Aid reaches the hardy and hungry of Ukraine's Lugansk

LUGANSK, Ukraine (AFP) - After months of bombardments that left them short of water, power and basic supplies, many residents of the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk breathed a sigh of relief at the arrival of desperately needed aid.

Clusters of people lined up patiently outside a non-descript building in the centre of the rebel-held city where rations were being handed out.

"I don't know how, but somehow things will return to normal, it can't be bad all the time," said Yulia as she carried a bright yellow plastic bag packed with detergent, toilet rolls and juice back to her home in Rozkishne, on the southwestern outskirts of the city.

"We are hoping for the best. I don't support either side," she said. "I don't care who will be in charge, the only important thing is peace."

Last week the World Food Programme began distributing aid in the most stricken areas of eastern Ukraine, where more than 2,700 people have been killed in five months of conflict, with heavy destruction in many towns and cities.

Gennady Tsypkalov, the "prime minister" of the self-declared Lugansk People's Republic, said about 200,000 out of the city's 450,000 inhabitants had fled intense fighting last month, but that about half had returned since the ceasefire, adding to the pressure on scarce resources.

"Our humanitarian needs have reached a critical level," the burly 41-year-old, a gun thrust into his belt, said at rebel headquarters in Lugansk. "We are out of electricity and water. The refrigerators aren't working, that's why we need aid urgently," he said.

The UN agency said it aimed to help feed as many as 120,000 of the most vulnerable people over the next six months at a cost of US$15 million (S$19 million).

"The fighting in the last few months, primarily in the cities of Lugansk and Donetsk and surrounding areas, has significantly disrupted access to food and basic services," said Carlo Scaramella, WFP deputy regional director in eastern Europe, in a statement. "While many have remained, thousands of other families have fled their homes at short notice, often without anything even for the journey."

Russian media also reported the arrival in Lugansk on Saturday of a second aid convoy containing 2,000 tonnes of cereals, pasta, sugar, medicines, fuel, electrical generators and blankets.

The delivery of humanitarian aid to the ravaged industrial east was one of the provisions of the 12-point European-brokered truce deal that was signed by Kiev, Moscow and rebel leaders in the Belarussian capital.

But Kiev, which did not give permission for the convoy to cross, had expressed fears the trucks may be carrying supplies for insurgents and bitterly protested a similar delivery last month.

Tanya, who lives in the nearby village of Slovyanoserbsk, said she came to Lugansk to collect nappies and fruit juice for her baby son, aged just eight months.

"This is of great help," she said, explaining that the child's father was not earning and that the family allowances usually paid by Kiev had been suspended.

With electricity supplies now cut off, the luckier Lugansk residents use generators, others candles. While the gas in some areas is still flowing, petrol is rare, and laundry is done by hand. The distribution centre in the heart of the city has been operating six days a week since the end of June, said Denis, one of the volunteer workers.

"Many people have been here, about 5,000 families from Lugansk," he said. Most were after milk, nappies and other baby needs. "Children, of course, want sweets, crisps, and I try to cheer them up in these difficult times," Denis added.

Another daily hassle for Lugansk residents is the lack of telecommunications, with the mobile phone network out across the city - except in a couple of hotspots.

On the corner of one street, dozens of people wave their phones high in the air, desperately trying to pick up a signal.

"Hello," shouts one man as he apparently gets through on his phone. Others are not so lucky.