Life in Donetsk: ‘There’s no going back for us’
Remaining local residents fear backlash if government forces ever regain control of militant occupied areas
Thousands of people swarmed to the militant stronghold of Donetsk on May 9 to mark the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. The once industrial hub with over one million residents is now full of shattered buildings and destroyed homes. Thousands have fled the city after fighting began nearly two years ago between combined Russian separatist forces and government troops. Overall, more than a million people have fled eastern Ukraine. Those that remain believe there’s no going back for them. Many people simply believe that Ukrainians living in other parts of the country will always see them as the enemy.
"Look how many people! Thousands! They are united - they are against the return to Ukraine. And when you see so many people, you know that there is no way back. No more Ukraine here. Whatever anyone says and whatever hopes," Olga told me. She is an acquaintance of mine living in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.”
"Firstly, here are people not only from Donetsk, but from all over "the republic." Secondly, they are united not by hatred of Ukraine and not by the love for the “DPR.” They are united by Victory Day. Thirdly, a lot of people here want to end this chaos and see a true statehood.”
I asked if the residents of Donetsk see their city becoming a part of Ukraine once again.
"It will not work. “The republic" is growing and its statehood is gathering strength. These people do not want to return to Ukraine, they are even afraid of Ukraine. We have become accustomed to this life, and what awaits us in Ukraine? We know about horrors that are going on there, and we believe that when power changes there again lots of people will come here," continued Olga.
After two years, Russian propaganda has fulfilled its goal. It alienated most of those living in Donetsk from the rest of Ukraine. If you ask anyone what scares them about returning to Ukraine, their response will be similar to the following.
First of all, a high fear of the so-called rules of war: "winner takes all," "three days to plunder," the "clean-up." "It will be a brutal, bloody attack with senseless killings, looting, and rapes" say DPR militants to fear the locals. You may be surprised, but some people really believe in "concentration camps for the separatists." "
"We are labeled as separatists and terrorists, collaborators living under the occupiers. If we go back to Ukraine, we will be oppressed,” explained Vira, Olga’s daughter.
There are also fears like losing one’s job. Local teachers believe that if they teach the anti-Ukrainian program, Ukraine will never forgive them. And a similar situation with local doctors who treated wounded Russian-backed militants. This is also a common concern among entrepreneurs who re-registered in the so called “DPR” and have even started paying taxes there.
There is also the question about employment records. Will they be taken into account or just removed from life? Women in “DPR” retire at the age of 55. What will happen to the documents issued by the “DPR” authorities?
What about school and college graduates? Another key issue is the children who are being taught in kindergartens and schools that Ukraine is the enemy, and “DPR” leaders are heroes.
Then there’s the issue of decommunisation, Ukraine’s bid to get rid of its Soviet past. In Donetsk pensioners and middle-aged people say the Soviet Union was a positive chapter of Ukraine’s history. The region’s young people are also inclined to believe this, after all, they’re surrounded by Ukraine’s Soviet past. Statues of Lenin and other Soviet leaders are sprinkled all over Donbas.
"We have so much destruction here; so many people have lost their homes. They must be rebuilt. And will Ukraine do this? We see that if the Ukrainian government will not reconstruct them then we will not be able to cope," Vira sighs.
"Well, if Russia orders her people to go? Together with all your leaders? What will you do then?" I ask.
"We will just accept it, but we will not go away,” Olga calmly replies.
44-years old Vira was thinking about her son, daughter, granddaughter, who in the summer of 2014 went to the liberated areas. And now she sees them every six months. If this "conflict," which politicians are afraid to officially recognize as a war, drags on for a long time, she will not see her relatives at all.
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