oDR: Feature

Fleeing Donetsk

A Ukrainian writer reflects on the life she left behind in occupied Donetsk and her new start in Kyiv

Anna Levchenko
15 February 2023, 3.56pm

The author and her mother are now separated, as one is in Kyiv and the other in Donetsk


Picture Yuka

Last autumn, I fled Donetsk, the city in eastern Ukraine where I grew up and lived for 25 years. Six days later, after a long and complicated journey that took me through Russia and Belarus, I finally arrived in Kyiv.

I had wanted to leave since 2014, when Russia-backed separatists took over the city and some of the surrounding region, self-proclaiming a puppet state.

With the help of volunteer friends from Kyiv, but also volunteers from Russia, I finally managed it. They helped me with transport arrangements, paid the travel costs and found me somewhere to live in Kyiv.

And on 7 October, I hugged my mother goodbye and boarded a bus going to Rostov-on-Don, the closest large Russian city to the Ukrainian border, at Donetsk’s Central Bus station. There was no other way to leave our occupied city. My mum stood by the window, crying, and made a gesture that meant ‘you are my heart’.

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I was advised by the Russians who assisted me that I should use my Ukrainian passport to cross into Russia, so that I could get a migration card, which you need to leave Russia. I’ve had a Ukrainian passport since birth, and in the past eight years have acquired a passport issued by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (‘DPR’) – which you need to access basic necessities in the city – as well as a Russian passport.

At the Russian border, all the passengers with Russian passports were waved through, but I couldn’t use mine because I wouldn’t have then been allowed to travel from Belarus to Ukraine. I was interrogated for a long time and my phone was examined. Eventually the border guards let me through because I claimed my ultimate destination was St Petersburg, but by then the bus had left without me and I had to use the last of my money to take a taxi for the 90-kilometre journey to Rostov.

Three days later, Russian volunteers got me a train ticket to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. This time, I used my Russian passport. I was glad I did, as I saw a young woman with a Ukrainian passport who was taken off a train at the Belarusian border. Later, I decided to get rid of my Russian and DPR passports before I returned to Ukraine.

I spent 36 hours on that train with people who supported the war. I wanted to climb down from my bunk bed and shout at them that what they were saying was absurd, that Russia had invaded Ukraine, forcing me to leave my home and my loved ones behind. But I kept silent.

In Minsk, I took a train to Brest, in southern Belarus, and then a taxi to the Mokrany-Domanove border crossing to Ukraine. At the border, Ukrainian guards questioned me for around three hours and went through my things. It’s not every day that a woman who spent eight years under occupation travels to Kyiv.

“I'm home!” This was my first thought after finally crossing into Ukraine. I stood with two heavy suitcases in the middle of a road with holes in it and surrounded by strangers, but feeling relieved.

I arrived in Kyiv on 13 October. For a long time I couldn’t believe I was free.

journey from Donetsk to Kyiv smaller

The author's journey from Donetsk to Kyiv took 2,695 kilometres


Picture Yuka

24 February 2022 and its aftermath

Until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year, I found the situation in the Donetsk region unclear politically. After that, everything fell into place.

A few days before the invasion, the ‘DPR’ authorities announced that people had to leave, claiming there was a threat of attack from Ukraine. Some inhabitants were forcibly sent to Russia by the companies employing them. Others left on their own.

I started having panic attacks. I was afraid to leave the house, unsettled by the blaring of loudspeakers and the flow of crowded cars. Later, local media announced that the city’s water supply had been blown up by Ukrainian forces. Parts of the city ran out of water. The houses of the financial and political elite did not.

The city centre was shelled regularly. I experienced it twice. Strikes hit public places such as the central market (where I bought food), Pushkin Boulevard (where I paid for my internet connection) and local supermarkets, including one where a friend worked. Many people died, including four of my friends.

You are my heart

My mother's house, which is in a village outside Donetsk and close to the Russian military base, is still strewn with shrapnel and has cracks in the walls and damage to the roof from shelling. Some houses in the neighbourhood were completely destroyed.

I’m surprised by how many people in Donetsk just accepted the situation, seemingly convinced that this is the price to pay for their ‘salvation’ by Russia. But after nearly nine years of war, some Donetsk shop and business owners have done well out of the conflict – mainly by importing goods from Russia, Crimea or other countries that support Russia’s war.

These people use all the passports they own (Ukrainian, Russian and ‘DPR’) in order to profit from the situation. They want to change the names of districts and streets to Russian names, in order to “get rid of that annoying country” (meaning Ukraine). They travel to Russia to work or as tourists, to visit what they call “civilised cities”.

I don’t understand this position. I don’t get how people who were born and raised in Ukraine can yearn for the ‘Russian world’. Many women are in relationships with members of the ‘DPR’ or Russian military – some for money (soldiers are among the few in Donetsk to have a high and reliable income), others for love. Sometimes, when the relationship is over, these women’s perspectives change and they suddenly feel angry at the Russian occupation.

Why I didn’t leave earlier

My love for Donetsk ended with the Russian invasion of Donbas in 2014, when I was 15. I remember telling my mother back then that we should leave, but she couldn’t manage it.

I have diabetes and that was one of the things that prevented her from leaving. My condition also made me scared of leaving. Since the start of the hostilities, I’ve often run out of insulin and have had episodes of both hypo- and hyperglycemia (where my blood sugar is lower or higher than normal) – which is dangerous. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get insulin if we left Donetsk.

I don’t blame my mum for failing to get us out. But I miss her and I feel sorry for her because I managed to leave, eight years later, and she didn’t.

Another thing that held me back was a year-long relationship with a local man. He didn’t have a Ukrainian passport, which meant we could only stay in Donetsk or move to Russia; we couldn’t go anywhere else in Ukraine. But the relationship turned abusive and after a series of intense fights, I ended it in 2021.

Then, in February last year, I discovered I had a uterine polyp, which had to be removed. The operation kept being postponed because there were too many wounded soldiers in the hospital. Even schools were being turned into makeshift hospitals.

I finally had the operation in March. I didn’t recover well. Having to carry water bottles to the ninth floor every time the lift broke didn’t help.

I started another relationship, with a man who suggested I move into his apartment because he had water and a fridge that worked. I did – and it was a mistake, as it turned out he was abusive. He started beating me. One day in July, while he was at work, I took my things and left.

I feel that the situation in the Donetsk region, and the scarcity of resources under the Russian occupation, made people prioritise their needs at the expense of others and exploit or abuse people more easily.

My formative years were spent under the flag of the ‘DPR’. The situation in the city was so bad that it was impossible to live in it and impossible to leave it. But one must continue living. I started passionate relationships and stayed in them even after they became abusive, because they at least made me feel alive and blunted the external pain that the city caused.

We are Russian Donbass!

A sign in Donetsk reads "We are Russian Donbass!". Blood covers the ground


Picture Yuka

What was lost

To visit Kyiv was a long-held dream of mine, and now I live here. I still can’t believe it. But it was hard to leave my bedridden grandmother, whose leg was amputated in the summer because of gangrene caused by diabetes, and my mother.

I did everything I could to make their life easier, collecting money and food for them. I find some comfort in knowing that, despite the danger she is in, my mother is at least warm and well fed.

My mum’s village comes under shelling every day. It began in the winter last year and continues to this day. Many of the local soldiers seem to be alcoholics or drug addicts, and the recently mobilised shoot at anything, even those on their own side, as if they’ve never held a weapon before.

I speak to my mother every day. “If we had left Donetsk in 2014, our lives would be different,” she told me over the phone recently. I would really like to take her out of that hell, to make her life better. We get on better now that I am far away. I’m glad we share the same political views, I have stopped talking to all the people I know who support Russia.

My close friend Rita is one of these people. I thought she would be happy for me that I had arrived in Kyiv, because she’s also from Donbas, but she wasn’t. Recently, I posted a series of patriotic photos about the war on social media, explaining what I have experienced over the last eight years. I would never have posted that while in Donetsk.

She wrote to me: “When did you become such a patriot and such a Ukrainian? Go take a genetic test, you’ll see there’s also Russian blood in you. You’re dead to me!” It hurt to lose her, when I finally felt at home in my country.

I’m home!

I’ve always felt Ukrainian, from the first grade of school, despite never having left Donetsk and only having heard people speak proudly about the area and tell me that we were Russian.

Now I’ve left Donetsk behind and my new life is starting in Kyiv. I’m taking lots of photographs, working on several projects. I can express my thoughts about the war and defend my point of view. I feel the war much more clearly in Kyiv. I’m no longer locked in Donetsk and I’ve seen the devastation of the whole country with my own eyes. Every time I hear an air raid alert, my heart skips a beat.

Since 2014, Donetsk has gone backwards – its development hindered by the occupation. But this is not the case for all of Ukraine. And to see how the aggressor country destroys your home is very painful. It hurts to experience this for the second time since 2014, because home is where love is.

There are many ‘Donbasians’ in Kyiv, and they are different from those who are living in Donetsk at the moment. We have a whole diaspora, everyone helps and supports each other. There is no condemnation and prejudice, and most importantly – people don’t just talk, they do.

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