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Life under shelling in eastern Ukraine: a battle to survive

DONETSK, Ukraine — At the Trudovskoi bus station in Donetsk, the gossip these days focuses on whose house has been hit by shelling and where you can get food handouts.

Day and night, mortars and rockets rain down on the rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine — mainly in the city's outlying districts, where the poorest people live.

"One shell fell, then another, and then yet another. One hit the Azerbaijani family's house, remember?" 64-year-old Nikolai Skripko told his 38-year-old neighbor, Sveta Banina, counting the damaged houses on his fingers.

Death bulletins have become almost daily fare since last spring, when Russian-backed rebels took up arms, trying to break two eastern regions away from Ukraine. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,300 people have been killed and nearly a million forced from their homes by the fighting.

The economic ruin caused by the violence has yet to be calculated — but it's vast. Joblessness is rife in the rebellious regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Businesses have closed, entrepreneurs have fled and cash is running dry. Able-bodied people have no work and retirees have no pensions, since the government in Kiev has stopped paying pensions in rebel-held areas.

A flurry of European diplomacy this week aims to halt the hostilities. But hope for the future is faint in Trudovskoi, a neighborhood where livelihoods revolve around a coal mine forced to shut down by the war.

Ending the fighting will be only the beginning of a long, hard slog back to normal life.

"People just sit at home. The mine is closed. There is nothing to do," said Banina, who lost her own job when the shop where she worked, just beside Trudovskoi bus station, was destroyed in a rocket attack.

She and thousands of others in Donetsk — a city once home to 1 million that as recently as 2012 hosted the prestigious European soccer championship tournament — are forced to resort to whatever handouts are available.

The most dependable source of food aid has been from the charitable foundation of billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, a contentious figure whose vast wealth is founded on the industrial output of this cash-poor but coal-rich region.

But the Akhmetov foundation distribution point for residents of Banina's heavily shelled district was closed Monday due to security concerns. That forced the needy in Trudovskoi to take two buses into the center of Donetsk along roads frequently subjected to rocket barrages.

Despair quickly soured the mood at the distribution center, where workers snap at line-jumpers.

"Whatever the circumstances, have the decency to be civilized!" an Akhmetov foundation employee shouted at a waiting crowd of several dozen, mainly elderly, people.

A short stroll up the road, a grocery chain store nicknamed "Greedy-guts" closed its doors a few days earlier. Most shops are closed.

Bringing the food home is fraught with peril. Only minutes after Banina returned home Monday, a projectile tore into an overpass along her route, killing two motorists.

Deaths like those will only deepen the isolation in Trudovskoi, whose maze of streets is riddled with rebel militia dugouts, making it an evergreen target for the Ukrainian army.

Before leaving the local bus stop for the ten-minute walk home, Banina and Skripko, who helped carry a load of food to be shared among several households, talked with other residents about the morning's shelling. Direct strikes are commonplace, Skripko said.

For most of the last six months, Trudovskoi has been without power and running water. Most of Donetsk is still connected to basic utilities, but repair brigades are reluctant to restore damaged services in areas near the front line — and Trudovskoi is as close to the front as it gets.

Solidarity and ingenuity are the surest ways to survive.

"We support one another every way we can," Skripko said.

Residents with wells in their yards open them up to neighbors without water. Skripko goes around to the houses, feeding scraps to their guard dogs.

If charcoal for heating can be spared, it's shared. It's not safe to forage for firewood in the nearby woods because of stray explosives, said Banina's 18-year old son, Ruslan.

Mobile phones and battery-powered radios are the only link to the outside world for Trudovskoi residents. But charging a phone often requires the taking the bus, which perennially runs a gauntlet of shelling, to reach the nearest friend with electricity. At least it's a break from the mind-numbing monotony of staying in unheated homes in the middle of winter.

To keep those trips to a minimum, Ruslan Banin built a charger able to power up mobile phones with household batteries.

With unemployment rampant, many are tempted by the promise of a salary with the rebel militia. It's not clear, however, how the Russian-backed separatists are able to pay their fighters.

The finance ministry of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic complained earlier this month of a severe deficit in hryvnia, the Ukrainian currency, caused by what it described as the government's economic blockade against their territory. As a result, it said, payments of benefits and salaries will be made in other currencies — including British pounds, U.S. dollars, Chinese yuan, Japanese yen and euros.

There's been no sign yet that the rebels are really getting their hands on Chinese yuan or Japanese yen, but those are surely not the most useful currencies in a Ukrainian war zone.

In reality, it is rare to find people in Donetsk who have been paid anything more than cursory sums in any currency at all.

Ruslan Banin said he will not join the rebel militia because his primary goal remains to fend for his mother and his 13-year-old sister. But he said he can understand why others do sign up.

"A friend of mine lost his father, mother and sister in the shelling. What was he supposed to do?" he said.