‘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’


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.

“We don’t know what’s ahead. We’ve had no water practically the whole summer and have to get it from tanks and wells. But winter could be even worse: what if we have no power, heat or light?” said Tatyana (23).

“There are no government forces here now, and I’m worried about what will happen when the militants arrive. But most people here have nowhere else to go.”

She added: “There’s nothing we can do anyway. This is not our war. This is a war between America and Russia, and we are just puppets.”

Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag still flew above the district council building yesterday. But Bishok said Volnovakha was already in limbo – abandoned by government forces but not yet claimed by rebels whom Kiev and the West say are now backed by serving Russian soldiers and armour.

‘Did our best’

“We did our best for months, having round-table talks between people who supported the new government and others who opposed it, who felt closer to Russia than Kiev,” Bishok said.

“But we never had any violence here. Even when protesters kept changing the flag on top of the building – Ukrainian, Russian and back again – no one got hurt. In the end we just took the flagpole down to stop people swapping it.”

Bishok smiled a little at the memory, but there were tears in his eyes.

“This town has always had close ties with Russia, seeing as lots of Russians moved here in the Soviet days to work. A majority here has always been pro-Russian,” he explained.

“Now the active pro-Ukrainian people have left in fear of their life, like I am in fear of mine. Lots of police officers have packed in their jobs. When the separatists arrive, I will have a choice: get out or get strung up.”

Volnovakha’s police would not answer questions about their co-operation with government forces, the approaching rebels or how many officers had recently resigned.

“The police chief and his deputies aren’t here,” said Capt Ivan Emelyanov.

“They left for a meeting in Mariupol this morning. They didn’t say when they’d be back.”

Bishok didn’t seem inclined to expect their speedy return.

“There should have been dialogue, like we had here between the different sides,” he said.

It wasn’t clear whether he meant Ukraine’s bitter political rivals should have sought compromise, or Kiev and Moscow, or Russia and the West. Or all of them.

“Better a bad peace than a good war,” Bishok said. “Now I don’t know how we’ll live together here.”