SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — The echo of artillery shells thundering in the distance mingles with the noise of people gathered around Sloviansk’s public water pumps, permeating the uneasy silence that haunts the nearly deserted streets of this eastern Ukrainian city. suffocated.
Members of Sloviansk’s dwindling population show up just — a few minutes at a time — to refuel at the pumps that have been the city’s only source of water for more than two months. Fighting between Ukrainian and Russian troops near the main city in the Donetsk . region damaged vital infrastructure that cut residents off from gas and water for months.
The water is flowing for now, but fears are mounting that the city, just 12 kilometers from the Russian-held territory in winter, could face a humanitarian crisis once the pipes begin to freeze.
“The water infrastructure was destroyed by the constant fighting,” said Lyubov Mahlii, a 76-year-old widow who collects 20 liters (about five gallons) of water twice a day from a public tank near her apartment, while collecting the plastic bottles. upstairs drags herself up four flights of stairs.
“If there are bombings and sirens, we will continue to wear it,” she said on Sunday. “It’s a big risk for us, but what can we do?”
Only one-fifth of the city’s 100,000 pre-invasion population remains. With heavy fighting just miles away as Russian forces advance on Donetsk, part of the industrial Donbas region where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014 – residents brave the shelling to make do with the only remaining water source. And local officials believe it will only get worse when the cold sets in.
Locals fill their bottles with hand pumps or from plastic tanks at one of five public wells before hauling them home in bicycle baskets, wheeled carts and even strollers.
Speaking from her tidy kitchen after such a trip, Mahlii said she boils some water for at least 15 minutes to make sure it is safe for consumption. The rest is used to bathe, wash clothes and dishes, water plants and care for a stray dog named Chapa.
After the death of her husband, Nikolai, from diabetes four years ago, Mahlii shares her Soviet-provided apartment with two bright yellow canaries and an assortment of houseplants.
Water she’d collected filled the plastic tubs and buckets stacked on every flat surface in her tiny bathroom, while empty plastic bottles lined the walls in her hallway. For lunch, a meat and vegetable soup was cooking on an electric burner.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has issued a mandatory evacuation order for all residents of the Donetsk region in late July, saying that remaining would cost lives. But despite that and the fear associated with the screeching of falling missiles near the city, with no money to move and nowhere to go, Mahlii plans to stay in Sloviansk – come what may.
“I don’t want to leave my apartment because someone else could occupy it,” she said. “I don’t want to leave. I will die here.”
Another Sloviansk resident, Ninel Kyslovska, 75, drew water from a tank in a park on Sunday to marinate cucumbers in the sun that afternoon. She said the scarcity had turned all aspects of her life upside down.
“You can’t get anywhere without water. I have to carry 60, 80, 100 liters of water a day and it’s still not enough,” she said. “Bread and water are sacred and they just took it from people. Such actions must be punished, perhaps not by us, but hopefully by God’s judgment.”
Kyslovska filled her bottles and said she sometimes avoids bathing to save herself 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 – only ten miles to the south – still had water from the taps.
But Oleksandr Goncharenko, the head of Kramatorsk’s military administration, said even relative luxury was threatened by winter, when temperatures plummet to -20 C (-4 F).
“All these wells and pumps will freeze,” Goncharenko said, adding that places like Sloviansk and Kramatorsk — which also lack gas — have become “hostages of destroyed infrastructure.”
Goncharenko said Kramatorsk would drain municipal pipes running in unheated structures to prevent them from freezing and bursting, and that he was “99% sure” that the gas would not be restored before winter. Power outages and the lack of heating can also increase fire risk as people try to heat and light their homes in other ways, he added.
Ukrainian officials are still trying to convince the remaining residents of the Donetsk region to evacuate as the war frontlines threaten to move west and the inhospitable winter looms.
Officials in Kramatorsk plan to build more public wells to supply the remaining population, but Goncharenko warned that water quality could not be guaranteed. Such water would likely run deep underground, he said, which would contain too much calcium and be unsuitable for drinking.
Mahlii has not made any plans for what she will do when it gets cold, but after 47 years in her apartment in Sloviansk, she will have to cope with everything that comes out of her house.
“We are surviving!” she said. “We survive anyway.”
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