School #110, on the edge of the Petrovka district of Donetsk, looked abandoned. Most of the school’s windows were blown out by regular artillery fire. An old woman with teary eyes stood by the school’s wall, in the middle of an empty field, loudly talking to herself and shaking in the chilly wind. She stared at a tree broken apart by a mine blast on a recent night. Explosions echoed in the nearby forest; Ukrainian forces were based on the other side of the front line only six kilometers away.
The wind blew plastic bags across the yard and two stray dogs barked; no pedestrians were seen on the street, no cars on the road. “No, nobody lives here,” the woman, Raisa Ivanovna whispered quickly, looking away. Then, after a few suspicious questions, she changed her mind and opened a small, unmarked door. She slowly led me down a steep staircase, into the school’s dim and dumpy basement. To survive the war, Ivanovna moved here after her house was destroyed last fall and now lives “as a rat” together with 26 adults, between the ages of 44 and 79, along with two 11-year-old twin girls with dark rings around their eyes. “Insanity, isn’t it? Yes, we are totally crazy here,” a tall 60-year-old man, Valery, said as he welcomed me into the shelter.
Many people in the devastated regions along Ukraine’s front lines are deeply traumatized. There is little or no psychological help for the lost and the desperate, the old and sick residents of fiercely contested towns like Debaltseve, Vuhlehirsk, Petrovka, Peski, Schastye and other bombarded hamlets in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Donetsk’s main psychiatric hospital is no longer a safe place: artillery hit it several times in December. “We have very few private psychologists in town and often it is too dangerous to travel to bombed areas to provide help for traumatized people,” a doctor named Larisa Medvedeva told me on Saturday.
On the nights of the heaviest shelling—the attacks usually began either at 11 pm or 5 am—nobody in the basement can fall asleep. “What really blows my mind is silence. When the mortar or Grad rockets rain down on Petrovka, we can at least hear where they hit—but when it’s quiet, we wait for death,” said 76-year-old Valentina, a small woman wrapped in a scarf. Residents of the school basement blamed Ukrainian forces for destroying the Donbas population. Women complained that they felt embarrassed with men crammed into the same room—the bathroom was in the school hall but during shelling it was too dangerous to climb upstairs. But they were thankful for the volunteers and rebel activists who provided food and clothes. Most of them had run out of savings long ago—Ukraine stopped paying pensions for rebellious republics last year.
On Friday night, once again, mortar fire hit the Petrovka district, burning the Prodmash factory on Reviakina street, blowing out windows in high-rises, and obliterating the fences and roofs of private buildings. Riabinka preschool, which specializes in dyslexia and speech therapy, was under fire for the third time in the past few months. Glass from the windows was all over the floor in the rooms, all over the children’s beds and desks. Luckily, the explosion took place at night, when Riabinka’s 128 children were at home. “This time we’ll replace the windows with plastic—no use to put the glass in, our kindergarten was hit for third time in this war,” director Larisa Lekhanskaya told me.
Some children recover from post-traumatic stress quicker than others, Lekhanskaya explained. “It depends of temperament—some nervous or melancholic children lock up inside, they are the hardest cases to treat,” she said. Riabinka’s specialists make up fairy tales and games to train the children for emergency situations, and there is a psychologist on call at the school to help the children having the hardest time.
Outside the preschool, six-year-old Milana Grokhotova looked at the broken windows and the shattered glass. Her mother, Tatyana, smelled of alcohol; she drank “to dull her fear” on that Saturday morning, she said. “Don’t be upset, they will fix the windows and you will come back to your kindergarten,” Milana’s father, Sergei, comforted his little girl. The family cannot leave Donetsk, as they have no money and no place to go.
Donetsk municipal authorities have reported over 140 civilian casualties since the supposed ceasefire took hold.