Nervous Ukrainian villagers “fear big war will start”

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Halyna Moroka and her husband, Serhii, rest at their home in the village of Nevelske, eastern Ukraine, on Friday, December 10, 2021. The 7-year conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces has practically emptied the village. “We got used to the bombing,” said Moroka, 84, who stayed in Nevelske with her disabled son. (AP Photo / Andriy Dubchak)

PA

Liudmyla Momot wipes away tears as she searches for clothes and household items to salvage from the ruins of her home bombed by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

His village of Nevelske, northwest of the rebel-held town of Donetsk, is only about three kilometers (two miles) from the line of contact between the separatists and the Ukrainian army and has been emptied of all but five people.

Small arms fire is heard frequently during the day, giving way to light artillery explosions and mortar shells after dark.

With the bloody conflict now over seven years old, Ukraine and the West fear that an accumulation of armed forces on the Russian side of the border could lead to a full-scale invasion or resumption of hostilities.

Rebels have targeted Nevelske by bombing twice last month, damaging or destroying 16 of the village’s 50 houses and shaking the handful of nervous residents who remain.

“The worse the relationship between Ukraine and Russia, the more we simple people suffer,” said Momot, 68, who has worked on a dairy farm all his life.

Now without a house, “who could have imagined that? I was preparing for the winter, I was storing charcoal and firewood.

After the shell hit his house, Momot fled to a nearby settlement where his son lives. But anguish followed her there.

“We fear that a great war is starting. People are scared and have packed their bags, ”said Momot, who picked up blankets, warm clothes and other items from the debris.

The conflict in the eastern industrial heartland known as Donbass erupted in April 2014, weeks after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula following the ouster of the former Ukrainian president who was friend of Moscow. Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of supporting the rebels with troops and weapons, but Moscow says the Russians who joined the fight were volunteers acting alone.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in fighting that has driven more than 2 million people from their homes in the east.

When the conflict broke out, Nevelske had a population of 286. Today, the five elderly people who remain in the ruined village collect rainwater for drinking and cooking. Between humanitarian aid expeditions, they depend on the consumption of stale bread.

“We got used to the bombing,” said Halyna Moroka, 84, who stayed in Nevelske with her disabled son.

A 2015 peace deal brokered by France and Germany ended large-scale battles, but frequent skirmishes continued. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring the precarious ceasefire, has reported an increasing number of such incidents, with both sides exchanging blame for violations of the truce.

“The security situation along the line of contact is still worrying, with a high level of kinetic activity,” said earlier this month Mikko Kinnune, the OSCE representative for the group which includes representatives of the Ukraine, Russia and the rebels.

Amid the recent build-up of Russian troops, Washington and its allies have warned Moscow that it will pay a high economic price if it attacks Ukraine. Moscow denies having such intentions and accuses Ukraine of wanting to regain control of rebel-held territory, which Kiev has rejected,

Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the West to provide guarantees that NATO will not extend to Ukraine or deploy alliance forces and weapons there, calling it a “red line” for Moscow. The United States and its allies have refused to make such a commitment, but US President Joe Biden and Putin decided last week to hold talks to discuss Russian concerns.

Geopolitical threats echo in Nevelske on the rare occasions the village has power, allowing its remaining residents to watch the news on Russian television.

“We don’t want war!” Exclaimed Kateryna Shklyar, 75, who shares her fears with her husband, Dmytro. Their daughter and grandchildren live near Krasnohorivka, a Ukrainian-controlled western suburb of Donetsk.

“How long will this torment last?” Shklyar asked. “It has worn our souls and our hearts. You can’t call it life, but we’ve got nowhere to go.

Aid groups are providing basic supplies in Nevelske and other villages and even trying to provide housing in safer areas, but their resources are limited.

“I’m just surviving every day, trying to make it until evening, and my soul hurts,” said Moroka, who lost vision in one eye but couldn’t get any medical help.

“We are afraid,” she added. “It’s really scary to sit here and wait for death. It’s horrible!”

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Yuras Karmanau reported from Kiev, Ukraine.


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