Frontline villagers emerge from basements as Russians retreat
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For the first time in seven months, pensioner Lyudmila Omelchenko can once again sleep in the bedroom upstairs of her small two-storey home in eastern Ukraine.
"I slept in the basement since day one of this hellish war, but yesterday the shelling stopped," she told AFP on Sunday in the village of Zakitne, 10 miles from the key eastern town of Lyman that the Ukrainian army recaptured from Russian troops this weekend.
"So I dared to sleep in my own bed again last night," the 62-year-old said with a nervous half-smile, flinching at the artillery that continued to rumble from the directions of Lyman.
Ukraine's army said it had entered Lyman on Saturday, prompting Moscow to announce the "withdrawal" of its troops from the town towards "more favourable lines".
The recapture of the town -- which Moscow's forces pummelled for weeks to control this spring -- marks the first Ukrainian military victory in territory that the Kremlin has claimed as its own and has vowed to defend by all possible means.
Months of shelling of Zakitne, on high ground just across a river from what had been Russian-held territory until Saturday, damaged or destroyed every building in the tiny village.
Home to 200 inhabitants before the war, it has been almost emptied, with the few dozen remaining hesitant to venture on to the streets Sunday.
"I always came out to tend my flowers, during breaks in the shelling, nothing was going to stop me from doing that," said Omelchenko, wearing gardening gloves and a soiled checked shirt, with tears welling.
The red roses, and lilac and white petunias in her front garden are the only splash of colour now in the village, apart from a brightly painted children's playground still standing amid ruined buildings.
-- Years of war --
Zakitne was also heavily shelled during fighting in 2014, when Moscow-backed separatists seized around half of Donetsk region.
"My son only finished renovating the damage to our house from 2014 this year in February," just weeks before Russia invaded, said Omelchenko.
Another sign of long years of conflict hangs on the wall of the ruined school nearby, a plaque marked with shell fragmentations that reads: "Repaired with the help of Unesco and the Japanese government".
Inside the school now are goats kept by a villager Lyudmila Mykolayivna, 58.
"At least there is a roof there," she told AFP at her cottage where most windows are broken while the goat house collapsed months ago.
"I regret moving to Zakitne 15 years ago, as eight of them have been full of war," she said, her voice quivering, adding that she has lived in her basement since April.
Standing at a gate with "People Here!" marked on it, another villager Nadiya says that there has been no water, gas or electricity in Zakitne since spring.
"Five people are now sleeping in my garage as their own roofs have fallen in," she told AFP.
A bag of dried bread hanging in the corner of the garage is an emergency store for the group in case winter snow prevents them reaching the nearest market in the city of Slovyansk.
"I don't know how we are going to make it through the winter to be honest, but at least the shelling has stopped," she added.