Five years ago this week, pro-Russian protesters seized the main government building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and proceeded to declare the formation of an independent "republic." Their allies in the neighboring Luhansk region followed suit, setting the stage for a conflict between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists in the two Ukrainian regions that has killed some 13,000 since April 2014.
The war, which grinds on notwithstanding international peace efforts, has left more than 3 million civilians living in self-declared states unrecognized by any UN member -- including Russia, despite its backing of the separatist leadership in Donetsk and Luhansk.
"They have lost their livelihoods and their limited resources have been exhausted by now. They rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their most basic needs," Ursula Mueller, the UN's assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the UN Security Council in February.
In the run-up to the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine, the Donbas Desk of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service spoke with 12 people who described life under separatist rule in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Their politics may differ -- some have found patriotic inspiration in speaking Ukrainian, others disappointment that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not annex the regions. But they were all asked the same question: How have your life, habits, and personality changed during five years of war?
- Fading Hope
- "Things are only getting darker."
- No Future
- "Keep quiet about your views."
"I have not left the city since the war began. The pensioners here only leave to go live with their children, because they don't have enough money to move to a different city and begin a new life at an advanced age. I don't have anywhere to go: My children, unfortunately, have a different view. They're fine living in Luhansk. My husband and I have been forced to adapt to life here. It's difficult, because people like us are the minority here. We really watch what we say -- and to whom. Our circle of friends has narrowed greatly. We live on my husband's salary and the local pension. We haven't registered for a Ukrainian pension. In general, we don't watch television. We listen to Radio Svoboda and Ekho Moskvy, and read the Ukrainian press. Any hope for change fades with each day, so Kyiv should get moving, because things are only getting darker here."
"To lead a normal life here, you have to keep quiet about your views and opinions. I'm studying at two different Luhansk institutes, in two different areas of concentration, and I'm graduating from one of them this year. I don't see any point in pursuing a master's degree in Luhansk, because the departments I study in don't even want to go to Russia to get degree certificates showing they conform to Russian standards. At 21 years of age I'm planning to graduate remotely from a Ukrainian institute and, possibly, undergo [Ukrainian] standardized testing so that I have normal, recognized documents. I'd really like to go to Kyiv and Lviv. I've never been there. Right now I'm saving up for a European tour -- so I can dash off to Ukraine and EU countries in one fell swoop. I don't see a future here."
- Putin Abandoned Us
- "There is only disappointment."
- Stability Vanished
- "There are bombardments constantly."
"If previously everyone was eagerly awaiting a Crimea scenario, now there is only disappointment. Putin abandoned us. People here are very angry with him. There's a sense of being a prostitute who didn't get paid. People are living from hand to mouth. Young people join the [Russia-backed separatist] militia forces out of despair, not out of ideological commitment. You can earn real money there. If you agree to go to the front you'll get around $300 per month. Behind the lines, it's $240. I'm scared to enter Ukrainian territory -- what if they arrest me?"
"Where does a person's sense of stability come from? He rides a trolleybus in the morning and sees that lots of people are going to work. That means the factories are working, money is going into the budget, there will be holidays for the kiddies, the hospitals will get their medicine, they'll salt and fix the roads. And based on what I see now, that sense is gone. There are bombardments constantly on the outskirts of Donetsk, while in central Donetsk they stage beauty pageants and literary parties, and the cafes work all night."
- Fear Of Getting Caught
- "Entering Ukraine is off-limits."
- Hand To Mouth
- 'How can I feed the kids?'
"My mom and brother live in the Luhansk region in territory controlled by Ukraine, just 200 kilometers from occupied Luhansk. But I haven't seen my family since the start of the war. Even when [my mother] was diagnosed with cancer and underwent an operation, I couldn't travel there. I'm scared of getting nabbed at a Ukrainian checkpoint. At the start of the war, when there was no work whatsoever, I repaired military equipment for the insurgents, so I think that entering Ukraine is off-limits for me."
"I'm 75 years old. Before the war I worked in a scientific institute. I live in Luhansk with my daughter and her three foster children, and with my drug-addict son. Our family subsists on my daughter's monthly salary of 8,000-9,000 rubles ($120-$135) and my two pensions -- Ukrainian and local. I can't count on my son. He doesn't work anywhere, he takes everything from the house, and there's nowhere here for him to get treatment. Every morning I wake up and think: 'How can I feed the kids today?'"
- Language Of Resistance
- "I found a streak of patriotism."
- Laws And Lawlessness
- "Everyone feels defenseless."
"I was still in high school when the war started. Around 70 percent of the students from my class left, some of whom were my friends. Bombardments everywhere, people are dying, and I didn't really have anyone I could share my emotions with. I got scared of losing those close to me. And I even found a streak of patriotism, which was unheard of for me before. At a time when the Ukrainian language was basically banned, I tried to speak it more and more."
"Since the beginning of the conflict I've been hiding my car in the garage to keep it from [separatist] militia forces who might take it for their own needs. Then I cleaned the homes of people close to me, kept their lights on, and removed utility bills stuck [in the doors] of the apartments to prevent robberies and the takeover of 'empty' residences by new owners. Donetsk has become a city with a ton of laws, but everyone feels defenseless."
- "I want to thrash everyone."
- People Lie
- "They forget who they really are."
"In 2014, it was bewilderment. Then came primal fear, fear of sleeping without being dressed and ready to go, conversations with those around you and not understanding their arguments, and hope that finally this will all come to an end. After that, increasing alienation from friends and relatives, a reluctance to interact due to mounting disagreements ending in full-blown feuds. And now I fly into a rage from Russian television, from people -- I can't speak calmly, I want to thrash everyone, insult them, tear them to pieces."
"Many residents of Luhansk are driven by an inferiority complex. Getting ahead of any questions, they try to convince others -- and at the same time, it seems, themselves -- that everything is fine in the city, that it has everything, and that, in general, life is humming. It's true, it can't be compared with Luhansk in the fall of 2014, but it's not even worth comparing to Sievierodonetsk, which was a normal industrial city until the war. Life under occupation is 'humming' only until 5 or 6 p.m., after which you'll only see a handful of locals on the street, rushing home. Even crossing the demarcation line one gets the impression that many are trying to cozy up to their interlocutors and fit in with the circumstances around them. Also, when crossing the contact lines, it seems many adjust to their sur-roundings and the people they speak with. When passing Ukrainian military positions, they make small talk with Ukrainian soldiers, and when passing the positions of [separatist] militia groups, they smile to them. They tell them whatever they want to hear. It seems that, with this masquerade, they forget who they really are.
"People are very cautious in their interactions with those whose views they don't know. They don't want -- and are afraid -- to discuss politics, elections, and the war. Fear and uncertainty take the place of core principles. Although, locals don't even pay attention anymore to soldiers on the streets -- there are a lot of people in uniform in the city center, and hardly any on the outskirts. Locals in the city say that some residents simply purchase military uniforms and wear them, even though they're not actually serving in any local security structures. There are fewer locals committed to the 'for-the-republic' ideology. Over the course of the war, people have become disappointed by both Ukrainian authorities and the Russian government, with Putin as its face. Those who were waiting for a repeat of the Crimea scenario understood that they were screwed over. Many see [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko as the root of all problems and consider themselves hostages of the sit-uation, living day to day and not making plans for the future. Some residents assume the role of the victim forced to survive in a state of war.
"Those with pro-Ukrainian views have diminishing hopes that the territories [controlled by Russia-backed separatists] will be liberated, and they feel increasingly abandoned. The mental chasm be-tween the city and Ukraine becomes deeper and more unbridgeable."
- No Support
- "You feel like an alien among your own."
- Afraid To Die Alone
- "Who will tell the children?"
"Previously it was possible to build plans for the year. Now we live day to day. At most you can plan for the week ahead. It seemed like the war should have united people, but they're more fragmented than ever. And morose. Previously it was possible to find a job within a week. Now it takes months of searching. When you leave your house, you take a copy of your passport just in case. Due to the curfew, you rush home in order to be back by 11 p.m. Public transport runs consistently until 8 p.m., not 11 p.m. like before. It's been a while since you have been to a concert or to a cafe. There hasn't been big-time soccer for five years. The feeling of happiness fades. You feel like an alien among your own -- there is no support here.
"Due to skyrocketing prices, you rarely buy anything new. Most of the family budget goes toward food. Some medicines aren't available: you have to leave [the region] or order from a courier. Because [Ukrainian private postal service] Nova Poshta doesn't deliver, you feel like a hermit. Over time you lose contact with old friends, who have scattered to different places. Crossing the checkpoint to Ukraine-controlled territory, you feel like a real person, like you're back in civilization. You get a rush of energy. You feel a tiny sense of happiness at the sight of the yellow-and-blue colors, and a smile appears on your face. The Ukrainian language is now like music to the ears. Despite everything, you believe that at some point everything will be like it was before."
"More than anything, I'm afraid to die. Because no one will find out. All of my children are either in Kyiv or Kharkiv, and I don't want to trouble them. Every day I wake up and think: 'If I don't wake up tomorrow, how soon will they find me? And who will tell the children?'"