Little hope for future as east Ukraine ends nightmare year

Marinivka (Ukraine) (AFP) - Larissa Pogorelka began the year looking forward to seeing her son graduate college and planning for the future with cautious optimism.

Now she will end 2014 homeless, after her house was destroyed in the fighting that swept through this region of east Ukraine, and counts herself lucky just to be alive.

"Nobody ever expected any of this to happen," the shopkeeper, 42, told AFP. "My home has burnt down and I am living with my parents."

"What have I lived for? In one day you can just lose everything."

Just a few kilometres from the Russian border, Marinivka in Ukraine's restive Donetsk region, used to be a pleasant, if poor and totally unremarkable, hamlet of 600 inhabitants.

Life was sometimes tough but it was at least predictable and people here had a sense of sleepy stability.

That, though, has been turned upside down as a conflict that no one saw coming between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed rebels turned the village into a front line.

Over the past eight months, the strategic location has swapped hands several times between government forces and the insurgents. Since the end of the summer it has been under separatist control.

As a handful of local residents trudge through the snow and brave the icy wind along the main Seleverstova street, no house they pass seems to have escaped undamaged.

Here a roof is missing, there a family home is little more than charred remains.

The two-storey school, once the pride of the community, is an empty shell pockmarked by gaping holes caused by tank shells.

- 'It is just madness' -

"You can see what a nightmarish year it has been for us," said Valentina Fyodorova, pointing to the shrapnel scars in the wall of her modest grocery store.

"We were peaceful people. Things were good, but now they are bad."

Although the situation has been more or less calm here for several months, people are still struggling to work out how the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych in February could have ended up with war coming to their doorsteps.

"They are in shock. People cannot digest what horrors have happened here," says Valentina's husband Alexander Fyodorov. "We were not prepared for this."

Ukraine and the West blame Russia for artificially stirring the rebellion and even sending its own troops over the border, while Moscow paints the uprising in the east as a legitimate reaction to an illegal coup in Kiev.

But for those caught up in the violence, there is little reasonable explanation for what has happened.

"The only thing you can put it down to is human insanity," Fyodorov said.

"To use howitzer cannons to shoot at peaceful houses -- it is just madness."

In the neighbouring village of Stepanivka, former tractor driver Vladimir Samolenko glances at the burned-out wreckage of a Ukrainian tank as he opens his front gate.

Inside his cramped living room, his wife Zinaida is boiling some water for potatoes as their granddaughter Katya builds a house out of Lego bricks.

"Before the war, we at least received pensions and wages," says Samolenko, 76. "It was possible to live."

Now electricity is a constant problem and money is running short after the central authorities in Kiev stopped making welfare payments to the rebel-held areas.

"We hope that the war won't return but we feel that it is not over yet," he said.

"As for the future, it is impossible to say," he sighed, tracing a large question mark in the air with his finger.