Photo Gallery: Quiet in Donetsk

Foto: Andrew Burton/ Getty Images

The Isolation of Donetsk A Visit to Europe's Absurd New Border

The heavy fighting may have stopped for the time being, but Donetsk is more isolated than ever. Those wishing to enter and leave the city need difficult-to-obtain special IDs. Meanwhile, food and other supplies are only trickling into the metropolis.

Borders can be annoying, but largely predictable -- in Europe at least. That is what truck driver Yevgeny believed until recently. Many of them are no longer monitored at all, but even those that are guarded rarely hold surprises for those wishing to cross them. "You know if you can zip across them or if you have to plan for a five-hour wait. But this one? I have no idea how it works."

The border he is referring to is that of a wartime stronghold on the edge of a largely borderless European continent. At the first checkpoint after Kurakhove, travelers must present their papers, open the trunks of their cars and submit to pat-downs as guards search for weapons. Another 500 meters down the road, there are blocks of concrete, barricades, antitank barriers and signs that curtly order travelers to switch off their headlights and stop immediately. After that, there are containers and hooded soldiers, their Kalashnikovs at the ready.

Fields line the road on both sides. It looks almost as though oversized moles have been at work in the brown soil, covered with dirty snow. Black smoke pours out of chimneys sticking out of the smaller mounds while tank canons protrude from the larger ones. Further along, a single excavator is digging a trench in the heavy, wet dirt.

One kilometer from here, the territory of the "Donetsk People's Republic" begins, an area the Ukrainians treat as enemy territory and as a stronghold for terrorists. The Ukrainian army, though, is holed up here, just past the small city of Kurakhove. In between is the road that leads from Zaporizhia to Donetsk -- at least when traffic is allowed to flow. Yevgeny's truck is now parked on this road. He has the heat and the TV on, and the cab smells of coffee. You could almost call it cozy. "But not if you've been sitting here for three days and have no idea when you'll start moving again," he complains.

A seemingly endless chain of vehicles -- big trucks, small delivery vans, long-distance buses and shared taxies -- are parked on the shoulder. In the midst of it all is Yevgeny's small, green-and-white truck, a Russian-made GAZelle designed to carry 1.5 tons of cargo.

Yevgeny drives for a businessman in Donetsk and he is carrying supplies for shops in the rebel capital -- a load of canned goods, tomato paste, condensed milk and spices that he picked up in Mariupol, the port city 120 kilometers (75 miles) away that could be the separatists' next target. Yevgeny has passed through six checkpoints since leaving Mariupol, but now his trip has come to a standstill near Kurakhove, 40 kilometers from his destination.

As Isolated as West Berlin

One can argue whether the separatists are to be blamed or whether Kiev is exacting revenge. But either way, Donetsk is now just as isolated as West Berlin once was. Even from the east, where the border to Russia lies nearby, hardly any goods are allowed through. The rebels control the border, and they only allow the propaganda-driven aid shipments from Moscow to pass. Everything from milk to meat and vegetables is becoming scarce in the city. And the Ukrainian government has all but sealed off access to the "People's Republic."

More recently, anyone wishing to cross the line between the two warring camps must present a "propusk," a small, white identity card with a large "B" printed on it. The Ukrainians have divided the demarcation line between their forces and the separatists into sections. The propusk is the Open Sesame for crossing the line in "zone B." Since January, no one has been able to cross the line without this propusk. The problem is that it's difficult to get.

There is currently a two to four-week waiting period to obtain the propusk, which is issued in Velyka Novosilka, a village 90 kilometers west of Donetsk. But a "Sector B" propusk is required to reach Velyka Novosilka from Donetsk in the first place. The result is that people from Donetsk are in a paralyzing catch-22.

Even in divided Berlin, such problems were more effectively solved. West Berliners were able to obtain travel permits from East Berlin officials in West Berlin so that they could cross the Wall. It was a small gesture of goodwill in the Cold War.

"It's a theater of the absurd," says Yevgeny, while another driver calls the situation at the border Kafkaesque. "Just look at the people over there, who have come from Donetsk. They give their documents to Ukrainian soldiers, hoping that the documents will somehow reach Velyka Novosilka. And then they come back, two weeks later, and spend days standing outside in the cold here to get their propusk."

Yevgeny obtained the pass, but it's not much help now that the Ukrainians have come up with a new requirement: Anyone transporting goods into rebel-held territory must now present proof of permit from the tax authorities. All companies that sell products to the rebels must possess such a permit, including the company in Mariupol where Yevgeny picked up his canned goods.

'Obama Is a Beast'

"Of course, the company doesn't have the document," says Yevgeny. "I went to the border anyway. Last week, we waited here for six days. Then we gave a police officer 1,000 hryvnia. That's only about €35 ($38), but here it's a month's pension. The police officer guided us to Donetsk through villages where there were no checkpoints yet." But even these loopholes have now been closed, leaving only the official crossing, which is also closed. No one, no matter which documents he presents, is crossing the border on this winter day. According to an officer at the checkpoint, the order to open the border hasn't arrived yet.

Donetsk, which is east of the checkpoint, seems peaceful on this day, with a fragile ceasefire  having been in effect since Feb. 15. City workers are cleaning the streets, damaged buildings are being repaired in the Kiev and Petrovsky district, and even the university is open. But the war-torn city seems to have lost its moral bearings, with the newspapers reporting 18 murders in the last three days.

Supporters of the new leaders have gathered on Lenin Square, carrying flags with images of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and the words "Victory will be ours" and "Obama is a beast."

War films are being shown on the "First Republican Channel," with messages running across the bottom of the screen like: "The 'Oplot' special battalion seeks tank drivers and paramedics." Interested parties are instructed to call the phone number listed and ask for "Natasha." Similar recruitment efforts are also underway in the streets. One poster depicting a Kalashnikov with a scope, along with the phone number of the Donetsk Republic army, reads: "I am waiting for my hero." Novorossiya, the separatist newspaper, writes: "Following our military victory, we have achieved a diplomatic victory in Minsk: We have become de facto independent." A man like Russian President Vladimir Putin, the article continues, is "born only once in a thousand years. The day will come when he will also be our president."

There is very little artillery fire to be heard, and yet hardly anyone ventures out onto the streets, especially at night. "After 6 p.m., 40 percent discount on vodka, wine and champagne," reads a sign outside the El Torro Steakhouse on Pushkin Boulevard. But the restaurant remains empty even after 6 p.m. So does the fur shop on Artem Street, which promises a "20 percent discount for wives of soldiers in the People's Army."

Other businesses lack products instead of customers. Not even aspirin makes it into the rebel-held territory, let alone pain medication for patients in the cancer clinics and methadone for the city's drug addicts. "Either I hang myself or I join the People's Army," says a young man who has been in methadone therapy for four years. "Then I'll fight with those guys, and I won't be buried as a junkie but as someone who defended his homeland."

Getting Out of Donetsk

As difficult as it is to get into Donetsk, it's just as difficult to get out. Those hoping to escape the besieged city go to the southern bus terminal in Donetsk. Older women stand around holding out paper cups, quietly begging for money and a man digs through a trashcan, looking for anything of value. People are lined up at the information booths, where they pay 2.60 hryvnia for information. To prevent arguments, notes on the windows read: "We don't know how to get a propusk either!"

There are 21 bus platforms at the terminal. The ones for buses traveling to destinations within the "People's Republic" are empty, while the others are crowded, with buses departing for Mariupol, Sloviansk and the industrial city of Kramatorsk. The drivers only allow passengers holding a "Sector B" propusk to board their buses.

A rickety Indian-made Tata bus is ready for departure at platform four. As the passengers push their way inside, a young woman tells the driver that her mother is in the hospital in Kramatorsk and asks if he can take her along without a propusk. "Not without verification from the hospital," says the driver. "But they won't give it to me," the desperate woman replies.

Another female passenger is more successful. She wants the driver to help her smuggle a relative into Donetsk on his way back. "Well," the man says tentatively and then says "well" again, until she hands him a carton of "President" cigarettes. "How many are inside?" he asks. "Two hundred," the woman replies. The driver opens the carton and pulls out four $50 bills. "Well," he says again, but this time he sounds more approving. Although the war has officially cut off all connections to the outside world, ways around the blockade can still be bought.

Yevgeny, sitting in his truck over at the checkpoint, is familiar with these ways. In a country that is on the brink of economic disaster, why shouldn't soldiers be open to bribery? "You simply go up to the checkpoint and pick out one of the more trustworthy-looking faces," he says, "and then you strike up a conversation."

No Future

How much does one have to pay to get a truck carrying food supplies through the front lines? Until recently, drivers had to pay the Ukrainians 10,000 hryvnia per truck, but now the price has spiked to 20,000 -- the equivalent of five to six months' salary for a soldier.

And that isn't all. At the rebel checkpoint on the other side, soldiers from the "People's Republic" demand "customs" payments. There is no fixed price, but the separatists normally requisition three out of five fuel tankers carrying gasoline. Even the richest businessman can't afford such a price for long, says Yevgeny. Besides, he explains, the price of diesel has almost doubled since early February.

"I've spent almost my entire life in Donetsk. I have nothing bad to say about Viktor Yanukovych. When he was still in charge, he got us an apartment," he says of the time prior to Yanukovych's presidency when he was a local business leader. "Now I have a small house, where my wife is waiting for me. But we took our 16-year-old daughter to a school in Zaporizhia. There is no future for her in Donetsk anymore."

The people in charge of the "People's Republic" were unknowns until recently, Yevgeny says. "Now each of them has a Kalashnikov, and they behave like our new masters. I didn't vote for independence."

Then Yevgeny crawls into his sleeping bag. Another night at Europe's new border? Or perhaps two or three?

Whether people are for or against the "People's Republic" appears to have become a question of money. While Yevgeny waits at the border and curses the rebels, Fyodor Ilyishenko, at the Donetsk bus terminal, holds precisely the opposite views. He is holding an envelope that contains a letter to the district court in Kiev -- a complaint againstPrime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.  With his decision to impose an economic blockade on the People's Republic, the premier was the one who caused the misery and suffering in the city in the first place, says Ilyishenko.

'You Have to Fight'

"It was a criminal decision. Yatsenyuk is narrow-minded and as dull as a cork. He claims that we are no longer entitled to anything, because we live in occupied territory," Ilyishenko continues.

Short and good-natured, Ilyishenko, 78, once served as an air force general in the far east of the Soviet Union and pulls out his veteran ID as proof. He fought against the Chinese in the 1960s, and he fought on the side of the Egyptians in the Six-Day War with Israel. Now he is a military adviser to the separatists. He no longer receives his pension, now that Kiev has cut off all payments to the "People's Republics."

"I have 70,000 hryvnia in my account with the state-owned Oshchadbank. The money is for my retirement, but I can't get to it because there are no longer any banks in Donetsk. They have promised to give me all the money, but I would have to go to a branch in Ukrainian territory to get it" -- which he is unable to do.

The government in Donetsk recently paid him 1,000 hryvnia in emergency assistance, he says, and he immediately spent half of the money on food. Now he is standing at the bus terminal holding a plastic bag with the words "Diamonds Delight" printed on it. The bag contains medicines.

The post office is also no longer in operation, which is why Ilyishenko is trying to find someone headed for Mariupol to take along his complaint letter. He has a friend there who can pass it on to the right place. He approaches a group of women, and one of them agrees to help. The old man shows her the letter, seals the envelope and gives her 25 hryvnia. "It will hardly change the situation, but you have to fight," says the retired general.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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