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Letters From Donbas, Part 2: 'Do You Understand What Is Going On Here?'

Residents sit in a basement used as a bomb shelter in Donetsk on December 30.
Residents sit in a basement used as a bomb shelter in Donetsk on December 30.

Thousands have fled eastern Ukraine since the conflict erupted in April. Some have since returned. Other people chose to stay and tough it out. From teachers to pensioners to families with children, residents of rebel-held towns are struggling to get on with their lives amid the chaos and uncertainty.

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service continues to publish their testimonies. The names of the authors of the letters have been changed for security reasons.

Pyotr Ivanov, psychologist, Luhansk

In no way do I intend to portray myself as a great visionary. There are more than enough candidates for the role of "civil war prophets" as it is. What I want to say is that, as early as June, I intuitively felt that all this would not end quickly, that the conflict would inexorably cause the destruction of infrastructure and the loss of livelihood.

War is most disastrous for city dwellers. Their survival depends not on whether cherries ripen on time in their garden but on whether they receive their salaries or pensions.

I lost my job in June when my company shut down. Despite the shelling, I decided to look for another job in Luhansk. I turned to friends who were in a position to help. In other words, I acted according to my own stereotypes.

READ MORE: Part 1 of Letters From Donbas

Other people who are, like me, hostage to the situation have other stereotypes -- for example, a World War II veteran who lives close to my home. Until September, he survived on his savings and counted on his relatives for help. His relatives, however, left in June. In early September, he pinned his medals to his chest and went to the "Luhansk People's Republic (LNR) authorities" to demand the immediate payment of his pension (although no pensions have been paid to anyone since July). The LNR leaders simply shrugged their shoulders and said they couldn't do anything for him.

In August, rumors began swirling that a humanitarian convoy was on its way from Russia. Everyone in the city began thinking about this convoy. People forgot about the war, about the bombs. All thoughts and conversations focused on the impending humanitarian aid.

Trucks carrying Russian humanitarian aid cross the Ukrainian border at the Izvarino custom control checkpoint on August 22.
Trucks carrying Russian humanitarian aid cross the Ukrainian border at the Izvarino custom control checkpoint on August 22.

Finally, the white trucks arrived. Residents were told that receiving the aid was very simple. All we had to do was show up at distribution points with our passports.

People almost murdered each other queuing up for these parcels. Rebels with machine guns restored order; there would probably have been casualties otherwise.

What does a humanitarian parcel look like? It consists of two kilos of buckwheat, three cans of corned beef, half a kilo of sugar, and a pack of tea. I received humanitarian aid twice, and only because my neighbor queued up for me. Honestly, I could not have withstood a line of 300 people. This was the first time.

The second time, the line had grown to 700 people. I know this because people wrote their queue number on their hands.

My neighbor had a seizure because of the heat and I took him home. We eventually got the humanitarian parcels, three days later.

I don't know how many people received these parcels, and how many times. I've heard that some people had permanent coupons.

At some point I realized that this humanitarian aid wasn't worth the calories spent on receiving it and I stopped thinking about it.

I held two jobs in the course of the siege. Then autumn came. Refugees started returning. Hospitals and schools reopened; many businesses resumed their activities.

Entrepreneurs, whose livelihoods relied solely on cash inflow from customers, enjoyed the most advantageous situation. I won't go into the problems tied to running a business nowadays in Luhansk; they do exist.

The situation for public-sector employees was, and is, much worse. The most fortunate receive their salaries in the shape of food rations similar in content to the humanitarian parcels.

The question of public-sector salaries is still up in the air, since the legal status of schools and hospitals is unclear. The Ukrainian government's decision to relieve itself of financial responsibility toward employees of state-run institutions in Luhansk and Donetsk put an end to any hope of help from Kyiv. On the other hand, there is obviously no local source of funding for public-sector agencies in Luhansk.

Many nonetheless continue to act in line with their stereotypes. They go to work in the morning, although they haven't been paid for almost six months.

Viktor Alanov, social worker, Donetsk

It has unfortunately become fashionable to consider that all those who stayed back in the rebel-controlled territories are pro-Russian morons and accomplices of terrorists, that all decent people fled a long time ago.

It has become fashionable to state that this "cut-off slice" must be left alone, that there's no point fighting for it. Let them die out there in their "Russian world" they wanted so badly.

Unfortunately, this stance is not only misguided, it is also harmful -- both for those living in the occupied territories and for Ukraine as a whole.

A nurse cooks on an outdoor fireplace due to the lack of gas inside the Mental Hospital N1/4 2 on the outskirts of Donetsk in December.
A nurse cooks on an outdoor fireplace due to the lack of gas inside the Mental Hospital N1/4 2 on the outskirts of Donetsk in December.

Firstly, as long as these armed pro-Russians continue to run the show here, there is a real threat of war for the rest of Ukraine. This cannot be denied. Freeing all the territories is the only hope for solid and lasting peace in Ukraine.

Secondly, there are, indeed, many of these morons here. Many more than some would like. But there are also numerous pro-Ukraine residents here who didn't participate in the referendum and the pseudo-elections.

Yes, we in Donbas have our "own way" of loving Ukraine. Not all of us approve of monuments being knocked down in our cities. Far from all of us regard the [World War II-era anti-Soviet] Ukrainian Insurgent Army and [Stepan] Bandera as heroes. Many of us believe Russian should enjoy the status of second national language in Ukraine. And no, let's be honest, not all of us supported the Maidan protests.

We are, however, united by the desire to live in Ukraine, and we have not backed the separatists in any way. Today, in occupied Donetsk, former "anti-Banderas" supporting Ukraine's territorial integrity shake hands with "Banderas"; advocates of dual-language status shake hands with supporters of Ukrainian as the sole official language.

Do you understand what is going on here?

Here in Donetsk, we are uniting, which is almost unprecedented, while in "mainland Ukraine" we often hear that we don't exist and that we must be "let go"!

On December 26, the rebels released about 150 Ukrainian fighters. Many of them were local men. Just look at pro-Ukrainian local groups on Facebook and Twitter! You will find very few (if any at all) real names and surnames, but behind every pseudonym stands a real Donbas resident, a Ukrainian citizen who wants to live in his country! Read what they write! Feel the mood that radiates from their conversations, which offer them a psychological escape from what is unfolding in our cities.

Please answer this question: What do these people, who are not guilty in any way toward Ukraine and its people, who live in areas where their country cannot protect them, who wake up and go to sleep every day with the knowledge they can be "picked up" and killed any minute, who are robbed and humiliated by pro-Russian militants, who have no means of publicly voicing their opinions, who are still clinging to the hope that their land will be reunited with Ukraine, what do these people feel when they hear that "all of them out there" must be barred from either entering or leaving, that they must be contained by moats and barbed wire, and deprived of electricity and gas?

You must answer this question not to me but to yourself.

An elderly woman pulls a cart with firewood near the Donetsk airport in November.
An elderly woman pulls a cart with firewood near the Donetsk airport in November.

And why then, when some claim that "only accomplices of terrorists remain out there, all the decent people have left," are these "decent people" unable to find rented accommodation and employment? Where are they supposed to go when citizens of this united Ukraine treat them like lepers and don't want to have anything to do with them?

Thankfully, such behavior is not the rule, although it's far from rare.

Sooner or later, the occupied parts of Donbas will return into Ukraine's fold. We have absolutely no doubt about that. Our country will be united again. But every one of you, brothers, must understand that, while we wage a ruthless war against terrorism, efforts must already be made to win the minds of residents in occupied territories instead of thrusting them aside -- even of those who are now hostile to Kyiv.

With those who have illegally taken up arms, the talk can be short -- they must, and they will, bear responsibility for participating in a terrorist organization. But sooner or later, a peaceful coexistence will have to be established with the others, those who did not hold weapons in their hands, however "strange" these people may appear today.

The battle for Ukraine is not only waged on the front lines. It takes place in heads and hearts. Let's decide what is more important for us: that Ukraine be united again or that "people out there die from their stupidity"?

Believe me, it's much more difficult for us here to watch this "stupidity" than for you. But it will pass. Just remember how you traveled to Donetsk for Euro 2012. What unity with the whole nation could be felt back then in the streets of Donetsk!

What's taking place in the heads of some Donetsk residents today is the result of Russian television propaganda. Why are people buying it? It's hard to say. After all, more than 100 million people are "buying it" in Russia. But it will pass.

When every one of us -- instead of seeking revenge against peaceful fellow citizens whose city happened to be occupied -- asks himself how he can help us, then we will know for sure that peace and Ukraine's return to the occupied territories of Donbas are within reach.

And yes, as soon as the war ends and it will be safe again here for all citizens of Ukraine, I promise to invite all of you, brothers, and give you a tour.

Nadia Nadezhdyna, sociologist, Snizhne, Donetsk region

In telephone conversations, my friends and I try to avoid answering any questions. You can feel the constant fear that people have of the new authorities, and life in this city is far from easy.

Even before the new authorities came, this city was depressed and dependent on state subsidies. The only successful businesses here were the Snezhnyansky Machine-Building Plant, a local branch of the Zaporizhzhya firm Motor-Sich, and the Zarya mine. Pensioners make up most of the adult population. And as it turned out, those retirees ended up forming the main social basis for the separatist movement.

Payments to those dependent on the state budget were chronically in arrears. Local authorities tried to make the payments by taking short-term bank loans. After Russian forces entered the city in early June and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk personally ordered local accounts blocked, residents seemed condemned to a hungry death. And in Snizhne, this happened more quickly than in other towns in the region.

In September, when the cease-fire was signed, local pensioners traveled en masse to Ukrainian-controlled territory to reapply for their pensions. However, in November, the government announced a complete financial and economic blockade of the territories within the zone of the antiterrorism operation (ATO). They stopped paying pensions and other social benefits to all except those designated as displaced. All the bank machines were shut down, as was Sberbank. This led many pensioners to despair. There were sufficient groceries and other goods in the stores and at the market, but they couldn't buy anything because they had no money.

Over the last couple of weeks, anger has been mounting among the elderly and miners.

And this anger is directed at both the authorities of the "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) and Yatsenyuk's government. Some angry reactions were provoked when several buses carrying miners were barred from traveling to Zaporizhzhya, in the zone controlled by the Ukrainian military, to pick up their salaries from banks there, where they had been sent months ago. They were stopped at a Ukrainian military checkpoint.

There is a lot of talk about the "checks" of trucks with foodstuffs at Ukrainian checkpoints. And there is some evidence about "confiscations." A businessman named K. spent 40,000 hryvnyas ($2,500) in Dnipropetrovsk on supplies for his store. But he was detained and forced to hand over all his cargo to a distribution center.

Ukrainian authorities, too, are heavily criticized. Pensioners often complain about the huge lines to register in the areas controlled by Ukraine and about the bribes it takes to get service without queuing up. In Kharkiv, for instance, one pensioner waited his turn for two weeks before "settling matters" through people he knows.

There is talk that dozens of people have died of hunger and about a dozen have committed suicide. I won't name any names. A couple of weeks ago, medical workers were speaking about 54 people dead and five who committed suicide. (Editor's note: RFE/RL was unable to independently confirm these figures.)

Huge lines of pensioners form in front of the former office of Privatbank, all seeking financial help from the DNR. It works like this: You take a coupon for assistance at the social-security department and then you bring your coupon and get money. There is no information about how many people are served each day. Sometimes lines form outside the city at branches of Sberbank or Ukrpochta as rumors spread that they are handing out money.

People talk all the time about the shelling around the city. DNR representatives are tight-lipped about the reasons for the shelling and who exactly is doing the shelling, and this silence creates panic. People speak of columns of Russian military vehicles passing through the city. But for the most part, people are afraid to express their views openly.

Medical workers are unhappy that teachers and artists received money, but they didn't. Social workers still haven't seen a kopeck. But most pensioners are still hoping for Russian pensions and for the DNR to be admitted into the Russian Federation. And so they give their moral support to the DNR.

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