Criss-crossing through the frontline of fighting in eastern Ukraine, I weaved along tank-churned roads to the rebel-held town of Alchevsk and caught a rickety train to Luhansk. The train stops and starts as artillery fire echoes in the distance across the fields, with ominous craters just meters away from railway lines. Aside from fleeing across Ukraine's porous border into Russia, this is last, and safest, route in and out of the besieged city, where tens of thousands of citizens live without running water, electricity, and telecommunications — running a daily gauntlet of deadly artillery fire as pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces battle for control of the east's second largest city.
Outside Luhansk city morgue the cloying smell of death forces a reflex gag. Swarms of black flies buzz angrily in the heat. The source of the stench is a row of decomposing corpses stretched out in the shade of the trees. Attached to each is a handwritten numbered identity tag, waiting to be matched up to a name. Like most of the morgue's intake these days, all 17 of the festering bodies lying on the grass are victims of an intensive shelling campaign on the city that began around a month and half ago.
Decomposing corpses lie in the shade outside Luhansk morgue attracting swarms of flies. A lack of electricity means there have been no refrigeration facilities at the morgue for more than three weeks. Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News.
Sitting in his office, Anotoliy Turevich, Luhansk's amiable chief mortician, peers at a spreadsheet of the city's death stats. On his desk is a framed picture of a Christian Orthodox idol, propped up alongside a sheet of flypaper thick with black insects.
"The number of casualties just depends on how heavy the night has been, it can vary from three to a couple of dozen," he told VICE News, nudging his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Since mid-May we have received 300 [civilian] bodies, 99 percent of these have been killed by explosion trauma, and a handful of others from asphyxiation in fires caused by the shelling."
The lack of electricity in the city has left the morgue without refrigeration facilities, but Turevich says he is "hopeful" that a generator will be up and running in the next few days.
"At the moment we hold the bodies for up to three days," he explained. "After this, if they are not claimed, we have no other option but to bury them and keep photographs in the hope someone will come forward to identify them at a later stage. For the bodies that are unrecognizable we keep DNA records."
The casualty figure of 300, which refers to just Luhansk city, is likely conservative. More than 2,000 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine's fighting since mid-April, according to the latest UN figures, and reports from some of the oblast's outlying suburbs and villages, where the fiercest clashes are taking place, suggest that many of the dead never make it as far as the mortuary. Desperate residents, trapped by the fighting, are apparently being forced to hastily bury relatives and neighbors in back yards and fields.
Others are simply unable to come forward and claim their dead loved ones. In one of the city's three hospitals that are still functioning, 63-year-old Tamara lies distraught in her bed.
"My husband is dead, my son is dead, and I cannot bury them because I am here," she told VICE News, clutching her head between sobs. At night, when the shelling starts, Tamara said her wounds start to bleed again from the stress. "I never thought this would happen to me, everything I have was taken from me in one moment. My house is destroyed. I have no money. I might as well jump from this window, I have nothing left," she said.
[body_image src='//news-images.vice.com/images/2014/08/23/luhansks-besieged-residents-body-image-1408802202.png' width='1446' height='972']
Tamara, 63, lies distraught in her hospital bed. Suffering from shrapnel injuries she has been unable to bury her son and husband who were killed in the blast which hit their family home. Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News.
Vladmir holds up an X-ray of his lung, a piece of mortar shrapnel is lodged inside. Doctors say he will recover, but his 82 year-old mother-in-law died in the blast which hit their family home. Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News.
In every ward, this story of destruction is repeated with the desperate routine of those becoming accustomed to war and death. Hobbling to the window, Vladimir, a 55-year-old bus driver, held up an X-ray of his lungs up to the light — a piece of shrapnel is lodged inside. Doctors say Vladimir will recover, but his wife's 82-year-old mother, who lived with them in the east of the city, was killed instantly in the attack.
"I heard a heavy explosion, I tried to hold her but I was pushed back by the force and fainted," he recalled. "When I came around I felt my back was wet with blood. I took a torch and saw that she was lying on the floor dead. My house is also badly damaged, the roof is destroyed, and the windows are blown out."
Now, as the bombardments become ever heavier, even the hospital is no longer a safe haven.
"At night we watch the sky light up over there when the mortars explode," Viacheslav, a World War II veteran, told VICE News as he gestured to the horizon with his walking stick. "We're not afraid anymore, they say a bomb doesn't fall in the same crater twice," he jests.
Others are less bold. "It's terrifying. We sleep in the basement, this woman here can't get down the stairs so they wheel her bed into the corridor," Oksana, 37, told VICE News. "It's bad, but still not as bad as where we live yet, there my husband is pretty much living in the basement, they are throwing shells at the village all day and night."
Outside, the hospital's head nurse showed VICE News where the building's windows have been shattered by the force of explosions and a crater where an unexploded rocket landed just feet from the door.
"It was huge, if it had exploded it would have destroyed us all, the militia came and deactivated it and took it away," she explained as a matter of fact. As she speaks, a fresh round of incoming Grad rockets thunder down a mile or so away and a few patients run to take shelter in the building's stairwell.
"The shelling first started near a military base being used by the rebels, and spread outward from there," 33-year-old Oleg, the acting head of the Zhovtnevyi District Fire Station, told VICE News. "For the last 10 days residential areas in the suburbs have also been hit regularly. We head out to hit sites whenever it's possible, but shelling often starts again once we arrive on the scene, several of our men have been injured this way."
For now, the fire service is able to continue its work. Operating with less than a third of its workforce, water has to be pumped from rivers and streams, but Oleg warns that the killer blow will be when the diminishing petrol supplies run out altogether. "When that happens I don't know what we will do," he said glumly. "I just hope this is all over soon."
The fighting shows no signs of abating, however. Despite Kiev's claims earlier this week to have entered parts of the city, VICE News saw no evidence of any advance by Ukrainian troops or battles on the city's streets, and central Luhansk, which was once considered relatively safe, is now being subjected to increasingly regular and heavy assaults.
"You can set your watch by it, give or take 15 minutes, heavy shelling starts at 2 PM. People go out in the morning and do what they have to do, then the streets empty out by the afternoon," Andrey, a local taxi driver, told VICE News. "This is an area to drive through fast," he adds, speeding along a segment of road less than one mile from the center. The stretch of hanging electric cables, blown-out windows, and craters mark it as a known "hit" area.
Yet as the shelling areas rapidly spread and shift, civilians say that it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify and avoid hotspots.
"It's changing every day at the moment. I have friends who have been caught under the shells in the center, so it's hard to say which areas are safe or not, unless you sit in your basement, nowhere is definitely safe anymore," Andrey said, with a grim chuckle.
The central market, located next to the rebels' administrative base in the city's main square, was bustling until recently, but it is now nearly deserted after being struck twice in three days. On Wednesday morning vendors picked their way through the burnt-out mess and attempted to salvage what remained from their stalls.
"They [the Ukrainian army] seem to hit everything but their target, I've lost everything and what did I do, but work and pay my taxes?" muttered one man angrily as he kicked the rubble, all that remains of a souvenir store.
Locals inspect the damage at Luhansk central market. A large section has been reduced to rubble after being hit twice in three days. Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News.
For those that remain inside the besieged city, just surviving has become a full-time task. Every morning at dawn the streets crowd with people as locals take advantage of a relative lull in shelling to venture out and get basic necessities, such as drinking water and food.
In the eastern outskirts, a long line of people clutching empty plastic bottles formed at a water delivery point. A truck comes from a water treatment plant commandeered by the rebels every day, but there are never enough supplies to go round. As it drives away, an angry crowd surrounds a woman with a clipboard. She writes down peoples' names and marks their wrists with a number — a system designed to stop queue jumping.
"You have to come back for two or three days in a row to manage to get to the front of the line," 42-year-old Katiya, who has stayed behind to help care for two elderly relatives, told VICE News. "Many of the people still here are pensioners, they don't want to leave and have nowhere to go. It's a very stressful situation. My aunt has heart disease and she's not received her pension from Kiev for five months, no one has, she has no medication left and all the pharmacies are closed."
According to locals, food prices in Luhansk have risen up to five-fold. All banks have long been closed and most shops have now followed suit. Those that do open have long lines outside and few goods on the shelves. "Most people here are living off what they can get from the garden and buying a few loaves of bread, when they can. God knows what we will do when winter starts," Katiya said grimly. "We've received no help from Kiev at all, nothing."
[body_image src='//news-images.vice.com/images/2014/08/23/luhansks-besieged-residents-body-image-1408802383.png' width='1442' height='964'] A woman marks the wrists of a crowd of angry locals with a numbers after a delivery truck runs out of drinking water. The system is designed to stop people queue jumping when fresh supplies arrive tomorrow. Luhansk has been without running water for more than three weeks. Photo by Harriet SalemVICE News.
With currency scarce, and increasingly useless, bartering has also become commonplace. At one roadside stall an old man walked away clutching three bags of food after successfully negotiating a trade for a torch and a radio.
Nearby, in the parking lot of a burnt-out shopping mall hit by shells less than a week ago, a cluster of people has gathered, despite the continuing rumbling thunder of artillery landing not too far away — it's one of the only places left in the city where a cell phone signal can still be picked up.
"I came to phone my daughter, she's in Moscow now with her family, of course she's very worried about me. What can I tell her? That me and her mother are still alive," 42-year-old Aleksander told VICE News. "[Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko should be punished for this. Why would you hit a shopping center where civilians are trying to call their families? It's a war crime, he's killing his own people," he added, lighting a cigarette and cycling away on his bike.
A lack of communication with the outside world is only intensifying the sense of fear and paranoia inside Luhansk as locals exchange whispers about life outside the city and speculate about how, and whether, it is possible to leave. One rumor circulating is that a heavy assault will be launched this weekend to coincide with Ukraine's Independence Day celebrations in Kiev. Another piece of gossip, from one of the pensioners waiting in the water line, is that any men attempting to leave the city will be captured and made to serve on the frontline by the rebels. The remark earns her a scolding from her neighbor, who claims it is the Ukrainians seizing men at checkpoints
Attempts to open a humanitarian corridor in recent weeks have all but failed after both sides repeatedly accused each other of breaking the ceasefire along designated routes. The creaky Alchevsk train runs intermittently — whether it goes or not depends on whether the route is deemed to safe to travel — but locals, who are living in near total information isolation, say they don't know where they would go next anyway.
As the sun sets, the few people still on the streets retreat rapidly into their apartments as a fresh round of incoming mortars whistle over the apartment blocks. Rebel cars with hazards on screech down the street as plumes of black smoke rise up against the red sky. The light is fading and soon the city will be plunged into near total darkness, save for the occasional flash of a torchlight and the flicker of candles in a few apartment windows. From somewhere in the distance comes the roaring whoosh of return fire from unseen rebel positions inside the city. What locals darkly call the "evening lullaby" has started. Another day in Luhansk is drawing to a close.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem