Atalayar travels to the liberated territories of Dombash, where the difficulty of getting food, medicine or electricity supplies through threatens to unleash a humanitarian crisis this winter

La realidad del Domb谩s bajo la ocupaci贸n rusa: "En Lyman hemos pasado hambre"

photo_camera PHOTO/MARÍA SENOVILLA - Residents of Lyman (Donetsk) waiting for the only hot meal they will have all day

The Lyman police station is very busy for a Monday morning, in a town that is practically a ghost town. People of all ages are sitting on the benches and chairs in the lobby. And they are crestfallen. They don't seem to be waiting for a turn to file a complaint, or renew their papers. 

Before the war, this Donetsk town was home to about 30,000 people. Today, 20 & percent are left, surviving in appalling conditions. Police commander Colonel Igor Ugnivenko explains why some of them are in his police station: public buildings are the only ones with electricity. So the locals go to these places to warm up and charge their mobile phones while they're at it.

What Colonel Ugnivenko does not tell us is how many torture chambers were found in Lyman after the expulsion of the Russian troops, who occupied the town for four months. Nor does he give details of the mass graves that have been found. It is hard to believe that finding mass graves in a European country - and in the 21st century - has become a recurrent event that no longer scares us too much. But they continue to appear.

As in all the territories that have been under Russian occupation in Ukraine, several mass burial sites have been found in Lyman. One with 111 bodies of civilians, including children, and another with 35 bodies of soldiers. Most bear signs of violent death, from shelling and shrapnel, but there is also likely to be evidence of executions and other war crimes. "The investigation is secret at the moment, but I can assure you that we are working on it," says the police colonel.

Surviving after the bombings

Before leaving the police station, one of the women sitting in the lobby explains to the interpreter that she and her four children were living in a cellar for two months. Her name is Sonia, and there is sadness in her eyes. 

She and her family have survived. All of it. The terrible fighting that took place before the Kremlin troops raised the Russian flag in their town on 27 May. More than four months of occupation with hardly any food. No electricity. No medical care. And to the fear, the fear of war when it is at your doorstep. Even so, they are lucky to be alive, even if their eyes are scarred.  
 

PHOTO/MAR脥A SENOVILLA 鈥 Stanislav corta le帽a para poder cocinar y calentar su casa en Lyman, donde no hay electricidad ni calefacci贸n tras la ocupaci贸n rusa de la ciudad

Sonia's case is no exception. Because of the disproportionate bombing that has devastated half the city, many people have been living underground for longer than in their homes. And some continue to live in basements to this day. It is easy to see: in front of the stairs leading to the underground shelters of the buildings, pans and other kitchen utensils are drying out in the open air. People cook in the street, outside the cellars where many still live. 

They improvise cookers with bricks and rubble from the bombed houses. And they light them with firewood they get from trees that have also succumbed during the attacks, or that they cut down on the outskirts. On these cookers they place the pans and, when they have food to fill them with, they prepare something hot.

It is while chopping wood that I meet Stanislav, who has remained in Lyman throughout the Russian occupation, even though he is a retired Ukrainian Air Force officer. If any of Putin's 5,000 soldiers who had taken the town had found out, he could have been in serious trouble.

He also got into trouble during one of the bombings, whose shock wave threw him violently to the ground in the middle of the street. Stanislav, 71, explains that he cracked his head open on a kerb while showing the bruise. But that doesn't stop him from sawing a log to gather firewood. In a city with no electricity and no heating, he has to resort to traditional solutions to survive. 

PHOTO/MAR脥A SENOVILLA 鈥 Edificios de Lyman tras un bombardeo

Waiting for a job

Victor also survives as best he can. He is the only remaining inhabitant of a seven-storey building, which was bombed when the Russian army was trying to conquer the city. A shell hit at night, at around 5 a.m., when Victor and his neighbours were asleep. People were killed. Those who survived left, all but him.

It is surprising to see the effect of a single projectile on a huge concrete and brick building. In this case, it's as if the building has been taken a "bite" out of the building, from the roof to the ground. All the glass is shattered. Wires and pipes are hanging in the rubble. And debris is piled up on the pavement, along with some of the furniture of the houses. 
 

PHOTO/MAR脥A SENOVILLA 鈥 V铆ctor muestra c贸mo ha quedado el interior de su casa en Lyman, despu茅s de que bombardearan el edificio en el que viv铆a

But Victor still lives there, in a flat on the fourth floor. No glass in the windows, no bathroom. No electricity, no heating, no running water. In spite of everything, he kindly invites us to see his house.

On entering the doorway and seeing the inside of the building, I realise that it is in need of complete demolition. The huge cracks in the load-bearing walls are a sure sign. Some of the walls are detached from the floors, exposing part of the beams. The ceilings are detached. Rubble and other debris must be negotiated to climb the stairs, and debris accumulates in the galleries of the main fa莽ade that used to face the street.

Doors have also been ripped off, and you can see the inside of the houses, now abandoned by their inhabitants. They will never be able to return. They will most likely not even be able to recover their belongings. 

Victor's house is large, decorated with carpets and classic furniture - or what is left of it. It has a large kitchen that now looks like a fridge. It is very cold, even though the windows are covered. He has replaced the windows with plastic, and covered them with boards and cardboard afterwards. There is only a small gap left in each window, through which a little light comes in. 

He tries to keep everything tidy in the middle of a ruined building. He has cleaned up the dust that covers everything after a bombing and there is no broken glass anywhere, but the reality is that you can't live like this.    

Why don't you let them evacuate you and take you to a good house in another city," I ask. "I have been promised a job, I have nothing, if I get the job I will have something", he answers. He is 55 years old and a shoemaker. We say goodbye to him, wishing him well, but all I see is loneliness and desolation. 

 

PHOTO/MAR脥A SENOVILLA 鈥 V铆ctor delante de su casa, bombardeada. Es la 煤nica persona que contin煤a viviendo en el edificio, no donde no hay electricidad, ni calefacci贸n, ni agua corriente

The hunger queue

Those who don't cook on the makeshift open-air cookers go to one of the two points where volunteers from the NGO World Central Kitchen distribute 2,000 rations of food - brought from Kramatorsk - every day. It's easy to find the places where this food is delivered: just look for a huge queue of people in the middle of a practically deserted city.

And I find it. In front of a hospital. Through the emergency door at the back, wounded soldiers are coming in from the front line in Bajmut. At the same time, at the main entrance, hundreds of civilians are waiting to receive the only hot meal they will have all day.

The still photo is bleak: the queue of death on one side, and the queue of hunger on the other. It is a portrait of war. One of the wounded soldiers is sitting in the passenger seat of a car. He wears a bloody bandage over his eyes, and the blood trickling down his cheeks like red tears. He stands still, his hands on the heavy bulletproof vest he wears. I only know he is alive by a slight swaying that he repeats with his head over and over again. 

Those waiting for soup, sandwich and coffee are less than a hundred metres away. But they don't see each other. None of them know what is happening on the other side of the hospital, because in the hunger queue, despite the number of people, nothing can be heard. No one speaks. The queue is huge, but it is silent. 

PHOTO/MAR脥A SENOVILLA 鈥 Los voluntarios de la ONG World Central Kitchen reparten 2.000 raciones de comida cada d铆a en la ciudad de Lyman

It is not easy to talk to the people who stay on the hospital esplanade to drink the hot coffee they have just been given. They don't like to show their vulnerability in front of strangers. Natalia, Vladimir or Alexander are some of them. They have all stayed in Lyman during the Russian occupation, and they finally admit: "We have been hungry". 

With a hard and somewhat glazed look in their eyes, they gesture with their shoulders as if to say "that's life, we didn't expect this, but we got it". Nine months ago, none of them thought they would have to seek humanitarian aid to survive.
 

PHOTO/MAR脥A SENOVILLA 鈥 Una mujer toma un poco de caf茅 caliente que le acaban de dar los voluntarios que reparten ayuda humanitaria en Lyman

A farming town with nothing to eat

Lyman was founded by the Cossacks in the 17th century, and over the years it was important as a strategic military settlement. Today, however, its value lies in its role as a key railway junction for exporting agricultural products grown in this part of the Dombass.

Its railway infrastructure - now bombed - facilitated the activity of numerous factories and agri-food farms, as products were easily shipped by train to any part of Ukraine, or the world. 

A food producing and exporting city, now starving to death. An example of how war can change everything overnight. And getting back to square one will not be easy: there is no electricity to run businesses, the front line is too close to return to normality and the fields are littered with mines, making it impossible to grow crops. So it is impossible to cultivate them. 

The only alternative for many will be to evacuate. Abandon their homes - or what is left of them - their businesses, their friends and move to a temporary place where they will depend on aid - from Zelensky's government and international donations - to get them through the winter, and who knows for who knows how much longer.


 


 

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