In an obliterated landscape, war-weary Ukrainians hope peace summit ends fighting

Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky and Russia’s Vladimir Putin meet for the first time Monday along with the leaders of France and Germany to try to end the five-and-a-half year war in Eastern Ukraine. CBC News got rare access to the separatist areas and talked to people who feel abandoned by both sides.

Crew from CBC News gets rare access to separatist region

Masha Rizhkova, 11, does not remember anything but war and fighting in her home near the contact line between Ukrainian and separatist forces. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

With Ukraine and Russia set to begin crucial peace talks on Monday to try to end the long war in Eastern Ukraine, desperate civilians near the front lines are praying the diplomacy amounts to something.

"We aren't needed by Ukraine or Russia. Donbass is completely destroyed," said Svetlana Rizhkova, who lives in Zaitseve, a village just a few kilometres from the contact line between Ukrainian government troops and Russian-backed separatists.

"I just hope they stop the shooting," she told a CBC News crew who visited her at her home.

The airport in Donetsk was the site of major battles in the early years of the war and has never been rebuilt. (CBC News)

Western journalists are generally unwelcome in Donetsk and Lugansk, collectively called Donbass, the separatist areas of Eastern Ukraine that border Russia. The Canadians in our Moscow-based team were refused entry twice.

However, those with Russian passports were allowed to visit the region and talk to civilians living in the war zone.

Unsafe outside

Rizhkova's daughter works long hours at a furniture factory in Donetsk, the largest city in the separatist-held territory, so her 11-year-old daughter, Masha, stays with her grandmother in Zaitseve.

"We hardly go into the garden because we can't predict when there will be gunfire or not," said Masha, as she fed some chickens beside her back porch. The chickens were given to the family by the Red Cross.

Barely a day goes by without hearing gunfire or other sounds of war. The family said they have even found land mines in their backyard, fired by artillery, so it's unsafe to wander far from the house.

Svetlana Rizhkova in her home in the village of Zeitsova hopes for an end to the fighting. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

Masha told us she learned in school about the meeting Monday in Paris between Russia's Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's Volodymr Zelensky and said she and her young friends are desperate for the fighting that's so close to her home to end.

'Everyone is afraid'

"They should end this as fast as they can because there is a war going on and everyone is afraid," she said.

Monday's meeting is the first significant peace summit in years and it also will mark the first ever face-to-face meeting between Zelensky and Putin. The gathering will also involve the leaders of France and Germany, under a process that's become known as the Normandy Format.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with Ukrainian soldiers near the front line on Dec 6, in preparation for the Paris summit. (Office of President of Ukraine)

In April 2014, Russia seized control of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine and began funnelling money and military expertise to separatist militias in the Donetsk region to the north, although officially Russia has always denied playing any role in the conflict. 

A series of meetings including France and Germany in 2015 put a stop to the fiercest engagements and established a ceasefire line, although both sides are guilty of repeated violations.

As many as 13,000 civilians and soldiers have been killed over the last five and a half years and the economies of both Ukraine and its breakaway regions have suffered heavy losses.

Zelensky seen as vulnerable

Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukraine expert with London-based Chatham House, says Ukraine's president is under enormous pressure to come away from Paris with something concrete, which leaves him in a vulnerable position.

"Ukrainians fear Zelensky will cross some red lines," she told CBC News in an interview.

Those "no go" areas include agreeing to hold local elections in the Donbass region before it has been fully de-militarized and before Ukrainian political parties can get fully involved.

Many Ukrainians fear Russia will use its influence in Donbass to create a puppet regime that will do the Kremlin's bidding.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have held demonstrations in the capital Kyiv and other cities chanting "no to capitulation."

Flags fly backing the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, one of the breakaway regions of Eastern Ukraine. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

Lutseyvch says Putin wants the West to remove economic sanctions and restore Russia's place on the world scene, something to which France and Germany may be receptive. 

"There is this fear in Ukraine that Zelensky will be pushed by his allies into a deal."

Impeachment and Ukraine

Ukraine's role in the U.S. impeachment saga may also have hurt its negotiating leverage, as the White House has sent out conflicting signals about the degree to which it's willing to stand alongside Ukraine against Russia.

"It leaves Ukraine more on its own," said Lutseyvch.

One of the eventual outcomes of the Paris talks may be more autonomy for Donbass while maintaining close links with Russia, but with Ukraine controlling the border, which it does not do now.

Many of the people our CBC crew met were less concerned about political arrangements and more focused on having a ceasefire that actually holds.

These women have taken permanent shelter in a former Soviet bunker outside Donetsk. It's cold and dark, but safe from snipers and shelling. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

On the outskirts of Donetsk, several older women — all widows — now live underground in a Soviet-era bunker, where they told us they feel safe from the war.

Living underground

But it's a cold, dark existence. 

While the bunker has electricity and running water, there's no heat and it's constantly damp inside.

All the women wear wool hats and heavy overcoats.

While four women agreed to be interviewed, none would tell us their last name out of fear of repercussions from local authorities.

Ludmilla and Vera told CBC News that Ukraine's separatist war has now lasted longer than the Second World War and they are desperate for a permanent ceasefire so they can return to their homes above ground. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

"It's dangerous [outside], " said Lina. "Sometimes when I go to see my home, shelling starts so I have to stay inside."

The enormous emotional toll the conflict has taken on all four is evident when they speak. Ludmilla, who is in her 70s and appears to be the oldest of the group, cries as she tries to put her hopelessness into words.

Lives in limbo

"I want peace to come, so we can get out of here. So kids can have a normal life, and go to school like before, for everyone to be safe," she said.

Another woman, Vera, says she never imagined their lives would be in limbo for so long.

"Our war is entering its sixth year. Even the Great Patriotic War [the Second World War], only lasted four years," she said.

In village after village, there are homes destroyed by the war. The economic damage from the conflict has taken an incalculable toll. (Alexei Sergeev/CBC)

"Any normal person only has one wish, and it's for the war to end." 

Political allegiances in the bunker are divided. 

Lina told us Donbass will always be part of Ukraine, but she was cut off by Gallina, who said it was Russian.

Still, all said they feel the world has forgotten about them, with Donbass becoming a pawn in a bigger fight between Russia and the West.

"Who we are for doesn't matter," said Ludmilla. "The politicians will decide without us. As long as there is no more war."

WATCH | 'Everyone is afraid': See what the decimated Donbass region looks like and hear from war-weary residents:

CBC in Eastern Ukraine: War-weary civilians feel forgotten

CBC News

2 years ago
In an obliterated landscape, people near the front lines of a five-and-a-half year war are desperate for the fighting to end. 4:03


Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.