Russia’s war ends revival of Donbas mining city of Ukrainsk

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Cyclists ride the streets of Ukrainsk in Donetsk Oblast on July 10.

UKRAINSK, Ukraine -- Some five years ago the little Donetsk Oblast coal mining city of Ukrainsk was experiencing a revival when its inventive mayor lured some 700 families from all over Ukraine with offers of free housing.

The newcomers invested some $180,000 altogether into the renovation of the abandoned flats they received for free from the city authorities.

The locals could easily find jobs in Donetsk provincial capital, some 25 kilometers to the east.But Russia’s war, which started in spring 2014 and has already taken more than 10,000 lives, put all these plans to the end.

Separatist-occupied Donetsk is, of course, cut off from Ukrainian-controlled Ukrainsk by the frontline. The daily buses that were bringing the locals for work in Donetsk stopped. So city residents are finding jobs only at the barely working Ukraina coal mine.

There are officially 12,000 people living in Ukrainsk, but its actual population is visibly less.

Now Ukrainsk looks like a ghost town, with half-abandoned, moldy-walled houses, trees and herbs growing wild and cats seen more often than humans on the streets.

“Young people left and old people died,” said Zoya Kasatkina, 80, explaining the emptiness.

Kasatkina arrived in 1969 from Russia, together with her late husband, who worked at the local mine. She still remembers the city as pleasant and green with many children.

Now Kasatkina survives thanks to her pension and free coal she receives as a wife of a former miner. She uses this coal to heat her flat in winter. Being cut off from the central heating for some 20 years, Ukrainsk is a hard place to live in winter without the proper heating amenities.

In summer, the poor drainage system provokes flooding the streets after every rain and provokes dampness and mold in the buildings.

Only three flats out of 12 have residents in Kasatkina’s house. They are occupied with three elderly ladies, who clean the buildings and area around on their own.

“The local authorities fired all the yardmen here because of lack of money,” Kasatkina said.

Located aside from the frontlines, Ukrainsk avoided any shelling.

But its residents often hear the distant artillery sounds from nearby Avdiyivka, Mariyinka and Novogradovka.

The military men often pass through the town without stopping.

So most information about the war the residents get from the TV — the Russian one received through the ordinary antenna or the Ukrainian one — broadcast via the more expensive cable network.

Some residents stills travel to Donetsk to see their relatives and many young people from Ukrainsk study there, Kasatkina said.

Her daughter and son-in-law in law, who work at the Ukraina coal mine, haven’t received their salaries for the last two months.The state-owned local coal mine is decaying.

It’s dangerous because of the high amount of explosive methane gas, but it’s the only working enterprise in Ukrainsk.

Irina Ilyukhina, a poorly dressed woman in her 30s, is sorry the mine hasn’t hired new workers for a long time. Ilyukhina used to work at a Nord, a Donetsk-based producer of household appliances. She remains unemployed since the connection with Donetsk has been cut off.She says it’s still possible to get a free housing in Ukrainsk and some internally displaced people go for it.

“But the flats they get are in a terrible state,” she said.

Ilyukhina and her brother were buying products at a kiosk. She said there is only one such store in the city- the 24-hour cafe Hollywood.

Nevertheless, most of the male locals spotted in the city on the recent Sunday afternoon were severely drunk.

In May 2014, the residents of Ukrainsk participated in a separatist-held referendum; in October 2015 they participated at the local elections. But neither authorities seemed to care about the slowly dying city, which is severely destroyed, even thought it has never been shelled.

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