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Letters From Donbas

A man walks past a building damaged in recent shelling in Donetsk's Kyivskiy district, near the airport, on October 7.
A man walks past a building damaged in recent shelling in Donetsk's Kyivskiy district, near the airport, on October 7.

Thousands have fled eastern Ukraine since the conflict erupted in April. 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 has published their testimonies.

Mykhaylo Vasilyev, pensioner


Luhansk used to be poetically called "the city of fountains and roses." Now it is the city of downcast faces. Sad, downcast, emaciated. And very tired -- tired of having no money, mass unemployment, poverty and damaged homes, constant problems with electricity, water, heating, and telephones. But most of all, tired from the loss of hope.

There are downcast faces everywhere. On the streets, in the half-empty stores and various offices, in the remaining markets. A smile in Luhansk has become a rare thing, like a dandelion in winter. Smiles remain together with the interrupted peace -- in the past, in our memories.

IN UKRAINIAN: "Letters From Donbas" on our Ukrainian Service website

Gloomy people are very cautiously buying groceries. And gloomy clerks are sympathetically measuring out 50 grams of cheese or liverwurst, packing two or three cracked eggs into a plastic bag (they are cheaper and so in great demand), or weighing out a single frozen chicken wing.

But they categorically refuse to accept change. Change has become the subject of fierce arguments. A cashier in one downtown grocery angrily said they have several hundred thousand hryvnyas' worth of change down in their basement and they can't get rid of it.

The same is true of the 100-hryvnya notes with the little portrait of Taras Shevchenko that were given to many pensioners on the eve of the "elections" in the "Luhansk People's Republic." They, it is said, are no longer valid, banks don't take them. And so stores and traders don't either. Retirees are unhappy, upset. They swear a lot, but they don't threaten to file a complaint. There is no one and nowhere to complain to. They just wonder, "what banks?" Not a single bank in Luhansk is open for business. Recently the last Sberbank offices shut their doors. There are long lines at the bank machines despite the cold.

Now lines are forming at Internet providers. At the end of November, Triolan completely unexpectedly and without warning stopped providing free Internet services. So now hundreds of people are standing in line to get reconnected. There is great demand and few technicians. The infrastructure is damaged and express connections are going for 150 hyrvnyas ($9.60), which not everyone can afford. So, for many, even the Internet has become a temporarily inaccessible luxury. A window on the world has closed, one that enabled people to watch Ukrainian television. In Luhansk, they only broadcast Russian, Crimean, and Belarussian television. A door has closed to a world in which heroes are called heroes, terrorists are called terrorists, mercenaries are called mercenaries, and occupiers are called occupiers. And the latter are not portrayed as angels with shining halos.

That's why there are more people than usual in the Internet cafes (8 hryvnyas per hour).

But even in the Internet cafes, there aren't that many people. There are noticeably fewer people downtown in general. After 4 p.m., it is better not to leave your home unless you have to. Offices and businesses "unofficially" close even around lunch time. "Night" grocery stores that formerly were open around the clock, close at 5 p.m. Why should they stay open when there are no customers? Even in the daytime, there aren't many. As evening comes, it is scary to walk down the dark, deserted streets. Packs of starving dogs have flooded the courtyards of the central city. The dogs have bitten many people, but, of course, there is no one to try to catch them.

The faces of the pensioners are particularly gloomy. At 6 a.m., in the dark and the cold, they are trying to cram themselves into packed buses to go to Lisichansk or Starobelsk to collect their pensions. Who can say what awaits them during the many searches at various checkpoints? Or what they will be accused of as they stand, in their sunset years, in front of young armed men like prisoners of war before a tribunal or helpless prisoners in front of all-powerful gulag guards?

One of my neighbors has already traveled to Izyum four times, but still hasn't gotten his pension. Some sort of issue with his documents. But he doesn't complain and maintains a gloomy silence. When I ask him about it, he turns and walks away.

Complaining is not allowed these days. And in general many Luhansk residents who were formerly quite chatty have turned to silence. They might comment on the weather, but no one is speaking about politics, about the economy, about the state of affairs in the city. Even within the circle of their old friends or former colleagues. Who knows? A word is not a swallow that will fly away -- many people are recalling 1937 and the black vans that collected the condemned. Shadows, they say, come at midnight.

Here's a small example from the life of our neighborhood. After the heating season began, one homeowner began repairing a war-damaged floor. A neighbor thought the workers were too noisy and that they were bothering her, although they worked only during the day and were pretty careful. She told someone she knew who had connections in certain circles. Very soon, a few armed people in camouflage showed up, confiscated all the workers' tools, and took the homeowner -- as the organizer of the disorder -- away "for a check" in prison (as they call the basements that have been adapted to hold Luhansk residents in rooms where 15 or 20 people share one wastebucket that is emptied once a day). Only after 10 days of truths and lies and agreements and who-knows-what-else, his wife managed to get him released. He'd lost weight. He'd aged. He'd become a different man.

In short, Luhansk, under the "LPR," has become a city of downcast faces. A friend of mine who moved to Kyiv in the summer tells me that people in the capital can immediately recognize those recently displaced from Luhansk and Donetsk precisely by the particularly mournful expression on their faces, by the clear stamp of a unique wartime syndrome. How long must a person live in peace before that expression is washed away? And does it wash away entirely?

Residents hide in a shelter in Makeyevka near Donetsk in mid-August.
Residents hide in a shelter in Makeyevka near Donetsk in mid-August.

Pyotr Ivanov, psychologist


The siege of Luhansk this summer was predictable. The war was in full swing, the city was being shelled, and all those able to flee the city had already done so. Those who had stayed in Luhansk tried to stock up on supplies, bracing for the worst. When the siege began, people quickly realized that what they had considered vital items were actually not at all what they now needed.

When they prepare for war, people often fail to realize that they will run out of water, not of food! And when the water runs out, they find themselves surrounded by bags of grains of which they can only consume a handful, at best.

Water ran out in Luhansk on August 31. All of it. I mention this so that people clearly understand. Some people thought the shortages would affect only drinking water and bought large quantities of water purification tablets. But very soon, there was no water in Luhansk in which to drop these tablets! There was no drinking water, no tap water, not even puddles (it rained only once in August). In the first days of the siege, you could still find bottled mineral water in shops. Then it disappeared entirely. Two weeks later, bottles went back on sale, at the market. The price for it was twice -- then thrice -- what it used to be.

Then water started being delivered in vehicles. For free. As many as 200 or 300 hundred people would queue up, there were scuffles. Residents were eventually given access to the city's water reserves. Again, hundreds of people would stand in line and scuffles broke out. The fighting ended when machine-gun-touting insurgents began supervising the queues. All in all, we gathered water at gunpoint.

For some people, another product is even harder to forgo than bread. Cigarettes. At least, cigarettes help to forget about food. Cigarettes disappeared in Luhansk two weeks before water. Smokers cleared up the shelves regardless of brand and price -- the first huge queues in Luhansk were for cigarettes. A few weeks later cigarettes turned up on the black market, at exorbitant prices just like bottled water. By mid-July, a pack of filterless cigarettes cost 17 hryvnyas on the black market, almost two dollars at the exchange rate back then.

Today's pampered consumers rely heavily on their fridges. They zealously pack fridges up the brim and are confident that with such stockpiles they can survive an atomic war. Just in case, let me point out that fridges require electricity.

Electricity was cut off as early as July 31. We had no electricity for almost two months, right until mid-September. On the third day, a campaign started in Luhansk called "remove the rotten meat from your fridge." It was conducted in those flats and shops that were still inhabited (or in the case of shops, that were guarded). Half of the city's residents had already fled, leaving their fridges plugged in. These people held the "clean-your-fridge" campaign only when they returned, in September and October. Many threw out the fridge together with the rotten meat.

What did people eat during the siege? Almost all the shops were closed. Out of a dozen shopping sites in the city, only one still operated. The remaining products were sold there and at the market. The bakery worked round-the-clock, but there still long queues for bread. People feared there wouldn't be enough. Elderly people started queuing at 5 a.m. Fortunately, the shelling would usually start later, after "breakfast time" as residents joked.

During a siege, candles and batteries are essential. Still, in the evening, you could see only two or three lit-up windows across the vast residential expanse. Many apartments were deserted. The others were inhabited but people in them could afford neither candles nor batteries.

I cursed myself a lot for failing to put batteries in our old transistor radio. By the time I realized my mistake, I couldn't afford to buy four batteries (the price for one had already climbed to $1.30). This summer in Luhansk, a radio was worth more than 20 computers put together. That's because transistor radios stations can pick up stations that broadcast useful information, news. For some reason, more recent models like mine caught Chinese radio stations better than Russian- and Ukrainian-language ones.

So I would sit on the balcony in the evening, under the starry sky in a city without lights, without noise, and I would listen to Chinese music. In the morning, my neighbors would ask me to switch the radio on again tonight. As it turned out, they also listened to it, from their windows.

A woman sits inside a makeshift bomb shelter in Donetsk in mid-August.
A woman sits inside a makeshift bomb shelter in Donetsk in mid-August.

Halyna Mudra, mathematician


The Ukrainian president and his cabinet of ministers have imposed a total financial and economic blockade on territories controlled by the separatists. They have also stopped paying pensions and other social allowances to people there.

This has prompted the leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (the DNR and LNR) to come up with their own measures.

On December 4, DNR head Oleksandr Zakharchenko and LNR head Ihor Plotnitskiy approved the action plan (or "road map") drafted by the so-called "council of ministers of the republics." The measures will allegedly ensure the stable payment of pensions and social allowances, create a financial system, establish regulations governing budgetary processes, set up a temporary banking system, which will in turn support socially vulnerable people, and create financial institutions while remaining in the Hryvnia zone.

The "road map" was first applied on November 4 in the town of Torez. In the building of the local pension fund, employees (who obviously now already work for the DNR) started distributing 1,000-hryvnya vouchers ($63) to pensioners. According to a special schedule, every day 50 pensioners can exchange their voucher for money at the DNR "bank."

People start queuing up at 4 a.m. Fights and brawls are common -- four people have already been trampled, one woman broke her leg. The militants restore order by firing their rifles into the air.

The pension fund handed out as many as 2,500 vouchers in just two days, which means the last of these vouchers will be exchanged on January 25, 2015! The lucky first 100 pensioners received their cash on December 4 and 5. The actual origin of this money is murky, especially considering that the DNR "bank" is based in the seized building of the former Privatbank, on Gagarin Street.

Interestingly, people already registered in Ukraine as people displaced by the conflict are not entitled to vouchers. Before handing out vouchers, pension fund workers open the Ukrainian state pension registry and check whether the claimant is listed on it. How come the DNR has access to the state pension registry? Obviously this happens across the DNR and concerns other government records!

Before the separatists took control of Torez in June, 80,000 people lived in that city, including 27,332 pensioners. Many have since fled to other others parts of Ukraine and to Russia. But while the number of residents has dropped sharply, the number of pensioners remains more or less the same. This means the DNR will need a year and a half and about 27 million hryvnyas ($1.7 million) to support all Torez pensioners for just one month!

Torez is now ruled by a "military commander" and a "police" force. Electrical and water supply is sporadic, banks and cash points are closed, government and official law-enforcement agencies have been evacuated. Ukrainian authorities halted the payment of pensions, social allowances, and salaries on July 15.

On November 17, disgruntled Torez residents blocked a street in protest. A DNR representative eventually sent the protesters home with the promise that payments will be resumed. This is why the first pensions were paid out in Torez. But pensioners are unlikely to be satisfied with the new system, not to mention disabled people and women with children. As for doctors, teachers, and other public sector employees, they have not been paid since July.

There were other attempts to mollify pensioners. Ahead of the November 2 "elections" of the DNR's so-called "People's Council," for instance, all housing offices across the Donetsk region accepted applications for 1,800 hryvnya ($114) in retirement benefits. They sent people home and told people to wait. When the payments failed to arrive, impatient pensioners demanded their money. Now, pensioners are being asked to file new applications for retirement benefits, this time only to the amount of between 500 and 1,000 hryvnyas.

In view of the project's complete economic failure, residents of the Donetsk region, even those who voted for the DNR, are starting to doubt. They don't understand what kind of economic, political, and social system these "People's Republics" are supposed to have. Who will take ownership of the region's key assets -- factories, mines, agricultural land, transport infrastructure, housing -- is also unclear. And it's precisely who owns these assets that will determine the quality of life, the level of social benefits and social protection of citizens.

If at least Ukrainian authorities understood that people need help grasping complex issues. For example, they could try explaining to Ukrainian citizens in the DNR the decree adopted on November 4 by Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council [the decree spells out urgent measures to stabilize the socio-economic situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions]. Russian and separatist television channels have been brainwashing people since April. So I'm afraid Ukraine is completely losing the information war here in the DNR.

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