As troops pull out, Ukraine frontline village fears for future

by Evgeniya MAKSIMOVA
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At Stanytsya Luganska, about 11,000 people cross between Ukrainian territory and the Lugansk People's Republic (LPR) every day via a bridge partially destroyed in 2015

While Ukrainian troops were stationed in her village, Anna felt safe despite living on the frontline of a war that has claimed thousands of lives over the last five years.

But since they started to withdraw two months ago from Stanytsya Luganska, eastern Ukraine, she says she feels exposed to the Russian-backed separatists nearby.

"Now we are afraid that they may cross the border by the river at night and occupy the village," the 53-year-old says, dropping her head in despair as she speaks outside her house.

"And then life will be over."

The village lies close to the self-proclaimed, pro-Russian Lugansk and Donetsk "People's Republics" and -- as Anna stresses -- just miles through the forest from Russia itself.

At the beginning of the conflict between Kiev and the separatists in 2014, Anna and her husband fled their native Lugansk as the pro-Russian groups took control.

The couple settled in the Kiev-controlled village Stanytsya Luganska.

Now, months after former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was elected to the Ukrainian presidency with promises to end the conflict, Kiev's soldiers and hardware are beginning to withdraw.

Zelensky went to the village in July with European Council President Donald Tusk, shortly after a "disengagement" that saw both Ukrainian forces and separatists pull back several hundred metres from the frontline.

The disengagement, hailed by the international community, was first signed off in Minsk in 2016.

But the process was frozen for years due to sporadic and sometimes serious clashes between the sides.

- Bombed-out bridge -

Stanytsya Luganska is important for the region as it is the only place to cross between Ukrainian territory and the Lugansk People's Republic (LPR).

About 11,000 people a day make the crossing in both directions via a bridge that was blown up in 2015 and has yet to be restored for vehicles.

Those wanting to cross have to walk the kilometre to the other side, while elderly people and those with disabilities have to pay to be taken in a wheelchair.

But opinion is split among locals as to whether the bridge should be fully restored.

Svitlana, who grows vegetables in the village, says she wants works to begin as soon as possible so she is able to sell her produce in Lugansk.

"Stanytsya Luganska always fed Lugansk, and we lived on this money," she says as she sorts tomatoes at the local market. "We were one, and now we are separated, divided into two parts."

Like the other residents AFP spoke to, Svitlana declined to give her last name.

Now the only way to get from the village to the LPR by car is a long route via the Donetsk region.

At the end of July, negotiators in Minsk came to an agreement about mine clearance and bridge reconstruction.

"It is possible that this checkpoint will be available for road transport", Nelya Dotsenko, press officer of the regional Ukrainian border department, told AFP.

- 'They might give us away' -

But resident Tetyana, despite crossing the bridge once a month to see her daughter and two grandchildren on separatist territory, does not want the bridge to be fixed to carry cars.

This could be "very dangerous" as it could allow the separatists to move their equipment into Ukrainian territory, she said.

Like Anna, Tetyana says she feels at risk in her own village.

"When we had the army here, we slept well at night, but now you don't know who might be walking around your house."

President Zelensky congratulated his countrymen on "the first step towards a sustainable ceasefire" when the withdrawal of troops and hardware began from the frontier this summer.

"To me it looks like there's some hope that we're seeing the end of the hot phase of this war," he said.

But Tetyana says she was not reassured.

With previous president Petro Poroshenko she was confident "that he would not give us up", but under Zelensky this confidence is gone.

"Now we are afraid that they might just give us away," she says.

At Stanytsya Luganska, about 11,000 people cross between Ukrainian territory and the Lugansk People's Republic (LPR) every day via a bridge partially destroyed in 2015

Months after former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was elected to the Ukrainian presidency with promises to end the conflict between Kiev and the separatists, soldiers and hardware are beginning to be withdrawn

Those wanting to cross the bridge at Stanytsya Luganska have to walk the kilometre to the other side, while elderly people and those with disabilities have to pay to be taken in a wheelchair�

Opinion is split among locals as to whether the bridge should be fully restored