AVDIIVKA, Ukraine — Residents of this eastern Ukraine city were restoring basic services Monday after suffering some of the worst fighting in recent months since the outbreak of a Russian-backed rebellion in 2014.
"I laid on the couch at home, without water, just shaking," said Valeria Apatova, 32, mimicking how she trembled during recent artillery barrages as separatists battled Ukrainian national troops.
For much of past week, parts of the city were pounded with heavy shelling, killing more than a dozen Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, according to Ukraine's government.
The violence was the latest uptick in nearly three years of on-and-off shelling that’s ravaged this industrial community and forced thousands from their homes in a war with no end in sight and that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives.
The recent shelling was the worst in months in a conflict that has largely slipped out of the international spotlight of late. It comes as President Trump has made overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin about working more closely in fighting the Islamic State in Syria. Trump also has hinted he might lift sanctions imposed on Russia for its support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
Putin denies helping the rebels, but people here wonder if Trump's move toward better ties with Russia might be connected to the increased fighting.
“Let them come to an agreement with their words instead of with their ammunition,” said an exasperated Nadezhda Vladimirovna, whose home was struck last week by artillery.
By Monday, fighting had de-escalated, and workers were busy restoring electricity and water supplies that had been cut. The Ukrainian government said 231 tons of food had been shipped into the city from neighboring regions.
The Ukrainian military claimed the pro-Russian forces fired nearly 7,500 shells at military and civilian targets. Both sides accused each other of provoking the fight.
Avdiivka is like other settlements in the war-torn Donbass region, a vast rust belt of crumbling factories and poverty. The city, a strategic asset because of its massive coke fuel plant, sits on the front line, where troops on both sides regularly exchange fire. Residents have adjusted to the depressing sound of constant artillery fire in the background — or close to home.
About 300 people were evacuated from the city in the past week, but many more had already left on their own. The city’s pre-war population of 35,000 has shrunk by about half, according to various estimates.
Residents like Vladimirovna, whose house was damaged by shelling, stayed behind because they have nowhere else to go or simply because they refuse to abandon their homes.
“You leave the house not knowing whether you’ll ever return,” Vladimirovna said, watching her neighbors rebuild her roof.
Despite international efforts to end the conflict, which the United Nations says has displaced more than 1.5 million people, little progress has been made. The Minsk agreement signed in February 2015 outlines a peace settlement, but both sides regularly violate its cease-fire terms.
“It’s impossible (for both sides) to come to an agreement,” said Ilya Yevgeniyevich, 30, who came to Avdiivka in 2015 to live with his mother after his two apartments in a neighboring village were destroyed. “This is an endless conflict.”
While residents have become embittered by the sporadic fighting that’s disrupted their lives, the Ukrainian military forces holding the city seem motivated and battle-hardened, if exhausted.
Yevhen Marfyuk, a military anesthesiologist, said Ukraine has a “completely new army” compared to the under-equipped and ill-prepared forces in 2014 who were overwhelmed by the speed and intensity of the separatist revolt.
“Currently, they’re much better prepared mentally,” said Marfyuk, who was visibly tired as he tended to the injured at the city’s central hospital.
For most residents, there is no adequate preparation for the physical and mental toll from the outbursts of fighting.
Even as the power, heating and water return to this bleak city dominated by decrepit, Soviet-era apartment blocks, no one knows when the the fighting will resume again.
“If anyone can become too used to this,” said Yevgeniyevich, as he huddled over a cup of tea at an aid station, “they’re simply not normal.”