‘They shoot, we hide’: Life amid shelling on Ukraine’s front line

Civilians in eastern Ukraine describe fear and destruction as shelling by Russian-backed separatists escalates.

Olena Ivanivna, 65, in front of her house in Marinka, eastern Ukraine
Olena Ivanivna, 65, in front of her house in Marinka, eastern Ukraine [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]
Correction21 Feb 2022
A previous version of this story stated that Gordeyeva was wounded in shelling by Russia-backed separatists. The article has now been updated to note Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify who was behind the attack.

Marinka, Ukraine – Valentina Gordeyeva realised something was coming when the tops of nearby fir trees started to shake but as she ran to shelter in a nearby shop, a shard of shrapnel pierced the soft flesh of her left hand.

“I was holding a bag and felt pain, and then I saw blood running down my bag,” the 65-year-old said, her thumb and wrist now bandaged after she became one of four civilians wounded in shelling reportedly by Russian-backed separatists since Thursday.

Pointing to the site where she was hit near a bus stop in Marinka, eastern Ukraine, she said a nearby school had also been damaged in the attack.

Gordeyeva blames her wound on Ukrainian fire, in line with a common narrative put forward by Russian state media.

Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify who was behind the attack.

The city of 10,000 is right on the front line, with separatist territory just metres away. It lies just beyond the western edge of Donetsk, the self-proclaimed capital of one of two territories in the Donbas region controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Map of Ukraine, showing Donetsk, Luhansk, and the city of Marinka

After eight years of a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people, many here have gotten used to the threat of guns and artillery. Most of the city’s buildings are riddled with the scars of conflict, and intact roofs or windows are rare.

However, as tensions with Russia spiralled over the last few days, the attacks have become the most intense in years, hitting residential areas – even a kindergarten.

Artillery fire has intensified along the entire front line, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs said on Saturday.

Ukrainian soldiers on the front near Mariupol, a port city in the far east of the country, told Al Jazeera they experienced the heaviest shelling they can ever recall on Friday night, sharing chilling audio recordings of explosions.

On Saturday, two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and four others were injured.

When Al Jazeera visited Marinka on that afternoon, the booms of continued shelling could be heard nearby.

Valentina Gordeyeva with a bandaged hand injured by shelling in Marinka, eastern Ukraine
Valentina Gordeyeva is one of four civilians injured in shelling by Russian-backed separatists in recent days [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

The escalation has left Western powers fearing Ukraine is now on the brink of the full-scale war it has warned of for weeks.

Russia has accused Ukraine of shelling its territory and of carrying out a “genocide” on separatists. Separatist leaders have since called for a mass evacuation of civilians to Russia and declared a full military mobilisation.

US and Ukrainian officials say attacks have been staged as a pretext for a Russian invasion.

Despite apocalyptic warnings in Western media, many Ukrainians have remained stoic in the face of the rising threat from Russia.

Yet as the ceasefire violations grow, the atmosphere is beginning to change and some are taking refuge in cities further from the front.

‘They’ve lost their minds’

For Blinova Tetiana Anatolivna, 46, the last straw was the shelling of a water pumping station in her town. She fled in her friend’s car from Volnovakha near Marinka to the eastern port of Mariupol on Saturday.

“I have relatives in Donetsk and all they want and I want is peace,” she said.

Many of those who remain in the area are elderly, sick or do not have enough money to relocate, they are likely to bear the brunt of an escalating conflict. Aid groups have warned that 2.9 million people on both sides of the front line are already in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

Gordeyeva lives alone in a small bungalow in the centre of Marinka after her husband died of an illness and her children moved away. When the conflict first began in 2014, she moved to another village to stay with her sister. She is considering doing the same again, but she does not want to leave her home even though her children – who she didn’t tell about her injury – have urged her to leave.

“Something big is going to happen. We don’t exactly know what but we are, I am, extremely afraid,” she said.

Meanwhile, in a small village on the south eastern edge of Marinka, Olena Ivanivna, 65, lives with her three grandchildren who had to stay home from school on Friday because the shelling was so heavy. They also spent much of the week sheltering in bunkers.

The house Ivanivna built with her late husband is within sight of separatist-held territory. It has been hit so many times over the years she says the roof is “like a colander”.

Someone cycles past a damaged building in Marinka
A damaged building in the front line city of Marinka, eastern Ukraine [Emre Caylak/Al Jazeera]

On Saturday morning the ceiling plaster came down, perhaps, she says, because of the reverberation of a nearby explosion.

For the last week, they have had no electricity and now she fears the water will stop after a nearby pipe was damaged. Yet they have nowhere else to go.

“They haven’t been shelling for a year. It was good. But now they’ve lost their minds,” she said.

“Now we don’t leave our homes. They shoot and we hide. That’s it.”

Source: Al Jazeera