LUHANSK, Ukraine — The conflict-wracked eastern Ukraine city of Luhansk, much of which has been without water and electricity for more than a month, had a rare day of jubilation Sunday as rebel fighters paraded military vehicles victoriously through city streets.
In the other regional capital of Donetsk, the city council said Sunday that shelling hit two residential neighborhoods near a government-held airport. Government troops repelled an attack at the airport by about 200 fighters during overnight, and there were no military casualties, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council spokesman Volodymyr Polyovyi told journalists.
A cease-fire deal, imposed on Sept. 5, has been riddled by violations from the start, and explosions still ring out daily in Donetsk. But in some towns, the decline in fighting has allowed for a return to some kind of normalcy, as shell-shocked residents emerge from the basements where they hid from shelling for weeks and come to grips with the damage incurred by nearly five months of fighting.
Signs of life are gradually returning to Luhansk, which was bombarded by shelling from Ukrainian forces for weeks as they attempted to uproot separatist rebels operating in the city.
Luhansk's population of about 250,000 people, reduced because of the war, emerged to celebrate "city day" on Sunday, which opened on a somber note as priests led hundreds of residents in prayer in commemoration of those killed during a government-mounted siege of the city.
Speaking at the open-air service by the Mother of Sorrows Church, local separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky mourned those that had been killed and in an unusually conciliatory public statement called for forgiveness for those responsible.
Around much of Luhansk, smashed windows, burned-out buildings and craters in the road are testimony to a frequently imprecise shelling campaign.
Across the road from the regional military enlistment office, now transformed into the headquarters of the rebel Zarya Battalion, the roof of a multistory apartment building was caved in from a direct strike.
Damage to basic infrastructure has left much of the city without power and running water since early August.
After a garbage recycling plant was damaged, trash began to pile up on the streets, prompting local authorities to warn of potential health hazards. In the recent days, however, the streets have begun to be cleared away and electricity is now available in some select areas.
A Russian aid convoy carrying mainly food arrived Saturday in Luhansk in an effort to relieve shortages in the city.
Under a scratched-out sign reading "Strong Ukraine," men in camouflage handed out chocolate, drinking water, soap, toilet paper, diapers and other basic requirements to a large crowd of residents patiently waiting in line. At a nearby table, war veterans were poured complimentary shots of vodka.
As the men in fatigues handed out wares, their guns lay nearby, some propped up against the wall.
A rebel official, a Muscovite who gave his name only as the nom de guerre Makhra, told The Associated Press that the aid was from Russia.
"People have gone hungry here for almost two months. We decided to celebrate 'city day,'" he said. "In a few days, power and water should be turned back on. So people are being given hygiene products so they can properly feed themselves."
The goods delivered the day before included primarily canned meat and fish, rice and water.
Lilya Miroschenkovo, a 73-year old retiree waiting in line, said she hasn't received her pension since May and has had to make do since then with her last monthly payment of just $85.
"It is a good thing that vegetables were more or less affordable this year," she said. "Meat, sausages, oil — I have bought nothing like that. It is just vegetables in one soup after another."
At midday, a group of rebel fighters led a motley convoy made up of Night Wolves biker gang members and several battered military vehicles on a ride through the city. While a Night Wolves truck modified to look like a wolf leading the column blared out cacophonous heavy metal, vans trailing at the back played rousing Soviet-vintage military songs.
The caravan toured the city, and residents came out to wave and cheer. As it reached its final destination by the city hall, itself bearing evident signs of a bomb strike, the convoy was greeted rapturously by a crowd of several thousand people.
As conceded by even one separatist fighter, originally from the Crimean Peninsula now annexed by Russia, support for the armed rebel movement has been far from universal in Luhansk.
"In Crimea, everybody wanted to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia," said the fighter, who identified himself by the nom de guerre Maestro.
"Many people come to us and ask: 'When will the war end?'" he said, while sitting atop an armored personnel carrier.
"Our answer is always the same," he said. "As soon as you get ... off the couch, stop swilling beer and go fight instead."
Laura Mills reported from Kiev, Ukraine.