)

A Soviet army colonel in Russia’s Vladivostok for 27 years, Nikolai said he had never been in combat, nor had he seen a shell explode. “This is my first experience in a war,” he said, pointing to the dozens of tiny punctures across his body.

A larger piece struck his wife, also named Tatyana, in the left shoulder, leaving a deep hole surrounded by a blackish-purple bruise.

With ambulances unable to get through the surrounding roadblocks, the family was left to treat their wounds themselves. “I repeated my prayer to stop the bleeding,” grandmother Tatyana said.
With nowhere to go, the family – along with thousands of others – is praying that they might ride out the war without anymore shells hitting their home.

Back at the roadblock, Sergey, the rebel fighter, granted permission for a taxi to drive toward Donetsk from Petrovsky. “It’s not a concentration camp. You can go freely,” he said. “But only this way.”

Kyiv Post editor Christopher J. Miller can be reached at miller@kyivpost.com and on Twitter at @ChristopherJM.

Editor’s Note: This article has been produced with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

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