Living in limbo for months in a divided town
ZHOVANKA, Ukraine – A town sloping gently from a ridge under a wintry blue sky. People stroll down the hill, seemingly oblivious to the intermittent chatter of gunfire behind them.
This is Zhovanka, a town in a bowl of conflict which has split it almost down the middle.
The line dividing the government sector of Ukraine from the non-government sector runs right along that curving ridge.
It has cut Svetlana Brytska off from her 84-year-old father.
“He’s on the other side of the ridge,” she said. “It used to be a 15-minute walk. Now it’s half a day through the crossing point. I try to go once a week, but I don’t get back until late in the day. He’s sick, he recently had a heart attack. But he won’t leave to live with me.”
He won’t leave because the cemetery where his wife is buried is on the side where his house is.
“He says, I was born here, I will die here. A lot of old people don’t want to leave and be buried wherever. They want to be buried like him, beside my wife and my relatives. That’s what I want, he says.”
The 247 people left in the government sector of Zhovanka spent months living in a bureaucratic limbo after the Ukrainian authorities had pushed the demarcation line back in mid-2015 to a point running through their town. Somehow their section of town was never registered after that in Kiev.
“For months, until December 2015, we were here with nothing,” Svetlana said. “We had the impression no one even knew where Zhovanka was.”
Nothing meant no transport out of town and, above all, no fuel.
“We had the impression no one even knew where Zhovanka was.”
With temperatures below zero in late December, Svetlana starting phoning NGOs and aid agencies to beg for help. People were burning whatever they had, including their clothes, to keep warm.
At the beginning of January UNHCR was able to deliver 100 tonnes of coal to the beleaguered residents.
“It was incredibly helpful,” Svetlana said. “Until then we were completely cut off.”
It took several more months and an act of the Ukrainian parliament to re-establish Svetlana and the others on her side of the ridge as officially in the government sector. That meant the old people could register to collect their pensions.
As of September there is now a bus service twice a week to the city of Bakhmut where residents can pick up their pensions and shop for needed supplies.
Tamara Timofeevna and her family of nine live right on the ridge. That means they live with shelling and bullets almost every day and night. And for months they’ve had no electricity.
“They shoot at us and we have no light,” she says. The family lives in two houses, with a goat and potatoes.
“Where else could we go?” Tamara asked. “I’d need to get an apartment and on my pension I couldn’t afford one.”
Her granddaughter, also named Tamara, proudly holds up five fingers when asked how old she is. She’s dressed up and smiling; the walk down the hill is a happy excursion. She’s learning to write at home, she says, and she knows what to do when the shells start dropping.
"I hide where there are no windows. I hope peace will come and they stop shooting.”
“I run to the corner,” she says, “and I hide where there are no windows. I hope peace will come and they stop shooting.”
It will come too late to save Natasha’s house. It was hit by a shell in November. Now it’s a burnt-out shell.
“It was a normal house, a good house,” she mutters as she wanders through the wreckage. “Now….they really messed it up.”
She had sent her sons, one 30 and the other 17, to another town months earlier.
At least half the residents on this side of the ridge have fled the daily shooting and shelling. But Natasha and her husband are still in Zhovanka, camping with friends.
“Where would I go?” she asks. “Nobody wants us, nobody needs us. And this is my home.”