Residents running away from war in eastern Ukraine

Anna Malpas
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People drive their car showing a sign reading "children" as they leave their home on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk

People drive their car showing a sign reading "children" as they leave their home on July 28, 2014 in Donetsk (AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic)

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - At a rebel checkpoint in war-torn eastern Ukraine, camouflaged gunmen on a deserted road hurriedly wave through cars with hand-written signs reading "children" taped to their windscreens.

Like the few other vehicles risking the journey, these cars are packed with fearful residents fleeing the latest fighting as the battle between the rebels and the Ukrainian army draws closer to the regional centre of Donetsk.

"Wherever the fighting is going on, they are fleeing. They bring out their relatives, their cars are full of kids. They are running away from the war," rebel soldier Maxim, 21, told AFP.

The former engineering student said those fleeing came from the towns in northeastern Ukraine currently experiencing the most deadly bombardments and shortages as government troops close in on pro-Russian rebels.

"Yesterday a bus drove past here from Shakhtarsk. It didn't have a single unbroken window left," chimed in his colleague from a makeshift gun nest, two Kalashnikovs by his side.

Those escaping the violence, which has already claimed over 1,100 lives, are mainly heading to cities on the Azov Sea in the south -- an area that is now under Ukrainian control, Maxim admitted.

"That's where the (Ukrainian) National Guard is, I don't know how they're not scared to go because it is calling up men from 18," he added.

The open-faced, deeply-tanned youth in a camouflage T-shirt and worn black trousers, said he had dropped out of his studies to join the rebels.

Moving in front of cars in the queue were a couple on a motorbike, heavily loaded with their belongings packed into check-patterned bags.

"They started firing over our house. It became impossible to live there," said the young man after he stopped at the checkpoint and took off his helmet to rest.

The couple, who would not give their names, said they lived near Shakhtarsk, a town which has seen heavy fighting in recent days.

Asked when there was last fighting in their neighbourhood, they replied, "This morning."

- 'Forced to flee' -

In the village of Orlovo-Ivanivka, around 10 kilometres (six miles) from the crash site of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, women chatting outside the local grocery store were tearful as they recounted how they had sent away their children.

"Our kids have gone away. We have stayed. Our children went to Russia yesterday. We waited until the end," said Lyubov Karpova, the owner of the grocery store.

"I have an empty house left."

Standing outside her small store on the village's only road, she wept as she explained: "People have left without anything, they only took their personal belongings. It's unthinkable: we have to flee our own land."

Hearing a report of fighting in the area, a blond-haired woman snapped angrily: "Where can I take the children? I don't have any transport."

In the nearby mining town of Zhdanivka, sipping the traditional Russian summer drink of kvass outside the bus station, a woman called Svetlana said that while many locals had packed up already she is continuing her work for a mining company.

"They've gone to different places. Some have gone to relatives. They want to get away as far as possible from here. They mainly leave for Russia," she said, adding that people living in the town hear and see fighting constantly.

"It's both day and night. Usually it's at night and the early morning. There's been more firing in recent days. Yesterday the whole town was smoky," she said.

"The salvos are getting more intense and powerful. Sometimes it's automatic firing, sometimes single shots."

Outside the nearby town of Kirovske, an AFP team heard shooting nearby while driving across an exposed hilly area.

Columns of smoke could be seen rising from Shakhtarsk about 25 kilometres to the south.