The people of Donetsk trudge along warily under the rebel government

by @SabraAyres November 24, 2014 5:00AM ET

Residents go about their daily lives in a city in crisis

Ukraine Crisis
A rehearsal at the Donbass Opera theater, Nov. 14, 2014 in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America
A sign points the direction to a bomb shelter in the basement of the Donbass Opera theater, Nov. 14, 2014.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America

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.

Workers pick up debris from a church destroyed in August.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America

For the past four months, Yelena, 83, has lived in the basement of the Soviet-era House of Culture building with up to 25 of her neighbors from the Petrovka region of Donetsk. The building is ironically located on Lucky Street, less than 10 miles east from where Ukrainian forces are holding a position.

Yelena, who didn’t want to give her last name because she feared reprisal from both the Ukrainians and the rebels controlling the region, ran to the shelter with other neighbors after their streets were hit by shelling in August. She cried when she described how the Russian Orthodox church on her street was hit.

Not much news filters down the steep stairway leading to the makeshift bomb shelter, so when a humanitarian aid worker arrives to deliver food packets, Yelena pulls the young volunteer aside for a whispered conversation.

“I haven’t received my pension in months, and I have no money,” she said in a local dialect that mixes the Ukrainian and Russian languages. “What should I do about my loan payments for my new refrigerator? I bought it last year, but I haven’t paid my monthly statements to the bank since September. I don’t want them to take it away. How should I pay it if the banks are closed?”

Before the conflict, the city of 1 million had a growing middle class, which crowded in Donetsk’s malls and packed the tables of cafes lining its leafy central boulevard.

There hasn’t been a traffic jam in Donetsk since midsummer. Shop windows are boarded up, and only a handful of restaurants are still open. Armed rebels in camouflage walk the streets that were once busy thoroughfares for businessmen and shoppers.

Shelling has blown out the windows on this apartment block in Shakhtyorsk, a town not far from Donetsk.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America

The rebel leaders changed the local time to coincide with Moscow’s clock earlier this month. It has affected few schedules, however, since unemployment has skyrocketed in the region as businesses have closed or transferred their offices.

Grocery store shelves are stocked, but very few customers have cash to shop.

Many support the rebel government here but also see little alternative as fighting with Ukrainian forces continues and Moscow has stopped short of annexing the region, as it did Crimea in March.

The Donbass Opera’s performers are employees of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture. As such, they, like thousands of teachers, doctors, pensioners and other state workers still living in the pro-Russian rebel territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, have not received their salaries since July.

It doesn’t look as if they will receive paychecks anytime soon.

On Nov. 16, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that the central government in Kiev would end budget payments and state services in the rebel-held territories.

The state bank branches quickly followed orders, closing their doors and turning off their cash machines across the region. The city is now in an untenable cash crisis. Even credit card systems have been blocked.

The only way to get cash is to cross tense block posts and checkpoints from each side to get into Ukrainian territory, often crossing the front line and frequent artillery fire exchanges.

The financial freeze-out seems to be Kiev’s way of putting pressure on the pro-Russian rebels, who in April seized government buildings and then declared independence as the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. While Poroshenko won a May presidential election on a promise to quickly end the violent conflict between Ukrainian forces and the rebel fighters that began in April, he now blames the rebels for violating the fragile peace agreement after they held unsanctioned regional elections on Nov. 2.

A student writes on the board in a classroom at school No. 18 in Shakhtyorsk, a town not far from Donetsk, on Nov. 17, 2014.
Dmitry Beliakov for Al Jazeera America

“We come to work because we have a responsibility to teach. What else can we do?” said Lyudmila Mattenkova, the director of School No. 35 in central Donetsk, where every teacher still goes to class without having received a paycheck in months.

Some parents keep their kids at home when the sound of artillery in the morning feels too close, but daily enrollment is at 70 percent of what it was last year, higher than many in the region, Mattenkova said. Earlier this month, two students were killed at a neighboring school when an artillery shell struck them as they played in their school’s yard. Both sides accused the other on firing on civilians.

As if the cash deficit and fighting weren’t bad enough, temperatures are dropping as winter sets in. Many villages and towns have been battered by a war that has done billions of dollars in damage to homes and infrastructure during the past six months. Thousands have been left homeless, their houses and apartment buildings demolished by artillery fire and mortar rounds. Others have no heat or water, thanks to pipes and pumping facilities that have been destroyed. Today the prevailing sense in Donetsk is that Kiev will no longer help Ukrainian citizens who have stayed in the rebel areas because they had nowhere else to go.

“I’m worried all the time,” said Anna, 29, who was collecting her second-grade daughter at the end of the day at School No. 35. She declined to giver her last name, fearing reprisals. “Everyone is seeking answers to a lot of questions about what is going to happen to us here in the future.”