Francisco Leong / AFP / Getty Images

Stuck in the middle, Donetsk residents stick together to stay alive

An estimated 36 people die each day in embattled town where pro-Russian rebel separatists fight Ukranian soldiers

DONTESK, Ukraine—Sasha Dolinsky shook his head as he watched the emergency workers pry open the door of the charred vehicle in the middle of his street , pulling  out the remains of the three people killed inside, victims of a mortar shell that exploded as the car was passing by just an hour before.

“This sort of thing has become normal now,” he said, as the armed police from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republics urged onlookers to walk away from the gruesome scene. “There will be no end to this until Russia and America have killed us all.”

With claims by NATO and the Ukrainian government that Russian troops are now fighting with pro-Russia separatist in the newest front of this conflict, there is a growing sense among the remaining residents in this city who, like Dolinsky, believe there is nothing left that can shock or surprise them.

Since Ukraine’s crisis began in November as an anti-government protest movement in Kiev, Dolinsky has watched as unprecedented events interrupted life as he knew it in his hometown of 53 years.

In past nine months, former President Viktor Yanukovych has fled, Russia has annexed the Crimean peninsula, and armed rebels have declared independence from the rest of Ukraine. Then came the war, and the first violent conflict in Ukraine’s modern history.

In fact, the situation in Donetsk has changed so much since November that many residents say they can’t keep track of what’s normal and what’s not. The sound of heavy artillery fire can be heard day and night now. A strict regime imposed by the rebels has turned the city into a police state, complete with a nightly curfew, even for those who may have had sympathies for the separatists’ cause.

In Donetsk, many said, the main task of those who are left in the city is to survive.

Old friends now

 “It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, because we’re all bonded together now by this strange sense that we’ve all living through something none of use could have imagined ever happening in our city,” said Dmitry, a local journalist-turned-volunteer with a humanitarian group trying to distribute medicine, food and water to the elderly and invalid with few resources of their own. He asked that his last name not be used, fearing retribution from the rebels.

Dmitry said he has stayed not because he supports any side, but because those who don’t have the money or ability to leave need his help. Besides, he said, this is where he was born and raised. 

“We’re all in the same situation here, so we have become like old friends, who help each other however we can,” Dmitry said.

So if the west and Kiev say they have confirmation that Russian soldiers are on the ground in southeast Ukraine—accusations the Ukrainians have levied since April when the separatist rebels first took hold of the region—many in Donetsk have had a muted response.

“It’s no secret we’ve been getting help from the Russians for awhile,” said Vyacheslav Sulimanov, a warehouse manager from Donetsk, who was not a rebel fighter but said he supported their position. “It’s funny to me that the West is now announcing it like it’s something new.”

Life today in Donetsk and the rest of the region is not easy for anyone. An estimated 36 people are dying every day, caught in the middle of the Ukrainian government’s fight against the Kremlin-backed Russian separatists, according to the United Nation’s most recent statistics. In total, close to 2,600 have been killed in what Kiev has termed an anti-terrorist operation aimed at routing out the separatist rebels. More than 300,000 have fled the fighting since April, according to the U.N.   

Once the fourth largest city in Ukraine with a population of one million, Donetsk today can feel like a small town in which everyone knows each other. Since April, more than 30 percent of the population has left the city.

Today, neighbors know which of the apartments in the tall, Soviet-style housing blocks are still occupied, and which ones their owners have vacated until safer times. Strangers who never had reason to speak before now caution each other about where the rebels have set up checkpoints throughout the city limits. A network of drivers keeps each other abreast of the safe passages leading out of the city for those seeking to evacuate.

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.”

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