Under the rubble of what was the school of Bilogorivka, in the Donbass, the cellar still smokes.
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Only three soot-covered corners of the one-story building remain, a week after an airstrike that kyiv touts as one of the most serious crimes committed by Russian forces since they began their invasion of Ukraine February 24. Sixty civilians died on May 7 in the school of this village, according to the Ukrainian authorities.
Bilogorivka testifies to the fierce battle underway in this corner of the Lugansk region, which together with Donetsk makes up the Donbass: in the almost deserted village, several buildings are still burning, the roads are littered with abandoned military equipment, and shooting artillery echo nearby.
For the first time in a week, Vladimir Guerassimenko has come out of his cellar, enjoying a brief respite from the fighting, and cannot believe his eyes.
“The world has turned upside down,” breathes this 70-year-old man, looking at the rubble of the school built in this mining village by the Soviet authorities after the Second World War. “Slavs kill Slavs. Go find out why or for what purpose.
Bombings of schools – many of which have been turned into shelters where both Ukrainian civilians and military congregate – have become common in combat zones.
At a meeting of the Security Council on Thursday, the UN called for an end to the bombing of schools in Ukraine, while denouncing their use for military purposes. The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, described him as “absurd” the accusations that Moscow was deliberately targeting schools.
In that of Bilogorivka, there is no longer any trace of life or body, not even in the least affected part of the cellar. The strike dug a very deep crater in the middle of the building.
Only a golden survival blanket testifies to the efforts of the rescuers: the regional governor Serguiï Gaïdaï had indicated, the day after the bombardment, that 27 people had been rescued.
The strike came as the Russians have been trying for three weeks to cross the now strategic Siverskyi Donets River, which flows north of Bilogorika.
Ukrainian forces say they have repelled several Russian attempts to cross their tanks by setting up pontoons. And Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Friday that the Ukrainians had “successfully” repelled a Russian attempt to cross the river, inflicting heavy casualties on Russian forces.
The latter crossed the river further west, as part of their push towards Kramatorsk, which became the administrative capital of the Ukrainian Donbass after the partial takeover of this mining basin by pro-Russian separatists in 2014.
But the Ukrainian resistance in Bilogorivka prevents them from completely encircling the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lyssytchansk, today almost deserted, deprived of water and essential services, which form the last big pocket of Ukrainian resistance in this region of Lugansk.
“I would go, but there is no one to help me escape,” said Margarita Kovalenko, Guerassimenko’s neighbor in Bilogorivka.
“There are only four of us left in this street, as far as I know,” adds Olga, Guerassimenko’s wife. “The three of us – who stayed together the whole time in the basement – and a young man at the end of the street”.
No Russian soldiers in sight in Bilogorivka, although mortar fire could be heard from the hills north of the village.
A car full of Ukrainian soldiers tumbles after passing an abandoned checkpoint. Men take up positions in silence, posting their weapons on the open doors of the car, watching for any movement at the other end of the street.
The remains of a Russian tank are hidden by rubble on the other side of the Gerasimenko house. Examining the 12 sunken craters formed by shells in his garden, this trained engineer acknowledges that he would feel safer if the Russians took the village for good.
“The Russians helped the regions of Lugansk and Donetsk during the most difficult times,” he says, referring to the past eight years of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict for control of the region, reflecting a pro-Russian feeling common in this part of the country. Donbass.
“They sent humanitarian aid,” he says. “And all the others send are weapons. I trust Russia more than all the others put together”.