Russia helps Ukraine battle town rebuild, villages struggle

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Polina Demyanenko's quaint white-and-green house still bears the scars of one of the fiercest battles of Ukraine's war. The roof is gone, the windows broken and the walls shredded by shrapnel.

"Everything should be dismantled, the floors should be ripped out, everything here should be removed, everything!" Demyanenko, 78, said in despair because there is no one to help her repair her home.

The village of Nikishyne is just southeast of Debaltseve, a strategic rail hub that Russia-backed rebels pounded with artillery for weeks before finally driving out the Ukrainian government troops in February of last year. The barrage damaged or destroyed nearly every building, and hundreds were killed.

But while work is underway to repair the homes and big apartment buildings in Debaltseve, which had a pre-war population of 25,000, there has been little or no money to spare for the villages around it.

"There is no work being done in the villages," said Alexander Kovalenko, deputy minister of construction and housing in the separatist government of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

"First of all, it is because with the financial resources available to us now, we are unable to carry out work everywhere simultaneously," he told The Associated Press. "We understand that the scale of destruction is much greater than what we are able to cope with having the amount of humanitarian aid we receive now."

Some of the money comes in the form of charitable donations from individuals, "but it is not much," Kovalenko said. "As you understand, primarily it is humanitarian aid from the Russian federation."

A cease-fire agreement signed in Minsk on Feb. 12 during the battle for Debaltseve eventually reduced the fighting, which has now killed more than 9,000 people since April 2014. But skirmishes have continued and there has been little progress in bringing about a political settlement.

Tensions remain over the final status of the rebel Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which now rely heavily on financial support from Russia.

In Debaltseve, workers are clearing out the rubble and rebuilding apartment buildings and private homes. Residents line up for packages of food and other goods, some of it clearly marked as coming from the Russian emergency services.

In nearby villages, however, little is being done.

Svetlana Marchenko, a nurse at the Nikishyne clinic, points to water dripping from the ceiling and flooding the floor.

"I don't think there will be any restoration of the clinic without help from international organizations," Marchenko said. "Everything here is expensive and the local budget is not up to it."