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The Siege Deepens In Eastern Ukraine's Donetsk


There has been more intense fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Government forces are trying to take the regional capital of Donetsk from pro-Russian separatists. Thousands of residents of that city have fled. Those who remain face worsening conditions under a siege. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson went to Donetsk for this report.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: In the Western Petrovsky neighborhood of Donetsk, Grad rockets leave nasty calling cards every night as they recently did at the main high school. Volunteers are here boarding up the many shattered windows and cobbling together pieces of the main door which was blown off of its hinges. A sign in Russian that says, peace to the world hangs next to the demolished the door of the school. But school administrator Tatiana Zubkova says, war is all anyone here knows these days. She blames Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for sending troops here.

TATIANA ZUBKOVA: (Through translator) I felt hysterical when I saw this gift from Poroshenko. All of the work done to this school - by parents, by volunteers, by sponsors - all of it is now gone.

NELSON: Zubkova doesn't know where the 400 students of this school will attend class starting September first, but she says many parents have fled with their children in the past few weeks anyway. They are part of an exodus of more than a third of the million people who live in Donetsk, according to officials here. The city with its many parks, shops and restaurants looks and feels like a ghost town. Some residents who remain say they spend most of their time indoors to avoid what they describe as armed gangs who steal cars and intimidate people. Rebel patrols are also said to be forcibly recruiting young men to their ranks. And the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic has imposed the death penalty in the city for looting.

ALEXANDR ZAKHARCHENKO: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: At a recent news conference the group's Prime Minister, Alexandr Zakharchenko, said the planned executions fulfill a promise he made when he took office recently to fight criminals and restore safety for residents. He says, he wishes he could do more to help residents with the growing lack of food and gasoline which he blames on blocked supply routes imposed by the Kiev government. That's somewhat ironic, considering it's the Kiev appointed Donetsk City Council that is the only one keeping city services running.

MAXIM ROVINSKIY: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: Reached by phone Council Spokesman, Maxim Rovinskiy, describes how municipal employees worked for days to restore the city water supply that was cut off after recent heavy fighting. The economy in Donetsk may not be as easy to fix, however. At the Donetsk central market just about all of the shops were tightly shuttered last Sunday, which is usually one of the busiest days. The only people there are a handful of vendors as well as a couple of delivery truck drivers resupplying wares no one is buying. One fruit stand vendor is Tatiana Tikhonova.

TATIANA TIKHONOVA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: She says, even people who remain in Donetsk often can't afford to shop anymore because they aren't getting their salaries and pensions. She adds prices are also going up because farmers are too afraid to come here. Not that she feels much like eating these days anyway or sleeping.

TIKHONOVA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: She says, she and her neighbors, their children and even pets huddle in the shelter each night afraid of the shelling that's getting closer. Back at the Petrovsky High School, administrator Zubkova describes similar nights in the basement of her four-story apartment building.

ZUBKOVA: (Foreign language spoken).

NELSON: She says, I don't know how long we can hold on, but I really hope the war stops soon because we are all mentally exhausted. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.