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Battle-hit Ukraine village picks up the pieces

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HRABSKE, Ukraine — Alexander Bespalko and his son lifted parts from a burned-out Ukrainian armored personnel carrier in a village ravaged by the past week's battles. With homes destroyed and livelihoods lost, residents in the village of Hrabske must scrape for a living and at least scrap metal is reliable — with wrecked tanks, cars and APCs everywhere.

"My home was leveled and I need to rebuild it somehow," Bespalko said Sunday, in between giving instructions to 9-year-old Denis, who was clambering hammer in hand over the metal carcass.

"This heap of junk is scrap that I can make some money from," he said. "Everything is destroyed and there is no work."

Hrabske and the nearby strategic town of Ilovaysk have suffered badly from recent clashes as separatist Russian forces relentlessly chip away at areas under government control. Few streets are free of the scars of artillery attacks. More than half the schools across rebel-held areas stayed closed Monday on the traditional first day of school, so Denis was free to continue on scrap collection duty.

Ukrainian forces made notable strides after fighting broke out in April, but that has been almost all reversed in a major recent rebel counteroffensive. Kiev and Western countries allege Russia has sent in troops and equipment to bolster the pro-Russia rebels, but Moscow firmly denies it and rejects suggestions that it can wield influence over the rebels.

The bitter fight for Ilovaysk and surrounding areas between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian separatist fighters lasted the best part of a month. On Saturday, the government conceded inevitable defeat as its armed forces were surrounded completely and came under relentless fire.

The rebel force makes no secret of its international character, and includes many Russians along with Spaniards, French and Serbians. In Hrabske, one van carrying rebel fighters was draped with a flag of Russia's Republic of Chechnya.

When shells began falling on the village, those with nowhere else to flee took refuge in a monastery a couple of kilometers (miles) further down the road. On Sunday, as rebels consolidated their control in Hrabske and Ilovaysk, residents started returning to inspect what remained of their homes, if anything.

At some homes, dogs excitedly emerged to greet their long-departed masters.

Tatyana, an emergency services employee who fled to the relative safety of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk, was greeted by her 7-year-old mongrel, Black, as she returned to her house for the first time in 20 days.

She counted herself lucky to find some tomatoes still reddening on the vine and grapes just ripening. But her peaches, peppers and eggplants were ruined.

Other houses in her street were either partially or completely smashed by artillery.

"You see the crater in my neighbor's house," said Tatyana, who asked for her surname not to be published because she is not allowed by emergency services to speak to the press. "When that happened, we quickly packed our bags and left."

As she spoke, the rumble of shelling could be heard in the remote distance.

Hrabske was occupied by government troops and became a base for firing shells at Ilovaysk, whose center lies beyond a railway crossing that served as a dividing line between the warring sides.

While there were already signs of life returning to Hrabske, obtaining basic necessities will be an uphill climb for the foreseeable future. One of the villages' two shops has been reduced to a scorched shell. In a poultry farm hit by mortar, chickens aimlessly roamed the yard. Many others lay dead after weeks of not being fed, and the stink from their rotting bodies wafted across the yard.

The farm once provided work for the village's residents, including Bespalko. Some arrived instead Sunday to stuff as many chickens as would fit into a sack, later to be slaughtered for food.

Typically, those with the least opportunity to leave conflict areas are the aged and the infirm.

In Ilovaysk, AP reporters met a group of elderly people who said they had been living in an apartment basement for a month. First that was for shelter, but now it has become home.

Fragments of Grad rockets, which have played a deadly role in the often erratic shelling duels that are a trademark of this conflict, lay scattered around their apartment courtyard. Even with the fighting over for now, many homes remain without electricity and water.

The only real authority in the city is wielded by the groups of armed rebel fighters roaming the streets and countryside.

At the separatist headquarters, situated in the local police station, the town's rebel commander, who went by the nom de guerre Givi, sat in a gloomy office before a cup to tea as fellow fighters flitted in and out.

"This is my town," he said. "If you want to do anything here, you have to go through me."