‘I hear shelling’: Fear grips Ukrainian villages near Russia | Conflict News

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine – “I don’t want to live anymore,” says Olga, Babushka’s Ukrainian grandmother, as she prepares to celebrate her 89th birthday.

“I will turn 89 on January 2, but I’d rather die,” she told Al Jazeera, wearing a traditional headscarf draped over her head.

Olga lives on the front line in eastern Ukraine, in the town of Marinka, near the Russian border.

Olga, 88, at her home in Marinka [Sara Cincurova/Al Jazeera]

This is a government-controlled area, near the so-called “line of communication”, which separates it from the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Shootings have been reported here in recent weeks, and according to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, machine-gun and mortar fire was documented nearby in November and December.

Olga hears gunfire every night.

“I can’t sleep. The war has been going on for more than seven years. The calm has subsided, but now I hear bullets flying over my house every night. I wish my life would come to an end.”

Olga’s house is surrounded by signs warning of snipers and landmines.

The military allowed Al Jazeera to spend only 20 minutes reporting in the area, given the risks.

School children in Marinca leave school to go homeSchoolchildren in Marinca leave to go home after their lessons [Sara Cincurova/Al Jazeera]

The war that broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014 killed more than 14,000 people according to how and caused a massive displacement crisis, leaving only the most vulnerable people living in the war zone.

According to Sardan Stojanovic, Head of the European Union Humanitarian Aid Office in Ukraine, 3.4 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2021.

With the conflict continuing with no end in sight, even in the midst of high-level talks, the West is accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of massing more than 100,000 troops near Russia’s border with Ukraine.

He says that Moscow has the right to deploy its forces to Russian territory where it wants and denies allegations of planning an invasion. Meanwhile, Russia claims that NATO is expanding eastward and fears the alliance is getting closer to Ukraine.

With accusations flying across the border from presidential offices, security incidents have intensified since November.

On November 13, Masha*, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, was sleeping at her grandmother’s home in the village of Nevelsky – also in the government-controlled area, when the sound of shelling woke her up.

I found myself a victim of bombing again, as I did in 2014 when the war began. “I felt the same way,” Masha told Al Jazeera.

The whole village was destroyed. No deaths were recorded, but dozens were evacuated, including Masha and her grandmother.

The teenager now lives with relatives in a nearby village, a few kilometers away.

“But even now, I can hear the bombing every night. It wakes me up. I come to school tired every morning.”

Paintings in a children's school in NovomykhailivkaPaintings in school teach children how to avoid mines while playing outdoors [Sara Cincurova/Al Jazeera]

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA Ukraine) told Al Jazeera that settlements on both sides of the line of contact are hot spots.

Security incidents have recently been recorded in three settlements visited by the island: Marinka, Nevelsky and Beski.

For 16-year-old Nastya*, the fighting she hears near Nevelske brings back painful memories from when the war began.

“I had a little sister who had just been born in 2014 and not only was I afraid for my life, I was afraid for her life as well,” she told Al Jazeera.

“Since we now hear the bombing and shooting again, all the questions are constantly recurring: Will we survive? Will my little sister survive?”

Alyona Budagowska, a spokeswoman for People in Need, a frontline NGO, told Al Jazeera that at least 54,000 children live within 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) of the contact line in government-controlled territory.

“Most of the children we support live within 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of the line of contact and hear the bombing on a weekly or daily basis,” she said.

“Children do not feel safe when they are at home at night and while going to school. Access to underground shelters during the bombing also differs in different settlements.”

A child catches the school bus to take her home from school in PervomaiskyTens of thousands of children live within 15 kilometers of the contact line in government-controlled territory alone, according to NGOs active in the area, People in Need. [Sara Cincurova/Al Jazeera]

In the village of Novomykhaivka, about an hour’s drive from Pervomaiske, residents are accustomed to the presence of landmines and shelling.

Katya*, 16, told Al Jazeera that she heard an explosion on December 21 while on her way home from school where volunteers had recently painted drawings on the wall to teach young children how to avoid mines while playing outdoors.

Parents live in fear.

Alexandra and Evan, aged 87 and 89 respectively, say they feel “sad” whenever they hear the bombardment.

They remember an incident at the beginning of the war when their only son barely survived after their house was bombed.

“These days we hear heavy bombardment from the village of Pesci because we live on the other side of the same field,” Alexandra said.

Their house is located near the village of Fudian on the seam.

In late November, Pesci was hit by shells and bullets. Ivan and Alexandra heard the attack from their house.

“They bombed our friends’ houses; they even destroyed their latrines. People had to spend the night hiding in the basement. We remembered the day our son nearly died there, and we were terrified.”

“We are illiterate, we survived World War II and the Soviet famine in 1947. We thought we were not afraid.

“But for now, we pray every night before we go to bed, and then we pray in the morning again because we’re so glad we’re alive.”


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