Natalia Semeniuk, 14, had to flee her summer camp for orphans in the Donetsk Oblast town of Komsomolske along with other children on Aug. 28, when the shelling shattered all windows in the classroom.
“It was so scary,” said the teenager, who looks much smaller than children of her age. When she was evacuated by emergency workers, Semeniuk noticed that army soldiers started digging trenches around the school.
For the past three days the girl has lived in a bomb shelter that was constructed in Soviet times in the basement of the town’s culture house in case of nuclear attack.
There are bright stuffed toys scattered on top of old mattresses, marking the place where a group of children sleeps in a stinky, dirty and narrow shelter along with dozens of other, grown-up, people.
Shooting sounded really close to town on the night of Aug. 30, making people uneasy about stepping too far away from their shelter and ready to rush back in at any moment.
Most of the soldiers of the National Guard crouched in their positions in town yards and cradling guns looked gloomy and tired. Some of their fellow servicemen were killed by enemy snipers earlier that day, they said.
A handful of residents were not scared by the shooting, walking along streets with bags or small carriages filled with food, mostly stolen from local shops.
Mass looting at the big ATB grocery store and several smaller Olymp supermarkets started earlier in the day. The National Guardsmen, who are part of the police forces, initially made feeble attempts to stop the crowd from looting, but then gave up and looked on as people robbed the stores.
Food has been getting hard to get in Komsomolske because it's dangerous to bring in new supplies to town. As of late, shops have been open for just a few hours a day, selling off mostly their old stock. Banks and ATMs have not worked for days. The biggest local company that mines for limestone closed more than a week ago because because it became too dangerous for its workers to operate.
The town has been cut off electricity and running water since Aug. 24.
Several locals have been killed by shelling, including a 35-year-old man who was carrying water to the nearby villages when shrapnel hit him. But the residents have no idea how many people died because of the fights. The nearest hospital is located in Starobeshevo, a neighboring town, currently an epicenter of fighting.
People are getting desperate living in these tough conditions. “We don’t know where to buy bread for children,” said Natalia, a young woman, who works as a nurse at a children’s sanatorium and now cares for the orphans, many of whom came to Komsomolske from Donetsk and Luhansk, the biggest militant bases.
Another nurse started to bug Natalia Semeniuk, the teenager, to call her adoptive mother in Donetsk who has not shown any interest in her child for four months. The girl started crying, setting the persistent nurse off sobbing as well. She pulled out two small chocolate bars, and said that was all she had left to share between nine children in her care.
The authorities in Komsomolske have been changed several times over the last months. In May the pro-Russian rebels held a pseudo-referendum in this town and then proclaimed it part of Donetsk People’s Republic. Then the Ukrainian troops pushed the militants in early June. But when the Russian army started opened hostilities in the region this week, residents started to anticipate a new power change.
Most of them participated in the pro-Russian referendum, but since then they have developed good relations with Ukrainian soldiers. They often feed or shelter Ukrainian servicemen who are retreating from the battlefields.
Earlier on Saturday the locals saw dozens of dirty, exhausted and often wounded soldiers who broke out of an encirclement in Ilovaisk.
Residents also thanked the Ukrainian soldiers who brought buck-wheat, milk and sausages to help the orphans on Aug. 30.
But at the same time, locals feel angry at the central government, blaming it – along with Ukrainian oligarchs – for their problems. They don't blame the Kremlin, and don't care much who will be in power. All they want is for the horrors to end.
“Why can't (Ukraine’s President Petro) Poroshenko reach a deal with anyone?” lamented Svitlana, a 48-year-old housewife, sitting in the bomb shelter. “Our town is forgotten by all.”
Editor’s Note: This article is produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the U.S.Agency for International Development. Kyiv Post+ is a special project covering Russia’s war against Ukraine and the aftermath of the Euromaidan Revolution. Content is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.