March 6, 2015 / 10:04 AM / 3 years ago

After battle, frostbite in the ruins of Ukraine's Donetsk

DONETSK, Ukraine (Reuters) - Former crane-operator Alexander Zubko staggers along the dark hospital corridor leaning on a stick. He survived when a mortar bomb hit his house but lost his toes to frostbite after sleeping in the snow-covered rubble.

A man walks along a road through a destroyed residential area in Donetsk, March 5, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Zubko, 57, saw the war in East Ukraine at its worst.

An eight-month long battle over the Donetsk international airport leveled his neighborhood, a region of Donetsk called Oktyabrski, laying waste to its one-storey houses and leaving the tails of rockets sticking out of the pavement.

In December, at the height of violence, he came home to find out his house had been hit.

“I had no other place to live. My documents were burnt. I had nothing to wear and froze without windows,” Zubko recalls. So he slept in the frozen ruins.

“I didn’t feel my feet. The skin came off. I felt they were frozen and figured I should go to hospital,” he said pointing at the small stubs of his feet, covered in valenki, or heavy felt boots, sized to fit a child.

Pro-Russian separatists won the battle in January over the airport, once a gleaming new structure rebuilt for the 2012 European soccer championship, then the most bitterly contested ground in a war that has killed 6,000 people.

The airport itself was reduced to rubble in a months-long siege that saw both sides fire barrages of artillery and heavy rockets. The small, once picturesque neighborhoods that surrounded it were demolished in the crossfire.

In Zubko’s neighborhood of Oktyabrski, rebels still man positions on the lookout for signs of a Ukrainian advance.

In hospital, Zubko has no hot water or heating. Some wards are closed due to damage from shelling. Sergei Gurtovoy, a doctor on duty, says following a freezing winter, others among his 70 patients had been admitted for frozen limbs.

Zubko stays in the hospital and says he has no place to go.

Many of the nurses whose homes have been damaged or destroyed also live in the dank basement, where pools of water collect under the aging pipes of the old building.

The chief nurse sleeps on a bench in a room reserved for medical archives. Her colleagues build makeshift beds out of chairs.

Oksana Levchuk, 45, also a resident of Oktyabrski, used to work at the airport as a cleaner.

Now she roams around the backyard of her now destroyed house, clearing rubble and salvaging what she can from its charred remains.

“My flowers used to be here,” she said. “Why did they build the airport for Euro 2012? The employees were made to learn English. Foreigners used to come and say the city was beautiful.”

In Oktyabrski, homeless dogs and cats, whose masters have been killed or left during the violence, rush to meet anyone who wanders through the deserted streets.

Nikolay Kornitsyn comes back to his destroyed home to feed animals every day, making sure to feed the black dog left behind when his neighbor was killed in a mortar attack.

“What?” he said, patting the dog.

“You have no master anymore. They killed him, those bastards.”

Editing by Thomas Grove and Peter Graff

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