Ukraine rebel city residents live underground for months

DONETSK, Ukraine - Ever since fierce shelling in east Ukraine's rebel stronghold Donetsk forced her to flee her home four months ago, Svetlana, a grandmother, has been living underground.

"I've spent four months in this bomb shelter," she said, cradling her 19-month-old grandson.

"Whenever I go out, I risk being killed by a shell."

Standing around her in the musty basement of a 1930s apartment block are some 100 other people, mainly women, who have sought refuge from the fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels.

To reach the shelter you have to enter a small wooden hut and climb down a few metres and past thick blackout curtains.

Benches have been turned into makeshift beds with the help of piled bedspreads. Clothes hang on the wall along with a few toys and a football for the 15-odd children living here.

"It's like being in prison," Svetlana tells AFP.

"Some people's nerves are in shreds."

'We came here to escape death'

Those in the shelter say they did not have the means to escape their violence-wracked hometown.

"We have 96 people in this shelter. At the start, there were 250 of us," said 49-year-old Irina, whose shop burnt down after being shelled.

"Those who could, those who had the money, have left Donetsk."

"I've lost everything. My husband worked in a mine but it has closed. We are surviving on humanitarian aid."

Irina has also lived in the shelter for four months with her husband, her daughter and her 7-year-old grandson.

"Twice, we tried to go back to our house to collect our things. But each time we came under shellfire. Two women didn't have time to run to the shelter and were killed in front of my grandson," Irina said.

"We came here to escape death." Life is difficult in the packed shelter and some find it hard to control their emotions and snap at times.

"It's difficult for everyone. We have an 87-year-old grandmother and some small children," said Svetlana.

"No one knows when they wake up whether they will still be alive at the end of the day," she said, trying to calm a woman who ranted about being "shut up in a cage, not knowing how much longer this will go on."

"Some of the children have become less scared. They think that shelling is something ordinary. But they want to go outside and that's dangerous," said 67-year-old Valentina Filippovna.

"Yesterday we had just started a game of football with the children when the bombardment started again," said Valentina, looking on as three children coloured in pictures, sitting quietly around a table.

Outside the shelter, some warmly wrapped-up women were cooking on a camp fire, taking advantage of a brief lull and paying no attention to shelling in the distance. To one side, laundry dried on lines stretched between trees.

"We have cold water. We heat it up in kettles when we have electricity," said Svetlana, saying she was also worried about the approach of winter.

Winter fears

The temperature has now fallen to below freezing at night and is not more than 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit) during the day. And there is no heating in the basement.

"The shelling often damages the power lines. That's why we've lived for more than a month without electricity. We used miners' lamps and candles," Svetlana said.

Around the shelter, roughly a dozen rebel soldiers guarded an area deserted by residents and where numerous houses have been destroyed.

"The Ukrainian artillery is around 2 kilometres from here. They fire from tanks with mortars and artillery," said Alexei, a rebel in his 30s.

Asked whether the winter would be a tough test for the fighters, Alexei was defiant.

"More like for the Ukrainians! We are in our own land, in cities, but they have to live outside in the countryside," Alexei said.