In the schoolyard of the small Ukrainian town of Volnovakha, a city ravaged by fighting and taken by Moscow, it is now the Russian anthem that resounds in front of the schoolchildren. Under the gaze of armed soldiers.
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The children, several dozen, stand in a row in front of the establishment on the occasion of the ceremony to resume classes, a month after the conquest of the town by the Russian army and its separatist allies.
Here, there is no longer electricity or telephone network, noted AFP journalists during a trip organized by the Russian army.
Everywhere, the houses are in ruins, testifying to the violence of the battle for this city, located halfway between the separatist capital of Donetsk and the port of Mariupol, besieged for a month and a half by Russian forces.
In the language used by Russia, Volnovakha has been “liberated” from the Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” and therefore life must resume.
“It’s time to learn, hurry up children!”, declares to her classmates a little girl with rosy cheeks, microphone in hand and white ribbons in her hair.
Behind her, officials are standing near a Russian flag and another in the colors of the separatists. A little apart, but visible to all, a hooded and helmeted soldier watches the scene, submachine gun in his hands.
When the Russian anthem, inherited from the USSR, sounds, the children listen, without singing this song which they probably do not yet know. Ditto with the anthem of the separatists.
“O Russia – our sacred power! (…) Immense glory and strong will, are your legacy forever!”, sing the loudspeakers, rare devices to receive current.
The Russian conquest of Volnovakha on March 11 had made it possible to complete the encirclement from the north of Mariupol, a strategic port in the Sea of Azov, already attacked from the east and west.
Before that, for two weeks, the city’s Ukrainian defenders suffered a barrage of fire.
In the streets today, many homes, shops and civilian infrastructure have suffered significant destruction.
For the Russian side, this destruction, here as elsewhere in Ukraine, is proof that the adversary is using the population as a “human shield”.
A month later, debris still litters all over Volnovakha. In front of a gutted hospital, trees were cut in half by grapeshot.
School No. 5, located in the city center, was also shot. Several rooms in the building were blown away.
“We survived the horror, there were terrible bombings,” says Lioudmila Khmara, 52, a school employee. However, she wants to stay because “one is never better than at home”.
She says she wants Volnovakha to be “part of Russia” and that “no one is forcing her” to speak Ukrainian, in this overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Donbass region.
Moscow justifies its military intervention in Ukraine as a duty to protect the “Russians” of Donbass.
His army leaves nothing to chance here, even in the absence of armed resistance: Russian tanks and military vehicles, adorned with the letter “Z”, patrol Volnovakha, in the midst of civilians on bicycles.
The municipal hospital is functioning as best it can, despite extensive damage and in the absence of electricity.
In the dark, a nurse, Natalia Nekrassova-Moukhina, 46, says her patients, children, adults and the elderly, come mainly to treat shrapnel wounds.
The remaining inhabitants are still in survival mode.
“We have no gas, no water, no electricity and no network. We live like in a hole, ”says Lioudmila Dryga, 72, a retired worker.
Svetlana Chtcherbakova, 59, says she lost everything in the fire in her house. “We only received humanitarian aid once, that’s all,” said the former supermarket security manager in a trembling voice.
A railway employee, Anton Varoucha, 35, estimates that less than half of the inhabitants of his street have returned to live in Volnovakha, a town which previously had some 20,000 inhabitants.
“I don’t know yet if I’m going to stay. For now, I have relatives here who are old and sick,” he said. “We try to listen to different radio stations to understand what is going on. But it is difficult to have other sources of information” without internet or electricity.