‘Frontline’ town in limbo as Kiev’s forces leave and rebels close in

‘When the separatists arrive, I will have a choice: get out or get strung up’

Wed, Sep 3, 2014, 01:00

Schools were open, streets were busy and shops were doing brisk trade yesterday in Volnovakha, a strangely calm frontline town in Ukraine’s strange war.

A counterattack by Russian-backed rebels over the past 10 days has forced government troops to retreat across Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and last night the militants were manning checkpoints just north of Volnovakha.

The town is now the gateway to Mariupol, a major port 40km (25 miles) to the south on the Sea of Azov, which for months has been a stronghold of Ukrainian forces and their political masters, who want to tilt the country towards the West and end centuries of Russian domination.

Resigned to its fate

But as some of Mariupol’s half-million residents dug trenches, prepared bomb shelters and volunteered to fight any rebel attack, Volnovakha already seemed resigned to its fate, and to the fact that Kiev’s troops had abandoned it.

The only sign of Ukraine’s military on the main road between the towns was a tank on a transporter driving away from the militants, and a solitary national guardsman was the only member of government forces spotted in Volnovakha.

“Ukrainian units came in without telling us anything and left the same way. What can we do?” said Nikolai Bishok, the deputy head of Volnovakha’s district administration.

“They cleared off and left us. This is a strategic point, on the road and rail route between Mariupol and Donetsk. Doesn’t anyone need us? We hear fighting nearby but don’t know who is doing it. All we see in Volnovakha are the results.”

Bishok said those results included thousands of refugees from further north, where fighting has rumbled on for months; residents of nearby villages killed and injured in shelling; and an absence of running water in the 20,000-strong town for more than a month, due to damage done to pumping systems.

“My colleagues and I are doing our best to keep normal life going: hospitals, schools, utilities, other services. But we don’t know what’s coming next. People around the district hear explosions and shooting, and some villagers sleep in their basements. They are living in a situation that’s already like war.”

Volnovakha did not seem braced for attack yesterday, and the lengthening shadow of a conflict that has killed some 2,600 people and displaced about one million others was not immediately apparent in its bustling, sunny streets.

But even brief conversations opened cracks in the stoic fatalism of locals, who feel buffeted by political winds that they cannot understand or influence, and which have cast the future of their town, region and country into darkness.