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On The Front Lines In Donetsk, Life Is Both Normal -- And Far From It

Two people sit in an ambulance waiting to be treated after a rocket slammed into a shopping mall in Donetsk's Kubishevski district on October 8.
Two people sit in an ambulance waiting to be treated after a rocket slammed into a shopping mall in Donetsk's Kubishevski district on October 8.

Enrique Menendez -- a second-generation Ukrainian whose name bears the trace of his Spanish grandfather -- has lived in Donetsk for 14 years. Until recently, he ran Ad Factory, a small advertising firm. But his business has been closed ever since an artillery shell exploded 200 meters from his office, a blast that left three people dead.

Now, Menendez helps run Responsible Citizens, an aid group that delivers food and supplies to needy residents in Donetsk neighborhoods caught in the crossfire between pro-Russia militia fighters based in the city and Ukrainian troops amassed on the outskirts.

He spoke to Dmitry Volchek of RFE/RL's Russian Service about life in the war-torn city, where at least two civilians were killed by weekend artillery fire.

RFE/RL: From the sidelines, it's hard to comprehend what life in Donetsk is like now. On the one hand, you hear daily reports about people being killed. But you also hear that refugees have started to come back, that people are going to the theater, things like that.

Enrique Menendez: Life in Donetsk really has started to get back to normal. For one thing, the people who left to wait out the situation somewhere else are definitely starting to come back. They thought the conflict would be short, and a lot of them simply ran out of money, so they came back. And, of course, the city has started to adapt. People are getting used to everything going on around them, even in the areas where fighting continues.

There are four neighborhoods in Donetsk that are coming under regular artillery fire, and, of course, life is worse there. Utilities have been damaged; people have outages of power, water, gas supplies. But that's not happening in the center. All of the utilities in the center are working fine, except hot water. We have electricity. And people are looking for things to do to help escape the reality of what's going on. So the philharmonic is open, the theater season has begun. They've even opened one of the central movie theaters back up with a whole lineup of new films.

"What's going on is not an antiterrorist operation. It's a...civil war," says Donetsk resident and activist Enrique Menendez.
"What's going on is not an antiterrorist operation. It's a...civil war," says Donetsk resident and activist Enrique Menendez.

RFE/RL: And is trash being collected? Are the streets being cleaned? Who's taking care of the city?

Menendez: Municipal infrastructure is being managed by the same team as before. Donetsk Mayor Oleksandr Lukyanchenko left the city several months ago, having come under pressure, but he continues to run the city from Kyiv. His team remains here. City administrator Konstantyn Savynov is in charge. Donetsk has always looked good compared to other cities of its size in Ukraine.

Throughout this really difficult period, city workers have done something incredible -- they've continued working. Even when the fighting began in the spring, they were planting flowers, cleaning the streets, removing garbage.

Responsible Citizens has been delivering food to the elderly, invalids, and children in outer regions cut off from regular supplies. We've seen traces of mine explosions on the roads. But the old traces have already been paved over. Road workers managed to lay down new asphalt even when they themselves were under fire.

RFE/RL: Are restaurants and cafes working?

Menendez: When the fighting was very heavy and the city was under intense fire, practically all the cafes and restaurants were closed. Only a few cafes and hotel restaurants in the very center remained open.

Of course, there was a time when the city was under siege, when we began to experience some shortages of some imported food. Some items just disappeared from supermarkets. For example, we had a lot of problems with dairy products; we could only get locally made items. The shelves thinned out quite noticeably. But now it's back to normal. Cafes and restaurants are slowly starting to reopen. All the big shopping centers are still closed, but there's hope that they'll open soon as well.

RFE/RL: When I first called you today, you were in a shop. Were you able to buy everything you wanted?

Menendez: I bought absolutely everything I needed. Donetsk was a wealthy city, we're used to abundance, and to some degree we're a little spoiled. So when you suddenly don't have your usual choice of 50 different types of yogurt, and there's only 15, you think, "My God, where did it all go?" But those products have started to reappear. ATM cards still aren't working. ATM machines aren't being stocked with money. But supermarkets are still accepting debit cards.

The traffic control tower of Donetsk's international airport, heavily damaged by shelling
The traffic control tower of Donetsk's international airport, heavily damaged by shelling

RFE/RL: What about Donetsk elite -- billionaire Rinat Akhmetov and his allies? Are they still in Donetsk or have they all left?

Menendez: That's a complicated question. Unfortunately or fortunately, I don't socialize with super rich people, so I don't know how they're doing. You definitely feel as though the young, mobile, creative middle class -- the ones who could easily travel somewhere -- haven't come back. So probably the super rich haven't come back either.

I would divide the exodus from Donetsk into three waves. Way back at the end of February, when it became clear that [former President Viktor] Yanukovych was losing power, many people connected to him were afraid that they would be persecuted, and they left. As a small business owner, I felt that business activity began to freeze at that point.

Then, naturally, the numbers began to rise. The more intense the unrest became, the more people were leaving. The number of people who have come back still haven't compensated for everyone who left. But things are starting to move. I have my own standard of measure: All of the McDonald's in Donetsk have been closed for a fairly long time now because of the situation. So I think we can only say that the city has truly come back to life when all the McDonald's are back open. That and the railway station.

RFE/RL: Ukrainian soldiers participating in what the government has termed its antiterrorist operation have said that fighting is going on not only between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian militia fighters but also between different groups supporting the separatist Donetsk People's Republic, who are fighting amongst each other. Is that true?

Menendez: What's going on is not an antiterrorist operation. It's a war. Many Donetsk residents, including myself, believe that it's a civil war. Because despite the fact that authorities have consistently said that Russian troops invaded in April, it's locals who make up the bulk of the militia. This is plain to the naked eye. Even then it was clear that the DPR was made up of a huge number of different elements.

It's a very fragmented organization, chaotic, randomly formed. But then they painted them all with one brush, calling them all terrorists and separatists, even though many of the groups within the DPR weren't against Ukraine or in favor of uniting with Russia. It was simply a populist protest against the new authorities and their policies.

Now, fortunately, everyone is starting to understand that the DPR is very fragmented and that some of them are fighting amongst themselves. But that's typical for a full-fledged war with so many signs of a civil war. There are probably different people with different interests within the Ukrainian battalions as well.