A visit to Donetsk reveals that unlike Western media portrayals, the city stands behind the rebels and refuses to accept the authority or legitimacy of the Kiev government which openly stated its admiration for Ukrainian fascist leaders. Donetsk is keen on resisting attempts at subjugation by Kiev. Its population continues to struggle to go on with its daily life as residential neighborhoods are frequently shelled. While Russia undoubtedly lends its support to the self-proclaimed republic via various means, it would be incorrect to say that the local population does not stand behind the republic.
In a recent visit to the Donbass in East Ukraine, a group of journalists including myself visited Donetsk in order to better understand its reality for ourselves. The trip was organized by Europa Objektiv, a German-Russian NGO whose mission is to provide journalists with a tour of the frequently misrepresented region.
We had many questions on our mind with respect to the situation in Donetsk. The image many of us had was that of a city whose streets were vacant of people and that was ruled by rebels through the use of force. Would we encounter Russian forces? Was there fighting in every area and would we be shelled? These were some of the questions.
We left Rostov for Donetsk by car. Vietnamese journalists, two Englishmen from a Conservative think-tank and myself. On our way to the border, signs of tension could already be seen. Groups of Russian MiGs and helicopters were flying jointly in large formations.
On our way, a short while before we reached the border, we stopped at a refugee camp organized for children and the elderly who had to flee their area. Children were playing in the public yard, but there was a heavy sense of orphanhood and uncertainty. A woman teacher explained that most of the children’s fathers are currently engaged in fighting in the Donbass. Tens of children remain in the area before they are sent later to regions of Russia. The sense that this war was provoked unexpectedly could not be avoided.
An elderly woman, overtaken by tears, showed us a medal she received during World War II. The tragedy that a survivor of that war had to face another war was intensified by the fact that this war was being carried out by a Kiev government which had openly expressed admiration for World War II Ukrainian fascists who carried out mass killings while it currently seeks to punish the people of Donbass whom it sees as less than full citizens worthy of full rights. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the current crisis without taking into account the fact that Ukraine has always been not a homogenous unit, but a deeply divided country, which is also bitterly split on the question of how to remember the Second World War.
After passing through strict security at the Russian border control, we proceeded on foot to the other side of the border. There we were greeted by soldiers of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Sand bags were placed in several areas. Male and female soldiers greeted us warmly and were standing in disarray. Their worn uniforms visibly stained with sweat and dirt were a far cry from the ironed bureaucratic uniform the Russian officials. Here, we encountered border guards who were also fighters. Tension could be felt as the fighting was still going elsewhere, reminding one of the fragility of the situation.
We then proceeded by car to Donetsk, located an hour and a half away. The vast area we drove through was free from the control of the Kiev government.
In the morning, we drove through the streets of Donetsk. One would imagine a barren city, or a city where residents lived in fear, yet people were walking around in large numbers; cars were busy driving around. Families and children were chatting amongst themselves, skating or walking. The streets were impeccably clean, despite the ongoing war. Large billboard signs expressed support for the Donetsk People’s Republic and celebrated 70 years since the defeat of Nazism. Residents seemed to have gotten over the initial shock following the violent coup in Kiev which placed an ultra-nationalist regime in power which sought to impose an extreme Ukrainian identity on the country and which belittled and mocked residents of the South-East. They were busy living their lives within the limitations imposed by the war – which included the humanitarian blockade by Kiev and the fact that banks were not operating following Ukrainian government orders. Locals’ biggest nightmare, however, was that the city would be taken over by Ukrainian forces who would in turn slaughter civilians one by one. Consequently, defending their territory was a matter of survival. Considering the factthat many of the Ukrainian fighting units were composed of neo-Nazi fighters, this fear is more than understandable.
Throughout the city, we did not encounter masses of Russian soldiers marching in perfect order, nor columns of Russian tanks. The fighters we encountered were locals, while we were told that a sizeable number of international volunteers came from Spain and Germany. A significant number of soldiers must have come from Russia. We later saw various tanks and Armed Personnel Carriers with flags of the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic). We were forbidden to take pictures of military.
At the state building, we encountered Yury Syvokonenko, a middle-aged man, who was one of the local units’ commanders. He told us that he lost 20 of his soldiers in fighting with the Ukrainian army and irregular militias sent by Kiev to crack down on the uprising in Donbass. His eyes were filled with tears and he apologized for his tears, but said this was a dear personal matter to him and that he was determined to resist the reemergence of fascism in Kiev. A heavy burden laid on his shoulders as he felt he had the duty to protect the local population, with or without Russian support. In the room outside, a memorial corner was dedicated to fighters who lost their lives that included various pictures of local fighters.
Following the interview, we proceeded to visit a residential neighborhood located one kilometer away from the Donetsk airport where intense fighting was waged. Despite the Minsk II ceasefire, constant shelling and sounds of explosions could be heard in the distance. We saw a hospital that was badly hit and was being repaired by workers. Other parts of the hospital were still functioning and wounded civilians were being cared for there. The decaying buildings had marks of bullet holes in nearly every wall. Glass window panes had been replaced with aluminum and cardboard. Dogs were wandering around nervously and dejectedly. Inside this this place of loneliness and quiet suffering, we encountered many elderly people who still lived in the area since they have nowhere else to go. One woman, Alla, said how she has no kids or husband to take care of her. She lives on her own and has become so accustomed to the constant shelling that she no longer bothers to go to the bomb shelter. Her face could not hide her pain and desperation.
An elderly man invited us to his home. We saw bullet holes in the mirrors and windows, and large gaps in different walls caused by shelling from the Ukrainian Army.
While we were walking, shelling took place very near to us, forcing us to run for cover. Again, right before our departure, we heard explosions roughly 500 meters from us. It was hard to believe that the European Union and the United States were supporting a regime which was engaged in bombarding a civilian population and sought to inflict as much damage on the civilian infrastructure as possible. Yet that civilians located much further behind the lines of defense were targeted was clear. It was also evident that not only is there no genuine ceasefire in the area, but that the media fail to report the daily shelling faced by civilians. While Ukraine is frequently presented in the West as defending itself from “Russian aggression,” its forces continues to besiege and bomb the people of Donbass.
In our wanderings between the abandoned buildings, a woman appeared from one of the buildings and worked on cultivating the plants in the garden. There was something eerie about the scene of planting trees in a war zone, yet full of hope too. Despite all the death and destruction, this woman struggled hard to continue to live and find beauty in her surroundings.
We then went on to visit the University of Donetsk where we encountered Vietnamese students studying there. Throughout the trip, the Vietnamese journalists from Vietnam TV (VTN) were the most determined and peaceful of all of us; they did not seem shocked or surprised. War was not new to them, especially not a war carried out with American support.
At the university, professor of history and former dean of the school, Sergey Baryshnikov, expressed his disdain for the pro-fascist regime in Kiev. Like the commander earlier, he was keen on resisting at all costs the Kiev forces. Baryshnikov saw the Kiev government – which steadily and systematically glorifies fascist Ukrainian leaders who carried out the mass murder of Jews, Russians and Poles – as an illegitimate regime. Various locals I met when wandering on my own, free from my group, reaffirmed his sentiments. Residents did not view the Kiev regime – which maintains that the USSR invaded, rather than liberated, Ukraine in 1944 – as one that represents them.
When asked if he could conceivably live in a federal Ukraine which respects the rights of minorities rather than preaching a triumphant, racist and narrow ethnic nationalism, Baryshnikov said this would be an option, but only after the Kiev government is replaced, the rights of residents to practice their cultural rights were guaranteed and war criminals are brought to justice. This same sentiment was expressed many times by nearly all people we talked to. Whereas extremists in Kiev suggested that the people of Donetsk relocate to Russia, residents of Donetsk do not mind living alongside ethnic Ukrainians as long as justice is restored and their rights are respected. Unlike the supporters of fascist leader Stepan Bandera who believed in a Ukraine ethnically cleansed of Jews and Poles, they do not seek a greater Ukraine free of the Other.
Towards the late afternoon, as the sun was setting, we went to visit a neighborhood located deeper inside the city. A view from the rooftop revealed a scenic and calm Donetsk – rendering it difficult to believe war still prevailed. In an apartment inside the building, a very large gap in the ceiling formed by a Grad missile left an uneasy impression. An elderly man led us to the original Grad. That Ukrainian forces could fire such a Grad on a civilian neighborhood located far from the area of fighting was troubling.
The following morning, we visited the Jewish community of Donetsk and encountered the local rabbi, Rabbi Ari Schwartz. There were various reports of anti-Semitism in Donetsk. Leaflets were spread in April 2014, asking all Jews in the area to concentrate at a given location, mimicking the style of leaflets distributed by the Nazi occupation forces. A closer investigation revealed however, that this was a provocation created by outsiders who sought to de-legitimize the authorities in Donetsk. At the same time, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, did not hesitate to jump on the incident and present it as an anti-Semitic action taken by local rebels, while not bothering to back his claims.
Similarly, when the Donetsk’s People’s Republic Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko referred to several Jews in the Kiev government saying that they were “miserable representatives of the great Jewish people,” Zakharchenko was presented as an anti-Semite. A close reading of Zakharchenko’s words proved quote the opposite, while Western media failed to mention that the foreign minister of the DPR, Alexander Kofman, is Jewish.
When asked whether he encountered any incidents of anti-Semitism, the rabbi rejected such accusations outright with an incredulous look on his face, saying that Jews were safe in Donetsk. The rabbi explained that 250 people participated in the last Passover Seder and that the Jewish community was strong. An interest in Judaism has been reawakened among many following the break of the war. Members participate in various activities offered, from Torah classes to soup kitchens and regular prayer services. A Ukrainian forces’ missile fell near the synagogue recently, but luckily no one has been hurt. The rabbi personally was nearly hit by a rocket which landed near the home of the Prime Minister of the DPR downtown.
When asked about the fact that some in the Kiev government have been praising Bandera, the rabbi said there is not much they can do about it and that the Jewish community steers away from politics. He clarified that the bombardment by Kiev poses a danger for the Jews residing in Donetsk. When asked if the fact that the Ukrainian government has been adopting Banderism and whether this poses a danger, he said that of course it does, but that he has faith that all will be well. He stressed that members of the Jewish community have different political views and that he opposes war in general.
We then proceeded on to visit the village of Stepanovka. The village appeared to be taken out of a scene of a World War II film. Entire rows of homes were demolished and in ruins. Shards of bombs were everywhere. A surreal sense of death and destruction prevailed. We were told that following an exchange of fire between DPR forces and the Ukrainian army during which the brother of the neo-Nazi Right Sector leader, Dmytro Yarosh, was killed, the Ukrainian army responded by heavily shelling many civilian homes seeking to teach locals a lesson. Dozens were killed.
We then went on to visit a major World War II monument located on top of a mountain overlooking the region. Its strategic location made it an ideal spot for the Ukrainian army which occupied the area and shelled surrounding villages from the high vantage point. After Donetsk forces blockaded entry ways to the monument, Ukrainian forces brought supplies to the monument by helicopter. DPR rebels brought down two helicopters, one carrying a senior Ukrainian army general, the other carrying SBU intelligence officers. The Ukrainian forces responded by shelling civilian areas en masse. After the DPR forces managed to take over the immense monument and strategic hill, they discovered that the monument marking the victory of World War II was demolished following the ignition of explosives laid there by the Ukrainian forces. It appears that this is a war not only over control, but also over how to remember the past. At the bottom of the monument fresh graves of DPR fighters were laid. One could not help but wonder how many more will be buried there in the future.
In the evening, we had a personal meeting with DPR foreign minister Alexander Kaufman. In response to my questions, Mr. Kaufman said that he cannot believe that Israel, which was justified on the basis of the Holocaust, would possibly send arms to Ukraine, which has made it illegal to criticise the actions of OUN and UPA under the new law and praises Bandera and Roman Shykhevych. We later sat down for a more casual meeting with the minister, who took off his suit and tie, put on slippers and played the guitar. He sang partisan resistance songs and songs in Yiddish and Hebrew. We hummed along.
A visit to local cafes by Pushinsky Avenue in the evening revealed that despite the ongoing war in the outskirts of the city and the constant sound of shellings which could be heard from the center, cafes were still open and hosting people, at least until the curfew at 11 AM?. Prices were high for most locals, however. Only 50% of the population can afford to go to cafes, as prices have risen significantly due to inflation and as salaries declined in war-torn Donetsk. Nonetheless, the cafes operated. People were not loudly talkative, however, and there was a solemn sense of sadness. The nearby national theater continued to operate despite the war. Theater shows are shown daily every afternoon at 2 AM. In the morning, a band was practicing at the center stage at Lenin Square while the area was filled with young people and children. Various tables were selling DPR memorabilia.
We finally made our long way back to Rostov in Russia. At the border, our luggage was searched by sniffing dogs. Odd as it may sound, Donetsk, despite its troubles, was a magical city and the warmth of its people left a lasting impression on all of us.
While Donetsk is frequently represented as a city run by pro-Russia rebels contrary to the wishes of locals, a visit revealed that the people of Donetsk do not accept the legitimacy of the Kiev government. Residents struggle to continue to live their daily lives despite the ongoing siege and bombardment. The people of Donetsk seek to preserve their independence via the People’s Republic of Donetsk and remain firmly anti-fascist while not viewing positively the Kiev regime as it shares a different view of World War II and engages in their demonization. It would be dishonest to argue that they do not receive all kinds of support in from Russia to remain steadfast, but the DPR is backed by the people of the region who see it as their protector from the forces of Kiev. Locals said that they will continue to fight for their independence, even if support from Russia were to end. Vast agricultural lands would allow them to still cultivate food.