Civilian Blood Stains Donetsk’s Streets
Increasing violence in Ukraine’s east means civilians have fewer and fewer places where they can feel safe.
DONETSK, Ukraine—Lena Parshikova should be at school on Friday afternoon like any other 16-year-old. But classes were cancelled in her district because a bus was hit by shelling a short drive from her home on Jan. 22. Standing in her kitchen, she grabs her little sister and shows how she covered her when she heard the shelling.
“Everyone was lying on the floor,” she said. “The situation [is] worse, it used to be a quiet area.”
The bus was hit in Leninsky district of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, which is far away from the frontlines and not close to the center of the city. A United Nations Security Council statement on Thursday said as many as 15 civilians were killed and 20 injured in the shelling.
The next day, pedestrians and drivers returned to the same road. The only signs of what had happened were some pylons and a small group of city workers.
But Thursday’s attack wasn’t the first. Earlier this month a civilian bus was hit by shelling south of Donetsk around a checkpoint. Increasingly, civilians are paying the price for the violence in the east, and in the last nine days, 262 people have been killed, according to the U.N. In total, more than 5,000 people have died since Russian-backed separatists seized control over parts of eastern Ukraine.
A stark difference this time, though, is the location. Since both sides’ forces are present at checkpoints, it is not surprising for them to be attacked. But according to locals, the area where the bus in Donetsk was attacked had not seen shelling. The attack is a bloody reminder of how few remaining areas remain untouched by the fighting.
Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko said there are 9,000 Russian troops in Ukraine, but Moscow continues to deny sending soldiers or weapons to the separatists.
A couple of months ago, fighting had decreased and a truce in December seemed to be the first successful attempt at a ceasefire during this conflict. Donetsk was inching towards some shaky sense of normalcy—at least one that was possible for a city taken over by rebels, many of whom are nostalgic for the Soviet era.
One of the city’s most popular bars re-opened, children attended shows at a downtown mall and young locals were enjoying the limited nightlife. But there were many exceptions—the bars were often filled with fighters still carrying their rifles and the majority of stores were boarded up.
The return of regular shelling is not a surprise to locals—many were expecting it after the holidays were over, but the intensity of the fighting is shocking, and with Russian-backed separatists rejecting peace talks on Friday, there is little hope of long-term peace for the region
Donetsk previously saw its worst shelling in the summer and much of the violence since has often been on the outskirts or suburbs, but the recent uptick in violence has hit the center of the city.
Just days ago, a building was hit about 500 meters from one of Donetsk’s main roads, which is still used by pedestrians and the location of one of the only working hotels in the city. Local resident Daniil Antonchik said he had not experienced this frequency of shelling.
“[It] never happened before,” he said. “All of this blew my mind.”
After he heard of the shelled bus in Leninsky district, he thought there was nowhere in Donetsk that was safe anymore, although he added that the fighting was less intense in the last couple of days.
The recent increase in fighting at least partly seems to be due to the rebels successful push to gain control of the city’s airport. It is so badly damaged, however, that it is hard to imagine a practical use for it now. However, the symbolic value of a win against Ukrainian fighters could embolden separatists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin put the blame for the increased violence on Ukraine on Friday, saying Kiev had ordered a large-scale military operation.
High school student Parshikova, though, is not thinking about politics but about how to remain alive.
She would like to leave Donetsk to attend school in the government-controlled area. However, she needs to obtain new Ukrainian government documents to leave the rebel-held territory and the process has been confusing for many residents here.
She also now fears that leaving the city is more dangerous than staying. The bus that was hit near a checkpoint was taking passengers between cities. This has made locals more fearful of travel and that is enough to make Parshikova stay for now, even with the upsurge in fighting.
“It’s more scary,” she said, “ but [we] get used to the shelling.”