Land mines and sniper fire, tank traps and unexploded shells have shut down Highway 20, the main artery into eastern Ukraine’s separatist stronghold of Donetsk. But despite the upheavals caused by two years of war, ordinary life along the route has struggled on.

As violence surges again, that could change.

One building near the desolate arc of tarmac is a water-filtration plant, staffed by 117 Ukrainian engineers and others. Hundreds of thousands of civilians on both sides of the front line depend on this crucial public utility, a symbol of resilience in an intractable conflict that has cost more than 9,000 lives.

Now, international cease-fire observers warn, renewed fighting between Ukraine’s army and Russian-backed separatists in the area threatens to destroy the plant, potentially triggering environmental havoc and a humanitarian emergency.

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