Smoke can be seen for several kilometers at the entrance to the village of Zolote-4 in the Luhansk region. Even OSCE observers at a Severodonetsk hotel told reporters that shelling was taking place in the area. Saturday, a little more than a day remains before the ceasefire is introduced. “A lot of shooting was recorded yesterday evening and this morning. If they shoot in the evening, then they will definitely continue in the morning,” says Lidiya, who came to shop in the center of the village.
Zolotoe-4 is a place near which demilitarization was carried out on a small segment of the front. The Ukrainian military retreated 300 kilometers, the militants 700, however, shelling continues around. “Ten days ago it was scary. One could clearly hear the bullets whistling in the leaves of the trees,” an elderly woman comments.
Loud announcement of peace and quiet order
The ceasefire that has entered into force implies a complete ban on offensive operations and the use of aircraft. Using drones, militants regularly dropped grenades at Ukrainian positions. Now it will be forbidden to use any types of weapons and place heavy equipment near residential buildings.
“We hope the situation will be calmer now,” says Lidiya. I ask whether it became calmer when the ceasefire was introduced earlier. Never…
Dull explosions are heard in the distance. These are mortar shells of 120 mm caliber, the use of which was banned yet in 2015.
Maryna Danilkina from Zolote actively opposes the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops. She is afraid of the fact that the militants could use it and take the village under their control. In confirmation of her words, more distinct bursts of mortars and explosions sounded. We are sitting next to a closed house of culture in the center of Zolote. The conversation is interrupted by a cannonade of small arms, automatic and anti-tank grenade launchers shots. A specific whistle of bullets flying from machine guns is heard. This means that they are shooting closer and closer. We move behind the building.
“You'd better leave now. I'm a local, I know where to hide,” Maryna says to us. We leave and watch the unfolding positional battle from the nearest hill. Shootings and explosions thunder the place; black smoke appears in several places. At some point, it appears in the air: some of the shells did not reach the target. This is a surreal picture of the war, which has been going on since 2014. However, more than 500 people live in houses below, which are scattered between huge dumps overgrown with trees. However, an hour ago, children were playing near the shop.
Crossing the line
The only transition in the Luhansk region to the territories controlled by the militants operates in Stanytsia Luhanska. A year ago, the troops of both sides were withdrawn from the area adjacent to it, thanks to which it was possible to build a new fragment of the bridge, through which you can get to the so-called Luhansk People's Republic. The old one was destroyed during the hostilities, people had to move along temporary wooden bridges.
Many residents of the part of the Luhansk region, which is under the control of militants, went to the "Ukrainian side" to take their pensions, meet with relatives or do shopping. Before the pandemic, the movement was very active. Now it has become more difficult: people staying in the territory controlled by Kyiv would have to undergo a two-week quarantine. This significantly limited the trading activities of all those who made money on the movement of goods: they can now make only two crosses per month. One cross could bring some 400 USD.
"Go on your own now," says a Ukrainian military man who accompanied us to the last post on the road leading to the bridge. There is still one kilometer to overcome. The road surface was restored, every few tens of meters there are benches on the side of the road, you can also drive up to the bridge by an electric car for a fee. All this would be somewhat reminiscent of a resort, if not for the red signs hanging on the fence with the inscription "Caution, mines". At the eastern end of the new part of the bridge are two armed “unarmed” fighters who call themselves observers. They refuse to answer questions and call the "senior" over the radio.
“Why are you standing there? It contradicts the Minsk agreements,” one of the Ukrainian volunteers of the Vostok-SOS humanitarian organization addresses their commander. “This is the territory of the Luhansk People's Republic,” the “senior” answers.
In accordance with the Minsk agreements, the demarcation line, however, runs along the river, that is, the military must be several hundred meters further. “Don't provoke us,” the militant commander threatens and says the conversation is over.
“The transition is very necessary, because our citizens live on both sides,” says head of the military-civil administration of Zolote Oleksiy Babchenko. In some of the front-line settlements, there has been no elected government since 2014, civil-military administration has been introduced there, leadership is transferred to the hands of delegated officers. Local elections are to be held in Ukraine in October. It has not yet been decided whether they will be held in the front-line zone.
In the vicinity of Zolote, like in the area of Stanytsia Luhanska, the troops were also withdrawn. It is planned to open a second passage to the territory controlled by the militants, which can also be used by motorists. The infrastructure is ready on the Ukrainian side, while militants say, the work has begun from their side. Local residents hope that the crossings would operate by the autumn. Everyone hopes that this would reduce the number of shelling.
Moving around the Luhansk region, it is difficult not to notice a significant change for the better: the lockdown period was used to repair roads that were in a terrible state here. Now Stanytsia Luhanska could be quickly reached, the road is smooth.
“New roads are good news for local farmers, who will find it easier to transport their products. Now a refrigerator comes to Stanytsia every day, bringing vegetables and fruits to Kyiv,” says head of the Stanytsia administration Yuriy Zolkin. Before the start of the war, it was famous for its agricultural products, which went primarily to the large industrial cities of the region. Now most of them are under the militants’ control.
However, new roads and crossings would not be able to radically change the situation in the region, where the war is still going on. “No one will take risks and invest in the front-line zone, so either peace or public investment is needed,” Babchenko says. The ongoing military conflict in Ukraine since 2014 has claimed the lives of more than 13,000 people.
Read the original text at Gazeta Wyborcza