DONETSK Ukraine (Reuters) - For those living on the front line between pro-Russian separatists and government troops in eastern Ukraine, the difference between life and death is often making it to the bomb shelter before the doors close.
The separatist territory of Petrovka, on the southern edge of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, is only a few kilometers (miles) away from Ukrainian troop positions. Pro-Moscow rebels walk nearby paths through the leafy area daily to spy on their enemy and attack.
Shelling here has become a near daily occurrence, destroying houses and forcing some 200 residents - those who have nowhere left to go - to move indefinitely into an underground, Soviet-era bomb shelter.
“They bomb us everyday. It impossible for us to live at home. This is our life now. We have no time to do anything but sit and cry,” said Raissa, 40. She said she moved into the shelter after her house was wrecked three weeks ago.
Their conditions drive home the humanitarian impact of the Ukraine crisis. Russia says Kiev and its Western allies are to blame for waging war in civilian areas. Ukraine’s military says troops do not shoot into residential districts, and accuse Moscow of fanning the conflict by arming the rebels.
At the shelter, most people have brought with them little more than the few blankets they could carry and the clothes they wear. Families lie side by side on cots or table tops in the shelter’s cavernous halls, often engulfed in darkness during frequent electricity outages.
Everyone owns a flashlight to make their way between the makeshift beds, with the rays of light passing over slumbering neighbors, some in pyjamas, other in track suits. At the far end of the shelter, the dim light catches children eating stewed vegetables from a glass jar.
“My mother’s birthday was yesterday but we have no money,” said Tatyana Tamash, a resident of the nearby village of Marynivka, who moved to the bomb shelter two weeks ago.
“So we bought a bar of chocolate, opened it and each had a piece,” she said, speaking in the darkness.
Trips above ground are fraught with risk. Local banks have long stopped working and only a few stores still operate, selling water, bread, pasta and rice. The region has become so dangerous that many suppliers have suspended trips to the area.
A mortar bomb attack outside a local store killed three residents of Petrovka this week.
“I was getting groceries for my mother, and I was just walking out when the bombs hit. I was only seconds away from certain death,” said Valery Zelenchuk, 57.
But many are tempted to leave the shelter, if only temporarily, to return to their nearby houses and survey the damage. Few houses have escaped the scars of mortar bombs.
Others fear looters.
Lidia, who worked in a cement factory before the violence started, said when she goes home she must cross separate checkpoints manned by members of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Ukrainian forces during brief ceasefires.
“On the way there we have to pass the front lines - on one side the DNR militia, on the other side the Ukrainians. They check our passports as we pass by and literally run home and back here before the shooting starts again.”
When she got to her house, she saw a mortar had landed in the courtyard. “Shrapnel had scarred the walls and doors of the house,” she said in the small 35-square-metre room in the shelter that sleeps eight people from two families.
Denizens of the shelter wander up almost daily to the surface where they cook with brushwood or bathe under a water bottle turned upside down with holes in the cap to imitate a make-shift shower.
The children play with cats and dogs that stray around the shelter, often in search of scraps and handouts.
But the resumption of artillery fire is a reminder that any peace is short-lived, forcing residents of the shelter back underground before the door closes out the sunlight.
Inside people wait in silence to hear how close the bombs fall. “We sit here day and night,” said Raissa, weeping.
“You have no idea what time it is unless you go outside, but even then. I left for a little bit today but after a few minutes of sunshine the bombs started falling.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich