Shelling stops in eastern Ukraine town, leaving death and destitution

After a week of extensive and indiscriminate shelling, the government-controlled town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine finally spent its first night in relative calm.

Electricity is back on and residents are thankful, but it's little consolation to those who lost everything

Anatoliy and Elena Karabaz stand in their destroyed apartment in Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 3. (Anton Skyba)

After a week of extensive and indiscriminate shelling, the government-controlled town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine finally got its first night of relative calm Saturday, and Sunday brought restored electricity.

In this part of the world, however, relative calm means that bombardments are a couple kilometres away, instead of a couple of metres.

Residents of Avdiivka, a small town just outside the Russian-backed separatist stronghold of Donetsk, could only describe the past week as a living hell.

After two years of peace, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has reignited, with Avdiivka on the front line. The fighting last week left 35 dead, Radio Free Europe reported. And on some nights during the ceaseless bombardments, temperatures reached –20 C.

The Ukrainian conflict began in early spring 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. More than 9,750 people have been killed since fighting in eastern Ukraine first erupted.

An Avdiivka police officer identified only as Alexandr stands guard while others assess damages after recent artillery shelling in central part of the town. (Anton Skyba)

Emergency workers restored electricity in the town Sunday, and residents are thankful that at least they once again have heated homes and apartments.

For some, however, like Anatoliy Karabaz, 70, and his wife Elena, 71, electricity is little consolation given their losses.

Sometime on Thursday night or Friday morning, a shell exploded through their fourth-floor apartment and tore a hole the size of a small car through the exterior wall.

Their building was one of 114 that were damaged, according to Pavel Malychin, the head of military and civilian administration in Avdiivka. The Karabazs' apartment, however, was effectively destroyed.

Fortunately, the elderly Karabazs were sleeping in their daughter's apartment on the first floor when the shell landed. They'd chosen to stay there because Anatoliy's recent heart attack had made it difficult to climb the four flights of stairs to get to the top, said Elena. "Otherwise we would be dead."

Anatoliy Karabaz, 70, waits for a police officer Feb. 3 to write down evidence about the damage to the apartment he has lost. (Anton Skyba)

Half a kilometre down the road, another woman wasn't as fortunate as Elena and Anatoliy. She was killed when shrapnel led to "injuries incompatible with life," Dnipropetrovsk regional war adviser Tetiana Guba said in an interview. The woman left behind a nine-year-old son.

After the damage, the temperature in the Karabazs' home was the same as the outside world.

Coming up the stairs of the four-storey, Soviet-era low-rise, and entering through the front door is all the same as walking out onto a balcony in the freezing cold winter.

From the front entrance, one can now see right through the apartment and out to a treeline that separates the town from the frontline of the conflict, less than one kilometre away.

"This was our dinner table," says Anatoliy, as he shuffles through the wreckage. "My own grandfather built this table. This was where my family gathered!"

A portrait of Marina Marchenko, a teacher in the local school at Avdiivka, was painted by Dutch artist Guido van Helten. 'God save Avdiivka' is written on the side wall. (Anton Skyba)

At 8 a.m. last Friday morning, the Karabazs made the 10-minute walk to a makeshift humanitarian aid centre in the town. With tears in his eyes, Anatoliy pleaded for help from Ukrainian emergency workers gathered within the camp.

He was told he'd have to file a damage report at the city administration building, just like all the other people affected by the hellish week of fighting.

Inside the city administration building, the scene was hectic, with dozens of other residents gathered in a small corridor demanding answers.

So, Elena Karabaz, tell me. What was destroyed?- Avdiivka police officer

The calm and quiet Elena had to take over the paperwork process from Anatoliy, who was fighting back tears while shouting in exasperation.

The authorities in Avdiivka, although flush with humanitarian aid and basic necessities, seemed less than adequately prepared to guide the flock of despondent residents through this arduous bureaucratic process.

It was likely no fault of their own, however, because no one foresaw this type of lightning fast escalation in Ukraine.

The Karabazs had to spend the next part of their morning filing yet another damage report. This time, it was in the town's police station. Regular police are long gone from this frontline town, replaced by officers dressed in full camouflage and carrying assault rifles. They are now entirely indistinguishable from soldiers, except for a patch on their chests that reads "Police."

Inside, an officer patiently took down the couple's names, ages and address before looking up.

A heating bill invoice book of the Karabaz family lies in the rubble of their destroyed apartment. (Anton Skyba)

"So, Elena Karabaz, tell me. What was destroyed?"

She paused for a second before throwing up her hands.

"Everything!" she replied

Outside the station, the elderly couple was met by their weeping daughter. She'd given up her apartment to her parents after the heart attack and moved her family to a small village a short drive away. This was the first she'd seen of them after her father called that morning to give her the news.

Elena, Anatoliy, their daughter and her husband packed themselves into a small orange car and drove back to their damaged home.

40 years at plant

Back at the building, their daughter remained in the hallway, only peering through the front door. She couldn't bear to step inside. The damage within was incomprehensible to someone who'd grown up in the home. Until 2014, the Karabazs had spent their entire lives living in quiet peace in Avdiivka.

Anatoliy and Elena both spent 40 years working at the local plant, which employs most of the town's residents, and were enjoying a quiet retirement. They never imagined spending their twilight years in the brutality of war. Nor could they have ever imagined that it would take away everything they'd worked for.

As police wrapped up their investigation inside the home, Anatoliy asked his wife for just one last thing before they left the ruins of their lifelong home.

"Come on honey, let's take one more picture here," he joked to Elena. "So, we'll have a memory of this day!"

Through her tears, Anatoliy's daughter fell into a little fit of laughter at her dad's joke.

About the Author

Christian Borys is a Canadian journalist primarily focused on covering conflict.