4 min read
The innocent civilians caught up in what could be Europe's first war in decades
In Ukraine, as the threat of armed conflict with Russia escalates, SBS News meets some of those living near the border, hoping war doesn't return.
Published Tuesday 25 January 2022
By Ben Lewis
There’s a big yellow bus parked outside the school in Troitske, a small town in Ukraine’s Luhansk region. The temperature is minus 11 degrees, so the children pile in as quickly as possible, laughing and teasing each other.
It’s a normal afterschool scene, but there’s nothing normal about this place. The classrooms are situated just 700 metres from the Ukrainian army’s frontline positions.
Marina Vertsanova is the school’s director. She points to parts of the building which have huge chunks missing; the result of shelling from Russian-backed separatist forces in 2019.
“Nobody was hurt, we know the procedures for when we have to go down into the shelter,” she says calmly. “It’s all worked out in advance; the kids know what they need to do.”
As she speaks, several Ukrainian troops march through the playground in combat fatigues and wave. It would be an odd sight in many parts of the world, but the children here don’t give them a moment’s notice.
and reinforcing eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets in response to Russia's military build-up at Ukraine's borders. Australia has advised its citizens there to leave.
And such talk of a new, broader conflict between Ukraine and Russia, rather than just the separatists, has Marina concerned.
“War is war. When you’ve already lived through the hot period of the conflict in 2014 and 2015, you know what it’s like. It can’t not worry you,” she says.
“None of us want there to be a new war. None of us want for war to return. Families suffer. Kids suffer. We can’t let that happen.”
None of us want there to be a new war ... Families suffer. Kids suffer. We can’t let that happen. - Marina Vertsanova, school director
A short drive away on icy roads is the even smaller village of Novozvanivka. On first look, it appears empty. The only noise comes from the packs of stray dogs which roam around hunting for food.
When the conflict in Eastern Ukraine began back in 2014, most of those who could afford to leave this area, did. But for mother-of-six Lada Naumchuk, that wasn’t an option. She stayed and raised her children in a warzone.
Lada Naumchuk already raised her children in a warzone. Source: SBS
It’s quieter than it once was, she says. But the memories of the more intense periods of fighting still haunt her.
“The life we have is a very difficult one.”
“We were hiding in the basement. There were no buses and no electricity for four months. We cooked food on a fire. We were running from the house to the cellar with shrapnel flying. We’d come to the surface to cook food, then run back down again.”
Life is still tough. Every so often the existing conflict - now in its eighth year - flares up again.
Fears of a larger Russian invasion here are not new. It’s been a constant concern since Russia annexed Crimea.
“We don’t want a war because my kids are still small, but of course, that doesn’t depend on us, it depends on our leaders. That’s all I can say. We want peace.”
We don’t want a war because my kids are still small ... We want peace. - Lada Naumchuk, mother
The close proximity between fighting forces and civilians has led to numerous tragedies throughout the Donbas conflict. Empty homes in Novovanivka are sometimes used by Ukrainian troops for shelter. But that can make the village a target for the separatists, who fire mortars from several kilometres away.
Olena Trofimenko points out the source; a small hill on the other side of a vast snow-covered plain. At her feet, there are numerous craters from previous attacks.
Olena Trofimenko's home was destroyed. Source: SBS
As she returns to the property she now calls home, she says a prayer. The building is not fit for habitation, with parts of the roof missing and shattered windows.
Her actual home was destroyed by shelling and she has nowhere else to go.
“I couldn’t live there anymore, my house and barn were damaged and my cow was there,” she says through tears.
“The cow looked at me as if to say ‘bring me back to life’ - but I couldn’t.”
Olena was lucky not to be killed. The United Nations recorded 110 civilian casualties in the conflict last year, across both the government and separatist-controlled areas.
It was the lowest annual total since the fighting began, with the shaky ceasefire having a limited effect.
But another, greater war could claim many more civilian lives.
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