SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — It’s at night that residents of the eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk are most afraid, when rocket and artillery attacks happen more frequently. Shells and rockets slam into gardens and apartment buildings, sending chunks of masonry and shards of glass hurtling through the darkness.
Little more than 11 kilometers (7 miles) southwest of the front line and within artillery range of Russian forces, Sloviansk has sustained increasingly frequent attacks. The city is considered a strategic target in Moscow’s ambition to seize all of Donetsk province, a largely Russian-speaking area in eastern Ukraine that makes up part of the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
On Wednesday, firefighters sifted through the still-smoldering rubble of an apartment building, looking for possible victims after a predawn strike collapsed part of the structure. After hours of searching, using a crane to remove slabs of concrete and reach down to the basement, they emerged with a white body bag. Relatives waiting anxiously nearby said they were also searching for an elderly couple who lived on the third floor.
“What is happening now is not just scary, it’s gruesome,” said 75-year-old Raisa Smielkova, who lives in another part of the same building and whose apartment suffered only minor damage. This war, she said, is worse than the previous one in 2014, when Ukrainian forces battled Russian-backed separatists. “There is more destruction. Everything is worse. Just everything.”
Relying on their pensions to survive, she and her husband can’t afford to move away to a safer part of Ukraine, Smielkova said.
“If we get killed, we get killed, what can I do?,” she said. “Some are saying to me: are not you afraid? And I answer: Of course I’m afraid. Only the fools are not afraid, the rest are afraid just like me.”
Just over 24 hours earlier in another part of the city, the force of the blast from another strike threw 92-year-old Maria Ruban out of bed and onto the floor. She doesn’t remember how long she lay there, alone and helpless, covered in dust.
“I lost consciousness and there was nobody around, nobody could help me,” she said, recounting her ordeal through heavy sighs and some tears. She eventually picked herself up but couldn’t get out of the house – the force of the blast had warped the door shut.
Ruban has lived in her small house in the southern part of Sloviansk since 1957. Now 92, she survived both World War II and the Ukrainian war of 2014. But she said this war is like she’s never experienced before.
“I have lived through everything, even starvation. But I have never seen anything like this, like what happened today,” she said, standing in her garden with help from a rough wooden cane. Behind her, relatives and neighbors hammered plastic sheeting over her damaged roof and picked twisted chunks of shrapnel out of her tomato plant beds to the distant sound of pounding artillery.
It had been around midnight on Monday night when Ruban lay down and covered herself with a duvet. “I thought: ‘now they will start their attacks,’ because they attack at this time,” she said. She wasn’t wrong.
Now she worries about how she’ll make it through Ukraine’s bitterly cold winter, with a damaged roof and blasted-out windows.
“Oh God, please help me so the roof can be covered for the winter,” she cried. “Who knows how long I will live for.” Ruban had lost her windows to explosions in the 2014 war too, she said. “All I know is repairs, to live and to repair.”
Across the street, a projectile struck a neighbor’s yard, leveling his home and damaging several other residences. The neighbor, who didn’t want to give his name, had been sleeping next to a window in a front room. His roof was blasted away, his walls crumbled and an apple tree in his front garden was blown clear across the street. But he escaped without so much as a scratch.
Taking a break from digging through the rubble to find his identity documents, he peered into the large crater where his front garden used to be, the bottom filled with water from overnight rainfall.
He had been thinking of planting potatoes this year, he said wryly, but now perhaps he should turn to raising fish instead.
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