From her roadside stall in eastern Ukraine, Svetlana Tsymbal watches the cars creep past the Mayorsk checkpoint. This used to be a peaceful provincial highway. Now it is a border crossing at the front line of a conflict that has left some 10,000 people dead. Parents return home “to the other side” after visiting children. Pensioners cross to receive payments on Ukrainian-held territory. Traders lug supplies and sometimes contraband back and forth. The road is lined with mines.
It has been nearly three years since Russian-backed separatists seized chunks of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Minsk agreements, signed in February 2015, envision Russia returning control over the border and withdrawing its troops, and Ukraine holding local elections and granting the occupied territories “special status”. A stretch of relative quiet in 2016 raised hopes of progress. But in late January, combat erupted around the industrial hub of Avdiyivka. The fighting has slowed, but the outbreak showed how intractable the conflict has become. “How can we go back to the way things were?” asks Ms Tsymbal. “Blood has been spilled.”