Little is known about the two rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine being at the center of Russia’s military confrontation with Western powers.
That is why in this note we tell the story of a resident who was forced to leave the city of Donetsk when it was besieged in 2014.
He recently came to visit. This is his first person account.
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There was a convenient sleeper train between Kiev and the Donetsk Central Station in the Ukrainian capital, but now you have to travel by unmarked minibus. Can take up 27 hours, a journey from Europe to New Zealand. But it was a much less comfortable experience.
I was not allowed to enter territory controlled by Russian-backed rebels I have to go a long way: Via Russia and not from the same Ukrainian territory.
Technically, It is illegal for Ukrainian citizens to go this route. So when our minibus reaches the Russian border, the driver asks to tell us that we are going to a wedding in a nearby town.
To get into the rebel-held area, we changed into another vehicle. Their license plates are issued by so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, is not recognized in the outside world. The driver says he was behind the wheel for 24 hours.
When it reaches the border, Can I pass on my “internal” Ukrainian passport? Because I’m still registered with an address in Donetsk.
They take away all of our passports; They give back to everyone except me. They ask me to get out of the truck to answer some questions. They take me to a room with a desk and an old computer monitor, I try not to get nervous. There, I am offered a seat when a well-spoken man in a leather jacket examines me. He asks what my age is, where I work, and how often I travel to DNR.
Soon he lets me join the other passengers in the minibus, we have crossed the border and now I have only 120km left to reach my old city.
I’m almost at home, but Donetsk is not the house I recognize. It was the main venue for the 2022 European Football Championships held in Ukraine and Poland ten years ago. In preparation for the competition, Donetsk saw a major reconstruction. A new airport was set up, roads were repaired, and gleaming hotels opened their doors. During Euro 2012, the city was packed with English, French, Spanish and Portuguese fans. It was a lively European city.
Now, at the beginning of 2022, my city has changed and it is almost impossible to identify.
A large Stalinist building in the center of the city houses the rebellious Republican Ministry of Taxation. The building is in good condition and surrounded by elegant flower beds. But many nearby shops and cafes are closed and their windows are boarded up. The empty playground is littered with weeds.
There are signs of deterioration on the outdoor tennis courts of a nearby sports center; The bushes there are as tall as me. The sprawling Cisne Blanco Shopping Center used to be packed with shoppers, but now there is a haunted building where all kinds of shops, from shoe stores to jewelry stores, used to be.
It is wrong to say that the whole of Donetsk is lifeless. In another part of the city center, many restaurants and cafes are bustling with customers. I was told that local theaters show shows by visiting Russian companies, which are always packed.
But move northeast from the center: there are streets full of deserted apartment buildings, some damaged by bombs and bullets. The area was badly damaged during the war for the Donetsk airport in September 2014.
During the day, many Donetsk streets are as busy as they were before the war, but at night they are empty. Everyone is eager to go home before the night curfew lasts from 11pm to 5am, which is strictly enforced and I hear stories of people being detained at night to go out to remove garbage.
It is two kilometers from the center Former center of contemporary art in Donetsk. Now the building is a bad prison. International high street stores like Benetton, Nike, Zara or Adidas that were here before the war have disappeared. To buy clothes, shoes or home appliances, many locals have to cross the border into Russia. Those who cannot travel will come to the market or small shops where the supply is low.
Liquor drinks and snacks are good on supermarket shelves, but the best quality ingredients are expensive. Next to the imported bottles of Tennessee whiskey is one named Red Daniels, which costs less than a tenth of the price.
One of my last nights before leaving Donetsk, I met a classmate and went to a hotel in Lenin Square. After McDonald’s closed its stores in Donetsk in the spring of 2014, three of them reopened under the new name of Donmake. We ordered burgers, fries and coffee, and I can not point out that it tastes different than regular fast food.
“That’s the way it is with everything here,” my friend complains bitterly. “Everything we used has been replaced by a lower quality knockoff version!” He says, “We live in a dystopia where people rarely survive, but the street slogans boast of a bright future.”
I wondered if the Donbass area would ever regain control of Ukraine, and my friend shrugged and pointed. Most locals now hold a Russian passport And since 2014 a new generation of children has been born.
“No one working in the government or in the DNR’s civil service wants to return to Ukraine. With each passing year, we hope there will be less and less returns, ”he concludes.