Nevelske, Ukraine Surrounded by empty wheat fields and buried under a thick layer of snow, the village of Nevelske in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine lies almost abandoned – it was destroyed amid an escalating crisis between Ukraine and Russia that brought Europe to the brink of conflict.
Located just 24 km (15 miles) northwest of the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, residents of the farm have endured more than seven years in the midst of conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists, until heavy shelling in mid-November sparked most from the rest of its inhabitants to flee.
Before the start of the war in 2014, about 300 people lived in Nevelske, according to the United Nations Office on Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The population has dropped to 45 by the time of the November attacks – now only a handful remain.
The shelling took place amid boiling tensions between Russia and the West over Ukraine, with Moscow amassing tens of thousands of troops and a set of military equipment near the border with Ukraine.
“Everything was destroyed”
Before the attacks, Nevelske was a relatively modern village, with bathrooms and indoor toilets – a luxury in the poor countryside.
The residents had worked hard to develop the village by hand and could plant enough vegetables in the fields nearby to be mostly self-sufficient, something especially important for older residents who cannot work.
Valentina Omelnitskaya’s house was surrounded by a blue fence and had a lush garden where she grew flowers and grapes in the summer, and there was a barn in the yard for her. An abandoned house in the village of Nevelske, Ukraine, loved pigs.
The 63-year-old has invested “so much love” in her house, she said.
After the first attack on November 14, she and her husband, 24-year-old Andriy Dmitryuchenko, 45, hoped it was a one-off and decided to stay at home.
But in the early hours of November 18, Dmitryuchenko recalled seeing a light in the sky through a window and calling Omelnichka and his 36-year-old daughter-in-law, Olha Snehovska, to their shelter in the basement.
“Everything was shaking and when we went out, everything was gone and we didn’t sleep at all tonight,” Dmitryuchenko said.
“We looked around the yard and saw that the barn was gone, the ducks were lying dead and the pigs, one full of shrapnel, were dead … We tried so hard to do it well and everything was destroyed in 40 minutes.”
The pig pen was torn down, an unexploded ordnance got stuck in the closet and 12 kittens were killed.
As in other settlements in the military-controlled area, Operation Joint Forces of Ukraine calls it the “red zone”, and hearing shots and explosions is part of everyday life in Nevelske.
He endured the fighting after the outbreak of war after Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula and supported separatists who had seized large parts of the eastern part of the country.
Both sides reached a ceasefire in 2015, but hostilities continue and nearly 14,000 people have been killed, including more than 3,000 civilians.
Tensions between Russia and the West resurfaced in October as Ukraine attacked a Russian-backed howitzer, armed with a drone and satellite images, which appear to show that Russia has gathered tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine. .
Western leaders are trying to calm the crisis, which some warn could lead to an invasion of Ukrainian territory by turning to Russia, while trying to increase pressure by promising harsh sanctions in the event of an invasion.
“They headed straight for us”
Omelnitskaya and Dmitryuchenko, both with gold-toothed smiles and delicate blue eyes, said mines and other weapons had struck gardens and fields during the conflict, but rarely houses in the village.
“After the hardest battles here in 2014, people came back in a month, but this time I don’t think they will. “Then the bombing was random, but this time it felt like they were trying to hit people’s houses,” Omelnichka said.
“They know that civilians live here, we should not be targets. But they headed straight for us. “
Of the 50 buildings in the village, 16 were hit and 11 destroyed. A military doctor who was sent to the village received severe shrapnel wounds, but later recovered in hospital. Several farm animals were killed.
Many of Nevelske’s houses are still habitable, including those of Omelnichka and Dmitryuchenko, but the attacks left the village without gas and electricity, as well as without water due to the use of electric water pumps.
There is no grocery store anymore, and the nearest one is a ten-minute drive away. Residents are wary of investing money in expensive home renovations when they believe the village could be relocated.
Residents say they have received small amounts of humanitarian aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Czech charity People in Need.
Growing concerns about a possible escalation of hostilities have raised fears of a worsening humanitarian crisis in the wider region.
The human rights organization Amnesty International warned on Friday that further armed conflict in Ukraine would have devastating consequences for the human rights of millions of people and could lead to a refugee crisis. About 1.45 million people have been internally displaced, according to government figures.
Dmitryuchenko and Omelnichka are now temporarily staying at his sister’s house in a nearby village. They will soon have to find a more lasting solution, but they are still not sure how they will pay the rent.
When a village is damaged, they say, prices nearby are rising due to increased demand from runners. According to Dmitryuchenko, housing prices in the area have risen in recent years.
“We talk to friends in other cities like Nipro – their children took them – and I call them and talk about moving to where they are. We cry every time because they want to come back, and we want to stay here, “she said.
“I just want peace, and we can do the rest ourselves. Maybe then even those who left in 2014 will return. “