MARIUPOL, Ukraine — Even as Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels trade fire across front lines, the public buses between separatist-held Donetsk and the besieged port city of Mariupol have kept on running. Ceasefire or no ceasefire (and there’s not much of one left) the war hasn't severed relations between families, friends and businesses in cities two hours apart—it's just made them more difficult.
Last week a round-trip bus ride from Mariupol to Donetsk cost less than $10 and took roughly 30 minutes longer than usual, with the extra time added because of the five checkpoints set up in both directions by the Ukrainian National Guard in some places and the separatists of the breakaway Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) in others.
"It takes too much time, the patrols check the passports," said Victor Pavlov, 56, a bus driver who makes the run regularly. When there's shelling, buses aren't allowed to pass, and then there’s the condition of the pavement: "There are shell holes on the road and destroyed war machinery," he said.
Like many buses to Donetsk, his was filling up. People might be returning to the industrial capital of eastern Ukraine because they think if "the next battle will be in Mariupol maybe it's dangerous to stay, or maybe people run out of money," said Pavlov.
Another bus driver said he'd only lost two days because of the fighting but there were days when detours around clashes would tack three hours onto the trip.
Still, the day the war came to the edge of Mariupol last week, a strategic city that stands along the route to a land bridge between Crimea and Russia, buses were running every 30 minutes.
Kyryl Terekov, 56, said he came to Mariupol three days before from Donetsk on unspecified business and because he had friends here. Is it safe? "Only God knows," he said. "You can't predict what will happen."
Parcels as well as people seem to ignore the fighting. An informal postal service established long before the war runs in bus cargo space. The sender and receiver pay the driver a few hryvnia—the Ukrainian currency—on either end. And the packages don’t seem to be checked by anyone at the checkpoints of either side.
Liudmyla Liashova, 62, gave a package filled with baby formula to a bus driver to deliver to her friend who has a two-year-old and can't find it in Donetsk because of war-caused shortages. "They can't buy it because there is nothing in the stores," she said.
Ruslan, who owns a fabric business, said the need to put food on the table for his children left no choice but to return to Donetsk to work. "There is no other way," he said. Ruslan, 41, who declined to give his last name, said he had been on vacation in Crimea before arriving in Mariupol and had wanted to stay away until the fighting, but it just keeps flaring up again.
After talking to several drivers and passengers, I decided to climb on the frontline express myself.
On Saturday morning, less than 24 hours after a ceasefire went into effect, passengers jostled in a crowded Mariupol bus terminal for tickets to Donetsk and elsewhere. The 9:45 a.m. bus had about 30 seats. Three people stood for the whole trip. Luggage spilled into the aisle as the bus pulled out of the station.
The first checkpoint was decked out in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag and just inside the city limits. Ukrainian national guardsmen with Kalashnikovs swarmed around the large concrete barriers, armored personnel carriers and tents that make up a "blok post" as it's called in Ukrainian.
A teenage soldier with a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth stepped onto the bus and told all the men to get off. After questioning each of the men, he demanded that I produce Ukrainian government credentials for a foreign journalist working in the Anti-Terrorist Zone. Such credentials don't actually exist. Instead, names are entered into a database. Next he demanded to review photographs in my camera to see if it contained pictures of their positions that could be given to the enemy. Then a superior took my passport and press card and disappeared for a few minutes behind a concrete barrier. Everything was okay and the bus continued.
The bus flew past great yellow and brown fields of sunflowers, which are harvested for the oil from their seeds, past roadside watermelon stands, and past Volnovakha, a town that Ukraine has held onto despite separatist forces pushing southward, past trucks filled with coal, until the concrete barriers of the next checkpoint appeared on the road. Soldiers waved the bus through without checking it while 18 cars heading south waited on the other side. Some bore the word "children" taped to the windshield, the warzone equivalent of "baby on board.”
The next roughly 12 miles were a no-man's land where control is unclear. A checkpoint established by DNR separatists last Monday in Novotroiske was nowhere to be seen on Saturday. Just before the village of Olenivka, armed men in mismatched uniforms carrying Kalashnikovs stopped traffic on the highway at a rag tag checkpoint. Welcome to “Novorossiya.”
A soldier stepped on the bus and said "All from Mariupol?" The driver said "yes" and the bus was waved on its way. A few miles up the road, past a two-barreled anti-aircraft gun parked on the side of the road, passengers gasped at the sight of a blackened and dismembered tank left in the middle of the median from a previous battle.
Down the highway, large letters shaped out of concrete or metal letters spelled out Donetsk in Cyrillic letters.
This checkpoint is like an ad hoc version of the one at the entrance to Mariupol, with less elaborate concrete barriers, leaking sandbags and soldiers wearing t-shirts. A soldier asks all the men to come off the bus, but only half do, and he decides not to bother with rest. The bus is waved along past this checkpoint and another as well.
On a wall en route to the bus station, the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag is painted on the wall, with an "X" over and the words "never" scrawled above in Russian.
Donetsk is a ghost town. Larger than Mariupol, it boasts an opera house and theater but most stores downtown are closed and few people walk the streets. Were it not for the occasional armed man in camouflage one would simply imagine Donetsk to be a nice city that's fallen on tough economic times. There are not many signs of battle damage. The Ukrainian flag has been relaced with the red, black and blue of the DNR and a Novorossiya flag that looks like an American Confederate flag without the stars.
Mariupol and Donetsk continue to be intertwined. One man in Donetsk said he visits his parents in Mariupol almost every weekend. But the the bus back to the port city is only about two thirds full on Saturday at 2:15 p.m.
Katya Milevski, 18, lives in Donetsk and was taking the trip to Mariupol to give her mother a small dog she carried. She was making the round trip for the second time since the fighting began. "It's normal for me to go between," she said. She has no plans to leave Donetsk, she said, despite the prospect of continued fighting. "My home is here," Milevski told me.
A bus driver in rebel-“liberated” Donetsk said he's seen more people travel from Mariupol lately to return to their homes. "They think it's more safe than in Mariupol because Mariupol would be taken by the Donetsk Army," said the driver, who declined to give his name. "Donetsk is already free," he said.
Leaving Donetsk, the bus is stopped at a checkpoint just inside the city line. A man looking about 25 years old wearing camouflage pants and a blue and white t-shirt with a Kalashnikov slung around his back stepped on the bus and said "documents" in Russian. After checking a few IDs he then turned around and headed off the bus.
A man sitting next to the bus driver handed the soldier a bottle of water which was gladly received with a "thank you."
The bus passed rest of the checkpoints without incident, although there were sights not usually seen, like an armored personnel carrier that popped onto the road from a sunflower field followed by two tanks, or two DNR soldiers catching a lift to the next checkpoint and removing their rifle clips while riding the bus, or a convoy of scores of supply trucks and armored personnel carriers parked alongside the road.
Back at the Mariupol checkpoint, a Ukrainian National Guardsmen gave a man with an "old" passport a hard time. The man pleaded with them while his wife stood in the doorway of the bus holding their baby. A guardsman told him to get on the bus, and the frontline express drove on again to Mariupol.