A Ukraine City Under Siege, ‘Just Terrified of the Bombing’

Andrew E. Kramer, The New York Times

Every night, as darkness falls over Luhansk, the focus now of intense humanitarian concern and geopolitical intrigue, a cat-and-mouse artillery duel begins. In a neighborhood of high-rise apartments, residents can readily identify the hollow pops of mortars as they echo among the buildings. After that, rebel fighters can be seen hastily dismantling the weapons and hauling them away.

In a neighborhood of high-rise apartments, residentscan readily identify the hollow pops of mortars as they echo amongthe buildings. After that, rebel fighters can be seen hastilydismantling the weapons and hauling them away.

An hour or so later, the Ukrainian military'sresponse comes: the whistle and boom of incoming artillery shells,fired from guns outside the city, in a fruitless attempt atsilencing the rebel gunners.

Ukraine and Russia are now jousting over Moscow'sintent to send a 260-truck convoy of aid to Luhansk to relieve whatPresident Vladimir V. Putin called in a speech on Thursday a "majorhumanitarian catastrophe" here.

But to peoplestanding in the bread and water lines that snake through thestreets, life here is tough but far from catastrophic. In thepredawn, the city comes alive with pedestrians carrying plasticwater bottles, headed for the working fountains and grocery stores,on the assumption that fewer shells land early in the morning. Onegrocery had noodles, gum, sugar, eggs and vodka.

The only relief most people here seek is from theshelling, which goes on night and day.

"I have everything I need but peace," ValentinaSimonyenko, a retiree standing in line for water from a spring,said Thursday. Later, she said, she would buy bread. "Look around,everybody is just terrified of the bombing."

Luhansk is indeed a grim place, besieged and partlyabandoned, with no electricity or running water, where hospitalsare packed and the streets are patrolled by twitchy gunmen lookingfor spies.

But the shelling remains the greatest danger and themost trying aspect of daily life. The separatist governmentreported Thursday that 40 people had been killed in the shelling inthe previous 24 hours.

On the main boulevard, rebels tear about in trucksmounted with Grad rocket launchers, moving from one site to anotherinside the city, to avoid the inevitable return fire.

The Ukrainian forces are in the countryside allabout, dug into positions in the open steppe. In their trenches andarmored vehicles, they are all but impervious to even the mostintensive rebel shelling.

"If one side shoots from one place, then theiropponent will shoot back at that place," Dr. Gennady M. Buniyev,the director of a trauma ward here, said, choosing his wordscarefully and insisting on his neutrality in the conflict, as thewindows of his office shook from outgoing rounds.

The mortar crew operating inside the city in areascontrolled by the Luhansk People's Republic, a separatist group,was firing from just outside the walls of the hospital grounds.

In response this week, two rockets fired fromUkrainian-held territory smashed into the hospital yard, landingnear a maternity ward and a storage shed for oxygen bottles.Fortunately, the oxygen did not ignite.

"If it blew up, the whole hospital would have gonewith it," Dr. Buniyev said.

In the afternoon on a main street, where heatshimmered off the pavement and artillery boomed all about, the onlyvehicle in sight was a taxi creeping along with a driver so nervoushe later simply abandoned his passengers on a side road, leavingthem to walk to a hotel that lacked electricity and water and anyother guests.

Dr. Buniyev's clinic was treating 16 people forshrapnel wounds, including one man with a gaping head wound andfour patients with brain trauma from blast waves.

A bucket brigade carried water to the hospital;nurses boiled water on a wood fire in the yard.

Vladimir Demidenko, a surgeon, said trying to shooaway the mortar crew would be pointless. "They wouldn't listen tous," he said. "If we went to complain to them, they would killus."

The shelling has gone on for so long now, and thedestruction is so widespread, that it is hard to know where thelatest rounds landed in some neighborhoods, where blown-out glass,sheared tree limbs and craters are general.

Polina Ivanova, a resident of one ravaged area, wassympathetic to the rebel mortar crew. "Look how many civilians aredying," she said. "They are trying to protect us, and they havenowhere else to fire from. We are surrounded."

She stood on a stoop in the predawn with EkaterinaVladimirova, a neighbor who had a different opinion. "Both sidesdon't care about us," Ms. Vladimirova said. "For them, it's a game.One shoots that way, the other shoots this way, and simple peoplesuffer."

Oleg Romanov, 29, said he huddled in terror with hiswife and 1-year-old son in an apartment while "it booms all nightlong, and plaster falls from the ceiling." He then rises at 4 a.m.to take his place in a line for water, and make the rounds ofstores to hunt for groceries.

"The rebels fire Grads and leave, and then, ofcourse, the answer comes back to that spot," he said. "The rebelsare long gone by then, but people are still around."

Officials with the Luhansk People's Republic couldnot be found to comment on the tactic of firing from residentialneighborhoods, inviting return fire to them. At the headquartersbuilding, a teenager with a Kalashnikov standing behind sandbagssaid the press office was not open Thursday morning.

Luhansk, a sprawling, dusty industrial city where thenow-idle locomotive factory was a main employer, had a prewarpopulation of about a half-million. It is impossible to say howmany people have left; estimates range from a third to two-thirds.But many homes remain occupied. One woman said that 7 out of 10houses on her street were still full.

At the water lines, a community forms, and gossipturns to whether Russia has recognized the Luhansk People'sRepublic as an independent state, which it has not, and to whetherthe Ukrainians have broken into the city with ground forces, whichwas unclear on Thursday. Either of these developments might signalan end to their woes. Talk turns as well to looting, which iswidespread.

"There is no fire department and no police, andbesides, how would we call them, because no phones work," saidOksana Mamedova, speaking on a street strewn with uncollected,rotting pears.

"Life is scary," she said. "It's scary to go to thestore, and it's scary to stay in the house."

Andrew E. Kramer,The New York Times

Источник: https://en.censor.net.ua/r298194