As troops pull out, Ukraine frontline village fears for future

Members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, speak with an officer from the Joint Center on Control and Coordination in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska in Luhansk region, on Aug 2.
Members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, speak with an officer from the Joint Center on Control and Coordination in the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska in Luhansk region, on Aug 2.PHOTO: REUTERS

KIEV, UKRAINE (AFP) - While Ukrainian troops were stationed in her village, Ms Anna felt safe despite living on the frontline of a war that has claimed thousands of lives over the last five years.

But since they started to withdraw two months ago from Stanytsya Luganska, eastern Ukraine, she says she feels exposed to the Russian-backed separatists nearby.

"Now we are afraid that they may cross the border by the river at night and occupy the village," the 53-year-old said, dropping her head in despair as she spoke outside her house. "And then life will be over."

The village lies close to the self-proclaimed, pro-Russian Lugansk and Donetsk "People's Republics" and - as Ms Anna stresses - just miles through the forest from Russia itself.

At the beginning of the conflict between Kiev and the separatists in 2014, Ms and her husband fled their native Lugansk as the pro-Russian groups took control.

The couple settled in the Kiev-controlled village Stanytsya Luganska.

Now, months after former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was elected to the Ukrainian presidency with promises to end the conflict, Kiev's soldiers and hardware are beginning to withdraw.

Mr Zelensky went to the village in July with European Council President Donald Tusk, shortly after a disengagement that saw both Ukrainian forces and separatists pull back several hundred metres from the frontline.

The disengagement, hailed by the international community, was first signed off in Minsk in 2016.

But the process was frozen for years due to sporadic and sometimes serious clashes between the sides.

Stanytsya Luganska is important for the region as it is the only place to cross between Ukrainian territory and the Lugansk People's Republic.

About 11,000 people a day make the crossing in both directions via a bridge that was blown up in 2015 and has yet to be restored for vehicles.

Those wanting to cross have to walk the kilometre to the other side, while elderly people and those with disabilities have to pay to be taken in a wheelchair.

But opinion is split among locals as to whether the bridge should be fully restored.

Ms Svitlana, who grows vegetables in the village, said she wants works to begin as soon as possible so she is able to sell her produce in Lugansk.

"Stanytsya Luganska always fed Lugansk, and we lived on this money," she said as she sorted tomatoes at the local market. "We were one, and now we are separated, divided into two parts."

Like the other residents whom AFP spoke to, Ms Svitlana declined to give her last name.

Now the only way to get from the village to the Lugansk People's Republic by car is a long route via the Donetsk region.

At the end of July, negotiators in Minsk came to an agreement about mine clearance and bridge reconstruction.

 

"It is possible that this checkpoint will be available for road transport", press officer Nelya Dotsenko of the regional Ukrainian border department told AFP.

But resident Tetyana, despite crossing the bridge once a month to see her daughter and two grandchildren on separatist territory, does not want the bridge to be fixed to carry cars.

This could be "very dangerous" as it could allow the separatists to move their equipment into Ukrainian territory, she said.

Like Ms Anna, Ms Tetyana said she feels at risk in her own village.

"When we had the army here, we slept well at night, but now you don't know who might be walking around your house," she said.

President Zelensky congratulated his countrymen on "the first step towards a sustainable ceasefire" when the withdrawal of troops and hardware began from the frontier this summer. "To me it looks like there's some hope that we're seeing the end of the hot phase of this war," he said.

But Ms Tetyana said she was not reassured.

With previous president Petro Poroshenko, she was confident "that he would not give us up", but under Mr Zelensky, this confidence is gone.

"Now we are afraid that they might just give us away," she said.