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article imageWomen bearing aid desperate to enter Ukraine as thousands flee

By Anais Llobet (AFP)     Aug 17, 2014 in World

Heads resting on their bags as they wait in stifling heat in their van, 11 women sit stranded at the Ukrainian border as a dispute over a mammoth Russian aid convoy blocks their mission to reach relatives stuck inside besieged Lugansk.

"Do you know when the humanitarian convoy will pass? As long as it doesn't they are not letting us through," said one, named Olga.

The Ukrainian women -- a mixture of long-term residents in Russia and recent arrivals -- pulled up days ago to the border, racing to rebel-held Lugansk where their relatives were trying to stay alive as the Ukrainian army shelled the surrounded city.

But their van was sent away after a massive Russian humanitarian convoy arrived near the same crossing, and the women were now convinced the controversial cargo was effectively stopping them from getting to their loved ones.

"We are a humanitarian convoy just as well. We are bringing bread, milk and medicine to our families who are being shelled," said Irina, the youngest of the group who has tasked herself with finding her grandmothers in the city after having no news from them for a month.

After leaving Moscow on Wednesday evening, the women were due to arrive on Thursday night in Lugansk, a city that had a population of around 500,000 before the fighting began.

The city has been under continuous shelling for days which had cut off cell phone coverage and food deliveries. Local authorities said Sunday that residents have had no electricity or water for more than two weeks.

The women were able to drive up as far as Krasnodon, a town just across the border, but were turned around after coming across a rebel checkpoint.

"We heard sounds of artillery fire get louder and louder. The rebels stopped our car, and once they saw we were only women civilians, they forced us to return to Russia because the area was too dangerous," said Olga.

"Maybe they were worried that our (white) van could be confused with the (white) trucks carrying Russian humanitarian aid and would be fired upon by the Ukrainian army," she said.

Nearly 300 lorries painted white have been waiting at the border since arriving there from the Moscow region Thursday.

The two sides are wrangling over how to get the aid to conflict-hit areas amid Kiev's fears that Russia will use the lorries to bring armaments to the rebels.

- 'I cried every night' -

Sitting on small wooden stools, the 11 Ukrainians observed the steady trickle of refugees fleeing across the border from Lugansk with tears in their eyes.

"They are leaving, but we are dreaming of returning," Olga said quietly.

The women said they are not afraid of entering the conflict zone. One of them, Lyuba, said: "The important thing is that we get there. I am ready to stay there for a month if need be, but I must know if my children are still alive."

The two men who are taking turns driving the van promised that would deliver the women safely "in spite of everything" as the long wait transformed the vehicle into a mini-camp, with the passenger seats becoming beds and suitcases turning into pillows.

But the set-up was far from comfortable, the women said. "Try to sleep on a row of bus seats for five nights in 30-degree heat when you're 57. It's hell," said Olga as she sliced a watermelon.

"It's hard, but this is how our families have lived for two weeks," responded 51-year-old Tatyana.

"In Moscow I cried every night in front of the television. It drove me crazy that I cannot help my family, I just had to return and convince them to go to Russia," she added.

Lyuba however said that once she arrived, she would never leave Lugansk again, convinced that the separatist area would become Russian.

"We will rebuild what Kiev has destroyed, and we will have a new life with Moscow," she said. "We will be Russian citizens, not Ukrainians."

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