Europe

Donetsk residents war-weary and psychologically scarred

Shelling in Donetsk (September 2014)
Image caption The people of Donetsk have been subjected to ceaseless shelling

Donetsk, the most important city under rebel control in eastern Ukraine, is now an empty, eerie place.

The streets echo regularly to the sound of artillery fire, as the pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian army fight for control of the airport.

But in the warm autumn sun, Donetsk still retains some measure of normality.

The central market is quite lively with shoppers browsing the clothes, music and other stores.

Battleground

Rebel fighters in camouflage uniform, armed with Kalashnikovs or pistols, occasionally mingle among them.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The shock of this well-heeled, tranquil city being transformed into a battleground has taken a huge psychological toll on those who have chosen to remain
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The overwhelming yearning for peace is, for some in Donetsk, tempered by fear of what a ceasefire agreement might lead to
Image copyright EPA
Image caption Many civilians have been left traumatised and left homeless by the fighting
Image copyright EPA
Image caption Ukrainian citizens queue near the Donetsk border with Russia to buy essential goods, medicine and withdraw money from their credit cards because they are not able to do so in their home city

And yet the shock of this well-heeled, tranquil city being transformed into a battleground, has taken a huge psychological toll on those who have chosen to remain.

"We can't bring back those who have been killed," says Oksana, immediately breaking down in tears as we speak inside her tiny dress shop.

"I want my mum to stop crying, I want my son to stop being afraid when they bomb. We want to end this whole mess, this war, so life can be like before."

In one western suburb which has been under fire for weeks, people lined up to receive bags of food being handed out by local officials from the back of a van.

'We are finished'

They have been spending much of their time sheltering in basements. Several older women said they had no money because their pension payments had stopped.

And yet the overwhelming yearning for peace is, for some in this city, tempered by fear of what a ceasefire agreement might lead to.

Senior rebel leaders have been demanding that any agreement should include a complete withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the region.

"If the Ukrainian army leaves this area, then Ukraine will become part of Russia and we are all finished. We would have a life without water, without light, without money without any resources," says Igor who used to be an engineer, but now has no work because of the conflict.

"Russia won't be able to provide anything [for this region], because it is bankrupt, they don't have enough money for themselves."

Igor is also horrified at the prospect of the rebels remaining in control of this region.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Parts of Donetsk may be peaceful, but evidence of the war is never far away
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The devastation can also be seen on the outskirts of Donetsk
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Smoke from what it believed to be Ukrainian army shelling can regularly seen above the city

"They are not rebels," he says, "they are criminals who came here to steal money and cars."

But for all the talk of a possible ceasefire, there has been no let-up in the fighting across the region so far.

If anything the fighting has intensified with a move by rebels and possibly Russian troops towards the vital port city of Mariupol which lies on the Azov Sea.

While in Donetsk, heavy shelling late on Thursday afternoon hit homes in the city leaving at least one person dead and setting a line of garages on fire engulfing the area in thick smoke.

And even if a ceasefire is signed in Minsk on Friday, there is scepticism on both sides about whether it will hold.

The rebels who have been making rapid advances on the battlefield over the past 10 days, suspect their success is the reason the Ukrainian government now wants the fighting to stop.

"As soon as the army of the Donetsk People's Republic is advancing, as soon as there is some serious success for our army, the Ukrainian side offers some sort of agreements," says a commander of a rebel reconnaissance and intelligence unit, who did not wish to give his real name.

"And usually they break those agreements themselves."

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