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The Streets Are Empty As The Shells Keep Falling In Eastern Ukraine

Smoke rises near Donetsk's airport on Sunday amid increased shelling. Pro-Russian forces are trying to dislodge Ukrainian troops. The renewed fighting is testing a fragile cease-fire. (AFP/Getty Images)

We ride through the empty streets of Donetsk, closely following a van of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the multinational organization making sure the peace in eastern Ukraine is being adhered to by both sides.

Leading our convoy is a local police car from the Donetsk People's Republic, the unofficial name given to this area by the rebels aspiring to separate from Ukraine.

As the police siren wails, the few cars on the streets stay out of our way. The presence of all these officials gives us an unrealistic sense of security — though we had taken care to wear our flak jackets and helmets.

Since the cease-fire, the constant thud of shelling in Donetsk has been in the distance, confined to the airport, where the separatists who control this town are trying to route the Ukrainian army. We told ourselves we could always turn back from this monitoring mission if we felt too afraid.

The OSCE van turns onto a side road in a residential neighborhood where a store has just been shelled. The whole street is filled with smoke; fires still lick at the roof of the building.

"My God, this is my neighborhood," says my interpreter, Pasha. He says his apartment wasn't far, and that store was the one he and his wife went to several times every week.

We barely get out of the car when a massive explosion goes off.

"I want to get out of here!" I shout. Everyone is obviously thinking the same thing, because the OSCE observers also scramble to get back in their vehicles.

But our driver freezes behind the wheel. Suddenly another explosion rocks our vehicle. "Snap out of it and move!" Pasha screams in Russian.

Soon we are speeding back down the avenue the way we came. We find out later that that round of mortars had landed only about 200 yards from us.

Shelling Returns To Residential Areas

A nine-day cease-fire in eastern Ukraine has allowed some people to return to their homes. But in other places the fighting continues. In Donetsk, the shells are back in the city.

The city council says six civilians died after mortars exploded in that residential neighborhood Sunday.

Earlier, we had visited the village of Novokaterinovka, about 25 miles south of Donetsk and the site of a major battle at the end of August. Two burned out Ukrainian armored vehicles still sit by the side of the road. The people here endured even worse shelling for 5 1/2 hours, cowering in their basements.

Svetlana Duginova, 63, and her daughter were picking through the rubble of her 83-year-old parents' destroyed house.

Describing the horrors of that day, Duginova said the shelling had started at 9 in the morning and went straight into the afternoon. She says her parents were in the basement of this house the whole time.

"We are all still afraid, but grandma is petrified," she said, speaking of her mother. "She runs into the basement now every time she hears any kind of noise. She thinks it's a shell."

'We Are All So Tired Of This'

The peace agreement signed in Minsk, Belarus, 10 days ago stipulates that the eastern areas of Ukraine will receive greater autonomy from Kiev, yet remain within the country. But separatist leaders here now say they want their own country, the Donetsk People's Republic.

The east of Ukraine is carved up into areas controlled by separatists and government troops. If you want to go anywhere, you have to pass through numerous checkpoints — and you never know which side will be manning them.

The militants on both sides wear camouflage and cradle Kalashnikovs. They peer in at everyone in the car, making sure the IDs match the faces. Sometimes they make you get out.

The separatists often ask Western journalists if they're going to write pravda (truth) or propaganda. We assure them we're going to broadcast what the people tell us.

The village of Novokaterinovka has had no running water or electricity for a month. Duginova and her daughter, Klaudia Fedorashko, pull buckets of water from a well. So, I ask, which side do they support in this conflict?

"Neither side," they say. "We have no preference whatsoever; we just want peace. We don't know with whom and when that will be, but we are all so tired of this."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's a glimpse of life in eastern Ukraine; a cease-fire means some people can return to their home.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Violations of that cease-fire means other people can't.

INSKEEP: Fighting continues around a separatist stronghold - the city of Donetsk. Pro-Russian insurgents control that town and want to take the airport.

CORNISH: Artillery fire from that battle has been landing in residential neighborhoods. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley had a look.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: We followed a team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the multinational group that's monitoring this cease-fire. Riding through the empty streets of Donetsk, we had an official escort from local police officers of the Donetsk People's Republic. That probably gave us an unwarranted sense of security, though we were wearing helmets and flak jackets. Turning onto a residential street a mile or so from the airport, we stopped by a building that was smoking and still on fire. It happened to be in interpreter Pasha’s neighborhood.

PASHA: It's my block.

BEARDSLEY: Are you serious, Pasha?

PASHA: No, no, no, my house is there, but it's a market. It's a public market.

BEARDSLEY: Barely had we gotten out of the car to take a look when...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

BEARDSLEY: I want to get out of here. I want to get out of here. Jesus, we're gone. Let's go.

Everyone scrambles and jumps back in their cars, but our driver seems frozen and then...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

BEARDSLEY: A second blast rocks our car. Pasha yells at the driver to snap out of it and move. It turns out those martyr shells landed less than 200 yards from us. So much for the cease-fire. Earlier we visited the village of Novokaterinovka, the site of a major battle at the end of August. Two burned-out Ukrainian tanks still lie by the side of the road. The people here endured even worse shelling for five-and-a-half hours, cowering in their basements. Svetlana Duginova and her daughter are picking through the rubble of her 83-year-old parents' destroyed house.

SVETLANA DUGINOVA: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Duginova describes the horrors of that day when she says the shelling started at 9 in the morning and went straight into the afternoon. She says her parents were in the basement of this house the whole time.

DUGINOVA: (Through translator) We're all still afraid, but grandma is petrified. She runs into the basement now every time she hears any kind of noise. She thinks it's a shell.

BEARDSLEY: The peace agreement signed in Minsk, Belarus, 10 days ago stipulates that the Eastern areas of Ukraine will receive greater autonomy from Kiev yet remain within the country. But separatist leaders here now say they want their own country - the Donetsk People's Republic. The East of Ukraine is carved up into areas controlled by separatists and government troops. You're forced to pass through numerous checkpoints when you want to get from place to place, and you never know which side will be manning them. Separatist fighters checked our IDs at this checkpoint coming into Donetsk. They make us get out of the car. Interpreter Pasha tries to engage in small talk with the soldiers to lighten the tension. Back in the village of Novokaterinovka, there hasn't been running water or electricity for a month. Duginova and her daughter, Klaudia Fedorashko, are pulling buckets of water from a well. So which side do they support in this conflict, I ask?

DUGINOVA: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Neither side, we have no preference whatsoever, they say - we just want peace. We don't know who and when that will be, but we are also tired of this. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Novokaterinovka, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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