By JUSTIN SPIKE
SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — The echo of artillery shells rumbling in the distance mixes with the din of people gathered around Sloviansk’s public water pumps, piercing the eerie silence choking the nearly deserted streets of this city in eastern Ukraine.
Members of Sloviansk’s dwindling population only emerge, a few minutes at a time, to fill the pumps that have been the city’s only source of water for more than two months. Fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces near the key city in the Donetsk region
The water is flowing for now, but fears are growing that come winter the city just 12 kilometers (seven miles) from Russian-occupied territory could face a humanitarian crisis once the pipes begin to freeze.
“The water infrastructure was destroyed by the constant battles,” 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 the bottles plastic up. four flights of stairs on her own.
“When there are bombings and sirens, we still carry it,” he said on Sunday. “It’s a big risk for us, but what can we do?”
Only a fifth of the city’s pre-invasion population of 100,000 remains. With heavy fighting just miles away as Russian forces continue their advance on Donetsk, part of the industrial Donbas region. where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014, residents brave shelling to make do with the only remaining source of water. And local officials believe things will only get worse once the cold sets in.
Locals fill their bottles with hand pumps or plastic tanks at one of five public wells before bringing them home in bike baskets, wheeled carts 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’s safe to drink. The rest is used for bathing, washing clothes and dishes, watering plants, and taking care of a stray dog named Chapa.
Following the death of her husband, Nikolai, from diabetes four years ago, Mahlii shares her apartment provided by the Soviet government with two bright yellow canaries and a variety of houseplants.
The water she had gathered filled the plastic tubs and buckets stacked on every flat surface in her small bathroom, while empty plastic bottles lined the walls of her hallway. A meat and vegetable soup was cooking on an electric burner for lunch.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a mandatory evacuation order for all residents. from the Donetsk region in late July, saying staying would cost lives. But despite that and the terror that comes with the thunder of rockets falling near the city, with no money to move and nowhere else to go, Mahlii plans to stay in Sloviansk, no matter what.
“I don’t want to leave my apartment because someone else could occupy it,” he said. “I do not want to go. I will die here.
Another Sloviansk resident, Ninel Kyslovska, 75, fetched water from a tank in a park on Sunday to marinate cucumbers in the sun that afternoon. She said the scarcity had changed every aspect of her life.
“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,” she said. “Bread and water are sacred and they just took it away from people. Such actions must be punished, perhaps not by us, but hopefully by God’s judgment.”
Filling her bottles, Kyslovska said she sometimes avoids bathing to save herself a trip to the park and often washes her clothes in a nearby lake.
He blamed the local government for the lack of running water and complained that near Kramatorsk — just six miles (10 kilometers) to the south — still had water coming out of its faucets.
But Oleksandr Goncharenko, head of the Kramatorsk military administration, even said 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 have no gas, had become “hostages of destroyed infrastructure.”
Goncharenko said Kramatorsk will drain municipal pipes leading to unheated structures to prevent them from freezing and bursting, and that he was “99% sure” the gas would not be restored before winter. Power outages and lack of heat could also increase fire risk as people try to heat and light their homes through other means, he added.
Ukrainian officials are still trying to convince the remaining residents of the Donetsk region to evacuate. as the front line of war threatens to move west and bleak winter looms.
Kramatorsk officials plan to build more public wells to supply the remaining population, but Goncharenko warned that the quality of the water could not be guaranteed. Such water would likely come from deep underground, he said, too high in calcium and unfit for drinking.
Mahlii has made no plans for what he will do once the cold weather arrives, but after 47 years in his Sloviansk apartment, he will face whatever comes at home.
“We are surviving!” she said. “We are surviving by any means.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine