SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — The echoes of distant roaring shells mingled with the din of crowds gathered around a public water pump in Sloviansk, breaking the nearly empty streets of this eastern Ukrainian city Uncomfortably quiet.
Slovensk’s dwindling population has only turned up — minutes at a time — filling up the pumps that have been the city’s only source of water for more than two months.Ukrainian and Russian troops fight near major cities in Donetsk region Damage to vital infrastructure left residents without access to gas and water for months.
The water is temporarily flowing, but there are growing fears that the city, just 7 miles (12 kilometers) from the Russian-occupied zone, could face a humanitarian crisis if the pipes start to freeze.
“The ongoing fighting has destroyed the water infrastructure,” said Lyubov Mahlii, a 76-year-old widow who collects 20 liters (about 5 gallons) of water from a public tank near her apartment twice a day and drags plastic bottles up. She climbed four flights of stairs by herself.
“When there are explosions and alarms, we continue to carry it,” she said on Sunday. “It’s a big risk for us, but what can we do about it?”
Only a fifth of the city’s pre-invasion population of 100,000 remains.Fierce fighting rages only a few miles away as Russian troops continue to advance toward Donetsk, part of the industrial area of Donetsk Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian forces since 2014 – with residents ignoring shelling and their only source of water. Local officials believe the situation will only get worse once the cold hits.
Locals fill bottles with hand pumps or from plastic tanks at one of five public wells and haul them home with bicycle baskets, wheeled carts and even strollers.
After one such trip, she said in her tidy kitchen, she boiled some water for at least 15 minutes to make sure it was safe to drink. The rest is used for bathing, laundry and dishes, watering plants and caring for a stray dog named Chapa.
After her husband Nikolai died of diabetes four years ago, Mary shared her Soviet government-provided apartment with two bright yellow canaries and various houseplants.
The water she collects fills the plastic buckets and buckets stacked on every surface in her small bathroom, while empty plastic bottles line the walls of the hallway. Cook meat and vegetable soup on an electric stove for lunch.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issues mandatory evacuation order for all residents In the Donetsk region at the end of July, he said the rest would cost lives. But despite that, and the fear of screaming rockets falling near the city, with no money to relocate and nowhere to go, Mahli plans to stay in Slovensk anyway.
“I didn’t want to leave my apartment because someone else might be occupying it,” she said. “I don’t want to leave. I’m going to die here.”
Another Slovakian resident, Ninel Kyslovska, 75, fetched water from a water tank in the park on Sunday to pickle cucumbers in the sun that afternoon. The scarcity, she says, has upended every aspect of her life.
“Without water, you can’t do anything. I have to carry 60, 80, 100 litres of water a day, but it’s still not enough,” she said. “Bread and water are sacred, they just take it from people. This behavior has to be punished, maybe not us, but hopefully God’s judgment.”
Kyslovska, who fills her bottle with water, says she sometimes avoids bathing to save herself time in the park, and often does laundry in a nearby lake.
She blamed the local government for a lack of running water, complaining about nearby Kramatorsk – Only 6 miles (10 km) south – still has water coming out of its taps.
But Oleksandr Goncharenko, head of the Kramatorsk military junta, said even relatively luxurious places were threatened by winter when temperatures dropped to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).
“All these wells and pumps freeze,” Goncharenko said, adding that places like Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, which also have no natural gas, have become “hostages to destroyed infrastructure.”
The city of Kramatorsk will drain municipal pipes connected to unheated structures to prevent them from freezing and bursting, said Goncharenko, who is “99 percent sure” the gas won’t come back before winter. He added that power outages and lack of heating could also lead to a spike in fire risk as people try to heat and light by other means.
Ukrainian officials are still trying to persuade the remaining residents of the Donetsk region to evacuate A desolate winter looms as the front of the war threatens to move west.
Officials in Kramatorsk plan to build more public wells to supply the remaining population, but Goncharenko warns that water quality cannot be guaranteed. He said the water likely came from deep underground and was too high in calcium to be drinkable.
Mahlii hasn’t planned what she’ll do once the cold weather arrives, but after 47 years of living in her apartment in Sloviansk, she’ll face everything from her home.
“We survived!” she said. “We’re surviving no matter what.”
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