Residents of shattered Ukraine town leave shelters in search of aid

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine (AFP) - Soviet-era music, remixed to a modern techno track, thunders across Lenin Square in Debaltseve, where a woman jigs a couple of steps in dance.

Behind her, hundreds of residents of the town, shattered after months of fighting between pro-Russian rebels and the Ukrainian army, line up to receive a cardboard box of food and other emergency supplies provided by the Red Cross.

It's been three days since the battle for Debaltseve ended with the rebels overrunning the place, and the inhabitants are streaming out of the cellars they sheltered in. Many are hungry.

Oleg drove up from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk to set up his DJ booth in the central square, which is belting out thumping yet nostalgic tunes.

"I wanted to give them back a taste of life after the war," the 53-year-old says, pushing the volume higher on his large mixing table. "I can't live without music, so that's what I'm giving them."

Elsewhere in the square men are shovelling away debris. Civil protection employees are carrying out repairs to a pharmacy, whose window was blown out. Workers in blue uniforms attempt to restore electricity. Residents cycle by with their Red Cross box strapped onto the baggage rack.

In an abandoned supermarket with fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling, the International Committee of the Red Cross is handing out rice, oil, sardines, flour and salt to the estimated 5,000 people who were trapped in the town during the fighting. Before the shelling and combat, Debaltseve's population was 25,000.

"Tonight, we're going to have bread and sardines. It's be a party. I'm so happy," says one 52-year-old resident, Helene Orleanskaya.

She spent much of the past six months living in a cellar. "We were so cold. My feet and hands were frozen," she says. "To eat, we shared cans of food with the neighbours."

Tatiana, another resident leaving with a box, says: "We didn't have anything. No wages, no work, no potatoes. At least tonight we'll have something hot to eat."

"The people are starting to come out and they're shell-shocked," says Maurice Negre, a doctor with the aid group Doctors Without Borders which has also arrived to help the population. "In one shelter we saw a woman who still refuses to come out into the open air. She's too afraid the shells will fall again. She's totally stressed."

There are, however, few if any wounded people to tend to; they have already been evacuated.

"The extreme urgency here is to find shelter for the people, heating, and to treat chronic illnesses. Because with the cold and damp, a simple bronchitis can quickly turn into pneumonia," Negre says.

In Debaltseve, there are two hospitals. One was destroyed by artillery shelling. The other, at the end of the town, is abandoned, its windows broken and curtains flapping in the wind. "There is only one doctor remaining for the whole town," the doctor says.

There is also a mayor now, a hulking rebel commander appointed days ago named Alexander Afendikov. He rattles off orders into a walkie-talkie.

"I'll need 20 men to get the railroad building back working," he says.

His priorities are getting windows repaired and finding fuel for the electricity generators.

"Russia is helping us," he boasts, "and you'll see: in a week you won't even recognise this town." A short distance away, close to an empty fountain, a 76-year-old resident, Albert Baronov, bitterly contemplates the recent violence, which destroyed his home, and what seems to be an unpredictable present.

"We are furious that Europe let this happen," he says. "Thousands of people have been killed and Europe hasn't stopped the war."

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