(Avdiïvka) Emerging from their cellars, looking haggard and pale-faced, wrapped up in dirty clothes, around twenty residents of the Ukrainian town of Avdiïvka come to pick up food parcels distributed at the bottom of a building.
No one pays attention to the incessant explosions that resonate in this locality near Donetsk (south-east) and under constant fire from Russian forces.
Loaded with boxes stamped PAM (World Food Program), the slow step, they set out again in the basements where they live without electricity, neither gas, nor water, sheltered from the bombardments.
Moscow soldiers have been trying for months to take the town on the front line, just 13 km from the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, a “capital” of pro-Russian separatists.
About 30,000 inhabitants lived in Avdiivka before the war. Some 2,000 still reside there in mid-December.
That day, in the middle of the morning, Vitali Barabash, the head of the military administration of the city, described to AFP the rhythm of the Russian strikes.
From 7:15 a.m. they started to bombard the old part of the city with Grad rockets. At 9:30 a.m. there was a strike on the central part. They used artillery. Just 7 minutes ago they started a massive artillery strike, the middle part again, apartment buildings.
Many buildings are gutted, others partly blackened. Rare are those whose windows are intact.
To the north of the city, the large coking plant which had up to 4,000 employees was also the target of numerous strikes.
In a basement near the parcel delivery point, Svitlana, 74, shares a cold room with five other women and two men, all elderly. Before the war, they lived on the floors above.
Thick blankets and sleeping bags cover the eight beds. On a wall, a flashlight connected to a battery diffuses a weak and whitish light.
“It’s very hard… (Volunteers) suggest that we leave, evacuate, but where can we go? We are too old, so what can we expect from a new place. The cellars are all the same, but this is our cellar. It’s cold now, wherever we go, ”explains Svitlana to AFP, wrapped in her coat and hat on her head.
“Here, at least, we can go upstairs and take an extra jacket,” she adds, indicating that we sleep dressed. The sleeping bags were donated a week ago by volunteers.
In a lightly heated adjoining room, a fire crackles in a wood-burning stove.
The smoke exhaust pipe disappears outside the building. There is no other opening than the armored entrance door to the cellar. The air is slightly stale in both rooms.
Mycola pulls out branches from a small pile of wood to fuel the fireplace. Two detonations ring out.
“Who knows what it was. It looked like artillery or maybe mortars, ”he remarks as a regular.
“Here we keep food, potatoes… If it’s too cold, we’ll move here,” in the heated room, he says.
For Svitlana, “hope is all we have. Most of us are sick, like everyone here — strokes, the flu, some people get hurt…”.
When the conflict in Ukraine started in 2014, Avdiivka was conquered by separatists, before being retaken by forces from Kyiv. Due to its proximity to the front line, it remained one of the hotspots until the Russian offensive began on February 24.
For the past few months, the city has been one of the two most difficult theaters of combat on the front, along with that of Bakhmout (East).
“All civilians threatened”
North of Avdiivka in June, Russians and separatist forces from the Donetsk region cut off one of the two main access roads to the town.
They are also positioned in the East, and in the South where in recent days they have forced the Ukrainian forces to withdraw their lines.
Our troops withdrew (from the village) of Vodyane, they crossed the river, because it was absolutely impossible to hold the previous positions which are completely destroyed.
Vitali Barabash, military administrator
According to him, Moscow has just redeployed regular army troops to Avdiivka that are “better trained” than the separatist forces.
“The morale (of the Kyiv soldiers) is high, they don’t even think of leaving the city,” he says.
In his bunkered police station, the Avdiïvka police officer, Rasim Rustamov, considers the situation “really difficult”. “We are suffering from repeated bombings of the city itself and the surrounding area. All civilians here are threatened,” he said.
In the cellar of Svitlana and its neighbors and neighbors, large colorful collages are placed on the walls.
“There was nothing but old brick walls here. Now you see step by step we decorate this boring gray background. We know how to make us feel at home,” she says of how she spends her days.
Among the small group of locals waiting to pick up the food parcels, Lyudmyla is a little upset.
“If we could have a mobile laundry powered by a generator. But unfortunately…”, laments the 62-year-old lady.
How does she plan to spend the winter here?
“Spring will come. With or without us, he will come,” she replies.