SLOVENSK, Ukraine (AFP) – The echo of thunderous artillery shells from afar mixes with the din of people huddled around public water pumps in Slovensk, piercing the turbulent calm that chokes the nearly deserted streets of this eastern Ukrainian city.
The dwindling Sloviansk population appears only – a few minutes at a time – to fill the pumps that have been the city’s only water source for more than two months. Fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces near the main city of Donetsk region Vital infrastructure was destroyed, cutting off residents from gas and water for several months.
The water is running for now, but fears are growing with the onset of winter, when a city just seven miles (12 kilometers) from Russian-occupied territory could face a humanitarian crisis once pipes start to freeze.
“The ongoing battles have destroyed the water infrastructure,” said Lyubov Mahly, a 76-year-old widow who collects 20 liters (about five gallons) of water twice daily from a public tank near her apartment. Four flights of stairs on their own.
“When there is shelling and whistles we continue to carry them,” she said on Sunday. “It’s too risky for us, but what can we do?”
Only a fifth of the city’s 100,000 pre-invasion population remained. With heavy fighting raging just miles away as Russian forces continue their incursion into Donetsk – part of the Donbass industrial region Where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014 – residents brave the bombing to make do with the only remaining water source. Local officials believe things will only get worse once the cold sets in.
Locals fill their bottles with hand pumps or from plastic tanks at one of five public wells before transporting them home in bicycle baskets, prams and even prams.
Speaking from her elegant kitchen after one of these trips, Mahley said she boils some water for at least 15 minutes to make sure it’s safe for consumption. The rest is used for bathing, washing clothes and dishes, watering plants, and caring for a stray dog named Chapa.
After her husband, Nikolai, died of diabetes four years ago, Mahlii shares her Soviet-given apartment with two bright yellow canaries and an assortment of houseplants.
The water she collected filled plastic basins and buckets stacked on every flat surface in her small bathroom, while empty plastic bottles line the walls in the hallway. Meat and vegetable soup was cooked on an electric stove for lunch.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has issued a mandatory evacuation order for all residents From the Donetsk region at the end of July, saying that survival will cost lives. But despite that and the terror that accompanies the cry of rockets falling near the city, with no money to move and nowhere to go, Mahlii plans to stay in Sloviansk – no matter what.
“I don’t want to leave my apartment because someone else might occupy it,” she said. “I don’t want to leave. I will die here.”
Ninil Kislovska, a 75-year-old Slovenian, collected water from a tank in a garden on Sunday to soak cucumbers in the sun that afternoon. She said that scarcity turned all aspects of her life upside down.
“Without water, you won’t get anywhere. I have to carry 60, 80, 100 liters of water a day, and it still isn’t enough.” Bread and water are sacred and they took it from the people. We must punish such acts, perhaps not by us, but hope for God’s judgment.”
Filling her bottles, Kislovska said she sometimes avoids showers to save herself from a trip to the park, and often washes her clothes in a nearby lake.
She blamed the local government for the lack of running water, and complained that nearby Kramatorsk – Just six miles (10 kilometers) to the south – the water is still gushing from its spigots.
But Oleksandr Goncharenko, head of the Kramatorsk Military Administration, said that even comparative luxury is threatened by winter, when the temperature drops to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit).
“All these wells and pumps will freeze,” Goncharenko said, adding that places like Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – which also don’t have gas – have become “hostage to devastated infrastructure.”
Goncharenko said that Kramatorsk will drain municipal pipes that collide with unheated structures to prevent them from freezing and exploding, and that he is “99% sure” that the gas will not be restored before winter. He added that power cuts and lack of heating may also increase fire risks as people try to heat their homes and light their homes by other means.
Ukrainian officials are still trying to persuade the remaining residents of the Donetsk region to evacuate As the front line of the war threatens to move west, a harsh winter looms.
Officials in Kramatorsk plan to build more public wells to supply the remaining residents, but Goncharenko warned that water quality could not be guaranteed. He said that it is likely that such water would be obtained from the depths of the earth, which would be rich in calcium and undrinkable.
Mahlii hasn’t made plans for what she’ll do once the cold weather arrives, but after 47 years in her apartment in Sloviansk, she’ll face whatever comes from her home.
“We are alive!” She said. “We live by any means.”
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