MYKYTIVKA, Ukraine: A nightmarish “grey zone” straddles the front splitting Ukraine from its separatist east — a limbo-land formally controlled by Kiev but where the government will not be staging elections on Sunday.
The tiny hamlet of Mykytivka — home to a Ukrainian-controlled roadblock — lies just 10 kilometers from the pro-Russian rebel stronghold of Gorlivka.
The pro-Western leadership in Ukraine is staging local elections on territory it controls.
But it admits it will be unable to conduct the ballot in places like Mykytivka, sandwiched between government forces and rebels. The situation is too dangerous.
The village is one of 122 in eastern Ukraine that remain in a state of political oblivion, where people have to bend their lives to the grim realities of a stalemated war.
Nelya Khryashchenyuk rides her scooter between Mykytivka and nearby villages wearing bright colors — a small act of rebellion against the “grey zone” designation.
The 52-year-old nurse provides social assistance for 120 people still living in Mykytivka, many of them living in homes that are barely standing.
Residents’ faint hopes that their lot would improve were shredded when they learned Kiev would be unable to open polling stations in their area.
“We are on the frontline here. We have not seen the head of our local council for more than a year,” Khryashchenyuk said.
“She says she has not enough petrol to come to work. There is only the Ukrainian military here.”
‘Our authorities are soldiers’
The warring sides signed a new truce on September 1 meant to put a halt to 18 months of fighting in which more than 8,000 lost their lives and much of eastern Ukraine’s infrastructure was destroyed.
But residents like Khryashchenyuk accuses both sides’ forces of not only failing to let up their fighting — most of it unreported by foreign monitors — but also demanding bribes for people to pass across the front for provisions and basic supplies.
“Everyone is trying to make money by extorting bribes from people crossing the border,” she said.
Local residents get to buy bread ferried to them by car just once a week.
Some residents remember voting ballots being brought in the same way before fighting broke out in April 2014.
“It would be good to have a strong man lead the village to help resolve our problems,” said 62-year-old Sofia Nikitenko as she wheeled a sack full of food.
“But here the shooting continues. There will be no elections and our authorities are the soldiers.”
No doctors, no firemen
Another bufferzone village called Maiorsk is lined with huts whose windows are boarded up with plywood.
Their inhabitants use wood stoves for heating because there is no gas.
The locals say grimly the war has taught them ways to count on themselves.
“When we are sick, there is never an ambulance, either from the rebel side or from Ukraine,” a 74-year-old pensioner, who identified himself only as Volodymyr, said as he stuffed more wood into his stove.
Volodymyr and his wife survive by selling tea and coffee by the roadside near the checkpoint where people wait out of necessity to briefly pass the front.
Svitlana — a 28-year-old expectant mother — said she feels like “a second-class citizen” as she is not able to vote.
“There are no authorities, nobody to turn to. I would like to vote for someone capable of resolving the problems that have accumulated,” she said.
“But it feels like the Kiev authorities do not want to change anything.”