FROZEN DONETSK

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“In the graveyard, there can be hidden explosives, detonators, mines, unexploded ammunition, there can be anything here,” says the grave keeper with a resigned sigh. He tends to the graveyard despite the fighting that still regularly erupts. “They can start shooting, the border with Ukraine is just 300 meters from here.” He waves with his hand in the direction. Although a few years back, he was still a citizen of Ukraine, now he speaks about it as about some foreign, hostile country.

“Where does the fish stink from? From the head, as we say. Things have to be changed in Kiev! The blame doesn’t lie on common people, those are being manipulated. I have a cousin in Kharkiv. She is supposed to be a Ukrainian, she is supposed to be for Poroshenko! Well, we talk to each other. She says: Do you know how many of my friends died in Donbas? We have to liberate you! And I say: Who do you have to liberate? Did we invite you here? We didn’t. You came by yourself!”

The land around him is laid to waste. The graves are broken and marked by bullet holes as if by measles. Ripped off heads of the statues lie at their feet. On the sidewalk, undetonated rockets lie baked in. And the other ones blasted through the little church standing nearby. Everything around is just grey and broken.

“After the war started we didn’t receive anything and Ukraine stopped paying as well. People survived only because they had reserves. A lot of young ones left, because they couldn’t find qualified work. And even if they found some, the pay is low. My son finished his IT studies with honors, but for work, he went to Kiev because here there isn’t anything.”

The separation from Ukraine and the creation of Donetsk People’s Republic was not a step that the world would welcome with applause. For this mining region, that before the war was one of the most developed places in Ukraine, it meant actual isolation from the world, although in Donetsk, the omnipresent narrative claims that they finally took matters into their hands.

The present already shows consequences of such a decision. Lot of international companies have pulled out of the region. For all those speaks DonMac that stands in its place on Lenin’s square almost identical to MacDonald’s that preceded it. Popular football club Shakhtar, that was celebrating victories around the world, now plays in exile, and its stadium stands empty. Many young people also left for they lack working opportunities. Therefore, sometimes it’s spoken about the region of pensionaries, old people, that regularly have to cross the borders to pick their pensions in Ukraine.

“Девчонки! Девчонки!” (Girls! Girls!) Calls Angelika to call her goats while she is walking through the field, where undetonated ammunition could lie I waiting.

“They already know. When the shooting starts, they run home by themselves.” She says with knowing nod. “They feel just like people do.” It seems that she is more worried about her goats than for her own sake. “Where would I go? The young ones can leave, but I have my goats here.” In the distance, a thunder of a fired shell can be heard from time to time.

“Why run, if they are to kill us, better to be killed on the spot, no?” Jokes her father. “Don’t scare me” replies Angelika “I am still young, I haven’t lived, I don’t want to die yet!”

They walk through the torn landscape resembling a strange pair of prophets of the past. In their simplicity, they seem to be protected from the worries of this world. The barking of machine guns and rumble of rockets fades out and only sheep can be heard, the tingling bells around their necks, and soothing whistle of the wind. The pair comes to the road and slowly takes in the direction of a nearby forest.

“Don’t worry, here it doesn’t fall. There it can fall” pointing to the field “but here, it doesn’t.” The craters and holes in the asphalt put her claim to a question.

Both sides are standing against each other in trenches that seem out of time in today’s age. Dug with shovels, fortified by Beton and wood, they lie on both sides of the border. In between them lies the so-called grey zone and what happens in the grey zone, stays in the grey zone. After the first cease-fire agreement (Minsk agreement) failed in January 2015, the second one was reached in February. Both sides agreed on peace of arms and removal of heavy war machinery. Soon after, the agreement was broken by separatists during the siege of town Dobalceve. Since then countless breaches were claimed by both sides. Ukraine claims that the rebels are constantly violating the agreement while in Donetsk, they swear that they are under constant fire and they only respond when they are left without any other option. The truth will most likely lie somewhere in between two extreme stands.

In any case, the destruction in Donetsk is omnipresent and widespread. To get into the shelled zone from the city only takes around 15 minutes. Until Donetsk airport was still in the hands of Ukrainian forces, the rockets were flying all the way into the center of the city, and for this strategic point, the heaviest fights were fought. They left the airport, that was reconstructed during the year 2012 for the European Football Championship, completely destroyed.
Its empty walls tower above the wasteland. It’s not possible to approach it, the snipers will take care of every suspicious movement. It’s getting late though and the danger is rising exponentially. The shooting often erupts in the afternoon and they continue late into the night. We are turning back from the border as the first shots can be heard. One detonation is particularly loud.

“This was something strong,” says my translator. “It is very close, we should go, you don’t know what can happen.” We turn around and head back into the direction of the city. “If you heard something like a whistle, quickly lie down!”

Outskirts of the city have a rural character, the streets are lined with small houses and in between them crooked roads and sidewalks find their way. It’s empty here, just from time to time, some local can be seen here and there. But dogs are everywhere. I point my camera on one of them and he immediately starts away running. Looks like he already has an experience with people.

“At the beginning, I was afraid. Not for myself, the man doesn’t for himself. One has the biggest fear for his family so that nobody would die… “But now it’s normal, we got used to it.”

We follow along and on one of the crossroads, we find a school girl that is coming home. The shooting in the distance leaves her completely calm and she agrees to show us her house. She walks in front of us with her little school bag, turquoise blouse and pom-pom hat, while the air reverberates with the sound of the rockets. Dogs bark and their bark is abruptly cut with the sound of a heavy machine gun.
The first year, I was afraid” says Lena. “But as I go here and there for three years already, I got used to it. I don’t ever want to leave this place and my parents.”

Her father comes out of the door equipped with a camera and stative. It turns out he is a dedicated patriot and on his YouTube channel documents everything he witnesses around him. His words mirror those of Lena. “At the beginning, I was afraid. Not for myself, the man doesn’t for himself. One has the biggest fear for his family so that nobody would die…” he sighs. “But now it’s normal, we got used to it.”

Despite and because of that, he takes care that his house is prepared if a stray bullet found it by chance. We are walking around his garden and he is showing what he improved. The windows are barred and walls strengthened. Close to one of the wall, a tied dog barks violently.

“Look, such presents they send us here!” He bends down and digs from a rumble handful of shrapnels, waving in the direction of the border. “The first year I dug a hole in the garden to hide from the shelling. Now we don’t go there anymore, only during very strong shooting. When this house was hit, we were sitting in the kitchen. We went out when the shooting started and in five minutes it all fell down.” He refers to an incident during which one of the rockets destroyed his upper floor.

DNR (Донецкая народная республика) separated from Ukraine, when the insurgents in reaction to Euro-Maidan took over local town hall in April 2014. In the following referendum, they claimed support of the majority of the population. Ukraine contested the validity of this referendum and declared DNR for a terrorist organization. The only country that officially accepted the status of DNR is Southern Ossetia, that happens to be in a similar situation. But DNR, of course, enjoys great support from the side of Russia, whose participation in conflict is not hidden very successfully.

“Kiev does what west tells it to do. We don’t want anybody to dictate to us.” Says Nikita Kivosev, a representative of the organization Young Republic, that resembles youth organizations in the communist era. The photo of Vladimir Putin behind his back adds a little bit of irony to his claim. The Young Republic seems strongly inspired by the faded glory of Soviet Union. The children run again with ribbons doing good deeds in the name of better tomorrows.

“Our organization helps children to realize themselves in various disciplines, the creative ones, sports, studies and even in charity. Our activists help people in their households children often do it without telling anybody. They use their free time to help others.”

Although the organization is not supposed to be political in any way, during one of their events, the young activists distribute ribbons of Saint George. This old symbol lately took patriotic meaning and in Donetsk is used to show support to the current government.

The inspiration by the Soviet Union can be felt throughout the city, whether it is the posters calling for heroic resistance, uniforms of officers or monumental architecture. “The fall of the Soviet Union was a great tragedy,” says Daniel Besonov, a press officer of DNR. “Where does the Russia extend and where does NATO? Russia doesn’t build any bases around the world. NATO is always getting closer! It is basically at its borders with the rockets aimed at Russia!”

Yet if the separation of Donetsk People’s Republic were to stop the inclusion of Ukraine in NATO, it might have exact opposite consequences. Ukraine might now want to join even more.

In Donetsk, they have it clear, however, they stand against the aggression of fascist Kiev. “What happened in Kiev was a great tragedy of the country, that used to be called Ukraine. Bad people took to power, Ukrainian nationalists, that came from western regions of Ukraine and they promote, openly promote nacism. They use the symbolism of nacist Germany, namely the Third Reich. After that what happened in Kiev, I understood that there will be war and it is necessary to fight.” Says Daniel who came to Donetsk exactly from western Ukraine.

The question is how many percents of the population truly think this way and how many are just afraid to express their true opinion. On one street close to the line of contact I meet an older woman walking with bags in her hands. I take pictures of her as she approaches me slowly.

“Please, don’t photograph me, they will kill me for it!” she expresses her concern. “I am just coming to feed stray dogs and as soon as I am done, I will be on my way,” she says with a worried tone. She doesn’t mention who or why should kill her but her fear is clear. One has to be careful in the land where no international law takes hold. For anything can happen here…
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