Fear grips Donetsk streets after bloody airport battle rocks Ukraine

By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, May 27, 2014 8:31 EDT
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A pro-Russian fighter takes position behind a car as a truck full of pro-Russian fighters heads towards the battle (AFP)
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As a short burst of shelling and machine gun fire subsides somewhere in the middle distance, Lera Meteiko crouches by the roadside with a few plastic bags of her possessions.

She had watched from her apartment building overlooking Donetsk airport as Ukrainian government helicopters on Monday battled rebels fighters with bazookas and Kalashnikovs in what was until then a peaceful suburban neighbourhood.

On Tuesday, the firing — more sporadic at least — had been rocking the area at intervals since around 7 am.

“I am leaving,” says the 33-year-old railway worker. “I’m waiting for my mum and sister to come and pick me up.”

“I hope that I come back home soon.”

Further along, an elderly woman in a black dress carries a battered bag along the almost deserted street on her way to meet some friends she’ll be staying with.

“We’re now refugees in our own land,” she says, refusing to give her name as an AFP journalist helps her with her luggage. “I don’t trust anyone anymore.”

“We’ll win in the end though,” she says.

“We didn’t start it. It was the Kiev authorities that came here and attacked us in our own homes.”

A few metres away the signs of Monday’s brutal fighting are easy to spot. A green flatbed military truck — that people say belonged to the rebels — stands at an angle on the road with its windscreen riddled with bullet holes and one side blown apart.

- ‘Everyone is very afraid’ -

Around it lies the detritus of carnage: bullet casings and pools of blood. On the other side of the road there is someone’s scalp. Brains are smeared on the curb.

Staring at it from a distance, shop assistant Evgenia Simonova, 28, leans on her bicycle as she smokes a cigarette.

“I’m not staying at home anymore as shrapnel hit the roof of our house yesterday and there is a hole there now. I’m staying with a friend,” she says.

“The foundations of our neighbours’ house were hit. Luckily there were no victims but everyone is very afraid.”

“I’m not leaving anywhere,” said her friend Anton Konstantinov, 18, defiantly. “Danger or no danger, my home is my castle.”

The government claimed Tuesday it had recaptured Donetsk airport from the pro-Russian separatists after air strikes and intense firefights that officials say left at least 40 dead.

For the few local residents braving Donetsk’s eerily empty streets the situation is confusing but normal life still breaks through.

Fighters are nowhere to be seen but local residents have set up barricades of tyres and bulldozers on the road into town.

Sergei and his two friends can’t help laughing when a middle-aged woman and her husband stop to ask them if it’s safe to head to her workplace next to the airport.

“Go to work? What are you thinking? They’re shooting over there,” they shout. A little further on they burst out into another peal of laughter when they spot a car waiting patiently for the traffic lights on the deserted street rubble-strewn street.

“The people around here don’t know what is going on. Everyone says something different,” says Sergei.

“We don’t know who is in control of the airport — the Ukraine army or the Donetsk Republic.

“It is terrifying.”

Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse
AFP journalists cover wars, conflicts, politics, science, health, the environment, technology, fashion, entertainment, the offbeat, sports and a whole lot more in text, photographs, video, graphics and online.
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