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Battle for Ukraine: An Inside View of the Surreal Donetsk War Zone

By in Donetsk

Photo Gallery: Donetsk Under Fire Photos
REUTERS

As the Ukrainian army closes in on Donetsk, shelling in the metropolis has become much more frequent -- and deadly. Many residents have left, but those who remain seem unsure what to make of the conflict. Resignation is widespread.

It is a thin veneer that separates guests of the Donetsk Park Hotel from the surreal world outside. Inside, we watch BBC in English and ZDF broadcasting news in German. The hotel has electricity and Internet while air conditioning keeps out the summer heat.

OSCE observers sit at the bar drinking Lvivske, a dark Ukrainian beer, for €2.50 ($3.3) a pint, a price that is outrageous for Donetsk. Their shiny white Toyota SUVs are lined up outside, waiting to drive them through the warzone during those moments when it's not too dangerous.

This Thursday is not one of those moments. Shortly before 1 p.m., a salvo of grenades rains down. One's ear quickly gets used to the sounds of war, rapidly learning to halfway reliably tell them apart. This time, though, the detonations are unbelievably loud and very close. Only three minutes after leaving the hotel, I arrive in the midst of misery in this embattled city of Donetsk.

Since this spring, when the war in eastern Ukraine began, I have been a regular visitor to Donetsk. I remember when the clashes between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian troops loyal to Kiev began in Sloviansk, 120 kilometers (75 miles) from here, in April. Three people died in the initial fighting, and I went to their funerals. Then I returned to Donetsk and thought: The militant hate will never reach this booming city.

But now, the war has reached Donetsk, advancing all the way to the Uliza Artema, the main arterial through the center. I am standing in front of 58a, where a large hole can be seen in the facade on the third floor and several window panes have shattered. The street is blanketed with shards of glass and the asphalt is covered with dozens of small pits bored by grenade shrapnel.

Three people are lying on the ground in the intersection 50 meters away. One woman is bleeding heavily from her legs, while two men lie across from her. One is already dead. The other dies a short time later.

A Suspicious Look

There are two notices posted on the outside wall of 58a. In one, the pro-Russian rebel leadership warns people of the dangers of duds and explains what to do if one is found. The other reads: "We will take care of your apartment for as long as you are away from Donetsk. We are reliable and honest. Yevgeny and Anna, Century 21 real estate agency." Two phone numbers are listed.

Both signs are well meaning. Neither, however, is particularly helpful in this war.

Neighbors have now appeared and they pull the wounded into two cars -- ambulances have become a rarity these days -- and eventually the first rebels speed up to the site. Gesticulating wildly, they close off the street, which is largely empty anyway.

I wander into the staircase of 58a as glass crunches underfoot and see a woman standing in the door of the first apartment on the right, struggling to maintain her composure. Only three families are still living in the building, she tells me. But then she gives me a suspicious look and shuts her door.

Eventually, though, the door opens again and she pulls me inside, but not before interrogating me about where I come from. The curtains are drawn in front of the now pane-less windows and the room is stuffed full of sacks, boxes and food jars -- provisions in case of need. In contrast to the Park Inn, there is no power here and the kitchen is a chaotic mess. An elderly man carrying a flashlight appears from the room across the hall.

He asks to see my identification and business cards. He says: "We don't know who is coming or what will happen. And whether they might take revenge." By "they," he means Ukrainians loyal to the government in Kiev -- those who are preparing to storm the city.

"They never wanted to talk to us," the man says, leading me into the living room, if you can call it that. The room is stuffed full of the family's possessions, but there is a spot free on the sofa, which the man offers me.

A Surreal Conversation

He then introduces himself: Professor Vladimir Borisenko from the Department of Electric Drive and Industrial Installation Automation at the Technical University of Donetsk. He is also the vice deacon of the French Technical Faculty and a member of the Academy of Technological Science of Ukraine. His university is located just around the corner and has 27,000 enrollees. "French Faculty?" It is one of those moments during which I am particularly aware of the war's absurdity. Yes, Borisenko says, "we teach in French." He also publishes his books together with French scientists. He digs out his most recent work, which was just delivered to him by a Donetsk printer last week, in the middle of the war. It was written in Russian and French. First print run: 100 copies.

He sets the book in front of me and begins leafing through it, showing me the technical drawings, color photos and tables as he switches from Russian to Ukrainian and, finally, French. He even mixes in a bit of German, the product of a relationship his department has with the Technical University in Magdeburg.

It is a surreal conversation. Outside, the war drags on, a shell just hit the building he lives in and his wife is worried sick. But Borisenko is overcome by excitement that his book just got published. The title on the dust jacket is printed in Ukrainian.

It isn't as if nobody in Donetsk can speak Ukrainian. Most can. But Kiev has done little to find common ground with the city and the government still hasn't found the correct tone in their dealings with eastern Ukraine. Others -- those who have for decades seen the region as an extra-territorial domain and who now want to take control of it by force -- have taken advantage of the situation.

Alexander Zakharchenko, the new prime minister of the rebels, is one of those. He is a major in the military and now sits in the government building of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic. He recently took over the post from Alexander Borodai, a university graduate in philosophy from Moscow. Currently, many of the political leaders of the People's Republic are being replaced by soldiers, a sign that the republic's days may be numbered. Firm leadership is now needed.

Defense of the Russian Fatherland?

Zakharchenko himself comes to cabinet meetings dressed in camouflage. Last week, I visited one such meeting and the rebel leader arrived with the Cross of St. George 4th Class, a Russian military decoration, pinned to his breast. Normally, medals aren't worn on field uniforms, but Zakharchenko is proud of the decoration.

Yet Zakharchenko, a Ukrainian, was primarily chosen for the office so that the world could no longer accuse the Donetsk People's Republic of being run by a puppet from Moscow. So what is with the Russian Cross of St. George, awarded to those for special military achievements in the defense of the Russian fatherland?

Zakharchenko worked as an electrician in a mine before going to police training school. He speaks of the "fascist regime in Kiev" and says that Ukrainian soldiers should be "liquidated" because they are so reckless in their bombardment of the city. It is not the kind of language used by Borisenko, even if the professor is no great fan of Kiev either. Indeed, Borisenko didn't even say that it was a Ukrainian round that damaged his building. Nobody, after all, can say who fired the deadly projectile. And most hardly even care. That is the level of resignation to which most here have sunk.

I have made it a habit to never use taxis in foreign cities, preferring instead to take streetcars or buses. Only then can I hear how people talk. In Donetsk, tram line 8 connects the edge of the city center with the mining settlement. Old, Czech Tatra streetcars rumble for kilometers through unused fields or miniature gardening colonies before reaching the next residential area. They are areas only reachable by small roads and you see things that you never would from a car.

At one stop, somebody had painted the sentence: "Donetsk People's Republic: That means the impoverishment of the Donetsk Basin." A message at the next stop reads: "Donetsk People's Republic: They are murderers." And then: "Honor to Ukraine." These messages too are part of the mood in Donetsk.

'Don't Forget Us'

Not far from rebel government headquarters, a café closed its doors last week. It had been one of the last to remain open in the city and its owners posted a notice on the door. Conspicuously, it is only written in Ukraine which, in Donetsk, is either seen as sacrilege or as an act of protest.

My Ukrainian isn't great and I ask an older woman passing by for assistance. The message hanging on the door isn't full of the normal formulations indicating that the establishment is closing "due to the situation at hand." No, this one is completely different.

"Please excuse us for currently being unable to offer you our smiles, our sweets and our famous chocolates. The tragedy that has befallen our beloved city simply refuses to come to an end. We will see you again. Please don't forget us."

The café is a branch of the Lviv Chocolate Factory, based in the city of the same name in western Ukraine, a region unloved by the citizens of Donetsk and a place where people speak Ukrainian more easily than they do Russian. Officially, Lviv lies in enemy territory.

But in Donetsk, nobody seems particularly bothered by the notice and nobody has ripped it down. Could it be that the much discussed conflict between the Russians, the West and the eastern Ukrainians doesn't really exist?

The longer I am in this city, the more I believe that much of what is said about the war in eastern Ukraine isn't true. Others have imported the conflict.

On Friday afternoon, the news arrives that Ukrainians have allegedly destroyed armored Russian military vehicles on the Ukrainian side of the border. Moscow denies it, saying that military vehicles have never crossed into Ukraine. The dangerous game continues.

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