Little is known about the two rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine that are at the center of Russia’s military dispute 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 back for a visit. This is his first-person account.
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There used to be a comfortable sleeper train between the central station of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and Donetsk, but now you have to make the journey in an unmarked minibus. can take up to 27 hours, as much as a trip from Europe to New Zealand. But it is a much less comfortable experience.
I don’t have a permit to access the territory, held by the Russian-backed rebels, so I have to go the long way: through Russia and not from the same Ukrainian territory.
Technically, it is illegal for citizens of Ukraine to take this route, so when our minibus reaches the Russian border, the driver asks us to say that we are going to a wedding in a nearby town.
To cross into the rebel controlled areas, we transferred to another vehicle. Their license plates are issued by the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, which is not recognized in the outside world. The driver tells us that he has been behind the wheel for 24 hours.
When we got to the border, can i cross with my “internal” ukrainian passport because I am still registered with an address in Donetsk.
They take away all our passports; They give them back to everyone but me. They ask me to get out of the truck to answer some questions. They take me to a cabin with a desk and an old computer monitor, and I try not to get nervous. There, I am offered a seat while a well-spoken man in a leather jacket examines me closely. He asks how old I am, where I work, and if I often travel to the DNR.
Soon he allows me to join the other passengers in the minibus, we cross the border and now there are only 120 km left before I reach my old city.
I am almost home, but Donetsk is not the home I recognize. Just ten years ago it was a key venue for the 2022 European Football Championship held in Ukraine and Poland. On the occasion of the preparation for the tournament, Donetsk saw a great reconstruction. A new airport was erected, roads were repaired, and gleaming hotels opened their doors. During Euro 2012, the city was packed with English, French, Spanish and Portuguese fans. It felt like a lively European city.
Now, at the beginning of 2022, my city has changed and it is almost impossible to recognize it.
A large Stalinist building in the center of the city houses the Ministry of Taxation of the rebel republic. The building is in good condition and is surrounded by neat flower beds. But many nearby shops and cafes are closed and their windows boarded up. An empty playground is overgrown with weeds.
There are signs of deterioration on the outdoor tennis courts of a nearby sports center; the bushes there are as tall as I am. The huge Cisne Blanco shopping center used to be full of shoppers, but where there were all kinds of stores, from shoe stores to jewelry stores, there is now a ghost building.
It would be wrong to say that all of Donetsk is devoid of life. In another part of the city center, many restaurants and cafes are bustling with customers. Local theaters show performances by visiting Russian companies and I’m told they are always full.
But move away from the center, to the northeast: there are streets full of deserted apartment blocks, some visibly damaged by shells and bullets. This area was hit hard during the battle for Donetsk airport in September 2014.
During the day, many of Donetsk’s streets are as busy as they were before the war, but by nightfall they are almost empty. Everyone is anxious to get home before a nightly curfew that lasts from 11pm to 5am. It is strictly enforced and I hear stories of people being detained at night just for going out to take out the rubbish.
A couple of kilometers from the center is the former center of contemporary art in Donetsk. Now the building is a notorious prison. The international high street stores like Benetton, Nike, Zara or Adidas, which existed here before the war, have disappeared. To buy clothes, shoes or household appliances, many locals have to cross the border into Russia. Those who cannot afford to travel flock to the market or small shops, where supply is limited.
Supermarket shelves are well stocked with alcoholic beverages and snacks, but better quality products are expensive. Right next to the imported bottles of Tennessee whiskey is something labeled Red Daniels, at less than a tenth of the price.
On one of my last nights before leaving Donetsk, I meet up with a classmate and head to a cafe on Lenin Square. After McDonalds closed its stores in Donetsk in the spring of 2014, three of them reopened under the new name of DonMac. We ordered burgers, fries and coffee and I can’t help but point out that it tastes different than regular fast food.
“It’s like that with everything here,” my friend complains bitterly. “Everything we used to have has been replaced by a low-quality knockoff version!” he says, adding, “We live in a dystopia where people barely survive, but street slogans boast of a bright future.”
I wonder if the Donbas region will ever be able to return to Ukraine’s control, and my friend shrugs and points out that most locals now have russian passports and that a new generation of children has been born since 2014.
“Anyone who works in the government or in the civil service of the DNR would not want to return to Ukraine. Every year that passes, we believe that returning is less and less likely, “he concludes.