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This Is What It Feels Like To Be Trapped In War-Torn Eastern Ukraine
19 January, 2015

A unique glimpse inside everyday life amid the Russian-Ukrainian war.

A residential building after shelling, Donetsk. Photo by Natalie Gumenyuk

Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk recently returned from an undercover reporting trip to Donetsk. Gumenyuk is blacklisted in rebel-held territories and, like many Kyiv-based journalists, experienced difficulties entering into Ukraine’s war-torn eastern region. Over one week, Gumenyuk spoke with locals in the Donetsk area about how their lives have changed as a result of the ongoing conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian military forces.

A bomb shelter, Donetsk. Photo by Nataliya Gumenyuk

Five Months In A Donetsk Basement


Standing in the center of Donetsk, it’s possible to forget Europe’s biggest humanitarian crisis is just a few minutes drive away. But once inside the bomb shelters where many Donetsk residents have been forced to live, the reality is hard to forget.

As the separatist began to take grip on the city of Donetsk and surrounding areas, a slow exodus of residents began. When the city came under heavy shelling and bombing in July 2014, those who had money fled en masse. By mid-September, ongoing fighting had displaced more than 275,000 people within Ukraine, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.

The vast majority of Donetsk residents did not have the means to completely abandon their old lives and so they remained. Several thousand of these residents are now confined to the city’s basements and Cold War-era bomb shelters.

In this video, Gumenyuk visits one of these basement shelters and speaks with Ukrainians who had been living underground for months. Those who live underground are heavily reliant on volunteers who bring regular aid packages. The aid comes from donations made by fellow Ukrainians as well as international organizations.

 

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An entrance to a bomb shelter, Mariinka, Eastern Ukraine. Photo by Natalie Gumenyuk

 

Living In A Donetsk Bomb Shelter

 

Several miles away from the city of Donetsk, coal mines in the Petrovs’kyi district run the border between separatist and Ukrainian-held territories. Near them are a series of three Soviet bomb shelters that are now a safe haven for some Donetsk residents.

Damage from sporadic shelling has left some homes inhabitable and residents fearful of spending too much time out in the open. Some of the bomb shelter’s inhabitants come above ground only to wash and cook, fearful that the bombing could start again at any time

The volunteer group “Responsible Citizens for Ukraine” brings supplies to those who now live in the bomb shelters near the coal mines. To bring humanitarian supplies, volunteers have to remain independent of both the Ukrainian army and the separatists.

The first shelter Gumenyuk visits, which is located in the “Trudovska” mine, has approximately 70 people living there.

The majority of these people living there work at the mine and many have not received their salaries since August. Finding another job, outside of the area is nearly impossible: because of shelling public transportation doesn’t work regilarly. Additionally, some of the infrastructure in the city of Donetsk was destroyed by bombing, many companies have closed, while small business moved away.

Women at bomb shelter in “Trudovska” mine near Donetsk. Photo by Nataliya Gumenyuk


The third bomb shelter Gumenyuk visits is located in the basement of the local cultural building that used to host weekly band practices. One elderly woman, Valia, said she has a fever at night, but still visits her sick son at home everyday. Her family moved to Zhytomyr — city in the West of Ukraine, while her son can not be moved. Gumenyuk met Valia as she was returning to the bomb shelter . As the pair were speaking, the bombings intensified.


 

Another woman who also lives in the bomb shelter, Olia, said one blast had recently hit a nearby fence. There were no injuries, Olia said, but it was too close of a call.

Neither Olia nor Valia has received a pension since August: the women’s wallets are empty. They are ashamed to ask for help, but extremely grateful when it is offered. Both say they have very poor life but live as a family sharing what they have within the community.

“We have such a beautiful summers and autumns here. We hope that peace will return,” Olia said.
Outside of the bomb shelter, a thick layer of snow covers the empty shells and craters, but explosions can still be heard nearby. The sounds are unmistakable.

 

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Three Family Stories From Donetsk


In eastern Ukraine, near the town of Makiivka, Gumenyuk met with three families that are struggling to survive, their lives disrupted by continuous fighting.

Many of the residents in and around the town of Makiivka see no social benefits that they, by law, should receive. The government claims it can not deliver it to the area, while rebels are concirned with fighting but governing.

In one of the families Gumenyuk visits, there are two small children: one in first grade and the younger is 10 months old. They are being raised by their single mother, Natalia. The three live with Natalia’s elderly mother who registered for a pension outside of rebel-control area, but has not received money yet.

As a single mother, Natalia used to get social benefits from the government, but has not received anything since the summer. The family does not have any relatives who live outside of the conflict zone and so has no way to leave the area.

In the next family, there are three children who live with their mother, Svitlana and their grandmother. Svitlana is afraid to work her night shifts at the confectionary store. There have been night bombings in the past and she doesn’t want to leave her children alone in case of another bombing.

Svitlana said she has no money saved up to take her children out of the conflict zone.

When Gumenyuk visited, Svitlana was ashamed to ask for anything, saying there are people who are in worse situations. Svitlana said she could still manage with food from her parents’ garden.

The third family Gumenyuk visited is reliant on food brought to them by the local volunteer group, “Responsible Citizens.” Food- cabbage, potatoes, beets, buckwheat and oil- as well as toiletries and medicine have to last up to two weeks. Gumenyuk spoke with one of the family members, Natalia, who said her elderly mother, who has schizophrenia, has not received pension payments since the summer. Medication is exhorbinately expensive. Natalia, one of her mother’s two grown children, said the family has no relatives outside the conflict zone who could help.

The family only uses a single electrical bulb as light and leaves the refrigerator off in order to save money on electricity: they’ve run out of money.

These are a few examples of the humanitarian crisis that is ravaging eastern Ukraine. Aid distribution is a long process that inevitably favors those who are able to wait in lines and have time. This requires time and resources that the vast majority of residents not only in Makiivka, but also in other towns, do not have.

 

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When Leaving Is Not An Option For Many Eastern Ukraine Residents

The Ukrainian government has been criticized for cutting off pensions to eastern Ukrainian regions that are still under separatist control. The government insists they cannot safely deliver money to separatist held areas and so Ukrainians will have to re-register in areas under Ukrainian control to receive payments. However, this is nearly impossible for most Donetsk residents to re-register in another area. The city of Donetsk alone is home to nearly a million people. Furthermore, re-registering in pro-Ukrainian areas is a costly and time consuming process that would involve people passing through dangerous borderlands between separatist and Ukrainian forces.

 

Hromadske At Front Lines

From the EuroMaidan protests, to the annexation of Crimea, to the ongoing war in the Donbas region, Hromadske TV has been there to explain the situation to our viewers. We’re editorially independent- that means no money from oligarch, politicians, or the Ukrainian government- and we’re here to bring the news from the front lines to you.

 

Read A Multimedia Digital Story On Gumenyuk's Trip To The East Ukraine War Zone Here:

This Is How It Feels Like To Be Trapped In War-Torn Eastern Ukraine

produced by Maxim Eristavi and Katherine Jacobsen