Neighbors of Soledar, the inhabitants of Siversk hope not to meet the same fate

In Siversk, in eastern Ukraine, Oleksandre Kouzenko and his neighbors are trying to find comfort in their cellar, hoping that their town will not suffer the same fate as that of neighboring Soledar, reduced to ruins by the fighting.

Taking refuge in their basement, they wanted to celebrate the Old New Year, a traditional Orthodox holiday that celebrates the start of the new year according to the Julian calendar.

If this holiday is usually accompanied by gatherings in traditional costumes, the celebration this year is more than modest for Mr. Kouzenko, 64, and his three elderly neighbors.

Garlands decorate the thick blanket hanging at the entrance to the only room with a stove in the basement where they have taken refuge since their town was devastated by bombing this summer.

A resident cooks on a stove in the cellar of her building on January 13, 2023 in Siversk, Donetsk region, Ukraine (AFP – Anatolii Stepanov)

A sign, lit only by one of three candles they have left — already half burnt — pinned to the cover reads: “Happy New Year 2023, Year of the Rabbit, Year of Victory!”

“We are staying strong, we are trying to survive, we are waiting for the end of the war,” Kuzenko told AFP, sitting at a table with two small plates of food to share, while Lyubov, 69, stirs a jar of leftovers for the many abandoned pets they care for.

For Siversk, however, the war is far from over.

– “Let them shoot” –

Siversk is in danger of rapidly becoming a frontline town again, as Russian forces appear close to capturing the nearby town of Soledar, some 30 kilometers to the south.

Oleksandr Kuzenko in the cellar of his building on January 13, 2023 in Siversk, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine (AFP - Anatolii Stepanov)
Oleksandr Kuzenko in the cellar of his building on January 13, 2023 in Siversk, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine (AFP – Anatolii Stepanov)

If the Russian army announced on Friday the capture of Soledar, Ukraine denied it, saying that fighting was still taking place there.

Without gas, electricity, water and internet, most of the 1,700 residents remaining in and around Siversk, according to local authorities, know little of the news from the front.

“We don’t have a radio”, loose Mr. Kouzenko, just “word of mouth”.

“Some say Soledar is surrounded, others say not. Let the military decide what happens next,” he added.

Oleksandre Sirenko cuts window frames and pieces of flooring to burn as firewood, on January 13, 2023 in Siversk, Donetsk region, Ukraine (AFP - Anatolii Stepanov)
Oleksandre Sirenko cuts window frames and pieces of flooring to burn as firewood, on January 13, 2023 in Siversk, Donetsk region, Ukraine (AFP – Anatolii Stepanov)

Near the steep-stepped entrance to the shelter, Oleksandre Sirenko, 55, says he hopes Ukrainian troops will hold their ground, while cutting up window frames and pieces of flooring to burn as firewood.

“We just hope they won’t retreat. We’re scared, but where should we go?” he whispered.

Scratching the ear of a dog outside the basement where she has lived since March, first with 17 people, today with only six, Valentyna Kouteïko, 61, says: “Siversk has been surrounded more than once. What else is there to bomb?”

Valentyna Kuteiko pets a dog outside the basement where she has been living for months, on January 13, 2023 in Siversk, Donetsk region, Ukraine (AFP - Anatolii Stepanov)
Valentyna Kuteiko pets a dog outside the basement where she has been living for months, on January 13, 2023 in Siversk, Donetsk region, Ukraine (AFP – Anatolii Stepanov)

The sound of artillery rumbles down the street, but she says she wants to “stay here, try to live and survive.” “We are not afraid, let them shoot,” she proclaims.

Dmytro Afanasiev, 34, admits for his part that he knows little of the news from the front. He just wants the killings to stop.

“We’re not worried about what might happen because of Soledar; we’re worried a lot of people will die,” he says.

A resident carries a stove he received through humanitarian aid on January 13, 2023 in Siversk, Donetsk region, Ukraine (AFP - Anatolii Stepanov)
A resident carries a stove he received through humanitarian aid on January 13, 2023 in Siversk, Donetsk region, Ukraine (AFP – Anatolii Stepanov)

Despite the intense fighting taking place a few dozen kilometers away, the authorities and volunteers are trying to provide basic products to the population and even to carry out repair work on buildings, according to Oleksiï Vorobyov, the head of the military administration.

Aid brings stoves, firewood, food and generators. But according to Oleksiï, the inhabitants “lack something quite different: peace”.

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