The apartment buildings in Novotoshkivs”ke, Ukraine, are falling apart, the glass windows shattered and garbage littering the streets outside. The city is in decay.
The war that broke out in 2014 in Ukraine’s east has claimed more than 13,000 lives, but the conflict is not the only reason for Novotoshkivs’ke’s condition.
“Of course, the war has a huge effect here, but the city firstly died when the local coal mine closed,” Oleksij Bobchenko, 34, the head of civil and military state administration in Hirs’ke District, told Euronews. “Many cities around here will suffer a similar fate if nothing is done to stop the closure of mines. I worry what will be of the locals.”
During its heyday, Novotoshkivs’ke in the Donbas region was a city of a few thousand, but only 300 remain, primarily older people, and many reliant on growing vegetables in their gardens to survive. Meanwhile, the local shops are just kept alive by military personnel stationed in the city.
Bobchenko, who is in charge of several cities along the frontline, says that nine mortars have landed near the local school in Novotoshkivs’ke in recent months. The number of ceasefire violations has made everyone nervous. While the recent pullback of Russian troops has eased fears for many commentators and experts, war is still a part of daily life in Donbas.
“I don’t hide anymore when they shoot at us,” says 45-year-old Elena, who lives in a small city close by, where parts are under the control of the Russian-backed separatists.
But like Bobchenko, it is the closure of the coal mine that worries Elena.
“All is bad here. The war is horrible, but if they close the mine here, it will be a catastrophe. Everybody works in the mines. Where will I get money for bread and butter if it closes?”
The situation is not unique. Many cities along the frontline in the Donbas region are built around a single mine or factory. Workers complain that they have not received salaries for three months and have to buy products in the shops on credit.
But they will not go on strike or protest over fears that the mine will close for good – late salaries are still better than no salaries.
“The war breaks much here, but why break people’s lives by closing the mines,” Bobchenko said.
“I feel like that from one side, the enemy is shooting at us, and from the other side in Kyiv, people are trying to hit us economically.”
There are about 35 state-owned coal mines in the area controlled by the Ukrainian government and 19 are in the process of being dismantled, according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, IWPR. Production in many of the mines plummeted to a level not seen since 1916, and several have been flooded during the conflict.
Andrey Buzarov, an expert with the KyivStratPro analytical group, said that the situation in Hirs’ke district, where Bobchenko is in charge, is not unique. Several cities have been abandoned by both Kyiv and the wider world since the conflict began.
“Help and support in those areas near the frontline have and is coming from international organizations, while the Ukrainian government has done very little,” said Buzarov.
“The locals blame the Ukrainian government for not doing anything, and it is partly true. Russia can use this in its propaganda to say that Ukraine does not care about the local people, and it is a dangerous situation along the frontline. Ukraine has no strategy to help these areas, and it is a problem that needs to be addressed,” he added.
Buzarov says that the Ukrainian government is reluctant to invest in the region because they are unsure whether the war will break out again tomorrow. Furthermore, corruption in the area is eating up the funds, and the lack of civil society makes improvements hard.
Got new roads – but now what?
Bobchenko believes the war is the main problem, the potential closure of the coal mines the second, and substandard infrastructure as the third.
Under Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s ‘Great Construction Project,’ Bobchenko has been able to have some roads fixed under his administration, such as in the city Zolote, which is divided into five zones, one of which is under separatist control.
He is also trying to get street lights in the town and trying to open a cafe.
“I am just one mouse, but everyone thinks that I am a wizard, who can do everything,” said Bobchenko.
“But it is not true. I do the best I can, and now with the recent escalation of the conflict, it is hard to say what will happen. It is with a bleeding heart that I can see what happens here.
“What once was and what is now, but I promise you that if the enemy wants to take Zolote, they will have to kill me first.”
Bobchenko has organized a ‘clean-up day’ in a small village named Toshkivka to remove much of the garbage lying everywhere. A local woman named Julia says that she does not know what the Ukrainian government is doing to help her town.
“The ministers get a high salary and don’t work,” Julia told Euronews.
“We work hard in the coal mines and don’t get any salary. Around 70 per cent of people here work in the coal mine; everything will go shit if it closes. If the mine closes, I will need to live off the garden.”
A garden party
Elsewhere in Toshkivka, locals are having a garden party, their first since the beginning of the war, as having the frontline close by has made it too dangerous.
Tatiana, 69, says that they have both sides shooting over their heads with mortars. People here call the Ukrainian ministers who are planning to close the mines stupid, and Julia reiterates that everything here will be gone if the coal mine closes.
Andre, 41, who works underground in the local coal mine, agreed. He complains about bad lungs from working in the coal mine but says that he is happy to have that work because there is no alternative. Andre fears that it will close, leaving him and his two children with nothing.
The war, he says, is a secondary concern.
“What will happen tomorrow, you ask? Tomorrow is a new day,” said Andre, smiling.
“No, seriously, I hope for something better tomorrow, but I don’t know what.”