STANYTSIA LUHANSKA, Ukraine – Thousands of Ukrainians fed up by the seemingly endless war in the Donbass region cross the frontline daily to buy food, visit family and collection pension payments.
“We are at the Stanitsia Luhanska checkpoint, which is the only one that exists in the entire province of Luhansk for the population to cross from the zone controlled by the Ukrainian Army to the one controlled by the separatists,” Noelia Dotsenko, a Ukraine border guard spokeswoman, told EFE.
Although short of being classed a humanitarian crisis, the situation has become unsustainable for hundreds of thousands of residents in Luhansk, an eastern province in Ukraine split in two by the conflict between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists.
Broken lives, divided families, abandoned houses and the threat of sniper fire from a nearby hill here is the daily bread for those who travel this corridor.
“One of our main missions is to guarantee the safety of those who cross the line of separation,” Dotsenko said. “The aggressors continuously organize provocations and shoot both the positions of the Ukrainian Army and the surrounding areas.”
The area is full of mines, meaning those who make the crossing over the frontline should be careful not to step off the main road. There are also two shelters positioned on the corridor, including one underground, in case of an attack.
For both Ukrainian soldiers and reporters, the safest place to be is in the improvised stockade on the border.
Around 10,000 people use the corridor every day, given it is the only free passage in more than 150 kilometers of frontline.
The majority of the people at the checkpoint, which somewhat resembles a waiting room in a train station, are older women, like Sveta, who leans with one arm on a crutch and pushes a rusty shopping cart full of potatoes with another.
There is a palpable tension between those using the crossing and the Ukrainian army soldiers manning the checkpoint.
Some do no hide their animosity for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
“Poroshenko is a murderer, not even the Germans bombarded us with such ferocity,” a woman from the provincial capital of the self-declared, rebel-controlled Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR), told EFE.
Many others turn their back when they set eyes on a reporter.
In 2015, pro-Russian militias destroyed the bridges in the area, which means the crossing can only be done on foot – an added woe for the many older people making the 5km round trip.
Some rely on porters who, in exchange for generous compensation, transport those who want to make the journey in wheelchairs or in metal carts.
The trip becomes even harder in winter when snow blankets the area and temperatures regularly drop to -15C (5 F).
Some people cross to formalize official documents, such as passports and birth and death certificates or even to collect salaries, visit relatives on the other side of the front or check that their houses are in good upkeep.
Whole families make the journey back across the border carrying products, seeing as food is much cheaper in the Kiev-controlled areas due to the Ukrainian blockades on the separatist-held areas of the Donbass.
Not all cross by necessity, however. Half of those who make the trip are porters, who earn 300 hryvnias ($11) per journey, and speculators, who sell all sorts of goods at the markets in Luhansk.
Ukraine’s army said it has offered to rebuild the bridge across the Seversky Donets river to allow the passage of vehicles, but said the separatist forces refused to call a ceasefire.
Almost all of those who cross the frontline hope for peace but the distrust between the two sides runes high.
“We want to go back to Ukraine, we do not want to live in the LNR anymore, too much pain, war, and terror. At first, it was not like that, but now many think the way I do,” Sveta, a retired engineer, told EFE after visiting her daughter and grandson.
Pro-Russian separatists staged an uprising in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and declared separatist republics in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.