Alyona, 24, is from Debaltseve, a heavily contested city on the frontline of the Ukrainian conflict. When fighting intensified in January, Alyona, her husband and two-year old son Gleb, stayed in the basement, but eventually the situation became unbearable and they fled the city on 29 January. As of 13 February, they were staying in a sanatorium in the forest in Svyatogorsk, around 115 kilometres from Debaltseve, along with more than 350 other displaced people.
My husband, son and I left Debaltseve for the first time back in July, two weeks before a military offensive took place in the town. We fled to Konstantinovka, but came back to Debaltseve in October because my husband was going to be fired from his job for being absent.
We now understand that those events in the summer were nothing compared with the events taking place right now in Debaltseve. Even before the fighting increased on 19 January, we rarely stayed in the apartment; we were always running to the basement. We had been organising the shelter for months – cleaning, bringing mattresses and everything we could afford so we’d have a better place to stay. But in the end, when the shelling starts, you don’t get to choose, you just run to the closest basement.
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
There were periods without shelling, for a couple of days, and other times when we couldn’t leave the basement. At some point, people weren’t paying attention to constant shelling anymore; they could tell if it was coming from or to Debaltseve. Once I had to hide my little son in the bathroom and when he looked out, he asked me “Is it coming to us or from us, mum?”
For the ten days before we came here, we stayed in the basement with no power, no heating. The shelters are from the Second World War, they’re humid and neglected. It was really cold, about eight degrees, and we were about 20 to 25 people in the basement. People brought some food, but since there was no electricity, we had to connect a mini-oven with gas bottles to cook.
All basements in the city were crowded. There were elderly people, children, everybody was there. And people became sick. Before 19 January, it was possible to get medicines from pharmacists downtown, but we couldn’t find specific treatments. Food was also really expensive, because the supply became more and more complicated. There was no cash, only one bank worked at that time in the city, but the main problem was that people didn’t have anything to withdraw: businesses were on standby, so people haven’t been paid.
We were evacuated by volunteers. A bus was supposed to come and pick us up at 8 am but we had to wait until 3 pm because the bus was stopped by shelling. It was scary to wait outside, near a building that had already been shelled several times in the past. Waiting there all together, I thought it could become a mass grave. A shell hit around 7 am and a woman lost her leg. By the time the ambulance arrived five hours later, she had bled to death.
Most of my family has been evacuated from Debaltseve, but some of them decided to stay. Now they have no opportunity to leave anymore. They can charge their mobile phones very rarely, so it’s always terrible to wait patiently for their call to know that they are fine. We are all tired of the situation, of having to go through all these memories and thoughts every day.
The MSF psychologist talked to my boy and said that he was doing fine. There is a woman from this place that comes quite often to play with the kids, she tries to entertain them. The volunteers bring a lot of toys for our kids, but you can see what kind of games are the most popular among the children here now [she watches her son playing with toy guns]. I noticed that he doesn’t want to be away from me. He’s still scared. I really do hope that my child won’t have scars from these events. Time will tell.
Here, we get some food from organisations and volunteers, and we hope to get more in the coming days. We live on the money we took with us when we left the city.
We don’t have plans for the future. It is difficult to have hope. Everybody has been affected, mentally or physically. People had everything, but now my child is homeless. It’s impossible to turn back the clock…
Alyona is receiving support from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) psychologist because she is worried about the impact of the conflict on their son. MSF has also recently begun providing basic healthcare for residents of the sanatorium.