Graham Stack in Luhansk -
Luhansk falls quiet as its citizens flee the city. The train station is the town's last populated place as residents queue for any ride out of town – and not by coincidence it is also one of the rebels' favourite artillery locations.
With cars and taxis banned completely from Luhansk streets as rebels clamp down in anticipation of a Ukrainian offensive, the people of Luhansk alight at the station from local buses, or come on foot burdened down with baggage, despite the sweltering heat. There are no official figures on how many inhabitants have already left, but estimates range from half to two-thirds of the city. Luhansk has become a ghost town: the only shops working now in the city are some grocery stores, and they are set to close after selling down stock. The rest of the once bustling town is closed up. Government agencies are down to skeleton staff.
But before escaping the city, people have one last trial to endure: the Russian-backed rebels are firing mortars, howitzers and rockets directly from the environs of the railway station. Passengers sweat out hour-long queues to the accompaniment of heavy guns blasting away at the Ukrainian positions – and dreading the impact of Ukrainian response fire. Periodically air raid sirens howl, indicating a Ukrainian jet has been spotted: some passengers quit the queue for more sheltered corners of the station's halls; others stick it out, set on getting the ticket away from here as fast as possible.
The station, a massive modernist structure from the 1970s on two levels that stands at the northern entrance to the city, is likely to be make a defensive redoubt for rebels as government troops press forward from the village of Metallist, five kilometres to the north. But currently it has another significant strategic asset: the very townsfolk flocking to get out of the city, creating a human shield protecting the rebels' artillery.
Rebel artillery pounds Ukrainian positions from the station's environs, but response fire from the Ukrainian side could create another human tragedy if it struck the station – and a propaganda coup for the rebels. Ukrainian forces are showing commendable restraint, but the pockmarks of mortar shell craters on the approach roads to the station suggest their patience may be wearing thin.
Outside the station, rebels patrol, eyeing for rumoured Ukrainian spies providing information on artillery positions. Rebels also seize at gunpoint any private vehicles arriving in violation of the prohibition on using cars. Now and again the heavily armed rebels burst into the station hall. “Our weapon is our strength,” one calls out in accented Russian that suggests he may hail from the North Caucasus.
Talk of the town
In the hour-long queues for tickets, the talk is of the shellings that have terrified the city over the last ten days. According to official statistics from the local interior ministry, over 60 townsfolk have died since Ukrainian forces took up positions around the city ten days ago after advances. Observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed 28 dead alone on July 18-19.
Everyone it seems knows someone who lives on a street that has been hit or whose acquaintance or relative has been injured. The Ukrainian government has claimed the shelling is the work of the rebels themselves, or “terrorists” as they are referred to in official discourse. But this claim has little purchase in the population, who hold the Ukrainian forces responsible.
“The Ukrainian plan for Luhansk is to more or less flatten it, this is already clear from the way that the infrastructure is being bombed,” says Nikolai, an amiable, middle-aged, bespectacled lecturer at the local police academy, who studied law in Russia in Soviet times and passively supports the rebels, as do many in the city. “They are obviously not intending any reconstruction later – instead the region will be completely cleansed to make way for shale gas drilling by transnational companies.”
Nikolai's views, surprising though they may seem, are mainstream in Ukraine's easternmost region of 2.5m, perched on the Russian border, where there is intense suspicious of the West as a whole, and of Kyiv and West Ukraine in particular. In the run-up to the Euromaidan demonstrations that started in November in Kyiv, which were in favour of Ukraine's European integration, in Luhansk 67% of people favoured Ukraine joining the Russian-led Customs Union, according to opinion polls at the time.
But for all that, Nikolai is waiting for his train to Dnipropetrovsk, where his wife already is. “There's not going to be much left of the town when they've finished with it,” he sighs.
With Nikolai is Dmitry Bilous, a young detective from the criminal police. “Two of my colleagues have died fighting for the militias,” he said, adding that he was going to stay in town. “I'm not afraid of them. But my parents are traveling to relatives in Moscow.”
27-year-old accountant Svetlana, who declined to give her last name, said: “All our ties here are to Russia. They warned us of the Banderovtsy [West Ukrainian extremists], and now they have come. But where is Russia now? Putin has betrayed us.” Svetlana, her husband and their cat were looking for a ticket out of town in any direction – and overjoyed to unexpectedly get two places on the night train to Kharkiv. Ukrainian Railways announced they would be laying on extra trains to Kyiv to get people out of Luhansk. The announcement was welcomed but also gave rise to suspicions. “Anyone who stays here will be taken for a separatist and cleansed,” said Svetlana.
A later encounter at a kiosk with a young Armenian merchant, who requested not to be named for personal safety reasons, and speaking in a hushed voice, brings some counterbalance. “Donbass is made up of two groups of people,” he explains. “The poor, which is the majority, and the better-off and rich. It is the poor people here who support the Luhansk People's Republic [LNR, the rebels' self-proclaimed breakaway republic]. But they are very badly informed. They believe it is LNR that pays their pensions. They believe we are going to join Russia. They say that the militias are needed to protect us against the Ukrainian forces, but forget that if it wasn't for the militias, the Ukrainians wouldn't be here."
He said he kept his foreign-made cars locked away, fearing they would be stolen by the rebels, and that two friends had had to buy themselves free after militia men had press-ganged them for trench-digging duty. "A lot of people here are now against the militias," he said.
Igor Bass, a taxi driver and former helicopter crewman in the Soviet air force, is setting off with wife and parents-in-law to central Ukraine, from where he comes. He said he had toyed with the idea of joining the rebels, the core of whom he said were “former paratroopers”. “I took one oath and that was to the Soviet Union. I don't have anything personal against the Ukrainian army, but just look what they are doing here.”
Others in the station said they are travelling to Crimea as planned for “enforced holidays,” and joke that the Donbass uprising has been a shot in the arm for Crimea's tourist industry, struggling in the wake of Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
In contrast to the others desperate to get out of Luhansk, Lena Stavychenko, a nurse, was waiting for her husband and children to return from Kyiv, to where they had fled. “Money has the habit of running out, and that is what has happened,” she said. She said they would sit out the next days in the cellar of their house.
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