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Ukrainian town copes with aftermath of Russian strike on community center/aid base

·3 min read

By Jonathan Landay

DERGACHI, Ukraine (Reuters) - As his helpers retrieved a dust-covered sound system from inside this town's devastated community center, Roman Meleshenko vowed that the Russian missile strike that savaged the building early Wednesday would not deter him from staging his children's shows.

“Absolutely I will continue putting on the shows,” said Meleshenko, 43, explaining that he travels the country entertaining kids in a mission he began in the Donbas after Russia-backed separatists seized parts of the eastern region in 2014.

“The aggressor is trying to destroy as much as they can,” he said as artillery boomed from fighting to the north between Ukrainian forces and Russian troops that invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. “We had a peaceful life. They didn’t need to do this.”

The strike on the Palace of Culture, which doubled as a humanitarian aid distribution base, and near-daily Russian shelling show how vulnerable some outlying areas remain nearly two weeks into a Ukrainian counteroffensive that ended barrages of nearby Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

“Ukrainian artillery continues to shell the other side, so there are artillery duels. The Ukrainians try to push the Russians away. When the Russians respond, they miss and hit houses,” said Olena Suvorova, pausing from restacking aid supplies strewn around the remains of the community center.

Dergachi Mayor Vyacheslav Zadorenko said the missile struck at 2:20 am, slightly injuring one person, and came a day after a rocket hurtled through the roof and three floors but failed to explode.

“I can’t call it anything but a terrorist act,” said Zadorenko, sporting a military-style jacket and trousers. “They wanted to hit the base where we store provisions and create a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Nearby, a firefighter sprayed a hose on wreckage still smoldering nearly nine hours after the blast that collapsed the building’s roof and core into a mess of wooden beams, wires, and concrete. It bowed out the facade and hurtled concrete chunks and other debris into the front courtyard.

Russian troops that advanced to the outskirts of Kharkiv, 10 km south, in a failed bid to capture Ukraine’s one-time capital did not enter Dergachi, but they occupied villages around the district of some 42,000 people, Zadorenko said.

Residents have not escaped near-daily shelling, he said, putting the district death toll at more than 100. Reuters could not independently confirm the number.

The Ukrainian counteroffensive drove the Russians from most of the district, but they remained on Wednesday in four villages, he said.

“Twenty kilometers away there is constant combat,” according to the mayor.

Moscow calls its invasion a "special military operation" to demilitarize a neighbor threatening its security. Ukraine denies posing a threat and says Russia is waging a war of aggression that has killed thousands of civilians, uprooted millions of others and destroyed cities and towns.

Dergachi’s Palace of Culture, like those in countless towns and cities throughout the former Soviet Union, serves as its community center, staging plays, concerts and other events.

What appears to be the building’s now-destroyed theater is featured on the town’s Facebook page. Musicians dressed in traditional Ukrainian garb, a Christmas tree backdrop twinkling behind them, hold stringed instruments as an audience claps in the foreground.

Vladimir Stepanyenko, a district council member, said the humanitarian center inside the building supported some 7,000 residents. Many are elderly or infirm, requiring volunteers to drive supplies to them, he said.

“We will continue distributing aid even after this,” he said.

Inside the ruined ground floor, volunteers sorted through jumbled bags of diapers, cartons of baby formula, boxes of toiletries and other materials.

Suvarova, a mother of a 16-year-old daughter, said she has never considered fleeing despite the threat of Russian shelling.

“This is my hometown. It is easier for me to support people by remaining here,” she said, explaining that she has tracked an average of 400 visitors seeking aid from the center every day. “I couldn’t do it if I lived in the city.”

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mark Porter)

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