As of early July, no substantial areas in the Luhansk region remained under Ukraine’s control. Russia used all of its military might and proxy armed groups to consolidate control of the eastern area, even at the expense of its own ability to counterattack.
Residents who have stayed behind in the now fallen cities and have become used to living under occupation spoke to Geneva Solutions about life amid the devastation.
Bomb shelters, rubbles and summer stench
According to Svitlana*, a resident of the city of Rubizhne, most people who stayed now live in bomb shelters. “They’re bombing us – you hide in the corridor where there are no windows, knowing that the explosion could be on either side of the apartment. But once you descend to a bomb shelter, you are not getting out. Every little noise will scare you,” she said.
People have become so used to living in bomb shelters that they started referring to them as “communal apartments” (a Soviet-era term to describe shared accommodation provided by the government -ed.). To overcome the fear, Svitlana started organising weekly clean-ups to give people something to distract themselves with.
Less than 10 km south, in Severodonetsk, all the vital infrastructure in and around has been virtually destroyed after months of intense fighting. Kateryna*, who works at the city heating plant, stayed back with her retired husband. When she went to see what was left of her workplace, she had to sift through several tons of rubble just to get to the building.
Even if the pipes were intact, she said, the equipment had most likely been destroyed, and only three qualified technicians remain in the area today. The thermal power station that ensured heating for the older neighbourhoods is also in ruins, leaving residents to wonder how they will survive the fast approaching winter.
Access to water has also become limited. Generators are being used to pump water and residents have to pay to use them. But with not many jobs available, money these days is a luxury. The only work that pays some money is sorting through the rubble. People have resorted to cooking food on campfires in the streets.
Kateryna says that the only two shops still open in the city are Matrioshka, where the meat is half the price it used to be before the war, and supermarket ATB, where the shelves are empty. Some residents come to the market and sell what they had managed to grow over the summer. Prices for hygiene products have soared with a bar of laundry soap costing 150 hryvnias (four euros) and a regular bottle of shampoo costing 200 hryvnias (5.30 euros).
An even bigger concern is the levels of pollution, as sewage overflows onto the streets, producing an indescribable stench, made worse by the summer heat combined with the smell of rotting corpses buried in shallow graves.
Trapped in limbo
While Severodonetsk and Rubizhne have been nearly flattened, the areas closer to the centre of neighbouring Lysychansk are less affected. According to reports from two weeks ago, the city has both food and drinking water.
As of 4 July, a little over 10,000 people remained in Lysychansk and some 8,000 in Severodonetsk, according to regional governor Serhiy Hayday. The ones who stayed either couldn't evacuate in time or hold pro-Russian views. But even those who support Russian aren’t keen on joining its army and would prefer to leave.
Their only viable way out is through Russia, but they need a special pass just to go to the old territories of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. And Russia is not keen on letting Ukrainians of military age into the country. The many entry-exit checkpoints on the roads have entrapped them.
According to Kateryna, the self-proclaimed authorities of the city are going around residential buildings and taking note of the inhabitants with the aim of recruiting them into the “people’s police” in the future.
Governor Hayday explained on his Telegram channel: “Russia uses locals in its mobilisation efforts. They give someone a job offer, for example in a water utility company, and when the person turns up, they receive a note to go to the military registration office. The new ‘homeland’ is calling.”
Who will rebuilt?
It is no secret that the Donbas – on both Ukraine’s and Russia’s sides of the border – did not thrive after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The infrastructure was not looked after and with no job possibilities, people emigrated even before the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014.
These days, huge investments are needed only to restore the area to what it was before 2014. Even if Russia were to round up the necessary funds, who will the area be rebuilt for? Who will be in charge of developing businesses, and of what kind?
In the 18th century, when Russia colonised today’s south of Ukraine, it used manpower from all over eastern Europe. These days, Russia is suffering from a rapid brain drain. Will it invite Syrians and North Koreans for the project? These are questions left unanswered.
*The names of residents were changed to protect their identities.