Rob Stothard / Getty Images

‘People, we are all evacuating’: Residents flee Donetsk clashes

Fighting rages between rebels, Ukraine government forces in regional capital, 50 miles west of where jet was downed

DONETSK, Ukraine — The woman leading the evacuation out of the Kuybyshevskoye area of this eastern Ukrainian city waved her hands frantically in the air as she tried to get people to listen to her cries.

“We’re all leaving! Let’s go! People, we are all evacuating!” she screamed, as several people carrying plastic bags stuffed with belongings trotted toward buses waiting on the side of the road. “Get on the bus. Now!”

In the distant background, the rumble of heavy artillery fire could be heard as it struck a residential area wedged in between the Donetsk airport and the main train station in this city held by pro-Russian rebel groups. The city’s Health Department reported that at least four people had been killed and two injured in the fighting by midday.

“The Ukrainian bastards are bombing peaceful people. They don’t differentiate between them and militiamen,” said one rebel fighter dressed in fatigues with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder as he helped passengers get their heavy bags off a bus that he and another armed man were using to evacuate locals. “Don’t panic, people. Don’t cry. We’re going to defeat those fascists.”

Even as the world’s eyes have focused on the search for answers in the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in this region last week, the war here has started to reach a new pitch. On Monday the center of Donetsk felt and sounded like a battlefield. Loud explosions, some of them coming in rapid succession, such as those created by multiple missile launchers, could be heard from the city center. Tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled and rattled down the city’s central streets toward the battle near the airport and train station.

Not everyone was in full support of the separatist fighters, but anger against the Ukrainian government seemed to be growing. “It’s not safe here, but we aren’t the ones that did this,” said Olga Semenchenko, who was rolling her silver suitcase down the sidewalk as her teenage son carried two duffel bags. “This is America and Russia, and we’re caught in the middle.”

Rattled residents in the western section of Donetsk were loaded onto city buses and taken just a few kilometers farther into the city, away from where the shelling had been pounding nearby since 5 a.m. on Monday. Then they were making their way to safer areas in the city, they said. Those who have been able to leave the city entirely already have. But there are still hundreds of thousands of Donetsk’s 1 million residents who have stayed behind — out of necessity, willingness to stick it out or a simple lack of resources to leave.

The battle for Donetsk comes after Ukrainian government forces retook the city of Slovyansk earlier this month as part of a wider drive to recapture ground from pro-Russian rebels who have declared the east an independent republic. Slovyansk was a rebel stronghold, and its recapture was the first in a series of Ukrainian victories that seemed to be gaining momentum not long after the election of President Petro Poroshenko.

But the fall of Slovyansk came at a price to the city’s residents, hundreds of whom suffered casualties as well as devastating damage to their homes and infrastructure after weeks of relentless shelling from both sides. When the rebels fled the city, thousands of them headed south into the city of Donetsk, where their commander, Igor Strelkov, a Russian citizen, said they have regrouped and promised to fight until the bloody end.

Analysts — and the residents of this modern regional hub — fear Donetsk could also suffer heavy civilian casualties as the Ukrainian forces apply the same strategy: surround the city, destroy the rebel defenses and roadblocks and oust them from the city.

Rebel leaders, including the self-proclaimed governor of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Pavel Gubarev, have told those remaining in the city to leave as soon as they can and warned that the city might be bombed. Their words have ratcheted up fear in the city, where people barely eke out a living.

“There are idiots on both sides of this. This country is just not normal,” said Anton Mikhailenko, who was watching a thick cloud of black smoke rise from the direction of the airport. The smoke turned out to be from a direct hit on a car parts factory.

Ukrainian troops on the move in the eastern Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk, July 21, 2014.
Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Mikhailenko said he couldn’t leave the city because his ex-wife has custody of his kids, whom he couldn’t leave behind. He, like many others in Donetsk, had wide-ranging theories about why the fighting was now focused so close to Donetsk’s center.

“Maybe they don’t want those bodies to be able to get out of Torez, so they are trying to ruin the railroad,” he said, referring to the trains carrying the victims of the plane crash, which have been stored on wagons waiting on the tracks in Torez, nine miles from the crash sites. “Who knows who has something to hide? Probably both sides.”

The Ukrainian government issued a statement saying that it was “clearing approaches to the city” and destroying rebel checkpoints, but the explosions in the middle of the city were not coming from those spots, said Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the National Defense and Security Council.

“We have an order not to use airstrikes and artillery in residential areas in the city,” he said at a press conference in Kiev. “In any case, if there is fighting in the city, we have information that there are small self-organized groups, both in Luhansk and in Donetsk, who are fighting with the terrorists.”

The statement seemed to point a finger at some of the volunteer battalions organized in the last few months to fight along with the government forces against the pro-Russian rebels. The Ministry of Interior has recognized many of those paramilitary groups as special units of the national guard.

The government statement wasn’t reassuring panicked residents fleeing the city’s western section.

Iryna, who cradled her 3-day-old daughter in her arms as she got into the backseat of her parents’ car, was clearly shaken by the earth-shattering explosions close to her apartment building. She and other members of her family did not want to give their full names.

“We’re going to go to Odessa,” said her father, who was taking on the responsibility to drive the family’s black sedan to safety. “Anywhere, just far, far away from here.”

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