Soldiers in civilian areas: a delicate subject in Ukraine
A woman walks past a school partially destroyed by a missile – Copyright AFP/File Anthony WALLACE
The daily strikes on residential areas in eastern Ukraine have raised sensitive questions about military personnel deployed in civilian areas, as well as the activities of local informants.
AFP visited many villages and towns in the Donetsk region, which Russian troops are trying to take, where civilian areas with no apparent military significance are regularly attacked.
In Pokrovsk, 85 kilometers (53 miles) south of Kramatorsk, the main city in the Ukrainian part of the region, a strike destroyed or damaged a dozen houses on a single street last week.
There were similar and often deadly strikes in Kostiantynivka, Toretsk and even in Kramatorsk, further from the front line.
For many local residents there is no doubt why these areas are being affected – they say Ukrainian troops are deploying in abandoned homes and schools.
AFP cannot independently verify their claims.
Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization, has accused Russian and Ukrainian forces of endangering civilians by setting up positions in residential areas.
The group named four cases in areas occupied by Russian forces and three on the Ukrainian side in a report this month.
“Russian and Ukrainian forces have put civilians in Ukraine at unnecessary risk by basing their forces in populated areas without moving residents to safer areas,” the report said.
Asked about the issue by AFP, the governor of the Donetsk region, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said: “It’s a war. It is impossible to avoid the destruction of infrastructure or houses.
“Our main task is to stop the enemy and that can lead to the destruction of infrastructure. It is impossible to fight this war any other way,” he said.
– Informants –
In Kramatorsk, retired turner Yevgen, 70, smokes a cigarette outside the ruins of school number 23 after it was destroyed by a strike.
The building, which in peacetime was to accommodate 500 children aged 7 to 17, was the second school in the town reduced to ruins.
Seven other schools in the city have been damaged since the start of the war, according to Denis Sysoyev, the local education official.
The school had been used since the start of the war as a food aid depot.
But Yevgen said “the Russians are targeting Ukrainian soldiers. I don’t know if they stayed inside the school but we saw them regularly coming and going here”.
“And in our region there are a lot of ‘well-meaning’ people who want to help and inform the Russians,” he said.
Natalia, a mother of three students at School 23, made the same statement.
She mentioned a Telegram group of local residents where she said the comments left no doubt about “who is pro-Russian and who is not”.
– ‘Calm down’ –
Every time there is a Russian strike, we talk about the sensitive subject of informants.
“I wonder, how does the enemy know the coordinates of where the military are based?” said Kyrylenko.
“Many people remain loyal to the occupiers and wait for the Russian world. They know it’s a betrayal. They will regret it later,” he said.
Kramatorsk Mayor Oleksandr Goncharenko wrote that “hate is rising among local residents”.
“Those who are waiting for the arrival (of the Russians), those who have been promised heaps of gold and freedom of expression from their ‘rescuers’ are idiots,” he said on Facebook.
“Please calm down. Put aside your resentment and suspicions. Turn your anger in a different direction, against those who want to deprive you of your normal and peaceful life”.
Galyna Prychepa, spokeswoman for the intelligence services of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, said 37 informants have been arrested in the region since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24.
They are accused of espionage and high treason.
There are similar issues in southern Ukraine where the governor of the Mykolaiv region, which is constantly bombarded by Russian forces, has announced a $100 reward for anyone who helps identify Russian informants.
On his Telegram account, Vitaly Kim asked for information on “those who reveal to the occupiers the places of deployment of Ukrainian troops” or transmit the coordinates of potential targets.