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Life in shadow of bombs for Mariupol children

09 september 2014, 13:25
0
Sacha, 6 years old, plays in a park in the outskirts of the southeastern port city of Mariupol. ©AFP
Sacha, 6 years old, plays in a park in the outskirts of the southeastern port city of Mariupol. ©AFP

  "I'm brave, I'm not afraid," shouted six-year-old Sasha as he leapt across the roofs of makeshift garages not far from the tanks and concrete barricades set up to defend the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol from a feared rebel assault, AFP reports.

Sasha says all his friends have already fled the coastal city, the latest battleground in the five-month conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Sasha lives just 200 metres (yards) away from the government checkpoint on the eastern edge of Mariupol that came under insurgent fire at the weekend, rattling a tenuous truce between the warring parties.

"My friends are gone because this is war here," said the blond-haired boy before he launched into his mini-adventure among the grim Soviet-era apartment blocks that house workers from a vast nearby steelworks.

Vera, a retired building industry worker, looked on with disapproval.

"You look like a child in Africa, pull up your pants," she scolded, before sighing: "I don't understand why his parents let him play here."

After weeks of calm, Mariupol was suddenly thrust into the forefront of the battle for Ukraine when rebel fighters -- with the apparent backing of Russian elite troops and heavy weaponry -- suddenly pushed south in a dramatic reversal of fortune for government forces.

The seizure of Mariupol would be vital to any rebel plan to create a land corridor between the Russian border and the Crimean peninsula and would cut off Ukraine's access to the southeastern Sea of Azov.

So the residents of the only major city in the eastern conflict zone still in government hands have been desperately digging in since the shelling began in late August.

"The night was calm, thank God. I heard explosions but they were far from here," Vera said tearfully. "The day before it was horrific. It was terrifying."

With trembling hands, Vera took out a plastic bag of medicines. "They are calming pills, this is how we manage to cope with all the stress."

She said she herself decided to stay put because she didn't want to abandon her two cats. "The separatists can go to hell!"

In the fighting that erupted around the eastern checkpoint on Saturday just hours after the signing of the truce, a civilian woman was killed and another three people were injured, apparently hit by machine-gun fire as they tried to flee by car.

But the checkpoint remains under government control despite the attacks, with Ukrainian soldiers and militiamen from pro-Kiev volunteer battalions manning the concrete barricades as tanks rumble nearby.

In a field of sunflowers along the road, soldiers have dug out tarpaulin-covered shelters to hide their weapons and equipment. Three yellow bulldozers are in action to rebuild the barriers damaged in the latest violence.

  'You hear boom, boom!' 

"Before there were many children in the neighbourhood," said Vera. "The workers doing the night shift at the factory would always tell them not to make too much noise so they could sleep.

"Now look, there's only him," she said as she gestured towards the young Sasha.

Svetlana, a 16-year-old high school student, said she had just returned from her grandmother's home in another part of town where she had taken refuge from Saturday's bombardments.

But she said there was no question of her attending her school, which is located in an exposed area on the highway out of the city.

"It's hard to imagine being in class if they start bombing. If they fire directly at the school, it's over," she said.

She said the bombardments gave her goosebumps.

"You're in your bed and you hear boom, boom! That you open your eyes and you know you have to flee," she said, thankful that her parents own a car.

"When they start bombing, the windows and the walls start shaking, and then believe me you do not want to stay here."

by Amélie HERENSTEIN


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