DONETSK, Ukraine — Irina Kutepova, a 37-year-old mother and wife, never believed peace deals would work any time soon for the people in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic or DPR. Since the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany signed the most recent ceasefire agreement in early February, Irina’s family has lost two houses in Spartak, on the outskirts of Donetsk.
She shakes her head as she looks at the broken windows and destroyed walls of the house where she grew up. Sun and shadow fell over her, filtered through the green leaves of the grapevine-covered gazebo that somehow survived.
Last week, mortar fire hit the house minutes after Irina and her husband, Artem, a construction worker, had run away from Spartak on foot. Firing began around 5 p.m. and lasted all night. Spartak was shelled on Tuesday night again, and on Wednesday night—it has been shelled almost every night since February except maybe for a few nights right after the peace deal signing.
For the people of Donetsk—in rebel-controlled territory—that conclusion could mean that the world will feel even less sympathy for their lives.
His feet crunching on broken glass from his shattered windows, Artem crossed the road and, cursing the “dirty war,” picked up a shard of 122 mm Grad rocket that was still sitting by a huge crater in the ground. That rocket left the Kutepovs’ neighbors without a house. In the past week, the fighting has intensified. “I have a strong feeling that this month Ukrainian forces will show us just as much hell as last summer,” Irina said.
The entire Spartak neighborhood looked deserted. Every house on the main street has missing walls, holes from shells in the roofs. Dull machine-gun and artillery fire could be heard drumming in the middle distance from a year-old battlefield, Donetsk airport, which was less than 2 kilometers away.
On Tuesday, artillery fire thundered in the city beginning at 6:30 p.m. and terror came right into downtown. Yuriy Sivonenko, a candidate for the rebel republic’s leading position, and Yelena Filippova, the press secretary of the current leader, were wounded in two midday assassination attempts. Filippova was hospitalized with multiple shrapnel wounds on her face.
Why do people live in Donetsk, if it is so unbearable?
Many families, especially with children, try to leave, and many try to go back and forth. But it is not easy.
Ukrainian forces block the roads to Mariupol, Dnepropetrovsk, and Zaporirzhshye, leaving just two slow and insufficient checkpoints between Ukraine-controlled and rebel-controlled territories. Thousands are stuck in traffic jams, or waiting on foot on the narrow road outside of Artyomovsk.
When I reached the end of the line coming into the rebel-controlled area, the old black laptop operated by two Ukrainian officials to check identity papers first froze, then ran out of battery power. Sweaty and tired pedestrians waiting in line behind me began to complain quietly, so the military would not hear them. The registration process of thousands of people traveling in and out of the so-called “zone of the Anti-Terrorist-Operation” in Donetsk region was just as frozen as the screen of the laptop. Some of the travelers had been waiting in their cars for longer than five hours on Tuesday. The day heated up.
People in line discussed the collapsing infrastructure, complained of “living in ghetto,” of feeling trapped. “Can’t Kiev send over a couple more computers to make our life easier?” an overweight woman wondered in a whisper, breathing heavily behind me.
In fact, Kiev does not seem too keen on helping about 4 million Ukrainian citizens living on territories controlled by the self-proclaimed DPR. Since last November, the Ukrainian leadership has made the decision not to pay pensions in the breakaway Donbas region. Although social payments were stipulated in the second Minsk agreement in February, they have not resumed.
Ukrainian uniformed officials at the checkpoint in Artyomovsk were not in a hurry on Tuesday morning. With gloomy faces they were peering into every car trunk, every piece of luggage, looking for forbidden items: Kiev authorities forbade DPR commuters to bring in certain medicine, medical equipment, alcohol, and even food products. The officials seemed to be making their point: Getting in and out of rebel-controlled regions will not become any easier.
But nothing could be too much of a problem, if one had a bit of extra cash. Soldiers at the checkpoints charged about a $2 bribe per bus passenger to let the bus pass the line, people at the checkpoint explained. “We recently paid about 80 hryvnia each to cut the line and get out to Ukraine, to withdraw our bank deposit,” Kutepova said.
As the war economy developed in Ukraine, both militants and civilians tasted the prospects for corrupt profits, all across the country. If one was lucky enough to smuggle in a couple bags with cigarettes, one could make about $200 per trip. Some Ukrainian military enjoyed the easy money. Two senior officers were trying on silver and golden chains at a jewelry store at Artyomovsk market on Tuesday morning, a scene that could shock many Ukrainian volunteer soldiers living on pennies in Mariupol and other militarized regions.
Earlier this week, shootings, murders and special operations broke one of Ukraine’s most peaceful western regions, in Mukachevo. Police and Right Sector battalion forces fought over spheres of influence, official reports said: Three people died and 11 got injured in shootings over contraband cigarettes. In Donetsk and Luhansk people live without medical service, with prices growing sky-high for vital goods, sold by both Russian and Ukrainian speculators.
Again, why not leave the rebel-controlled areas?
The Kutepovs say they have no alternative but to stay. They barely survive on their more than modest DPR-paid salaries. Besides, they have to help their daughter and keep feeding their huge white dog, Baron, who stayed in a still-intact doghouse outside their ruined home.
People in Donetsk do not like to talk about the Russian military helping DPR forces with tanks, artillery, and professionals. It is an old subject which leads nowhere for them.
Since the start of the war, more than 7,000 people have died here, according to the United Nations. Now they limit their imagination and ideas to survival. Irina remembers the conflict with Kiev began long before the shelling, before the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
“The people of Donbas were not asking Kiev for too much; all we asked for was to make the Russian language official for us and to give us federalization,” Irina said in a tired voice. Now that story sounds as old and as unbelievable as the Minsk ceasefire agreement.