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Letters From Donbas, Part 4: 'Everything's Been Looted And Destroyed'

A woman and a young boy sit on a bus as they wait to flee heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine earlier this year.
A woman and a young boy sit on a bus as they wait to flee heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine earlier this year.

Thousands have fled eastern Ukraine since the conflict erupted. Some have since returned. Other people never left.

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.

Escaping From Donetsk
Olga Astakhov, Anthropologist, Donetsk

I am not going to discuss all the twists and turns of applying for a permit (to cross the boundary between the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and the rest of Ukraine) because there is a mass of cases like these already.

People, who submitted documents at the end of January, still have pending applications.

Not too long ago, my friend's cousin, living in Zaporizhia, ended up in the hospital. Of course it is hard to leave Donetsk without a permit, that's why she first travelled to Russia and from there went to Zaporizhia in Ukraine.

Is this logical?

The permit system is permanently in effect on territories of the ATO (Antiterrorist Operation, the Ukrainian military's term for combat operations with separatist forces) zone. Thus, it is impossible to go through the Volnovakha checkpoint without a permit, unless you use dirt roads. These are illegally used to transport credulous passengers for large amounts of money.

The same applies to crossing the border between Artemivsk and Horlivka.

If you take the risk of going through the Kurakhov checkpoint, you may get lucky. Some get let through without a problem, nothing is asked of them. It's enough to show a Ukrainian passport.

There are many announcements about the permits in Donetsk: permit registration costs 300-800 hryvnya. Is this a little or a lot for a retired woman, who wants to travel and withdraw her 1,000 hryvnya pension?

This is how people end up abandoned.

For those who wish to register for a permit in cities and regions under the control of the Ukrainian government, offices were opened to issue the necessary documents. This partially relieved the main coordination centers.

Regarding carriers, there are two sides to this coin. On one side, the permit system significantly complicated and lowered passenger traffic, and thus this affected the income of businesses.

Also many carriers, who work in the controlled and occupied areas of Ukraine, are forced to pay double taxes in order to continue running their business. The taxes are paid to the so-called DNR and Ukraine, which is why resourceful carriers have adapted to the situation.

"Before we sell a ticket, we check the passenger's permit. It's safer this way. No immigration certificates or Donetsk residency are accepted," says one of the drivers who works in the ATO zone. The age group of passengers has also changed. Before it was mostly youth and pensioners, but now the number of pensioners has decreased and the number of young men has declined even further.

Before they depart, many carriers enquire about the passengers' permits and sell them tickets afterwards – the tickets are sold at different rates. Those who don't have the required permit will have to pay an extra 20-30 percent on top of the regular price. This generally applies to the route between Donetsk and Kyiv.

Travel tariffs are the other factor that affects passengers' expenses. The chaotic exchange rate of the U.S. dollar has had an impact on fuel prices in Donetsk – petrol and gas cost 5-9 hryvnya more than in Ukraine.

This is why the number of trips has been cut down, and passengers spend hours waiting in line to travel out of Donetsk. The price hasn't changed for now, but shuttles in Donetsk and Makiivka no longer accept Ukrainian coins. In front-line cities they only accept amounts up to 1 hryvnya.

In this situation, only one thing is positive – the transportation infrastructure is still trying to survive through the horrible wartime conditions. Some carriers are even helping get people out of dangerous areas for free.

A pro-Russian rebel with a t-shirt depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine.
A pro-Russian rebel with a t-shirt depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine.

What's In A Name?
A Ukrainian Teacher From Donetsk

'Donbasivtsi' (citizens of Donbas) – this is what some of my students now call themselves.

Adults have come up with other names: Novorossian, or New Russians.

I can't explain why they don't like the more generally accepted name 'Donetchan' (resident of Donetsk), although sometimes they use this word. Maybe, the revolutionary wave that has driven them since last year, demands the creation of everything from scratch, even something so tactless.

The creation of words is generally positive; it mirrors changes in the life of a nation and for that matter, in its spirit.

What can be said about people, referring to themselves with a name originating from a geopolitical region, no bigger than the territory that they occupy?

Psychologists will probably find the teenage complex regarding the extent and signs of delusions of grandeur. Philosophers may point to the characteristics of lazy-spirited people's desire to exaggerate their accomplishments in order to affirm their existence.

The newly created 'Donbasivtsi,' the new citizens of Donetsk, remind me of people who put on colorful contact lenses and will insist that their eyes were always bright emerald.

Dear Donbasivtsi, you can try to convince others of this, and they will probably believe you.

Suck-ups will sing the praises of your "naturally green" eyes; you can even convince yourselves of this. However, you will not be able to change your own nature. I know that your eyes are gray, like your soul. You are gray-eyed and gray-spirited; you betrayed your ancestors and your entire essence of being by tolerating evil.

Now you express many complaints about Ukraine that should instead be addressed to various jurisdictions; but the government is made of people, meaning specific problems need to be resolved with specific people. Why blame your homeland and distance oneself from her?

If history had a sense of humor, she would give you time to develop. In 100 years, you could even become a nation – a nation of traitors. There is but one answer to the question: "Who are Donbasivtsi?" They are former Ukrainians, who denied their people; they are former Russians, who don't know their own customs; they are Tatars, Armenians, and Greeks who forgot who they are.

But history is a fair but tough judge, who won't give such people a chance.

You claim that in general you are doing okay.

Look around, what you refer to as the laws of your new "republic" are just a pathetic lookalike of the regulations of another state. Your freedom with a weapon in your hands prohibits me from referring to my Homeland (and yours) by name and from communicating with her, not letting Ukrainian media in, and basically doing everything possible so that residents don't desert the supervised basements.

Your "prosperity" looks out from underneath empty supermarket shelves, boarded-up windows, closed stores, and half-empty markets. Your salaries resemble sop, just to keep you quiet.

And you -- having surrendered many civil rights, all benefits, allowances, social protections, the opportunity to plan your futures -- are silent. Even you cannot look at the destroyed medical industry -- that is hanging on by a thread thanks to the heroism of everyday doctors and nurses -- or at the disorder in education, closed business or unemployment, through rose-colored glasses. Was this the life you dreamed of?

You say that your purpose right now is survival. What sort of people do you plan to become in order to survive? What sort of people will your children become?

Those who were Ukrainian yesterday (If you've forgotten, look at their birth certificates, and at the same time look at your own passports that read 'Ukrainian citizen' in two languages!) and call themselves 'Donbasivtsi' today because they hear that being Ukrainian is unworthy, either out of your mouths or out of your illegitimate silence?

You say that it hurts you to hear the words 'Ukraine' and 'Ukrainians', because your husbands are dying in a war with Ukraine. But you started it! Did you not realize that the gun that you were holding in your hands could kill?

It's not Ukraine that hurts you; it's your drowsy consciousness attempting to awaken your soul. Wake up!

People queue for free food distributed by pro-Russian rebels near the town of Debaltseve last month.
People queue for free food distributed by pro-Russian rebels near the town of Debaltseve last month.

Debaltseve After The Fall
Nadezdhia, Sociologist, Horlivka

This story is of an acquaintance, who surprisingly left the city recently and managed to get herself to Ukrainian [controlled] territory. The horror came later, when the separatists took over Debaltseve and the flags of the executive committee changed.

I was remaining in Debaltseve until the end, even during the evacuation. It was scary to leave.

The city died. It was razed to the ground, yet I was still trying to find a way to survive in conditions unfit for life. My countrymen are trying to restore their homes after the shelling and they are trying to recover property that remains in the buildings. But that's impossible.

Everything has been looted and destroyed.

People stand in long lines to get humanitarian aid and prepare food under the open sky. Practically all the buildings in the center have been seized by Debaltseve militants, destroyed or damaged. To assess the humanitarian situation, it is enough to look at the gray-with-hunger faces of its residents. There is also nowhere to live. People live in basements, get sick, and die.

There is no medicine. According to my calculations, more than 80 percent of the buildings in Debaltseve were destroyed during the war. The kindergartens and other institutions are closed. They have been promising to reopen the central city hospital since February 25.

There is another hospital by the train station, completely destroyed.

The city is full of mines; it's dangerous to walk anywhere. There is no electricity. Every day they bring in bread and hot tea and distribute it for free. Under Ukrainian control, we even got canned food, grains and potatoes. For now, we are still getting bread and tea. However they said that something was delivered by the International Red Cross.

My countrymen are living in unsanitary conditions; they are hungry and cold. In Debaltseve the problems don't end with electricity. There is no gas or water. Few people have stayed. Usually no more than 200 city residents wait in lines to receive humanitarian aid. All these people are elderly.

The last weeks before the departure of the Ukrainian army, the attacks did not abate – a number of buildings came under fire. Since the end of January, Debaltseve has been without heating. Since the beginning of February, it has been without light and water.

Around 6,000 or 8,000 people remained in the city. This is around 30 percent of the original population. They mainly sit in their basements because it is cold in their apartments. They prepare food near their driveways on a fire, outside. In addition to this, most of them don't have any money at all, which is why they can't leave the city.

I'll tell you about the basement, that I had to live in. It's dark inside and damp. There is a table with a candle in the middle of the space. Women sit at the table feeding their children.

Before the departure of the Ukrainian Army, the residents of Debaltseve left the city in masses. They fled to Kharkiv in particular. Women with children and the elderly mainly went there, some left with their entire families, men included.

There is no rush to deliver groceries to the territories occupied by the Donetsk People's Republic. Other cities and villages are collecting food for Debaltseve. Other than food, medicine is also vital. The people, who weren't able to leave, now have to wait in long lines just to get water. Very often they collect water directly from puddles on the street. Fortunately the snow has melted. There is risk of intestinal infections.

Everyone who gets the opportunity will probably attempt to leave the city at the soonest possible moment; just like us.

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