In Rubeyne, face to face between Russian and Ukrainian troops

“You can’t die twice,” says Mikhailo, who has lost everything and is smoking a cigarette in the ruins of Rubizhne, waiting for the war to end or for him to die under one of the shells that continuously rain on the city. in the middle of a fight.

Kremina, a neighboring town on the Donbas front in eastern Ukraine, fell five days ago. Rubeyne is in touch, and the Russian army has launched an offensive in recent days to capture the Donbass.

After a month of strikes, Russian troops have entrenched themselves in the northern part of the city, while the southern part is still largely held by Ukrainian troops, AFP journalists said on Saturday.

Ukrainian artillery managed to hold back their advance for a while. From his blows, columns of smoke rise into the sky above the tallest chimney of a chemical plant in the city. Blocks of buildings abandoned by working-class families disappear into a cloud.

To get to Rubeyne, a city of 60,000 before the war, you have to pass through a series of checkpoints guarded by scattered soldiers and let Kozak armored vehicles rush to fortify your position.

Inside, a city appears in crumbs. Every building, without exception, was scarred by the blows it had received; not a single glass pane had withstood the flurry of crossfire. The streets are cratered debris fields.

Buildings are either damaged, charred, or gutted. We see some open-roofed or double-fronted, like dollhouses.

– “I want my house” –

And the last ones want to stay, as in every city at the front, the most fragile.

At the height of the only roundabout in the south of Rubeyne, only 12 residents were left in the basement to survive under the carpet of bombs. Mihailo drags his ruined sandals to the hideout.

On the threshold of a group of men, some are sitting, others are standing, smoking a cigarette, letting the wood stove go out. The stairs lead to a labyrinth of darkened rooms. The first niche is illuminated by a wick dipped into a jar of oil.

Next to the flickering flames, the radio crackles the American song “You’re in the Army Now” by the English group Status Quo, which has become a classic for all the draft youth of the world.

In the next room, a candle illuminates the faces of six old men lying on cots.

Lyudmila, 63, who has lived in the basement since March 15, says that “there were those who had nowhere to go in Ukraine.”

“My mom will be 90 in August, I can’t carry her in my arms and bring her to the car,” she says.

“Let all those who started this war gather in our basement to come and conduct their negotiations. Let them come and listen to the bombing and sit by candlelight. And then they will finally make a decision,” Lyudmila launches, trying to calm her down. mother’s moans.

“I want my house,” interrupts the mother, wrapping herself like a mummy in a blanket.

The old woman refuses to climb the stairs of the orphanage. She is “too scared”, as well as too many memories that come back “about World War II, about the famine” she experiences from her basement and her uninterrupted night.

– “Everything is unreal” –

The historical witness of the city, the magnificent Palace of Culture, collapsed, is supported only by the facade. Inside, an old-fashioned movie screen was in tatters, and the reclining seats were crumbling like dominoes.

In the reception area, a huge front chandelier shattered on the red carpet. Costumes from children’s plays hang in overturned cabinets. A room with a piano without glass is filled with plaster.

Yuri Fomin, 62, a retired engineer, wanders the empty corridors of a ruined palace with a Polish novel and pen in hand.

“Every day as a kid, I either went to the movies or picked up a book,” he says. “Such a happy childhood, so much nostalgia…”

“I was not mentally prepared for this war, I got the impression that everything is unreal, that we live in a parallel dimension, but in fact we live in the reality that the sick brain of the President of the Russian Federation produces,” he said. said.

As is often the case in this region engulfed in separatist conflict, Mihailo, who keeps his end of the bench under the bombs, believes that “whoever wins, the war must end as soon as possible.”

And what will he say to the first Russian soldier he meets? “Hi, do you have a cigarette?” he replies, very pleased with his joke.

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