DEBALTSEVE, UKRAINE - Broken tanks sit on the edge of Debaltseve, remnants of retreating Ukrainian government forces. Hundreds of buildings lie in ruin.
Heavy shelling and GRAD rockets pounded this strategic eastern Ukraine town for weeks as the military tried to fight off advancing Russian-backed separatists. The separatists took control of Debaltseve in February, days after a cease-fire agreement with Ukraine’s Kyiv government was signed. Amid the fighting, many civilians fled.
Debaltseve now flies the flag of the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR). But with the town back to relative peace, people are returning to their homes. They’re emerging from basements, sweeping away rubble, patching windows and beginning to rebuild their lives.
In the Festivaljnaya neighborhood, retiree Maria tried to repair her shattered windows. The graffiti on her door says, "People Live Here Not Soldiers."
"We have only one question: Why did they fire into civilian houses?" Maria asked. "Who fired here, because neither Ukrainians nor pro-Russian soldiers were in this area."
Emerging from underground
Eliza said those who stayed lived underground. Even now, she said she cannot hear properly after the constant shelling.
"We spent more than one month in the basement," she said. "We’ve been under the fire. We were too scared to leave. We heard GRAD rockets. We had a lack of food."
Although much of Debaltseve has no power, water or gas, the population has grown in the past two weeks from 3,000 to more than 10,000 as people return.
Dmytriy said he feels Debaltseve has been "liberated" by the separatists.
"After such actions, I think less than 3 percent now support Ukraine," he said. "The majority do not want Ukraine."
The DNR, now paying pensions and supplying construction materials, appears to be winning support here.
"I’ve received a one-thousand Hryvnias pension recently" – worth $43 – "and my wife as well," Dmytriy said, adding that he’d also received food rations as a form of humanitarian aid. "Now the DNR promises to open banks and create a banking system to rearrange payments. We are patient because they are our people and we trust them.
"I wish Ukrainians never come back here."
'Situtation here is getting better'
People lined up outside an aid center distributing food parcels, which a representative said was delivered by the Russian Federation.
"The situation here is getting better," said Tatiana, a volunteer aid worker. "One of the day-care facilities is open and has 33 children. Starting on the first of April, all schools should be opened. In more than 50 percent of Debaltseve, there is electricity, water."
Despite that optimism, residents worry that the conflict, which has already claimed more than 6,000 lives, could flare up again.