Three years on, hopes fade for those trapped in Ukraine war

Yulia SILINA
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The Ukraine war is one of the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since the 1990s Balkans wars and has killed more than 10,000 people and driven at least two million from their homes

After three years of war, Irina and her husband Arkady have all but lost hope of ever seeing the day the big guns fall silent and Ukraine becomes whole again.

The middle-aged couple live in the shelled-out northern outskirts of the Russian-backed separatist rebels' de facto capital city of Donetsk in the eastern industrial heartland of the divided former Soviet state.

They speak Russian like those around them and think of the fighting that invaded their lives three years ago on Thursday as a permanent conflict that may splinter their homeland for good.

"It will be hard for us to be one with Ukraine again," 50-year-old Arkady told AFP without revealing his surname.

"Imagine if your neighbour attacked you with a knife and wounded you. Would you stay friends with that person and invite him over for tea?"

- Daily journal of grief -

Irina has kept a daily war journal that is filled with notes underscored with grief and pain from the first page to the last.

One of the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since the 1990s Balkans wars has killed more than 10,000 people and driven at least two million from their homes.

Irina fills in the details of those hard-to-fathom numbers.

One entry describes how her husband was picking apricots when shrapnel from a shell hit him in the head and broke one of his ribs.

"Over time, you tend to forget everything, especially when there is shelling every single day," the 48-year-old says of her diary.

The windows of their two-storey house have thick slabs of wood nailed over them to protect the glass through which icons peek out.

"Only 40 or 50 people still live here," she says of her Severniy suburb of Donetsk.

"Every home has been damaged. In March alone, they hit our neighbour's house six times. The shelling is more intense now than when the war started," Irina says.

Fellow Severniy resident Lidia said the latest fighting caused an electricity blackout -- something they have long ago grown used to.

"It feels like no one needs us," the 67-year-old pensioner says.

- 'Mutually beneficial war' -

The European Union and the United States fully back Kiev's claim that Russia started and supported the war in order to meddle and disrupt its Western neighbour's affairs after its February 2014 ouster of a Kremlin-backed regime.

Ukraine's subsequent embrace of the West was followed by Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the takeover of government buildings in the east in April by groups of armed men who swore allegiance to Moscow.

Kiev responded by launching a military offensive to win back the separatist region.

But Russia denies any involvement in the war to this day despite its soldiers being repeatedly captured or killed in the war zone and tanks and other heavy weapons being spotted crossing the border into Ukraine.

Arkady says he is disappointed by Kiev's deadly military tactics. But he also believes that Moscow has left his family and those like him out on a limb.

He notes that the Kremlin now recognises separatist-issued IDs which make it easier for those living in the war zone to visit their relatives and friends in Russia.

But Moscow has not supported the two rebel provinces' claim of independence from Kiev and has described the conflict as Ukraine's internal affair.

"It seems that the war is mutually beneficial to both sides," Arkady says.

"Otherwise, it would not have dragged on for so long."