Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series examining the political and humanitarian situation in east Ukraine. Read the second part, on brain drain, here, and the third part, on leadership confusion in Luhansk and Donetsk, here.
DONETSK, Ukraine — Backstage in the Donbas Opera house, Natalia Kovalova is doing her best to maintain a sense of normality amid the chaos that has taken hold in this rebel-held city during the past seven months.
The rumble of artillery shells demolishing what’s left of the city’s airport has become so routine, Donetsk’s residents hardly flinch. Senior citizens who haven’t received their monthly pensions in five months stand in line to collect humanitarian aid packets of food and medicine.
The opera house continues to put on shows, but only matinees and only on the weekend because people don’t feel safe leaving their homes at night. Tickets are half-price, and sometimes given out for free. A large sign in the theater’s entryway reads “bomb shelter” in Russian and points toward the basement classroom used by the ballet school.
But behind the stage and in the costume rooms and practice halls that Kovalova, the theater’s administrator, has called her second home for 25 years, she said she finds her bit of peace watching the ballerinas and opera singers rehearse for their next performance as if it were just a normal day of practice.
“Kiev has said we should leave and relocate somewhere else, but where would we go?” Kovalova said. “The Ukrainian government has just forgotten about us here.”
A year has passed since the Euromaidan protests began in Kiev on Nov. 21 and sparked Ukraine’s worst political crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. Within six months of the demonstrations’ start, Ukraine’s eastern industrialized heartland was transformed into a brutal battleground between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels declaring independence.
Donetsk, a rebel stronghold, has been the center of what Kiev, the United States and the European Union say is a Russian-supported rebellion. Pundits say the conflict threatens to create a new cold war between the West and Russia.
Eastern Ukrainians like Kovalova say they are the victims caught in the middle of a deadly political game being played out in their streets.
Kiev and NATO claim that Russian troops have crossed the border to support the separatists, despite a Sept. 5 cease-fire. The United Nations said this week that more than 1,000 people have been killed since the truce was called, an average of 13 casualties a day in Ukraine’s restive east. More than 4,300 have been killed since Kiev initiated its anti-rebel operation in late April.
The fear of a new military offensive has Donetsk residents on edge.
Within the city limits, a local humanitarian group has located 12 bomb shelters currently being used by residents whose areas on the outskirts of the city come under constant fire despite the truce.