SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — The echo of artillery shells thundering in the distance mingles with the noise of people gathering around Sloviansk’s public water pumps, piercing the uneasy silence that drowns the near-deserted streets of this eastern Ukrainian city.
Members of Sloviansk’s dwindling population emerge – minutes at a time – to fill up at the pumps that have been the city’s only source of water for more than two months. Fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces near key city in Donetsk region it has destroyed vital infrastructure that has cut off residents from gas and water for months.
Water is flowing for now, but fears are growing that in winter, the town just seven miles (12km) from Russian-held territory could face a humanitarian crisis once the pipes start to freeze.
“The water infrastructure was destroyed by the constant fighting,” said Lyubov Mahlii, a 76-year-old widow who collects 20 liters (about five gallons) of water twice a day from a public tank near her apartment, dragging plastic bottles up . four stairs by herself.
“When there are bombings and sirens, we continue to carry it,” he said on Sunday. “It is a great danger to us, but what can we do?”
Only a fifth of the city’s pre-invasion population of 100,000 remains. With heavy fighting raging just miles away as Russian forces continue their push into Donetsk – part of the industrial Donbas region where Moscow-backed separatists have been battling Ukrainian troops since 2014 — residents defy shelling to make do with the only remaining source of water. And local officials think things will only get worse when the cold weather sets in.
Locals fill their bottles with hand pumps or from plastic tanks at one of five public wells before carrying them home in bicycle baskets, wheelbarrows and even prams.
Speaking from her tidy kitchen after one such trip, Mahlii said she boils some water for at least 15 minutes to make sure it is safe to drink. The rest is used for bathing, washing clothes and dishes, watering plants and taking care of a stray dog named Chapa.
After her husband Nikolai died of diabetes four years ago, Mahlii shares her Soviet government-provided apartment with two bright yellow canaries and an assortment of houseplants.
The water she had collected filled the plastic tubs and buckets stacked on every flat surface in her small bathroom, while empty plastic bottles lined the walls in her hallway. A meat and vegetable soup was cooked on an electric burner for lunch.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a mandatory evacuation order for all residents of the Donetsk region in late July, saying that staying would cost lives. But despite this fact and the terror that accompanies the scream of rockets falling near the city, with no money to relocate and nowhere to go, Mahlii plans to stay in Sloviansk — no matter what.
“I don’t want to leave my apartment because someone else might find out,” she said. “I do not want to leave. I’m going to die here.”
Another Sloviansk resident, Ninel Kislovska, 75, collected water from a reservoir in a park on Sunday to marinate cucumbers in the sun that afternoon. She said the shortage had turned all aspects of her life upside down.
“Without water you won’t get anywhere. I have to carry 60, 80, 100 liters of water a day and it’s still not enough,” he said. “Bread and water are sacred and they just took it from the people. Such actions must be punished, perhaps not by us, but hopefully by the judgment of God.”
Filling her bottles, Kyslovska said she sometimes skips bathing to save a trip to the park and often washes her clothes in a nearby pond.
He blamed the local government for the lack of running water, complaining that nearby Kramatorsk – just six miles (10 kilometers) to the south – still had water flowing from its taps.
But Oleksandr Goncharenko, head of Kramatorsk’s military administration, said even that comparative luxury is threatened by winter, when temperatures drop to -20 C (-4 F).
“All these wells and pumps will freeze,” Goncharenko said, adding that places like Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – which also lacks natural gas – have become “hostages to damaged infrastructure”.
Goncharenko said Kramatorsk would drain municipal pipes that run through unheated structures to prevent them from freezing and bursting, and that he was “99% sure” gas would not be restored before winter. Power outages and a lack of heating could also increase the risk of fire as people try to heat and light their homes by other means, he added.
Ukrainian officials are still trying to convince the remaining residents of the Donetsk region to leave as the front line of the war threatens to move westward and the inhospitable winter approaches.
Officials in Kramatorsk plan to build more public wells to supply the rest of the population, but Goncharenko warned that water quality cannot be guaranteed. That water would likely come from deep underground, he said, which would be too high in calcium and unsuitable for drinking.
Mahlii hasn’t made plans for what she’ll do once the cold weather arrives, but after 47 years in her Sloviansk apartment, she’ll face whatever comes from home.
“We survive!” he said. “We survive by any means.”
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