An emergency worker helps clear the area where a shell hit a passing car, killing the three people inside. What was once unthinkable is now routine, Donetsk residents say.Sabra Ayres
There are only a handful of stores still open, and those that are have started to run out of supplies. Pedestrians have ignored the underground passageways built under the city’s main drags and instead jaywalk across the empty streets.
Armed men in camouflage stroll the sidewalks and dine on the open veranda of the Banana Club, one of the few restaurant and clubs still open. They race down the streets in cars without license plates with the hazard lights flashing to indicate they are fighters with the Donetsk People’s Republic.
But survival has been particularly difficult for those citizens who have seen as critical of the Donetsk People’s Republic, such as pro-Ukrainian activists, religious groups that are not Russian Orthodox, and journalists, according to a Human Rights Watch report released this week. The report details horrific accounts of torture, beatings and kidnappings carried out by the rebel forces against locals who voiced opinions against the rebels or showed a sympathetic voice toward Ukraine.
The report also sites accusations about pro-Ukrainian volunteer battalions illegally detaining persons, although the majority of the complaints were directed at the rebels.
Andrei, 40, was riding his bicycle home from a friend’s house on July 27 with just 20 minutes left before the start of the rebel-imposed 11 p.m. curfew. The 40-year-old IT specialist was hurrying to get to his anxious wife, when he was stopped by armed rebels and arrested, accused of being a spy for the Ukrainian army.
Andrei, who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution, said rebels from the Vostok Battalion, a rebel group made up of local fighters and volunteers from Russia’s North Caucuses region, beat him mercilessly for two days, bruising his entire body and knocking a tooth out. After the beatings, he was tossed into a small basement room with at least 25 other prisoners.
After two days the beatings stopped, and the rebels drove Andrei and the other prisoners down Savur-Mahila in the southeast, a high ridge in a rural area that has seen intense fighting between the Ukrainian forces and the rebels, and has changed hands several times. Andrei and the other prisoners were forced to dig trenches in the area for 12 days amid heavy artillery firing from both sides.
Finally, on August 8, the rebel battalion released him with no explanation. It is only now, nearly three weeks later, that Andrei is beginning to slowly talk about what happened to him during his captivity, his wife Katya said.
Human Rights Watch says there are hundreds of more stories like Andrei’s coming out of Donetsk and Luhansk, the other eastern rebel-held eastern region.
The couple has thought about leaving Donetsk since his release, but Katya said she feared that they were still on the rebels’ list somewhere and could be detained again at a checkpoint.
“We’ve changed our habits and travel routes to avoid streets where we know the rebels have taken over the buildings,” Katya said. “But to be honest, we changed our lifestyle back in April, when we started stocking up canned food and changing all our currency into dollars in preparation for war. I don’t know if it’s normal, but we’re used to this strange way of life now.”