Without water, east Ukrainians struggle to survive

Laetitia Peron
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Ukrainian soldiers carry supplies of water at a check point near the eastern city of Slavyansk, on June 11, 2014

For Aleksandra, a woman in her 80s, survival in the war zone comes down to one thing: water.

Like many others in the flashpoint eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk, she has come to central Lenin Square to fill her bottle from the stagnant pool at the fountain. She has no other choice.

"It's mostly for washing. If I drink it, I boil it first," she said, declining to give her last name.

"There's no water anymore, no power, no nothing."

For the past week, since fighting between pro-Russian rebels and government troops led to the destruction of the water supply, a trip to the fountain on Lenin Square has become a daily routine for many people in Slavyansk.

That's the price they have to pay for living in a city which has been a stronghold of pro-Russian insurgents since April.

It's a fate that they have to share with millions of others in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where the water supply has been curtailed or halted entirely.

But in the streets of Slavyansk, a city of 120,000 residents, fighting takes place nearly every day.

In those conditions, survival has become a constant struggle for the city's helplessly trapped civilians -- men, women and children.

- 'Closed forever' -

A long line of people suggests that there is something sparse and desirable on offer. It turns out to be bottled water.

Even basic commodities are in short supply in Slavyansk. Almost no businesses remain in operation. "Closed forever," reads a sign in front of one shop.

Only a small supermarket remains open, along with a cafe, which now closes at 6 pm because of the hostilities, rather than 11 pm.

"We're probably braver than most. One day they were shooting just next door, but we kept working," said a waitress at the cafe, which makes do without water and power, with a menu consisting of just two items: Salad and meat cooked over a gas flame.

The city is almost entirely cut off from the outside world. The Internet doesn't work any longer, and only a few operators are able to provide telephone services.

"At least, we can go bathing in the river," said Pasha, a man in his 50s.

- 'Chernobyl' -

Almost three decades ago, Ukraine topped the global news agenda when Chernobyl saw the worst nuclear power accident in history.

Svetlana, a Slavyansk resident, sees eerie parallels between that disaster and the one befalling her city.

"You've got cables hanging down everywhere. You've got houses in ruin," she said. "And this is a place where people used to live, used to work."

In the city centre, signs of the fighting are everywhere.

The facades of buildings have been blown away, and broken glass covers almost every street.

Throughout the day, it resembles a ghost town. Only occasionally, people venture out on their bicycles.

The streets belong to the pro-Russian militia, whose members carry out patrols in their vehicles, brandishing weapons.

"They told us they are providing defence. But against what? I'm not sure I understand," said an elderly woman.

Slavyansk has been her home for 45 years, but now she only wants to leave, just like her children and grandchildren, who have already gone to stay with friends across the border in Russia.

"My husband is sick, and we can't go. Otherwise, we would have been out of here a long time ago," she said.

While Slavyansk is in rebel hands, the Ukrainian army surrounds the city and, some say, is behind frequent explosions believed to be artillery or mortar fire.

Ukrainian soldiers control access to Slavyansk, and carry out strict checks of journalists trying to enter.

A team of AFP journalists had to wait two hours at a checkpoint before being allowed to pass.

"All armed men must leave," said the elderly woman. "That's the only way to restore calm."