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Ukrainians flee besieged Donetsk as fighting closes in

AFP | Tuesday, Aug 5, 2014

Local residents carry their belongings as they flee from what they say was shelling by Ukrainian forces, in the town on the suburbs of Shakhtarsk, Donetsk region, July 28, 2014.

DONETSK - The once-bustling leafy boulevards of central Donetsk are now deserted but one place where there is almost certain to be a crowd is the rebel-held city's ornate Stalin-era railway station.

As the boom of mortar fire rocks the mining hub of one million daily, ever more residents are packing up and fleeing a tightening government blockade.

"They are bombing - that's why we are getting far away from here," said Lyubov, a grey-eyed woman with her hair in a bun, who fled her home in a nearby town.

"We left everything and ran away," she said, adding that she was headed for the government-held city of Dnipropetrovsk, some 200 kilometres (124 miles) to the west, where her son and sister are.

Nearby families huddled around piles of bags and even a canary in a cage as they waited anxiously to make their escape.

"Our house burnt down and our neighbour's too. The whole street was bombed. We are going to Moscow, to my daughter's place," said Yury, a tired-looking moustachioed man, who had arrived with family and neighbours from the town of Shakhtarsk.

Worse every day

Once a favoured spot for teenage lovers or family strolls, the manicured avenues in the city centre are now eerily quiet despite the baking hot summer weather.

Many shops and flats have "X"s of tape on the windows to prevent the glass from shattering in case of an explosion, and notices hang on the doors of apartment buildings with instructions on how to reach the nearest bomb shelter.

Stores, shopping malls and libraries are almost all closed and shuttered.

A rebel in a stripy army vest scarf swaggered down the deserted main boulevard, pointing his Kalashnikov from side to side.

"The situation is worse every day," said Olga, a 32-year-old travel agent, one of the few people out on the streets.

Wearing sunglasses, she said her family had fled their home near Donetsk airport to stay with friends in the centre of town after three weeks under heavy bombardment.

"I ran with the kids under a hail of bullets," she said, as she watched her two-year-old son play nearby. "It's like in a film, it's scary of course." Her son interjected that he was afraid of the "bang-bang" of war.

Oleg was out on a bike ride with his 12-year-old son, Ivan, since his factory has closed due to a lack of deliveries.

"The situation in the city is shitty, to put it mildly," he said.

Asked if he would leave however, he shook his head. "I've lived in this city for 50 years. I have nowhere else to go." For some people from nearby towns and villages, Donetsk was the only refuge they had.

On the outskirts of the city, more than a thousand people who had fled from the frontline towns of Shakhtarsk and Gorlivka, milled around in a concrete Soviet-era student hostel now run by rebels.

Children ran along the dark corridors playing football while women sorted donated clothes. There were almost no able-bodied men.

The men had stayed behind to look after family homes - and to fight, said Pantelei, a 17-year-old rebel from Gorlivka assisting the refugees.

"We sign them up for the rebels, if they want," he said. "The buses are for women and children primarily." Many women wore just cotton house coats and flip-flops. Many said they had fled straight from the vegetable patch and had no time to change clothes.

The hostel was a dubious refuge, as the rebels who ran it had a military base nearby and had put concrete blocks across the road outside, marking it as a target.

But refugees said they were glad to be living in better conditions after days of hiding from heavy bouts of fighting.

"Thank God: after my cellar, it's a penthouse," said Galina, a hospital nurse.

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