NIKISHINO, UKRAINE - In the village of Nikishino, in eastern Ukraine, recent fighting has brought utter devastation. Ninety percent of the houses have been damaged or destroyed after government forces tried and failed to stop rebels advancing on the strategically important nearby town of Debaltseve.
The Ukrainian media called this place the gates of hell. Once a normal village five kilometers south of Debaltseve, Nikishino is now a moonscape saturated with the refuse of war.
No house is untouched, and most are gutted. Only the dogs remain.
For weeks, government forces crouched in these holes as separatists tightened the pocket around Debaltseve, a crucial rail hub that would give them control of the main highway from Donetsk through Luhansk to the Russian border. In the final days, the two sides faced each other from either end of the village, fighting in people’s bedrooms, kitchens and outbuildings.
For Irina Ribinskaya, who walks alone among the ruins, a mangled house is all that remains of her old life in this place that was once home to some 1,000 residents.
“Three of us were living here, me, my husband and my mother-in-law," she said, surveying the damage. "This is the house, or what’s left of it. There’s the summer kitchen; there was the shed where we kept our cow. There was the garage. They took everything, this is all we have now.”
She and her husband, Viktor, have returned to feed their dogs. They couple had just retired after long years working in the mines and on the railway. They spent weeks in the basement before finally escaping the shelling. Elena said their house was the most beautiful on the street, which is now barely discernable from the surrounding landscape.
"It's just war, if there wasn't a war, none of this would have happened," she said. "We weren't here when the house was actually destroyed. We were happy just to get out when we did. Who knows who did this.”
The town's World War II memorial is the only remaining witness to the fighting, its face torn by shrapnel.
In the surrounding fields, millions of summer’s unharvested sunflowers stand dead, the meadows sown with rockets and mines.
On January 30 the government pulled out, and the separatists announced they had control of Nikishino. By then, there was nothing here left to hold.