On Ukraine's frontline, fears and hopes after troops pull back

Katerynivka (Ukraine) (AFP) –


The chickens pecking around the rural Ukrainian village of Katerynivka paint a tranquil atmosphere. But a closer look reveals bullet holes on the houses of residents hopeful that peace can finally return following a long-awaited troop withdrawal.

Katerynivka is in that part of eastern Ukraine's Lugansk region where the warring Kiev troops and Russia-backed separatists had agreed to pull back their soldiers and hardware.

It was part of a process toward peace announced by President Volodymyr Zelensky following his election in April.

On Saturday, monitors with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) working in the conflict zone confirmed they have received notifications that both sides had pulled back from the zone around the town of Zolote, which includes the village.

Katerynivka locals say they have waited long enough for the promised peace.

"Here, we all dream of the peace that Vovochka promised us, that everything would be as before," says 67-year-old Valentyna Reznyk, using a diminutive form for the 41-year-old Ukrainian leader's first name.

Peace in eastern Ukraine, where about 13,000 people have died over the past five years from the fighting, was one of Zelensky's campaign promises.

The pullback of the zone around Zolote is a step toward a peace summit with Russia, to be overseen by France and Germany.

But not everyone in Ukraine is relieved.

Nationalist militia groups have accused Zelensky of surrendering Ukrainian land to Russia. And while the armed forces have pulled back, the far-right National Corps have sent men to the area.

Some 40 of them are deployed in Zolote, a few kilometres from Katerynivka, to "observe the disengagement" and "protect" civilians," a spokesman for the group, Roman Chernyshev told AFP on Saturday.

- 'Just want shooting to stop' -

Katerynivka is a typical settlement, with many residents retired or working in the coal mining industry. It is their misfortune that it sits close to the line of contact between the warring sides.

It has been controlled by the Ukrainian forces for several years and about 90 of its houses in the village sit in the new disengagement zone.

Several residents interviewed by AFP expressed cautious optimism about the pullback, despite the criticism often heard in Kiev.

"I don't think we're surrendering territories (to separatist control)," said Oleksiy, a 53-year-old miner. "Being realistic, we just want the shooting to stop."

And since the pullout process started a few days ago, "it's gotten quieter", he added.

Like many other villagers, Oleksiy works at the local coal mine.

But the struggling state-owned business has stopped paying salaries four months ago, deepening the economic misery in the region.

Two locals, who requested anonymity, complained to AFP that Ukrainian soldiers had fired into enemy territory from residential areas.

Afterwards, the soldiers departed, while "we were left terrified of the return fire", one man said.

Ukrainian soldiers, some wearing "Ukraine or death" patches, on Saturday were moving to new positions several hundred metres from the traditional ones.

They confirmed that the shooting has practically stopped in recent days, but remained on their guard.

"We doubt that the separatists have really retreated and we think they want to take our old positions," said Volodymyr, a bearded soldier with a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder.

In case of attack, "we can return to our positions in four minutes," he said.

"Some villagers are asking us why we're 'abandoning' them, that they are counting on us," he added.

"Others have watched too much Russian television and now think that it's better if we leave."

It is true that in this part of the country, Russian television is more popular and is more widely available. For several years, many locals have viewed Kiev as the "Nazi regime" and the Ukrainian army as the "punishers".

After Ukraine's military pullback, the Ukrainian police sent armed patrols to Katerynivka. The white all-terrain vehicles of the OSCE could also seen criss-crossing the area.

"Militarily speaking, the pullback is a bad idea," said Volodymyr. "But politically, it's good."