Forlorn Ukraine city: Death comes calling from the skies

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Only 3,000 to 4,000 of Debaltseve's 25,000 people remain

Shells fall constantly on the strategic railway hub in eastern Ukraine

Debaltseve, Ukraine CNN  — 

Debaltseve is a ghost town.

Once a bustling railroad hub, its streets are normally empty. The remaining people only come out to board a bus or car that will carry them to safety, or when relief workers arrive to hand out rice, pasta, canned foods and other supplies.

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Bundled up against the raw winter weather, they line up to receive rations and scurry back inside their homes, hoping they won’t be killed by the near-constant shelling.

This strategically located town in eastern Ukraine is one more casualty of the fighting that has intensified in recent weeks between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces. Separatists are trying to encircle the town while government forces maintain posts on the outskirts.

A spokesman for the government’s military operation, Vladislav Seleznyov, said the militants were consistently shelling Debaltseve – and that it’s currently the most dangerous place in the country.

“The city infrastructure is increasingly devastated,” he said. “Ukrainian armed forces are holding their lines of defense and are not going to leave their positions.”

Only 3,000 to 4,000 of Debaltseve’s 25,000 residents remain. Most have fled to safer places.

Civilians are suffering. At least 224 were killed and more than 540 others injured in the final three weeks of January, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights said last week. The numbers may actually be higher.

Who’s left?

Most of them are elderly with no family to take them in. Some seniors are so old they remember the horrors of World War II, such as a woman who stayed inside her apartment for two weeks, simply lying on her bed. Children are few and far between. Their families have moved them to safety.

“We don’t care about Russians,” one woman said. “We want to live regular lives.”

About one third of the houses have been hit by artillery. Dozens of people huddle in dank underground bunkers and sleep on cots and old beds carried in. Piles of sandbags protect the entrances to the bunkers.

Others, like a group sticking it out in an old apartment building, are elderly but vehemently pro-Russian.

“We’re just waiting for the Russians to come in and liberate us,” one said.

Scenes of exhaustion are everywhere. While people mill around the City Hall lobby, an old woman wraps herself in a quilt and stretches out on three side-by-side chairs to sleep.

Most Debaltseve residents have fled to government-controlled towns, but leaving is risky. Shells rain on Debaltseve at all hours.

The people who are left don’t have transportation of their own. They collect their belongings in suitcases and plastic bags and gather at the train station or the city center.

They wait for for cars, small buses or full-sized buses driven by relief workers to arrive and carry them to safe havens.

They stare ahead blankly or break into tears while standing on the pavement.

Once they’re in a car or on the bus, danger still lurks. The road leading out of the battle zone into the closest safe town, Artyemovsk, is often shelled by separatist forces.

And once they reach a shelter, they wait, wondering if they’ll ever be able to return to their home.

Jonathan Alpeyrie reported and photographed from Ukraine and Ralph Ellis wrote the story in Atlanta.