'We are expecting war', say Ukraine frontline residents

Ukraine's town is once again on a volatile frontline following President Vladimir Putin's move to recognise the separatist self-proclaimed republics
Last Updated 22 February 2022, 18:38 IST

Ninety-year-old Raisa Simanovna still sleeps in her flat on the frontline in eastern Ukraine but goes down into the cellar in the daytime to shelter from the ever more intense shelling and mortar fire.

Located in territory held by Ukrainian forces on the border with the separatist Lugansk republic backed by Russia, the town of Schastya -- which means "happiness" -- has been a symbol of promise in a conflict which began in 2014.

Before it was closed down due to Covid restrictions, the bridge over the Donetsk, the river that flows through the town, was one of the rare crossing points between the two sides.

The town is once again on a volatile frontline following President Vladimir Putin's move to recognise the separatist self-proclaimed republics of Lugansk and Donetsk and order Russian troops in.

And the Soviet-era apartment block in which Simanovna lives is on a canal that connects to the river, right on that frontline.

"We are expecting war any hour, any minute," said the pensioner, her face wrapped in a scarlet-coloured kerchief as she descended into the cellar with an electric torch in hand.

The electricity, heating and water in her building have been cut off after shelling hit the town's power supply.

Like the few neighbours she has left, Simanovna has nowhere to go. Out of the 10 flats in her part of the building, only three are occupied.

In the night between Monday and Tuesday, the area came under fire and residents could be seen cleaning up the damage.

Valentina Shmatkova, 59, said she was woken up by all the windows in her two-room apartment shattering.

"We spent the war in the basement," she said while clearing up her flat, referring to the most intense years of the conflict between 2014 and 2016.

"But we weren't expecting this. We never thought Ukraine and Russia wouldn't end up agreeing.

"I didn't think there would be a conflict. I thought our president and the Russian president were intelligent and reasonable people," she said.

"I have one request: that they sort this out and we can forget about this misunderstanding!"

Asked what she thought of Putin's decision to recognise the separatists, Shmatkova laughed: "I have no idea what's going on, we have no light, no electricity, nothing!"

The shelling and mortar fire gradually intensified as the day progressed. Deafening explosions began shaking the walls and set off car alarms.

Black smoke could be seen billowing from the local power station after it took a hit.

"They're aiming for the bridge," one man said calmly as the ground shook under him, before lugging a heavy box to his 4x4.

Nearby, Daniil and his father sat smoking on a bench outside their home.

The younger man, who is unemployed, said he wanted to stay in Schastya despite the lack of jobs but Putin's speech would change things.

"They recognised the republics and, if they recognised the republics, that means there will be an escalation. And if there is an escalation, that means we have to leave."

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(Published 22 February 2022, 18:38 IST)

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