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Concentrated In Certain Areas, Ukraine Fighting Goes On


The U.S. Treasury Department hit Russia with new sanctions yesterday. This was just as Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, was meeting with President Trump at the White House. And all this is a reminder that the war between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists rages on, often beneath the headlines. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson recently visited eastern Ukraine to learn about life for civilians there.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The fighting here in eastern Ukraine is concentrated in five hot spots, where thousands of people live with little power, heat or running water. They grow their food in home gardens littered with shrapnel. These Ukrainians endure shelling and gunfire from both sides on most nights, says Alexander Hug, who is deputy chief of the international monitoring mission here.

ALEXANDER HUG: It is not a fight on open fields where just one formation stands against the other. It is tracked into cities and interrupts the life of civilians significantly.

NELSON: He says each side refuses to withdraw its heavy weapons despite agreeing to the many cease-fires and international peace deals that are supposed to bring the 3-year-old conflict to an end. Hug's agency, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, reports that in the first six months of this year, 47 civilians were killed and 221 were injured in eastern Ukraine. By comparison, last year, 88 civilians were killed and 354 were injured.

HUG: They're not in tanks and in armored vehicles. They are in their house, in their beds. They're on the streets, in their gardens. They're fully exposed to these risks, and that has to be acknowledged. It is for them that this should come to an end.

NELSON: The civilians in those hot spots agree, but most who I talk to don't believe the war will end.

OLEG KOVALENKO: (Sighing, speaking Russian).

NELSON: One is Oleg Kovalenko. He believes the war isn't about people but about business, business done over blood.


NELSON: Kovalenko lives on the Ukrainian-controlled side in Avdiivka, which is the home of Europe's largest coke factory. Three hundred and twenty shells have struck the coal-converting plant. Two months ago, a shell exploded over Kovalenko's head as he drank beer outside his bullet-marked house less than a mile from the front. The shrapnel from the latest explosion tore a small hole in his left shoulder.

KOVALENKO: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: He likens the frequent shelling to pingpong. One side fires, and the other side responds, all night long, he says. But the danger isn't always at night.


NELSON: Ukrainian rescue workers blow up three mines they find off the main road as I leave Avdiivka that afternoon.

VERA ANOSHINA: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: A few mornings later in the separatist-controlled village of Spartak, gunfire kicks up the dirt a few feet from where I'm talking to Vera Anoshina, who is counting up previous casualties. My team and I take cover, but the 52-year-old Ukrainian stays put with her bike.

ANOSHINA: (Speaking Russian).


NELSON: Anoshina laughs as if numb to the danger. Death by war is a fact of life in Spartak, which borders the frontline.

ANOSHINA: (Speaking Russian).

NELSON: She tells me about her neighbors who were killed here, some of whom are buried where they died because it was too risky to move their bodies.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, eastern Ukraine.


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 NPR.org. 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.