Ruins and Rising in Luhansk

In eastern Ukraine, residents take advantage of a tenuous cease-fire to re-roof their houses, turn on the street lights, and see how they like their first taste of peacetime autonomy.

Spencer Platt / Getty
Spencer Platt / Getty

LUHANSK, Ukraine — Celebrations of this eastern Ukrainian city’s 219th anniversary over the weekend featured a guitar-slinging Orthodox priest, Cossacks on armored personnel carriers, and a sheet-metal-clad Mad Max-style truck ridden by members of Vladimir Putin’s favorite biker gang.

But just a few hundred meters away, the mood was far less celebratory: In the largely empty marketplace down the street, a woman sold spices in the shadow of dozens of burned-out stalls, a reminder of two months of heavy shelling that have left the city without water, electricity, or telecommunications.

"Nine shells came down here…. I can’t bear to look at it," Lyuba Kislyakova said, gesturing toward the destruction a few feet from her own stall of spices and dried fruits, which was partially burned down in the attack. "It’s a wonder I’m still alive. We poured Coca-Cola, Fanta, beer, water, whatever we had on the flames."

Once a center of Ukraine’s metalworking industry, this city of 425,000 people has suffered the most of any city in the conflict between government forces and pro-Russian rebels, with hundreds of civilians killed. The shelling has stopped, for the most part, since representatives of Russia, Ukraine, and the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics agreed to a cease-fire on Sept. 5. Many residents said it was the first time in weeks they were able to sleep in their apartments rather than their basements.

But the pause in fighting has also been the first chance to assess the damage to the city and hopefully begin reconstruction. Residents have been trying to rebuild their homes, but most workplaces and banks have shut down, and many government benefits and pensions have not been paid for months. Construction materials, especially glass and artificial roofing, are in short supply. Winter is coming, but the gas pipes in many places have been shredded by shelling. And there’s no guarantee that the fragile peace will last.

"We’re hoping for the best, but we expect the shelling to start again," Kislyakova said. "We don’t trust our president. He deceived us. The number of [Ukrainian] troops outside the city is increasing."

Luhansk City Day unofficially marked the start of the reconstruction process, as the new authorities restored electricity to a few areas in the city center, turning on the streetlights for the first time in months. But most of the power will go to run pumps to clear the city’s backed-up plumbing, according to the Luhansk People’s Republic press center, after which the pumps for tap water will be turned back on.

Despite rumors of an imminent attack — both sides have accused one another of near-daily violations of the cease-fire — Luhansk City Day on Sunday came off peacefully under a clear blue sky. Military field kitchens handed out soup and tea in a World War II memorial park. Locals recounted their own recent memories of destruction at an exhibit called "What They Shell Luhansk With," which included fragments of rockets, mortar shells, and even a Tochka ballistic missile. The steel fangs of the Mad Max truck and a few bikers led a small parade of fighting vehicles adorned with heavily armed rebels around the city, blasting Soviet rock classics.

"We need to distract people from this temporary burden. People are happy there’s no shooting. Their defenders are visiting," said a genial, bearded rebel commander who goes by the nom de guerre "Shooter." He is a member of the traditional Cossack military caste and admitted he had come from Russia to fight "for our brother Slavs."

If the cease-fire holds, the task of rebuilding will be the first test of the separatist government’s ability to not just foment rebellion but also to run a state. "Life is returning to normal," the new head of the self-declared republic, Igor Plotnitsky, told journalists after sharing a glass of champagne with a newly married couple accompanied by rebel groomsmen in camouflage. "Everyone understands the situation, but no one was too afraid to come out today. People are returning to the city, everything is good. Everything will turn out fine."

But for now the separatist state can do little to back up its words. The authorities have promised to compensate residents for destroyed property and are beginning to assess the cost of damages, a spokeswoman at the press center said. But she could not say where the money would come from and admitted that the People’s Republic does not collect taxes. It is negotiating with construction supply companies to obtain materials at "advantageous rates," but will rebuild schools, hospitals, and other social infrastructure before dealing with other destruction, she added.

It is the small villages just outside of Luhansk, where resources are the scarcest, that have been hit the worst in the conflict, which has been fought largely with volleys of mortar and rocket fire from both sides. Dozens of small homes have been shredded by explosions and shrapnel in Novosvitlivka — a town of 4,500 that was occupied by forces of Kiev’s "anti-terrorist operation" on Aug. 14 in an attempt to cut Luhansk off from the rebel-controlled border with Russia, then retaken by the rebels at the end of the month. A local nurse there estimated that 70-80 civilians died in the fighting, even though many locals wrote "People are here!" on the gates to their yards in hopes of staving off stray shells. The smell of death mixes with that of outdoor cooking; residents buried dead relatives in shallow graves in their gardens, as frequent shelling prevented even the short trip to the cemetery.

Two T-62 tanks and several fighting vehicles, all of them burned out, sit in front of the Novosvitlivka hospital, which was occupied by government forces and damaged heavily, like many other public buildings here. Volunteers were sweeping up glass and debris in the yard as a truck crane lifted cement slabs out of a section of the hospital that had suffered a direct hit. No one looked up when a fire burning debris in the yard accidentally set off an unused bullet.

According to deputy head doctor Vyacheslav Svitovskov, local rebels donated cement and glass, a Luhansk construction firm donated the construction equipment, and the workmen were laboring for free. The town is rebuilding the hospital first because the many coal miners in the area "retire early and have professional illnesses," he said. Asked what would happen if the town came under renewed shelling, Svitovskov said they would "restore it again."

"Our people are used to everything. We’ve had so many hardships we can overcome anything, as long as there will be peace," he said.

Nishon Toshev, who owns the local construction firm and was helping clear debris from a sidewalk along Novosvitlivka’s single major road, said it would take hundreds of millions of hryvnia to rebuild the town; the power station has been heavily damaged and commerce has halted due to the damage. But there is no funding for reconstruction, he said. "We’ll survive somehow, but we don’t expect help from anywhere," Toshev said. "Russia helps us but no one else does," he added, referring to two convoys of humanitarian aid that have come over the nearby border.

Yury Krokhin, a volunteer fighter from Russia, admitted the rebels had shelled the hospital to drive out the government forces that were using it as a base. Now the rebels are organizing work crews of farmers to help rebuild, while running crews to defuse unexploded ordinance around the city, he said.

"This war won’t end for another 10 years because the woods are so full of nasty stuff," Krokhin said. "There are mines in the steppe and fields, so some tractor will drive through and blow up." Toshev said he has had to put down a cow and a goat in recent days after each set off a trip-wire stretched between two grenades.

Although the rebels are likely responsible for much of the damage in Novosvitlivka and neighboring Khryaschevate — where there was catastrophic shelling after government forces entered the town on Aug. 18 — the locals blamed the war on Kiev and Washington, which is widely believed to be providing the Ukrainian forces with arms. Many accused the pro-Kiev Aidar Volunteer Battalion, recently cited by Amnesty International for war crimes, of stealing cars and even killing civilians.

In Khryaschevate, Svetlana Sopola accused government troops of killing many of her neighbors on Aug. 18, when a convoy of refugees in military trucks and buses flying white flags was hit with Grad rockets, fearsome but inaccurate incendiary weapons that have been deployed by both sides. Government and rebels forces blamed each other for the attack, which burned passengers alive and killed at least 17. "Our garage and shed have been burned down (by shelling). Even if we rebuild all this, there are no people left…. On my street, 16 people died," Sopola said.

A man who identified himself only as Andrei said more locals are joining the rebellion against Kiev after the fighting in the two towns. He was helping his mother Tatyana pick up debris at her house in Khryaschevate, which suffered a strike from a Grad rocket. Her roof burned as she and her husband hid in the root cellar.

According to a local fighter in Novosvitlivka who goes by the nom de guerre "Cobra," the rebels were training locals they would leave behind to defend the area when they depart for their next campaign.

Many locals have applied to their local administrations for assistance in rebuilding their homes, but it remains unclear what they will receive, if anything.

Electrician Sergei Khmelevskoi was fixing the windows of the house in Khryaschevate where his niece lives with her four- and seven-year-old daughters. He said they didn’t have the money to rebuild the roof, outdoor toilet, or shed. Slabs of artificial roofing peppered with holes were stacked by the fence.

"Both sides are idiots," Khmelevskoi said, arguing that rebels and government forces had both shelled the other from positions within the town. "This was a beautiful village, and now there’s only ruins left."

Alec Luhn is a Moscow-based journalist who has written for the Guardian, Politico, Slate, The Nation, the Independent, Vice News, and other publications. Twitter: @asluhn

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