Sergei Grits/AP Photo

In war-ravaged eastern Ukraine, few thought cease-fire would last

Prevailing sense of skepticism existed over fragile truce even before multiple breaches were reported

DONETSK, Ukraine — Even before the already shaky cease-fire between Ukraine and pro-Russia separatists gave way to breaches on Sunday, Lydia Olekseyivna and her neighbors had little faith the agreement would end a bloody conflict that had destroyed so much of their lives.

“Last night there was explosions, this morning there was gunfire, and now you can hear them shooting,” she said Saturday, adding: “What kind of ceasefire is this?”

A frail octogenarian, Lydia — who preferred to give only her patronymic and not her last name — was tearful, the cane shaking in her hand, as she recounted the impact of months living under the sound of heavy artillery fire.

And despite the truce agreed to on Friday, there was little evidence of a let-up in the conflict. Short bursts of gunfire, which seemed to be coming from the direction of the city’s airport, were heard as Lydia spoke.

That airport, a glass and steel structure remodeled for the 2010 European Cup soccer tournament, was once a source of pride for the many nearby residents who worked there. Now it is badly damaged and inoperable as a result of months of fighting.

While many of her neighbors spent much of the last two months sleeping in basements to take cover from the shelling, without a cellar, Lydia and her husband simply wait out the war in their living room.

“I am ready to die,” she said. “Even when the German fascists came here during the war, it wasn’t as bad as what the Ukrainians are doing to us.”

Her war-weariness was echoed across the battle-worn region. On Saturday, there was a prevailing sense of skepticism that the cease-fire deal signed only a day before in Minsk, Belarus, would stop fighting that has so far claimed more than 2,600 lives and forced as many as a million people to leave their homes.

That skepticism has been compounded by widening divisions between Ukrainians who support a military push to end the eastern rebellion and those who seek a political solution to stop the fighting. But on both sides of the spectrum, there is very little faith that another call for a cease-fire — the third in this five-month long campaign — will hold for long.

“Neither the Ukrainian military nor the rebel government want this war to stop after their recent successes,” said Dmitry, 33, who declined to give his last name for fear of retaliation from the rebels.

Rebel leaders, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) hashed out the cease-fire deal with the endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom the United States and other western countries have accused of using the rebellion to destabilize Ukraine and prevent it from joining the European Union or the NATO alliance.

Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement in what it says is an internal Ukrainian conflict.

Both the rebels and the Ukrainian government said early on Saturday that the cease-fire had largely held overnight except for a few sporadic firefights. But neither side retreated from positions and checkpoints along the major roads remained in place Saturday.

And by late Saturday evening, outright breaches of the cease-fire were being reported. Ukrainian forces were said to have come under heavy artillery fire to the east of the Azov Sea port of Mariupol. The area has been the most recent flashpoint of the conflict since Aug. 27, when Ukraine said Russian troops and military equipment crossed the border to bolster the rebels. At least three civilians were killed in the fighting there on Friday. Dozens were injured.

Further fighting took place on Sunday. In the village of Spartak, north of Donetsk, houses were ablaze, seemingly after an exchange of fire between pro-government and rebel groups.

It was a one of a number of confrontations reported Sunday, in a development that pushed the fragile truce into fresh doubt.

Who benefits from cease-fire?

In small enclaves hit hard by the fighting, like this neighborhood in the Oktyabrskiy region of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, the fighting came as no surprise.

On Saturday — less than 24 hours after the cease-fire started — there was a prevailing sense of hopelessness over the prospects of a lasting truce. Some residents said they saw domestic and international politics hijacking a peaceful solution to the fighting.

“Somebody is benefiting from this war, but we are suffering,” said Nadezhda Agafonovna. The 73-year-old continued: “The cease-fire is only good for the Ukrainian army, because they will regroup and then start bombing us again.”

Some blame the ongoing situation on a new East versus West battle being waged by the United States against Russia. Others fault what they claim is a “fascist junta” in Kiev, which they say is trying to wipe out Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine — an idea that is propagated by the Russian media that is the main source of news in this region.

Meanwhile some in Donetsk are urging the Ukrainian government to push ahead with its counteroffensive.

“I don’t think we should stop now and let the rebels gain more territory,” said Denis Voloshyn, 44, a Donetsk small-business owner, explaining why he was not in favor of the cease-fire.

In July, Voloshyn sent his wife and three children to Mariupol to get away from the fighting. His children started school there on Sept. 1, since the Donetsk schools were unable to open because of the war. When the rebels began closing in on Mariupol, he began rethinking his plan.

“I think we should finish this fight, but with Russia involved, I don’t know how,” he said.

Ukrainian military forces did indeed make significant victories in July and August against the pro-Russia rebels that have declared themselves independent from Kiev as the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Those gains came at the cost of many civilian lives and massive infrastructure damage across the region, as it was hit by heavy artillery fire and Grad rockets. Human Rights Watch has reported that both sides have used such heavy weapons in residential areas during the conflict, a violation of the international laws of war.

But Ukraine’s gains were usurped quickly at the end of last month, when, according to Kiev, Russia began propping up the rebels with more weapons and fighters. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the charge. But since then, the rebels have managed to retake territory and, in some places, bolster support from the region’s residents who now blame the Ukrainian military for killing its own.

Pro-Russia rebel leaders said in Minsk on Friday that the cease-fire deal would not preclude them from continuing to seek independence from Kiev, an idea that still has some steam in areas hard hit by the fighting. As the fighting around Donetsk has increased, rebels have stepped up their efforts to build their own government structures, including a humanitarian arm that has been distributing food and water to residents. Grocery stores and shops have been shuttered and closed for months since the fighting started, even in once cosmopolitan Donetsk.

“What has Kiev ever sent us besides soldiers who are shooting at us?” said Oksana Ivanenko, 45, as a round of automatic weapons fired off in the background.  “There’s not [any] chance for talks now. We will live with any country — the rebels or Russia — but not the Ukrainians. Never again with Ukraine.”

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