Europe

Opera and tanks on eastern Ukraine's frontline

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe BBC's Tom Burridge near Donetsk: "Although there is a sense that there has been a pause in the real fighting, this war is far from over"

With a fragile ceasefire in place, sounds of everyday life can be heard again in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

Despite sporadic gunfire, the birds are singing on the frontline in eastern Ukraine.

But attitudes have been hardened by months of conflict, and few believe the war is over.

By a rusty burnt-out bus, charred trees and a few derelict garages, there are trenches where pro-Russian fighters have been dug-in for four months.

Their positions are just a stone's throw from what's left of Donetsk airport, and a 20-minute drive from the superficial normality of Pushkin Boulevard in central Donetsk, where couples stroll and children play amid the crisp, spring sunshine.

Back on the frontline, Vladimir, a tall, bearded soldier jokes with his friends by a car boot full of grenades. A poster of Stalin is stuck on the red vehicle's rear window.

Image caption A famous figure from Russian history is on a poster in the rebels' car

"If you don't have a sense of humour here, you'd get bored," he says.

"Are you scared of dying in the war?"

"Only idiots have no fear" is his reply.

But the boredom is unlikely to last. Vladimir, like virtually everyone you meet in this region, believes the fragile ceasefire agreed last month in Minsk is unlikely to hold.

That was the consensus at the late morning market in Debaltseve, a town which pro-Russian forces took from the Ukrainian army in the days after the ceasefire was supposed to take effect.

"We saw hell and horror in Debaltseve" says Galina Ivanovna, who survived the lottery of war.

Image caption Many of Debaltseve's young have moved away, leaving an older, more conservative population

Her simple home on the edge of the town got off lightly, as fighting raged around it.

Just a few windows were shattered, and shards of razor-sharp shrapnel lay discarded by her front gate.

Many of the other houses on her street lost a roof or a wall and most of her neighbours are nowhere to be seen.

Exactly how many people were killed in the fighting in and around Debaltseve is unclear.

But many people left a long time ago to Russia, or to other parts of Ukraine.

Most of the young in areas like Debaltseve have moved away, and if there is peace, it is unclear how many will return.

Image caption Months of shelling have left bits of shrapnel littering the streets

The population left behind is noticeably old, and their views often conservative.

During months of heavy-shelling large residential areas in eastern Ukraine have felt the destructive force of war, and attitudes have hardened.

Galina Ivanovna describes the Ukrainian army as "fascists" and "occupiers".

She now wants to live in an independent "Novorossiya", or "New Russia".

And the pensioners we met, who packed into Donetsk's philharmonic concert hall to listen to Russian opera, told us their friends went to the east, not to the west.

"We want freedom from Ukraine," says Ludmilla, a former English teacher at the city's university.

Image caption A tank under repair - could it see action again?

"We want to be closer to Russia than to Europe."

The allegiance to Russia of the self-declared republic that has sprung-up in Donetsk is all too clear, with more Russian flags flying on the regional administration building in the city centre than the red, blue and black flags of the new self-proclaimed republic.

In the rebel-held East, televisions pick-up Russian channels, and Ukrainian news or political channels are generally off-air.

The propaganda war, and the constant flow of claims and counter-claims, in Russia and Ukraine makes people's attitudes ever-more entrenched, and the possibility of a lasting peace less likely.

Meanwhile the sound of metal hitting metal echoes around a huge factory in Donetsk, where pro-Russian mechanics repair tanks, artillery and other Soviet-era military vehicles.

They claim this convoy-like collection of military hardware was seized from the Ukrainian army during the recent fighting.

As Pavel removes a human-sized tyre from an armoured personnel carrier he tells me that he hopes these "trophy vehicles" will be used in battle again.

Related Topics