War In Eastern Ukraine Grows Fiercer By The Day

Feb 2, 2015
Originally published on February 4, 2015 12:27 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

What began as something akin to urban rioting in eastern Ukraine has become something so much more. Pro-Russian separatists are fighting the Ukrainian army with tanks and heavy artillery, and Ukraine is responding in kind. The war is a disaster for civilians who are trapped in towns and villages along the front. NPR's Corey Flintoff has been in the area for the past week on both sides of the battle lines. Here are a few pages from his reporter's notebook.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Wednesday; we crossed into separatist territory last night, and we're in a Donetsk neighborhood where the din of shelling hardly ever stops.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHELL FIRE)

FLINTOFF: We find Nadezhda Stolyarenko, who's been living for a month in a basement with her sister Galina and some neighbors.

NADEZHDA STOLYARENKO: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: "It's scary," she says, "we don't wish anything bad for anyone. We just want peace."

(SOUNDBITE OF SHELL FIRE)

FLINTOFF: As I'm trying to describe the scene in my microphone, local militia fighters rush in and fire a shot over our heads.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

FLINTOFF: They tell us to get out of the area for our own safety.

Friday; we cross back into Ukrainian-held territory, through a series of checkpoints with jumpy fighters from both sides. We spot a line of buses along the roadside, people who've fled from Debaltseve, one of the hardest-hit towns. They're headed for shelter at an aging summer camp in the hill town of Svyatogorsk. We follow the buses to the camp and meet Oksana Kiryakova, standing outside the dining hall in the snow with her five children.

OKSANA KIRYAKOVA: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: "It was so scary," she says. "My heart almost stopped. I thought we weren't going to survive, but now," she says, "they've left everything they have behind. They don't know where to go or what to do."

Saturday...

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

FLINTOFF: ...We go to a hospital in a neighboring town where army doctors and volunteers are treating the wounded from Debaltseve and other towns. Igor Irkin, a National Guard colonel and former army doctor, stands in the crowded yard, supervising the medics as they carry patients from the ambulances.

COLONEL IGOR IRKIN: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: "The ambulances bring in up to 70 people a day," he says, "most of them soldiers. The rest are civilians, old people and even small children who've been wounded."

In one crowded room, Grisha, a 24-year-old Ukrainian army officer, is nursing a wounded leg and talking to relatives on the phone. He says he was getting some of his men into a car when they were hit by a mortar.

GRISHA: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: "I was stunned," he says, "and when I dropped to my knee, I got hit. We'll know for sure when they take it out whether it was a bullet or shrapnel."

Sunday; the rain falls steadily as we climb the hill to the Holy Mountains Russian Orthodox monastery in Svyatogorsk. Townspeople, refugees and volunteers fill the cathedral, glittering with icons and scented with incense.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Russian).

FLINTOFF: The singing soars up into the dome. The believers cross themselves. Some of them seem overwhelmed from the pain and tension of the past few days. Outside, the bells start to toll, and you almost expect something joyous, like Easter time.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)

FLINTOFF: But the effect of these bells is something less than joyous, and it feels like it'll be a long and difficult time before Easter. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Svyatogorsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.