In Ukraine’s war-weary east, intensifying shelling and battered homes, signal attempts at provocation by Russia

STANYTSIA LUHANSKA, Ukraine — The work to repair the roof from Thursday’s shelling continued even as Saturday’s booming thuds, edging closer and closer, signaled a new round of artillery fire nearby. A bicycle-riding elderly lady didn’t seem to be afraid as the blast of the bombardment began to crack the windows.

“Don’t be scared,” said Diana Levenets, who lives on the street where two houses were hit by shells two days ago.

She counted how many seconds passed between each rumble to determine if it was mortar shelling or howitzer artillery, which fires more aggressively and further. It is an essential survival tip that everyone knows in the war-ravaged eastern Ukrainian village Stanytsia Luhanska, although they had not used it for years. The village had not been shelled in the six years prior to this new wave.

” I don’t believe that there will be any new military action,” Levenets stated. But I do not believe what Russia says. I don’t believe their peaceful statements or supposedly peaceful intentions.”

President Biden warned Friday that Russia could launch a military attack on Ukraine “in the coming days.” For the Ukrainians living in the eastern Donbas region, where conflict between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists they say are Russian proxies has been a daily reality since 2014, the threat of a fresh invasion didn’t faze them much.

The sharp rise in firing by the separatists over the last three days shaken even war-weary. The separatists fear the Russian-backed troops will keep pounding their houses to incite Ukrainian troops. They are instructed not to fire. U.S. officials warned Russia that it could launch an attack on separatist-held territory from Kyiv’s force to justify Moscow’s invasion.

Residents in Stanytsia Luhanska, Ukraine carry on with their lives as artillery barrages echo in the distance on Feb. 19. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Separatist officials have accused Ukraine on the social media and messaging app Telegram of firing on the territories that their forces control and said they had to respond accordingly. The leaders of both self-proclaimed republics declared a mass evacuation on Friday. They claimed that Ukraine was planning an offensive in the area and denied this claim by Ukrainian officials. It is not clear what the scope of evacuations will be.

” “We are certain that this is happening from where it is being fired,” Levenets stated, while pointing out the hilltops where separatist forces were stationed. “We can literally see where it’s coming from.”

The shelling in the government-controlled side of the Donbas region has increased “tenfold” since Thursday, the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in a statement. On Saturday, two soldiers were killed, five were injured and there were 70 total cease-fire violations by the Russian-backed separatists, the military said in a Facebook statement.

Outside the city of Novoluhanske, along the demarcation line with the self-proclaimed Donetsk separatist territory, Col. Oleksandr Zinevich showed journalists where separatist forces have been pounding an abandoned industrial area with artillery in recent days. Earlier Saturday, a 27-year-old Ukrainian private was sprinting to shelter across the asphalt when he was knocked from his feet by a shell.

“He is going to lose both his hands,” Zinevich stated, while scrolling through photos of the injuries on his smartphone.

Zinevich stated that a civilian fisherman was shot but not severely injured in this morning’s incident. Although this area is not a popular spot for years, Zinevich stated that he believes Russia has launched a coordinated attack in the region. He said that he saw the recent eruption of artillery and mortar attacks as proof of this campaign.

Russia is trying to get Ukrainian forces to respond and give Russia an excuse for an attack. His troops were told not to react unless they are in serious danger.

“The Russian Federation is trying to lead us into war with a lie,” Zinevich said.

A few minutes later, as a group of journalists and the soldiers escorting them were pulling away in military vehicles, an artillery shell slammed into the ground 200 yards away. As more bombs were sounded east, the leading vehicles ran from the scene. One man, who was tinkering in his pickup truck, ran at full speed towards the village.

Soldiers rushed two residents and a group comprising journalists to the military blast shelter. The area was eventually cleared of all casualties.

The escalation’s flash point was in the village of Stanytsia Luhanska on Thursday, when a wall in a kindergarten’s sports room crumpled after it got hit by artillery at 8: 45 a.m. No children were harmed; they were frantically evacuated into the hallway and told the loud sound they heard was just thunder. Had the strike come 15 minutes later, the kids would have been in the room when the shell landed.

That night, the village came under fire again. Two homes were hit by shells, and their roofs collapsed. Broken glass and wood fragments were scattered throughout the living room. Family members who live there packed up spring and summer clothing to store in the basement on Saturday. Although they don’t intend to evacuate, they are concerned that more artillery fire will cause damage.

As the shelling intensified outside, plastic that covered window glass began to shake again.

” This has been an endless night and day,” Katya (the matriarch of this home) said. She declined to reveal her name. “And we’re scared it’s just the start.”

The construction crew repairing the roof next door continued its work. A kindergarten which was destroyed days ago will welcome back its students on Monday.

Hendrix reported from Novoluhanske, Ukraine.

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