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Donbas: “We’re used to the shelling”

The situation in Ukraine's Donbas is tense as ever. While politicians play at diplomacy, civilians spend their lives under artillery bombardment, walking along blown-up roads and burying family members killed by tripwires. RU

Luhansk landscape, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author.

The war in Ukraine’s Donbas is now in its fourth year. This is mostly thanks to Russian military and financial support for separatist forces, and because of the ineffectual policies of the Ukrainian government, which has been unable to come up with a strategy to free the country from an external aggressor and end the crisis. 

In the Donbas, local people are tired and disillusioned: “I don’t see how anything can change,” Natalya, a resident of the village of Zolote, in the Luhansk region, tells me. “Life’s pretty bad here. When there’s shooting, we hide in the cellar. There was a sniper firing around here yesterday. When the fighting got worse, I went to stay with relations in Belarus, but my neighbour stayed here the whole time, hiding in her cellar. I was away for 14 months, but I came back because houses are houses; houses and walls are a help. But life’s really hard now. All the prices have gone up — electricity, water… They bring food supplies for us in trucks, we’ve had them from both the Red Cross and the UN. And pensioners like me get ‘humanitarian aid’ payments. But it’s worst for the young people. There’s no work, nor help for them.” 

Russia’s border with Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions runs for 923km, 409km of which are occupied. UN figures as of June 2017 put the death toll over the last three years at more than 10,090, 2,777 of them - civilians. Another 23,455 people have been wounded and 1,600 residents of Donbas have had to leave their homes and move to other parts of Ukraine. 

“We’re so used to hearing the fighting every night, that when there’s a quiet night the children can’t sleep: they’ve got used to the gunfire” 

As well as human casualties, Ukraine is suffering economic losses. The Donbas is an industrial area in the eastern part of the country, with 127 coal mines, 97 of which have been in occupied territory since the start of the war; coal is now being mined there illegally. The Donetsk region also has access to the Sea of Azov, creating a problem over Ukraine’s sea border with Russia. With these assets, Donetsk’s attraction for Russia is obvious. 

Is this war or terrorism? 

From the moment when Russian troops invaded Ukrainian territory in April 2014, the Ukrainian government has officially referred to its neighbour’s aggression as an “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO), and the area where military operations are taking place as the ATO zone. Thus, the government’s interpretation of what was happening in its eastern regions was ambiguous from the start — effectively there was a war going on, but there was no open recognition of this fact. 

The reason was the forthcoming presidential election, after the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime in February 2014. This, at any rate, was the explanation given by acting president Oleksandr Turchynov. And it was only recently, on 13 June 2017, that Ukraine’s leadership officially announced its intention to adopt a new strategy for its defence and liberation of the occupied territories and reclassify the situation from “anti-terrorist operation” to the more explicit “military operation”. This announcement was also made by Turchynov, who now holds the post of Secretary to Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council. And 20 June saw the publication of a draft bill on “State Policy for the Restoration of Ukrainian Sovereignty over the temporarily occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Regions”. 

This bill states that Ukraine officially acknowledges the fact that the Russian Federation is engaged in armed aggression on its territory and has occupied part of the Donbas region. The bill then proposes the restoration of humanitarian and cultural links with people living in the occupied areas, guaranteeing them humanitarian and legal aid and access to the Ukrainian media. This would also include the introduction of a special legal regime for crossing the borders between the two zones, legal arrangements, guaranteeing human and civil rights and freedoms.

It is also intended that Ukraine’s resident should have the right to take decisions on the use of the armed forces and other paramilitary formations to counter Russia’s armed aggression, as well as the right to introduce martial law. Ukrainians have been expecting these decisive measures from their government for a long time now. Whether the bill will pass into law is still unclear: the Verkhovna Rada deputies are off for their summer break so no further debate can take place before autumn. If the bill is passed, it will be the first sign of the Ukrainian government’s official recognition that Russia’s actions are an armed invasion. 

Children’s playground converted into a military checkpoint, Donetsk region, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author.

Despite the abundant proof of Russian forces’ engagement in the war in eastern Ukraine, Russia has never officially admitted to invading. A large part of the ATO zone was retaken by Ukrainian forces during the counter-offensive of summer 2014. And today’s ATO zone comprises both that area, now under Ukrainian control, and the area currently occupied by illegal armed groups coordinated by the Russian government.

Overall, the zone encompasses about 40,000 sq.km and includes most of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine and a small part of its Kharkiv region (the town of Izyum and its outlying villages), with a demarcation line between the liberated and occupied areas. The occupied cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which form the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR), are largely reliant on Russian economic support. 

Local people and the war 

From Ukraine, you can enter the ATO zone by rail, via Slovyansk or Lysychansk, for example. Once in the zone, however, you need a car: the railway lines are closed, and buses, where they exist at all, run once a week at best. You can take a taxi, but they are expensive and unreliable. 

You then need to get through the control points you’ll encounter every five-seven kilometres along the roads. Here, Ukrainian troops check your papers and the contents of your car, and ask questions such as: “where are you going? Why are you going there? What are you carrying?” The checks can take anything from a couple of minutes to several hours, and the more tense the situation along the demarcation line, the harder it is to get through the checkpoints. Ukrainian soldiers can turn you back, citing security issues. 

A queue at the crossing between Kyiv-controlled Donbas and the self-declared “Luhansk People’s Republic.” Photo courtesy of the author.

Popasna is a town in the Luhansk region and an administrative centre of its eponymous administrative district. At the moment, the area is under Ukrainian control, but despite the Minsk Agreements, shelling can be heard in the town daily. “They’re firing at us every day,” a local woman tells me, “but nobody talks about it. There is no public transport; the roads are completely destroyed, and we can’t even pasture our cattle because all the fields are mined.” Food is expensive in Popasna — it’s hard for trucks to negotiate the bad roads, not to mention having to constantly stop at checkpoints, so the prices in the shops are high. And despite the fact that the demarcation line runs through the town, the locals are not getting the compensation due to them for living in a combat zone.

“We’re so used to hearing the fighting every night, that when there’s a quiet night the children can’t sleep: they’ve got used to the shells going off,” says the mother of a seven-year-old, a resident of the town of Zolote, in Popasna. Zolote is a mining town that has had no local government for over three years — no one runs it anymore. There’s no money coming in from central government either: the locals tell us that if there’s no mayor, then there’s no finance.

“All we can do is believe in God and hope for a miracle. We have no one else to turn to” 

In Soviet times, the town was one of the largest coal producers in the area, constantly growing and developing and a magnet for miners and their families. Now it’s more of a ghost town and makes a horrific impression, with bombed and bullet-holed buildings and rubbish strewn all over the streets. 

People living in Zolote used to go on foot to visit their friends and relatives in Pervomaysk, the next village, but they can’t now. Pervomaysk is now occupied by the separatists, and the roads and meadows between the two settlements are now minefields. So the old links between families and friends are broken. 

The grey zone

Stanitsa Luhanska is a small town, eight kilometres from the “LNR”. It is now the only place you can cross on foot from the area under Ukrainian forces’ control and that part of Ukraine controlled by the “LNR” illegal armed units. The distance between them is a mere 500-700m. 

There are also Ukrainian army emplacements here. Some streets are completely in ruins, disappearing beneath fragments of bombed out buildings and shell craters. It’s risky to walk there — you could step on a mine or be blown up by a tripwire. Although Stanitsa Luhanska was liberated from the Russian troops and separatist fighters in August 2014, a lot of houses and some streets have been left unrestored and uncleared of mines. In three years of war, more than 3,000 residential buildings have been badly damaged and 260 of them are unsuitable for restoration. Most of this damage happened in 2014, when the most intensive fighting was going on here. 

Residential building in Zolote. Photo courtesy of the author.

Anyone who for some reason needs to cross from the area under Ukrainian control to the area controlled by the pro-Russian forces must join a long queue to have their ID papers checked by Ukrainian border officers. They then have to walk across a neutral strip (the road bridge was blown up) before being checked again by the pro-Russian side. 

About 15,000 Ukrainians cross this “border” daily. They come here from the “LNR” to pick up their Ukrainian pensions from Oshchadbank, the Ukrainian state savings bank, use ATMs and do their shopping. The war has created a whole new caste of people who transport goods and foodstuffs by hand cart across the demarcation line, just like in the 1990s. Seventy five kilogrammes of food products can be taken in one go, and private minibuses will transport them, for 250 hryvnya (about eight Euros), along the road with its surface shattered by tank tracks to the nearest railway station at Rubizhne. There are plenty of transporters —they stand with their placards and offer their services to all and sundry. 

Some have to stay in Luhansk — not because they support the idea of “Novorossiya” but because they don’t have any choice

Before the war, Stanitsa Luhanska provisioned Luhansk and the towns around it with fresh vegetables, but the war has shattered these economic ties. The regional administrative centre is no longer Luhansk, but Severodonetsk, and there’s no point in transporting fresh produce there, as it’s more than 100km away along broken roads, not to mention the queues at the 10 checkpoints on the way. Meat is also cheaper in Ukraine, but these days you can’t take meat products into the “LNR” — the pro-Russian militias that control the checkpoint at the entrance to the self-styled republic have declared war on African Swine Fever, which they claim is now widespread in Ukraine. 

There are a number of reasons for this daily migration from one side of the line to the other. Many residents of Luhansk take out residence papers in Stanitsa Luhansk, where they receive temporary registration as “temporarily displaced persons”, but in fact continue living in Luhansk. This means they can cross the “border” between the Ukrainian controlled area and the area controlled by illegal armed formations practically without hindrance. 

Crossing back into Ukrainian government-controlled territory at Stanitsa Luhanska. Photo courtesy of the author.

Some members of the population, however, have to stay in Luhansk — not because they support the idea of “Novorossiya” (as the two self-styled Peoples’ Republics would like to be known), but because they don’t have any choice. Pensioners, for example, can’t leave the “LNR” because they wouldn’t be able to pay their rents and feed themselves in other parts of Ukraine on a monthly pension of 100 Euros. Others stay in the “LNR” because they have property and real estate that they don’t want to leave.

Some residents of Luhansk were forced to leave it in 2014: activists involved in the local Euromaidan, journalists and everyone who wanted Viktor Yanukovych’s government overthrown left the city as fast as they could. Now none of them can go back to Luhansk, even for a short time, to call on relatives or collect their things — the separatist militias will either imprison them, try them on charges of treason against the “LNR”, or simply kill them. 

An information vacuum 

Although the war in the Donbas is in its fourth year, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions exist in an information vacuum. Most of the area controlled by Ukraine, for example, can’t receive Ukrainian TV and radio — there isn’t a tower to transmit the signal. The local population has to make do with Russian radio and TV, which comes with an excellent signal. There is a similar problem with mobile networks and the internet. The Ukrainian government ignores these issues; it has never developed any information strategy to counter Russian propaganda. 

“I don’t know whether our government is doing anything to block Russian TV,” says Aleksandr, a resident of the town of Shchastya in the Luhansk region. “Lots of people watch it and they’re beginning to believe what they see.” 

Drivers offer their services in Stanitsa Luhanska, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author.

Meanwhile, the residents of some towns and villages have taken the matter into their own hands and set up their own local internet connection. And in some places a loudspeaker tuned to a Ukrainian radio station has been set up in the town or village’s central square, although, as people in Shchastya point out to me, it’s closed down at weekends. 

The Ukraine-controlled area also has deliveries of newspapers printed in the “LNR”, but financed by Russia. The newspaper Respublika, for example, follows Russian practice in the terms it uses for the Ukrainian army (“Ukraino-fascist aggressors”, “pro-Bandera nationalist-motivated structures”, “the Ukrainian occupiers, just like the fascists, cut down our forest and take our black earth away from us” and so on).

Across the Donbas, people tell me how tired they are of the war, and how they hope it will end soon. “The most interesting thing for me now is information silence. I don’t believe anyone,” one woman in Shchastya tells me.

The residents of the Donbas area have become very superstitious, which they never were before. They give one another amulets, stuffed faceless dolls in traditional costume (a traditional Ukrainian talisman), and paint crosses above their doors to ward off shells. It’s highly unlikely that they will be rid of war in the near future. “All we can do is believe in God and hope for a miracle. There’s no one else we can count on,” concludes Natalya from Zolote. 

Translated by Liz Barnes.


About the author

Tetiana Goncharuk is an independent journalist and human rights defender from Ukraine. She writes on human rights, police reform, sex work, human trafficking and the war in eastern Ukraine. She completed a dissertation on the relation between linguistic identity and national mentalities. She’s also the author of many publications and articles, and edited over ten collected volumes of essays. Goncharuk received a Marion Dönhoff scholarship for placements and traineeships in the non-governmental sector in Germany.

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