Life in Luhansk’s War Zone: Old People Search for Water, Cellphone Signal

Residents Recount Their Struggle to Survive Daily Shells and Gunfire

Building by building, daily artillery explosions are blasting and burning Ukraine’s southeastern-most provincial capital, Luhansk, into a ruin whose remaining residents are those too poor or aged to escape. Roughly half of the city’s pre-war population of about 450,000 has fled—to other locales in Ukraine or to Russia, and those who remain describe a daily struggle to find food, water, and the receding cellphone signals that offer their only chance at communicating with the world outside.

Four months after Russian-backed separatist gunmen seized government buildings in Luhansk and other locales of Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, Luhansk has become the less visible of the two provincial capitals on which the war now concentrates. The larger city of Donetsk, ninety miles (145 km) to the southwest, gets more attention from journalists and international organizations. But it is Luhansk (or Lugansk, in its Russian-language spelling) to which Russia has the easier access, to supply the heavy arms and the military support for the war.

On Friday, Russia sent a convoy of trucks across its border to Luhansk over Ukraine’s objections that its entry, unsupervised by international Red Cross officials, could let it carry weapons as well as the aid supplies that Russia’s government has said it was delivering. NATO said Friday that Russian troops have entered Ukraine to fire artillery at the Ukrainian government troops that have been closing in on Luhansk and Donetsk since last month.

The dangers of life in Luhansk were underscored last week by the killing of Mykola Zelenec, a local businessman who served as the honorary consul  of Lithuania. Zelenec had been kidnapped August 10 by unknown men among the armed gangs that have ruled the city in the name of the self-declared “Luhansk People’s Republic.” Killings and abductions by the largely unidentified rebels have become routine in Luhansk’s streets, residents say.

Seeking a Cellphone Signal

For nearly a month, the estimated 200,000 or more Luhansk residents who remain in the city have largely hidden in their homes to avoid the killings and abductions that have become routine in Luhansk’s streets, and the intermittent shelling that is slowly turning the city into a wasteland of rubble.

In this lethal new routine of life, mornings are the time freest of shelling and shooting, so residents devote the time to existential tasks. People make their way to the few remaining spots in the city where their cellphones might capture what little signal remains to permit communications. (Information on where to find the signals is transmitted through the world’s oldest social media network, word of mouth.) Residents call family and friends to reassure them they are still alive and to tell of the latest shelling and casualties. That is how Mykhailo Volchansky, a sixty-eight-year-old retired construction engineer begins each day, calling his son, Oleksander, who fled last month to Kyiv with his young family.

“He’s my greatest source of information about what’s happening in Luhansk, although one of our last conversations was cut short by gunfire,” said Oleksander Volchansky, a former math teacher who co-founded an information website for Luhansk and its displaced residents.

Desperate for water and food

Also in the mornings, Luhansk’s people search for water—a desperate need amid record summer heat that has pushed temperatures above 100 degrees Farenheit. Water trucks drive to designated spots, sounding sirens to signal their arrival, and people wait in long lines with bottles and jugs to haul what water they can back to their homes.

With no electricity to run refrigerators amid the heat wave, people must search on almost a daily basis for food. Farmers from surrounding sell produce at the city’s edges, not daring to enter. Relatively few shops open in the city, just for a few hours in the morning, their owners selling quickly from their doorways to residents who hurry past, hustling to return to the relative safety of their homes or basements. By 2 p.m., the calm evaporates into another rising daily storm of gunfire and shelling.

Artillery shells slam into buildings, igniting fires that often burn unattended, as the city’s fire department lacks water to extinguish them. Ambulances ferry wounded people to hospitals, where doctors and nurses save those they can, working without electricity. The city’s medical examiner has recorded 300 dead, with more bodies arriving daily. Those who die must be buried as quickly as possible, wherever a grave can be dug—often in gardens, or at the edge of a forest, said Oleksander Volchansky.

“Every time you go outside, you risk your life,” he said. He recalled rushing homeward one day to find a man shot dead on the sidewalk. Plump, red tomatoes the man had managed to buy lay scattered around his body.

Crowd-sourced news

Volchansky joined journalists and civic activists from Luhansk to establish their website, called Informator, which has become a daily chronicle of life in their increasingly isolated and desperate city. “We have a hotline and people call us daily, when they can, and tell us what they see, what’s happening on the ground,” Volchansky said by phone from Kyiv. Each day’s Informator update typically lists the spots in the city that still have an electricity supply, or gas, and details the violence as though it were a weather report, telling people where shells have been falling, which direction the gunfire is coming from and how many people are known to have been killed or injured.

“Last week a friend from Luhansk called and told us that some 60 Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers had just rolled past his apartment traveling towards the center. He knew they were Russian because they had no Ukrainian insignia.” Ukrainian residents and international journalists have documented the increasingly overt Russian military attacks into Ukraine. On August 14 British journalists Shaun Walker of the Guardian and Roland Oliphant of the Telegraph reported and photographed one of the many Russian armored convoys that have crossed into Ukraine to join the war.

Yesterday’s Informator roundup said sixty-eight people had been wounded as shells exploded in residential districts.

Oleksander Volchansky says his father is getting increasingly worn down, as is everyone who can no longer get out of Luhansk. He says he dreads the day when his father’s telephone may go silent.

Irena Chalupa covers Ukraine and Eastern Europe for the Atlantic Council.

Related Experts:

Image: The central market of Luhansk is a charred ruin, following a fire ignited by artillery shelling. (Informator/Used by permission)