This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
Beyond the headlines, what is the human cost of the war in the Donbas?
I left my town on 12 July 2014. As I was leaving, I was sure it would only be for a few months. I had thought that the Ukrainian army would enter Donetsk in August or September – October at the latest. But everything turned out quite different. Man proposes, God disposes, as they say. And his disposition was that my entire life would change and that I would no longer be me. Greying, tired, in the last few years I have been through, and thought over, more than during the course of my entire previous existence.
It is February 2017. Through the window I see pine trees. Outside, wet snow swirls.
And now I am about to speak with one of those people it’s rare to get a chance to speak to in real life, other than through the prism of the screen.
Each time I need to call someone in the occupied zone, I feel physically sick. Making those calls is hard. Hearing those people is hard. The difficulty is multi-layered, weighed down by guilt. I feel guilty towards those who had to stay – and also for those, who in that distant year of 2014, welcomed ‘the Russian Spring’. These unfortunate people have already repented. Indeed, their political preferences played no role in what happened in 2014. They play no role in what is happening now.
Her name is Alina. She is intelligent, funny and full-figured. Freckles on her face announce the arrival of spring, I can see it even from Kyiv. Her hands tremble. I don't notice this at first, but she keeps dropping things on the floor: her mug, her pen, mobile phone. Each time she does she lets out a deafening laugh. She is embarrassed about her lack of coordination. It’s all nerves, the consequences of life in the Donetsk People’s Republic. She has visibly put on weight in the three years since I last saw her in real life. Looking at her round cheeks and body I remember we were once very close. And now her laughter makes me start to shake − I need to overcome and hide this. I am ready to cry. It’s the last thing we need to start crying like idiots in front of each other.
We don’t do small talk – we go straight to what hurts most. Her nephew joined the militia and was killed a few months ago. He only went to fight because there was no other job and he needed to feed his wife and children. ‘But he hated them’, Alina insists. ‘He took up the gun hoping he would never have to use it. He spent some time guarding warehouses, then they shoved him somewhere near Maryinka. He fought for two days, got killed on the third. That’s the war for you. A huge number join the militia just because there is no work. Some companies are operating, it is true. I work the whole day. I earn just enough to survive for a week and feed my cat too. And then what? What would I do without my husband’s pension and the help of my daughters?’
‘And what is the mood like?’
‘What can it possibly be? We just wait for you to come over and conquer us.’
‘Yes. Since the recent escalation the rumour is that the Ukrainian army will enter soon. And the authorities have started distributing various instructions: how to deal with shellings, how to run away, what to take with us, what to do in case of fire. Civilians participate in exercises where they tell us how to fall to the ground, which body parts to cover. Arms are displayed everywhere. In my friend’s yard they put a “peony”, a Russian self-propelled artillery gun. Oh yes, they put it in the middle of the residential quarter. So frightening. But we’re hardly surprised anymore, we also have “mimosas”, “cornflowers”, “hyacinths” even “carnations”. Gardens full of flowers.’
‘Are there a lot of soldiers?’
‘Oh yes. But if they used to walk around in towns, now they mostly stay in their bases. They have just announced their increased military readiness. You can feel the tension.’
‘You visit your relatives outside of occupied territories. What strikes you most?’
‘If you’re on a bus to, say, Mariynka, by day all is good. Checkpoints, roads, soldiers. There are buses, private cars. People are people, the same on both sides. But by night the war starts. Even to just hear it is horrendous. This is what strikes me.’
‘The escalation didn’t affect the number of people who cross the demarcation line?’
‘No. They cross checkpoints as they did before. And you know, people are not even so scared of flare-ups. What scares them most is that they might be banned from going to Ukraine, from receiving pensions, buying produce, seeing their relatives who live in the free zone. Then many are scared that Donetsk could become another Grozny. It was razed to the ground, 30,000 civilians died.’
‘But you remember who destroyed Grozny?’
‘Of course I remember, my dear, that’s the point: I remember.’
Might is right
Alina feels sorry for the old. At one checkpoint she recently saw a grandmother who had bought foodstuffs in Ukraine and was on her way back home. She asked the Ukrainian soldiers in Ukrainian: ‘Please just don’t kill us’. Pensioners are increasingly scared that Ukraine will cut pensions for those forced to live in the occupied territories. Even the oldest, who also get pensions from the DNR, cannot survive on this money. Prices are high, pensions are mere pennies.
‘In Donetsk everyone understands that it is just convenient for pro-Russian militants to hide behind people’s houses and lives. If they went to the Donbas steppe, they would have to fight Ukrainian soldiers! They are not stupid’, Alina says. ‘But what can we, ordinary citizens, do about this? Nothing. Might is right. And nobody needs the truth here. All we can do is wait.’
True, these ‘defenders’ are trying everything to put themselves in the best light. Everyone knows that utilities are very expensive in Ukraine. So the local pro-Russian authorities charge the minimum. If anyone complains that salaries in the DNR are meagre and food costs a fortune, they point towards Ukraine. ‘Try and live there’, they say.
You need to understand what is going on here. They often heat empty houses! Really, in Oktyabrsky village, many houses were partially destroyed during the shelling. They put back the roofs, put water in the pipes, and started heating. A ten-storey block of flats where nobody lives! How much does that cost? How much gas is lost?
My colleague had a flat in such a block before the war. They tried to make one of her neighbours pay for the heating. But she got lucky, as her flat has no ceiling or floor left and no heating pipes either. So they found it hard to make her pay for the heating. But anyway, local authorities like to boast about the minimal cost of utilities.
Alina falls silent a short while, then adds pensively: ‘But there is a catch here. I understand that the gas, electricity, water, and light, all come from Ukraine’.
Nerves and learning curves
She was working in her father’s garden when a shell landed four metres behind her. It fell but did not explode. The Ministry of Emergency Situations came, neutralised the shell, and took it away. She laughs as she tells the story.
‘You get the impression that the war will never end! There was a relatively quiet period, people started to build houses, get used to the new life. Then everything started again. But we have no strength left.’
In general, life here consists of nerves and learning curves. I know this woman who sells clothes. She has a reliable circle of clients – militants did not prevent her from doing business, friends linked to the new power helped her adjust to the new system. She’s a convinced republican, a separatist. She kept proclaiming just how good her life was in the DNR. I would just shrug my shoulders. What can you say? Life holds many surprises. She feels good? Well, let it be, God bless her.
But you know, the Lord has plans for everyone. She called me a few days ago, just to talk. Turns out she just spent a few months in a psychiatric hospital. Now she can't drive a car. Her mind just could not cope. The doctor told her she must not stay here, or else she risks completely losing her mind.
Mood and perspectives
‘There is no work, so salaries don’t go up. Employers understand that employees will keep to their post no matter what. People are very dependent on the management of companies that are still afloat. So it is very easy to force people to go to rallies, speeches and such. DNR authorities just need to call a state-owned company and it is done: any director can ensure that all of their staff will be there for a funeral in the centre of Donetsk: be it for ‘Motorola’, be it for Givi [separatist leaders] or Comrade Stalin himself.
‘Forgive me, but I will tell you honestly’, Alina shakes her head. ‘People are afraid of both Ukraine and Russia, but for different reasons. They are scared that if Ukraine comes, they will start investigating who voted for whom, who went where, what ideology they adhered to and so on. It is clear that those who took up arms need to give answers. But the others, what are they guilty of, other than utter stupidity?’
‘There is no faith in politicians from either country. All seek to profit from this war. Pretty much no one cares about our lives and destinies. The peaceful people on both sides suffer. Our house was destroyed by a Ukrainian shell. My friend's flat in Avdiivka was destroyed by a shell from Donetsk. Who's worse off?’
‘But generally people don't talk about their mood these days. Russian television channels fuel the panic over the possibility of Donetsk's return to Ukraine. DNR authorities raised hopes that Trump would force Ukraine to stop the war on terms that would benefit the unrecognised republics. But already now there's no mention of that. And for the people it's all the same, Trump or no Trump. They're scared of every possible scenario. This is because events have followed just the worst possible scenario since 2014.’
‘But frankly, the worst that can happen here is the establishment of a “grey zone”, lawless and controlled by imposters with weapons.’
Life without beginning or end
Dozens of her acquaintances died in the shellings. Entire families were killed. Alina knew a lot of people in the Kuybishev region, or the village of Vesel. But now they are gone forever. She mentions it without hysteria, drily, almost without emotion.
'All wars end', she says pensively. 'This one will end, too. But who would have thought ten or twenty years ago that Germany would be building peace between Ukraine and Russia?' Peace will come back here, but at what cost? How many more lives will it take?
'And how are we supposed to go on living here? Half of Donetsk's residents either already lost their homes or cannot live there, it is too dangerous. We all live in other people's houses. It's like we've been scattered among other people's lives. And we're all very similar here. One supports Ukraine, the other Russia, but our faces are all the same. Our faces betray us. We're all frightened, angry, tired, we don't trust anything and anyone. There's no light in us, as if someone is sucking it out.’
'But generally, you know, life goes on!' she laughs. 'Look in the news today – they’re reporting that between 13-19 February, 97 babies were born in Donetsk, 60 boys and 37 girls. I heard about women from the Proletarsky and Petrovsky districts even have twins. We also have cinemas, even if you won't see a real movie there. They download movies from the internet and screen those. Our once beautiful theatre is now totally DNR-controlled and a mess. But we have a philharmonic and an opera! I’m going to the opera in a few days, to see Princess Turandot. Turandot is played by a bigger lady, like me', Alina laughs again. 'Beautiful voice. But what I like most about this opera is that they always stress that this is a renowned Ukrainian artist. They would never do that in the theatre. But the opera has some good people, it is clear. They have a lot of plays at the weekends, and entirely apolitical too.
‘And I have also recently been to a concert in the philharmonic. Our small chamber orchestra played, the musicians sat there like crickets. I was in the stalls, breathing in the smell of the building that has been there since its construction, I believe. It was such a pleasure. I sat there and cried with happiness. Listening to the music I knew for sure that there still is something else in this world, beyond war.’
Looking at the pines outside the window, for some reason I suddenly understand that one day I will go back there. Even if only for a short while. And I hope not on my own. With us – with me and the Ukrainian army – the old life will return to the town. Those little shops that used to fill the centre of town will start up again. Favourite cafes and wine shops will reopen. The sun will be just as warm as the last time I saw my town.
And the most important thing is the people. The same people who they killed in the basements of the DNR secret services, in the streets in town and on the outskirts, in the fields and forest around my town, in artillery strikes, during the offensives and counter-offensives, they will all sit on the emerald lawn in the city park. It will be warm, as in July when I left Donetsk. People will start smiling at one another again, they will drink wine and sing the psalms of David. They will say 'Hallelujah' for every moment free from war.
Vladimir Rafeyenko is a writer and poet from Donetsk, now living in Kiev.
Since April 2014, the war in the Donbas has taken an estimated 10,000 lives and internally displaced over 1.5 million Ukrainians.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.