Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

Names marked with an asterisk have been changed to protect identities.

Slovyansk, Eastern Ukraine – “I do not want to live anymore,” says Olga, a Ukrainian “babushka” (grandmother), as she prepares to celebrate her 89th birthday.

“I turn 89 on January 2, but I would rather be dead,” she told Al Jazeera, with a traditional headscarf over her head.

Olga lives on the front line in eastern Ukraine, in the village of Marinka, near the Russian border. It is a government-controlled area, close to the so-called “contact line”, which separates it from the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Shooting incidents have been reported here in recent weeks and according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, machine gun fire and mortar shelling were closely documented in November and December.

Olga can hear shooting every night.

“I can not sleep. The war has been going on for more than seven years. It has calmed down, but now I hear the bullets flying above my house every night. I wish my life was over.”

Olga’s house is surrounded by signs warning of snipers and landmines.

Military personnel allowed Al Jazeera to report in the area for only 20 minutes, given the risks.

Schoolchildren in Marinka leave school to go homeSchoolchildren in Marinka leave for home after finishing their classes [Sara Cincurova/Al Jazeera]

The war that erupted in eastern Ukraine in 2014, according to Kiev, killed more than 14,000 people and caused a huge displacement crisis, leaving only the most vulnerable people living in the war zone.

According to Srdan Stojanovic, Head of the EU Office for Humanitarian Aid in Ukraine, 3.4 million people will need humanitarian aid by 2021.

As the conflict continues without end in sight, even in the midst of top level talksRussian President Vladimir Putin is accused by the West of amassing more than 100,000 conscripts along Russia’s border with Ukraine.

He says it is Moscow’s right to place troops on Russian soil where it wants and denies allegations of a planned invasion. Russia, meanwhile, claims that NATO is expanding eastward and fears that the alliance is growing closer to Ukraine.

As accusations from presidential offices fly across borders, security incidents have intensified since November.

Masha *, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, was sleeping at her grandmother’s house in the village of Nevelsk – also in the government-controlled area – on November 13 when she was awakened by the sound of shelter.

“I found myself once again a victim of protection, just like in 2014 when the war started. It felt the same, ”Masha told Al Jazeera.

The whole village was destroyed. No deaths were reported, but dozens of people, including Masha and her grandmother, were evacuated.

The teenager now lives with family in a nearby village, a few miles away.

“But even now I can hear a cap every night. It wakes me up. I come to school tired every morning. ”

Paintings in the school for children in NovomykhailivkaPaintings in a school teach children how to avoid mine while playing outside [Sara Cincurova/Al Jazeera]

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA Ukraine) told Al Jazeera that settlements along both sides of the contact line were hotspots.

Security incidents were recently recorded in three settlements visited by Al Jazeera: Marinka, Nevelsky and Pisky.

For Nastya * (16), the fighting she hears near Nevelsk brings back painful memories from when the war began.

“I had a baby sister who was just born in 2014 and I not only feared for my life, I also feared for her,” she told Al Jazeera.

“As we now hear tracking and shooting again, all the questions keep coming back: Are we going to survive? Will my little sister survive? ”

Alyona Budagovska, a spokeswoman for People in Need, a front-line NGO, told Al Jazeera that at least 54,000 children live within 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) of the state-controlled contact line.

“Most children we support live within 5km (3.1 miles) of the contact line and hear gunfire on a weekly or daily basis,” she said.

“Children do not feel safe while they are at home and going to school at night. Access to underground shelters during shelter also differs in different settlements. ”

A child who picks up the school bus to take her home from school in PervomaiskeTens of thousands of children live within 15 kilometers of the contact line on government-controlled territory alone, according to People in Need, an NGO operator in the area [Sara Cincurova/Al Jazeera]

In the village of Novomykhaivka, about an hour’s drive from Pervomaiske, residents are accustomed to the presence of landmines and shelters.

Katya * (16) told Al Jazeera that she heard an explosion on December 21 when she was traveling home from school, where volunteers recently painted drawings on the wall to teach the youngest children how to mine avoid while playing outside.

Parents live in fear.

Alexandra and Ivan, 87 and 89 years old respectively, say they feel “heartbroken” whenever they hear the sound of shell.

They recalled an incident at the beginning of the war when their only son barely survived after their home was hit.

“These days we hear heavy protection from the village of Pisky because we live on the other side of the same field,” said Alexandra.

Their house is near the village of Vodiane, on the contact line.

At the end of November, Pisky was hit by shells and bullets. Ivan and Alexandra heard the attack from their home.

“They bombed our friends’ houses; they even destroyed their toilets. People had to hide in the basement that night. “We remembered the day our son almost died there, and we were terrified,” they said.

“We are illiterate, we survived World War II and the Soviet famine in 1947. We thought we were not scared.

“But at the moment we pray every night before we go to bed, and then pray again in the morning, because we are happy to be alive.”

Ivan and Alexandr, in their house in VodianeIvan and Alexandra, 87 and 89, in their house in Vodiane, on the contact line [Sara Cincurova/Al Jazeera]

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