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As Renewed Fighting Grips SE Ukraine, Neighboring Region Braces For Violence

Hundreds of residents of Zaporizhzhya dig a trench on September 6 in an effort to defend the city of Zaporizhzhya, whose region lies next to war-torn Donetsk.

Hundreds of residents of Zaporizhzhya dig a trench on September 6 in an effort to defend the city of Zaporizhzhya, whose region lies next to war-torn Donetsk.

The fields fringing the city of Zaporizhzhya, in southeastern Ukraine, are bustling with activity.

Hundreds of volunteers have been digging trenches to defend their city should the escalating conflict in the neighboring Donetsk region spill over into their province.

So far, the Zaporizhzhya region has been spared the conflict pitting Ukrainian government forces against pro-Russian separatists.

But with renewed fighting erupting in both Donetsk and Mariupol, a government-controlled port city close to the border with their region, Zaporizhzhya residents are bracing for the worst.

"We are already talking about forming self-defense groups," says Oleksandr Donovskiy, council head in the village of Hnarovske. "We've appealed to hunters, people who own registered firearms. We are also in talks with farmers and farm managers who have vehicles that we could use."

Like in other villages and towns across the Zaporizhzhya region, few in Hnarovske believe the fragile cease-fire between Ukraine and separatist rebels will hold for long.

In Mariupol, where Ukrainian troops retain defensive lines against the insurgents, a 33-year-old woman was killed and three other people injured during overnight shelling little more than 24 hours after the truce came into effect. Many residents are reportedly fleeing the city.

Sustained shelling and gunfire were then reported outside Donetsk on September 7.

The violence comes as the rebels push southward in what is seen as an attempt to carve out a land corridor between the Russian border and the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in March.

It has sent jitters across Hnarovske, which lies some 250 kilometers west of Mariupol.

As the conflict threatens to draw closer, Hnarovske's 1,300 inhabitants are making preparations should their village come under shelling.

"We've asked our local school to free up its basement. It needs to be accessible to shelter the children," he says. "Our local House of Culture also has a basement."

Back in Zaporizhzhya, checkpoints have been established all around the city to repel a potential rebel onslaught.

Local authorities and volunteers have joined forces to provide the men holding the checkpoints with warm meals and transportation.

To reach Zaporizhzhya, the region's main city, the insurgents would first have to pass through a number of local villages.

While Zaporizhzhya may have the necessary resources to sustain an attack, Donovskiy says the Ukrainian government's excessive centralization means the region's cash-strapped villages would be mostly left to fend for themselves.

"The enemy would be able to pass right through our villages, because villages are weak, they have no influence on local and regional authorities," he says. "People here are simply surviving."

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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​