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How civilians caught in the Ukraine conflict are coping

Fierce fighting has resumed between pro-Russian rebels and government forces in Eastern Ukraine, killing civilians on both sides. Meanwhile, scheduled peace talks were abandoned when rebel delegates refused to participate. Judy Woodruff talks to Shaun Walker of The Guardian about how civilians are coping with violence and and shortages.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The crisis in Ukraine showed more signs of intensifying, after a bloody day across the east left civilians on both sides dead.

    Meanwhile, peace talks scheduled in Belarus were abandoned, after rebel delegates refused to participate. Pro-Russian forces said at least seven people were killed in Donetsk today by government shelling. To the south, in Mariupol, fears remain of a rebel takeover, where Kiev said an offensive over the weekend left 30 civilians dead.

    Meanwhile, the strategic government-held railway town of Debaltseve has seen heavy fighting. The area just outside Debaltseve was caught under intense artillery fire overnight and into the morning. Explosions echoed in the distance as rebels overran the Ukrainian military.

    Shaun Walker of The Guardian newspaper just left the country's east and he spoke to me from Kiev a short while ago.

    Shaun Walker, welcome.

    You were just in Donetsk for about 10 days. Tell us about the conditions there.

  • SHAUN WALKER, The Guardian:

    Well, Donetsk, of course, it's the rebel capital. It was a city of a million people. Many of those have left. Over last summer, it was kind of a ghost town, but what I discovered on this last visit, a lot of people returned when we had the cease-fire in September. They thought they would be able to go back to some kind of normal life.

    So we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people in Donetsk now. And, of course, the conflict has started up again. Every night from the center of Donetsk, you can hear outgoing artillery. Just today, we had incoming rockets, which killed nine people, just another nine in the 5,000 that have died in this conflict, and it's very much looking like the war is hotting up again.

    The cease-fire, which was never really fully in place, is now just totally in tatters. We have the rebels talking about a new offensive, trying to take over new territory. We have the Ukrainians fighting back. Every time civilians die, we hear both sides blaming the other. But of course the end of it is that the death toll keeps rising and civilians on both sides of the lines are ending up suffering.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, how are they coping? How are civilians dealing with all this?

  • SHAUN WALKER:

    Well, it's very difficult, and it is especially difficult in the territory that's controlled by the pro-Russian separatists.

    In recent weeks, Ukraine has taken a policy decision that it's essentially going to essentially blockade the areas. It's made the decision that, given it doesn't have political control, it's going to stop things like paying pensions, paying salaries to government workers.

    And it's also stopped access to bank accounts. So what you have got is a situation where people have very little access to cash. Nobody is starving, but there's certainly a problem with food supplies, especially when you get out into the smaller towns and cities. I was in a small town called Kommunar just a couple of days ago.

    And it was really quite a depressing humanitarian situation there. The most frail and vulnerable people are the ones that have stayed behind. They were the people with no money to leave, with nowhere to go. So you had little old ladies, you had disabled people, you had really the most vulnerable people sitting in their homes, which months ago were damaged by the conflict.

    Now they can hear shelling again. They don't have enough food. In many cases, they don't have enough medicine. And so really they're in this kind of black hole. Added to that is another policy from Ukraine, which is the introduction of a permit system. So now everybody who lives in the rebel territories who wants to leave and to travel back and forward has to apply for this permit.

    That takes 10 days to receive. And it's quite difficult to get. So I think there's a real sense of desperation in those areas. Many people are very angry with Ukraine. I noticed on this visit, you know, even a change from three or four months ago, where if you got to talking to people and they won your trust, they might quietly admit that they really wanted these horrible pro-Russian rebels to go away, and they were quite pro-Kiev.

    That attitude is changing. And it's very difficult to find anyone left in Donetsk, especially now, who would welcome the Kiev government coming back. And I think these — these measures are sort of making that even harder.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Just very quickly, we know Russians deny that they are in Ukraine, their troops are there. But there's eyewitness testimony to the contrary. What did you see?

  • SHAUN WALKER:

    Well, I think there's three types of people in Eastern Ukraine.

    There are some rebels. There are some local rebels. There are some volunteers and mercenaries from Russia. And, of course ,there are Russian troops. I saw with my own eyes a Russian missile system, the Smerch missile system, which could really only come from Russia. There's no way the rebels have this.

    We're not talking about whole regiments walking around East Ukraine, but, yes, there's definitely weapons, machinery, and I think also troops coming through, maybe in small numbers.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Shaun Walker with The Guardian, we thank you very much.

  • SHAUN WALKER:

    Thank you.

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