During my recent reporting trip to cover the Ukrainian conflict in the eastern city of Donetsk, I stayed at one of the city’s last functioning hotels. It also happens to be the unofficial separatist headquarters, affording me a close-up glimpse of the leaders of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.
This is the name the separatists have given to this part of eastern Ukraine they want to become independent.
The actual citizens of Donetsk, so present during my last trip to Donetsk in May, don’t seem to be part of the city anymore. They’re either gone or in hiding, and few cars or pedestrians were on the city’s wide, empty boulevards.
Donetsk is now run by a core group of hard-liners. It’s a macho world of camouflage, Kalashnikov rifles and swagger. And its leaders seem in no mood to compromise.
Officially, the Ukrainian government and separatists have recommitted to a shaky ceasefire that’s been in place since Sept. 5. Both sides are said to be drawing back heavy forces from the front lines. But their political positions are as far apart as ever.
In the capital Kiev, President Petro Poroshenko is accused of giving away part of the country because he’s prepared to grant greater autonomy in the east. In Donetsk, the separatist leaders say anything short of full independence from Ukraine is unacceptable.
In Donetsk, the municipal administration building where journalists must now apply for credentials is just a short walk up Pushkin Boulevard from our hotel. In May, it was an occupied fortress encircled by a wall of bricks, tires and sandbags and manned by masked gunmen.
Today, the separatists are clearly trying to polish their image and all the mess has been cleared away. A lone sign out front says, “No Fascists.”
We make our way down the empty building’s dark, dirty hallways. On a wall is a poster of a Malaysian Airlines plane flying through clear blue skies. Below, is a handwritten note in English and Russian, saying: “We offer our condolences to the families of the victims of the Malaysian airline shot down by the criminal Ukrainian army.”
Ukraine’s government, along with the West and much of the international community, says it was the separatists who downed the Malaysian plane in July, killing nearly 300 people.
In my first interview with a top opposition official, Andrei Purgin, he said there was no way the rebels (they don’t like being called separatists) would accept the offer of limited autonomy from Kiev.
Yet Purgin was part of the delegation that signed the peace deal recently in Minsk, Belaus. Purgin began to expound on what he said were the many Russians that had disappeared from this area since the breakup of the Soviet Union, using a term along the lines of “ethnicide.”
Purgin was saying the people here have been stripped of their Russian culture and identity by being assimilated into Ukraine.
“Russian grandparents now have Ukrainian grandchildren,” he said.
The separatists control the city and outskirts of Donetsk, so coming and going means passing through a battery of rebel check points.
The Ukrainian army still controls the airport though. You can almost feel the rebel frustration over this in the nighttime shelling around the airport.
One night, a volley of rockets going toward the airport was fired at such close range it felt as if they were launched from the hotel itself.
My interpreter, Pasha, who had retired to his room, came running downstairs. A few minutes later we watched a truck carrying the rocket launcher drive up the street.
In Donetsk, everywhere you go the separatist militia is out and about. They wear military fatigues and tie camouflage rags around their heads. They cradle Kalashnikovs. They speed through town with their hazard lights blinking. The younger ones yell out car windows. Young and old, they all have an air of self-importance about them.
Several times a day, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the self-styled vice president of the DPR, would pull up to the hotel in an SUV with tinted windows. Young men would jump from escort cars in front and behind to secure the periphery, training their rifle sites on the buildings surrounding the hotel.
Zakharchenko, 38, a former electrician, dresses in army fatigues. He has an aura of authority about him. When he strode through the hotel lobby, the press scrambled.
Zakharchenko said the ceasefire violations were the fault of the Ukrainian army. His sentences were peppered with the favorite word of this war, “provocation.”
“The shooting was a provocation by the Ukrainian army trying to provoke the rebels to return fire,” he said. Back in Kiev, the Ukrainian army spokesman was giving an identical statement except he was accusing the separatists of trying to provoke the army.
After a prisoner swap with the Ukrainian army, some of the released rebels were brought to our hotel to talk to journalists. Most were old men.
They looked fragile and haggard, their faces battered from being beaten in captivity. They called mothers, wives and loved one to say they were “safe in Donetsk.”
They had been fighting for Novorossiya, or New Russia. That’s the old czarist term for this part of Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been bandying about.
A few of the men said they were motivated by the recruitment posters around town. One said he decided to fight when Ukrainian bombs fell on his house. It’s known here that the rebels have had a difficult time finding volunteers to fight. Over the summer, one of the leaders of Donetsk railed on local television about the sorry fighting spirit among the local men. He angrily called them women.
The last time I was here, the citizens of Donetsk were very vocal. Many talked about how they were betrayed by the protest movement in Kiev. Some said that right-wing thugs had brought down a legitimately elected president.
But now, four months later, it’s hard to know what the citizens of Donetsk are thinking. Even the ones who do talk seem wary of expressing themselves.
At the bus station in Donetsk, the flood of people we expected to see coming home after the ceasefire was not there. Instead, people were leaving. No one we talked to spoke of wanting to be part of Russia or the Donetsk People’s Republic.
They simply said they wanted the fighting to end and for things to go back to the way they were before. The few who did give us their political opinions were for an unbroken Ukraine.
“I want to be a part of a united Ukraine,” said Oksana Volik, who was on her way to see her daughter in Belarus. “Its values are kinder, more humanistic.”
Valentina Feydarovic was headed to Kiev for good. She said she definitely did not want to live in Novorossiya.
From afar, it’s perhaps impossible to grasp the often absurd nature of this conflict. Donetsk feels almost like a movie set. The cast of caricatures, the posturing, the bravado. It would almost be laughable if there weren’t so many people dying.