December 19, 2014
Families caught in crossfire in eastern Ukraine
When the daily shelling starts in this besieged city in eastern Ukraine, those who have not yet fled the fighting grab their children and head underground.
If there is time before running into cellars and basements, the people of Slaviansk gather chairs, clothes, water and other provisions for stays that can last for hours or, sometimes, all night.
"We live in our cellar," said Svetlana Dobrostroy, who has a six-year-old daughter and a son aged 10. "The kids get very scared. They know it's a war. They're the first to run to the cellar."
About half the 130,000 residents of Slaviansk are thought to have fled since fighters who want eastern Ukraine incorporated into Russia took control of the city in April, a month after Moscow annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
Since then, government forces trying to end the rebellion in towns and cities across the Russian-speaking region have pounded separatist positions in and around Slaviansk.
Despite the growing danger and privation, many families with children have remained, either out of choice or because they believe they do not have the funds to get by elsewhere.
Dobrostroy has had no income since the dairy factory where she worked closed at the start of the fighting, and worries about what would become of her children in an unfamiliar place.
"I have no money at all", the 29-year-old said, adding that her rainy-day fund was now just 20 hryvnia ($1.70).
"I have no relatives, I'm absolutely alone. I can't go anywhere. Somewhere else, people may not like my children - how they walk, sleep, eat, speak, play."
Another young mother, Natalia Zhukova, has no basement so she and her 13-year-old daughter hide in the hallway when the shelling begins: "I have my blind, diabetic mother here and my grandmother, who is almost 90," she said.
"How can I go anywhere? How can I leave my grandma here? She would die on the way if I took her anywhere else."
POWER, WATER CUTS
Since the city's takeover by the rebels, who oppose Kiev's pro-Western government, most adults have either lost their jobs or been deprived of access to the pensions or other benefits they would usually receive.
There is no electricity in most of the buildings. There is still clean water but it cannot be pumped through the city without electricity and every morning residents stand in lines with cans and bottles at the filter station. Schools have shut.
"In two and a half months, our city has turned into a ghost town", said Marina Oleynik, head of a municipal social services centre for families and children. She cited unofficial data suggesting half the population had fled Slaviansk.
"A month ago there were about 4,000 children still in the city," she said. "Now, of course, no statistics are available."
Her centre was formally shut down last month, when the city authorities ran out of money, but Oleynik still tries to help evacuate people who want to leave.
Ukraine and Russia have set up refugee centres for people who flee the fighting, including families from Slaviansk, which sits on a strategic highway. Some refugees have also found shelter in hostels on the Black Sea coast or in tented camps.
According to the United Nations refugee agency, about 110,000 Ukrainians have left their homes in the east and fled to Russia and 54,000 have been displaced within the country. Most of them stay with relatives or friends.