| Peter Leonard |
NOVOSVITLIVKA, Ukraine (AP) – The kindergarten building in this village in eastern Ukraine was once a source of pride. Renovated and brightly decorated with money provided by German donors, its classrooms were opening the doors of education to 120 pupils at a time.
Today, the building is a dusty, rocket-riddled wreck. Scatterings of bullet holes in the walls suggest a gun battle probably took place nearby.
For much of Ukraine’s five-month-old war, Novosvitlivka was largely spared. Then in early August, it was taken over by government forces, only to be aggressively clawed back by Russian-backed separatists. Widespread, indiscriminate rocket attacks destroyed the school, many homes and the local hospital. The conflict has left some streets littered with the remains of destroyed tanks.
Many residents brush away the question of who is responsible for the village’s destruction and focus instead on how their community is to survive and rebuild.
“We didn’t want war,” said Tatyana, one of several hospital workers who were clearing away smashed glass and bricks from the building where they worked.
“They came and bombed us from all sides. Who and for what reason we still do not know,” she said Monday, only giving her first name for fear of reprisal. “Nobody wanted any war. It is not for us to decide who is right and who is wrong, who came here and who destroyed everything here.”
Novosvitlivka’s great misfortune was to lie next to a highway used by separatist rebels to supply their stronghold in the city of Luhansk.
A cease-fire of sorts has taken partial effect in eastern Ukraine, offering some respite in an increasingly bitter conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government forces. But this window of tranquility, which has been serially violated, came too late for Novosvitlivka.
When Ukrainian authorities announced they had taken the village, they hailed their achievement as a decisive turning point in efforts to retake Luhansk. Several weeks later, Novosvitlivka lies in ruins and few homes have been spared from destruction. The only remaining traces of Ukrainian forces are the ammunition that rebels have busily been taking for themselves and the charred armoured vehicles.
Now, rebel militiamen are in firm control and can be seen wandering around the village, either on patrol or manning checkpoints. Many towns and villages in east Ukraine have become grimly accustomed to shelling, but Novosvitlivka appears to have suffered especially intensely. The randomness of the rocket strikes testifies to an attack that was as harsh as it was indiscriminate.
Dozens of people at a time took refuge in the dank basement of the local kindergarten, a sturdy Soviet-era brick edifice. If they did so in the hope that the building would be spared from rocket strikes, they were mistaken.
“We don’t know who bombed us or why they bombed us, but bomb us they did,” said kindergarten director Tatyana Shevchenko, holding back tears.
“We have children here that speak Ukrainian and that speak Russian,” Shevchenko said. “We did everything together – the children danced and sang together. Nothing divided them. Why this has happened, nobody can say.”
The new school term should have begun at the start of September.
Sitting outside the kindergarten, Shevchenko’s colleagues grumbled that rebel fighters told them to find other premises to teach the children, but suitable spaces are hard to find on the ground of this ravaged village.
Across and down the road from the kindergarten, villagers paw through the rubble of what remains of their often obliterated homes.
“It was so frightening. We hid like dogs, crawling everywhere,” said Vera Mikhailovna, an elderly woman. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and her hands were muddy from gathering debris. “Some people hid in the kindergarten, some in their basement. That’s how we survived.”
Asked what help she had received from rebels who now control the village to rebuild her destroyed home, she said: “They promised to give us 500 rubles ($38), but we haven’t received anything yet.”
Reconstruction work has already begun on the local church, which had a gaping hole in its dome where a shell tore through.
At a checkpoint outside the church, a rebel fighter was collecting damaged but unexploded grenades left behind by fighters with the volunteer pro-government Aidar Battalion. Sasha, a seven-year-old boy hanging around the spot, was being taught by another rebel militiaman how to distinguish the caliber of spent casings.
One rebel fighter admitted that the shelling that rendered the hospital useless was carried out by his side. The remains of charred tanks parked behind defensive mounds of earth indicated that Ukrainian armed forces were using a spot right by the hospital as a checkpoint.