‘What do they want from us?’ As Russian forces amass, a Ukraine frontier town feels fear and despair | World news
Vera Basova stands by her house holding a local newspaper. The front page headline says Russia is bringing tanks to the eastern Ukrainian border. “What do they want from us? Why are they dragging those tanks here?” Basova asks her neighbour.
The 90-year-old worries she will have to go back to hiding in her basement to escape shelling in the war between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region that recently entered its eighth year and has taken more than 13,000 lives.
A massive buildup of Russian combat troops near Ukraine’s eastern border – the largest since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, according to Nato – and the effective collapse of a ceasefire have sparked alarm in the west that Moscow is preparing to invade. Joe Biden has urged Vladimir Putin to de-escalate but Russia’s threat on Saturday to expel a Ukrainian diplomat it accused of spying drew a warning of retaliation from Kyiv, further fanning tensions.
Basova lives in Marinka, a small government-controlled town just 23km south-west of Donetsk, a stronghold of the separatists and 80km from the Russian border. A pair of kittens jump on and off Basova’s wooden fence next to a cherry tree that has been wrapped with tape since a military vehicle bumped into it.
Donetsk’s mines and slag heaps are perfectly visible from Basova’s street, where nearly every house has signs of war damage. The neighbours’ children play outside to the sound of birds singing and gunfire and skirmishes in the distance. From time to time an armed Ukrainian soldier walks down the street.
Before the war, many of Marinka’s residents commuted daily to Donetsk for work and shopping. Battles raged for control of Marinka in 2014 and 2015. There was direct artillery shelling on the town centre and heavy casualties, civilian and military.
Basova recalls running away from “fireballs in the sky” and temporarily lost her hearing after suffering a concussion.
When the frontline stabilised and Ukraine’s hot war evolved into a simmering conflict, Marinka became one of the crossing points connecting government-controlled and insurgent-held sides of the Donetsk region. That was until the spring of 2020 when the pandemic closed the checkpoint and separated many families living on different sides of the so-called “contact line”.
Basova starts to cry as she talks about missing her daughter, who lives in Donetsk and has been unable to visit for over a year. Svitlana Derkach, Basova’s 50-year-old neighbour, feels the same: she hasn’t seen her newborn grandson in Donetsk. Derkach shows off a nicely packed teddy bear she made for the little boy.
“First, we got used to the war, but then coronavirus dealt us a new blow,” she says.
Derkach remembers bombs falling in her yard in 2016 and 2017. One of them killed her cat and another shattered the windows.
She tries not to let herself panic, she says, about what it could mean for her if Russia’s actions are not just sabre-rattling but the prelude to a full-scale invasion. “If something happens, I [will] just pull myself together,” she says.
In the meantime she seeds her garden with flowers and plans to bake paskas, the traditional cakes for Orthodox Easter in early May, with a new oven courtesy of a French humanitarian NGO.
After talks with President Macron in Paris on Friday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, called for a summit between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. Nato, the US and EU have all assured Ukraine of “unwavering” support for its “territorial integrity”.
But like most people in Marinka, Derkach has little faith that the west will help Ukraine if Russia invades. “Neither Europe nor the US needs us with our problems,” she says. But caught on the frontline of this conflict, Marinka seems to have been largely forgotten by the rest of Ukraine as well.
When the war began in 2014, natural gas supplies were cut and have still not been restored. Most of the town’s businesses were either destroyed by the fighting or ceased trading. Many of the fields in the agricultural hinterland are mined, which makes farming impossible. Drinking water has to be bought since the water in taps and wells is contaminated.
Local people now mostly rely on their gardens for food, though the military advise them to work outdoors before noon, when there are fewer risks of being shot.
“Life ends here in the second half of the day,” says Alina Kosse, 62, director of the local government-run Creative Hub, an arts and training centre. Kosse is regretful but realistic about the chances of economic revival or of anyone reinvesting in Marinka. It used to have a population of 10,000 but nearly half of the residents have gone, either evacuating in the crisis of 2014-15 or leaving the town in the aftermath.
Among those who remain, allegiances are divided and Kosse says she believes many local people are pro-Russian because they get their news from Russian TV and Ukraine has been unable to block broadcasts from Donetsk. Russian is the first language for most of Marinka’s inhabitants although Ukrainian can be heard spoken by some older people.
Kosse says explosives were thrown at her house because she helped the Ukrainian army. At the beginning of the war civilian volunteers donated new socks and underwear to the ill-equipped Ukrainian soldiers. Now help comes in the form of optical systems for weaponry and military drones. “Our army is incomparable to what it was in 2014,” she says. “If Russia dares to attack us again, it will bring about Russia’s end soon. Believe me.”
Increased defence spending by Kyiv and seven years of combat experience have transformed the Ukrainian army from the disorganised volunteer force it was in 2014.
In the courtyard of an abandoned house in Marinka, just 400 metres from the nearest military positions of the separatist forces, a Ukrainian soldier, who goes by the nom de guerre Kaba, is confident Ukraine will be able to resist Russia. “If our allies close the sky to Russian aviation and prevent Russian ships from attacking us in the sea, we will be able to fight Russia on the ground,” he says.
The 48-year-old sniper says his unit has Canadian and American rifles alongside Ukrainian weapons. They had also received training from British instructors. But he admits that they have been facing sniper fire from Donetsk since February which he believes is coming from highly trained and equipped Russian soldiers. “They have nasty combat lasers that burn your retina if they hit your eyes,” he says.
Kaba is from Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine and was originally an activist in the Euromaidan revolution which in 2014 forced the then president, Viktor Yanukovych, out of office. Russia subsequently annexed Crimea and backed the seizure by pro-Russian forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Snipers and landmines are now the most common cause of death in the war zone, Kaba says. In mid-March, a Ukrainian soldier was killed by a sniper bullet near Marinka, while there are regular reports of people killed and wounded along the frontline. Amid the ongoing escalation soldiers pay little attention to Covid-19 although they are now being vaccinated.
In the evenings Marinka is deserted apart from occasional groups of teenagers and stray dogs roaming the centre. A few men quietly fish at a local pond, ignoring the signs that it is mined.
Marinka’s old bakery was destroyed by shells in 2014. A charity-run bakery was opened in 2016 by a Protestant church and is one of the few functioning enterprises here, turning out 1,000 loaves of fresh bread every morning.
The pastor, Roman Riazantsev, 38, organises the dispatch of free or discounted bread and buns and says many of his parishioners are worried. Their windows are rattling from the shelling and they need to prepare bomb shelters again, they tell him. “People got used to it being quiet, they repaired their houses and now everything is coming back,” he says. “The fear they used to live in had faded and now it is returning.”
Basova survived the second world war and says she never thought she would have to endure another, even longer, war at the end of her life. When she hears shooting or shelling, she reads her prayer book to calm herself. “What do they want from us? Do they need money?” Basova says. “I will give them my whole pension to stop the shooting.”