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“We didn't ask to be saved”: Life in Donetsk after February 24

Russian propaganda justifies a full-scale war with Ukraine with the phrase “Donetsk was shelled for eight years.” But instead of a long-awaited peaceful life, the “saved” population of the “LDNR” got forced mobilization, daily shelling, and new casualties on a scale not remembered since 2014. As The Insider found out after by speaking with locals on condition of anonymity, disgruntled residents are afraid to speak their minds and the rest blame Ukraine, but all of them are equally tired after eight years of unsettled and unfulfilled promises from Russia.

  • Ksenia: “There wasn’t anything going on from which Donbass needed to be saved

  • Alina: “I can’t remember when I last saw water in the tap.”

  • Natalia: “I don't understand why my child has to write tests under fire”.

  • Yulia: “Back in 2014 it became clear that Russia had no plans to defend Donbass.”

Ksenia: “There wasn’t anything going on from which Donbass needed to be saved

In 2014, we thought until the last minute that it was some kind of misunderstanding. Some wanted to go straight to Russia, like Crimea, others wanted everything to go back to normal as soon as possible. Some wanted Donetsk to remain part of Ukraine, but with autonomy, like Crimea. Certainly, no one was expecting a war.

All the events were unfolding before my eyes, and we hoped that everything would settle down soon. When they were taking over the regional state administration, I saw how they were bringing in tires and building barricades, and the whole bunch was being fed right near our house. Russian flags, lots of people in tracksuits, constant rallies.

Russian flags, lots of people in track suits, constant rallies

In June 2014, I found out I was pregnant and went to register to a place near the regional and city police departments. Walking up the stairs, I heard gunshots. At first, I did not understand what was going on: I felt as if there was a construction site nearby and something was crumbling. I reached the floor and saw panic among the doctors. They told me that the police department was being taken over. I was somehow escorted out of there, I got into the car already hysterical. At the end of the month my father called and said: “Pack your things, you're leaving before the fall.”

I really wanted to go home. In November I persuaded my husband to come back. To get from Ukraine to Donetsk I now had to go through checkpoints, where they asked me, “Why are you going there?” and I didn't understand why I had to explain why I was going home. I stayed in my hometown for a few days, but I couldn't stay any longer: the military was walking around the city, there were soldiers sitting in cafes, something was exploding near the airport, but people didn't pay any attention to it.

The military was in the city, the military was in a cafe, something was exploding, but people didn't pay attention to it

I returned to Donetsk in May 2016. My father was blacklisted, it was scary to go through the checkpoints: they said that relatives of such people were kept in basements and ransomed. I relied on the different last name I had, and I was spared.

When the new authorities came to Donetsk, they offered the locals to cooperate. Those who didn't want to were in a hurry to leave the city. At first it was possible to leave through checkpoints or gray areas, to leave through fields, forests, under blankets. At that time, private entrepreneurs transported people, food, and medicine in their own ways.

Many had to stay in Donetsk: because of attachment to work, home, and relatives. At first people hoped that everything would be over soon, and then that it would be over at some point. Time passed, but nothing changed.

At first people hoped it would be over soon, and then they hoped it would be over at some point

My mother came to visit me in Ukraine, she wanted to stay. She lived here for three months, couldn't find a job that would cover her expenses for food and rent, had to go back home. Now she is hiding in a shelter. Yesterday she was texting me from the basement all day.

Many people understand what happened and call things by their proper names. Her friend is sitting in the basement with my mother. She is brave: if a militiaman comes near her, she doesn't hesitate to say: “What the fuck did you come here for, go back to your country, glory to Ukraine!” She argues with them and hangs the Ukrainian flag on her balcony. And now, because of the shelling, they are forced to sit in the shelter with their pro-Ukrainian neighbors. There are quite a few pro-Ukrainian people in the city, but they have to keep quiet.

My classmate used to text me, “I'm Russian, the Ukrops are our enemies.” And it was so funny! Yes, we always spoke Russian in Donetsk, but you were born in Ukraine, you studied in Ukraine, you worked in Ukraine, at what point did you become Russian? It took literally 2-3 years, and the same person texted me: “I'm so sick of this! I want everything back and us living in Ukraine again.”

My mother and my mother-in-law say, “We don't understand why we started all this. We were already managing somehow, and we should have left it the way it was.” They say they were living a normal life until February 24: working, studying, and taking walks. Yes, there were curfews and skirmishes in the border areas, but nothing was going on from which Donbass needed to be saved.

Still, TV and artillery are doing their job. In 2014-2015, a lot of people didn't want Ukraine, saying “they're killing us.” And now they still say to me, “Why are they killing us?” When shells are flying at you, it's hard to think otherwise. Unfortunately, many people continue to believe that Russia will protect them.

When you live 24/7 in such environment, you can't help but be influenced by the propaganda that blurts from every flat iron. Since 2014, the Ukrainian TV channels have been turned off. I remember at one point catching myself watching Russia 1: they were churning out their hypnotizing pictures. You may call things by their proper names, people close to you understand everything, but you’re still boiling in that juice, and it affects you.

Unfortunately, many people continue to believe Russia will protect them

With the beginning of the pandemic, Donetsk was cordoned off. It was only possible to enter Ukraine through Russia. Going somewhere was an epic endeavor: you had to cross four borders spending 30 hours, pay a lot of money to get to Ukraine and apply for a passport. After February 24, that opportunity disappeared as well. Now you can only travel from Donetsk to Ukraine via Russia and the European Union. It costs 350 euros and several days on the road, not to mention the borders, at any one of which you can be detained.

Ukraine has to defend itself. But except that if Donetsk is to be liberated at such a cost, I don’t know how to deal with it. I don’t want a new “LDNR,” but I wouldn’t want to sacrifice people’s lives either. I have a mother there who’s having it all dumped on her head. Severodonetsk and Rubizhne were turned into ashes. Nobody needs this war.

Alina: “I can’t remember when I last saw water in the tap.”

Now Donetsk is shelled every day - they hit the city center, and people get killed. It is impossible to sleep at night. As soon as you lie down, there is another explosion somewhere. We run to the hallway when it comes close to our house. We dress decently just in case. Then we take a sedative. It is scary to go out: shrapnel can get you anywhere.

We dress decently just in case. Then we take a sedative.

At work, we sit in the hallways as they shell the city center. Cars rush through the city, everyone is in a hurry, which results in horrific car accidents with fatalities.

There has been no water in the city for several months. They said water supply would resume after they “liberated” Slavyansk. Every day we run to the basement for water. When it arrives, we stand in lines. Because we constantly have to carry jerrycans our backs hurt, and doing the laundry turns into torture. We have to buy drinking water.

I can't remember when I last saw water in the tap. We wait for rain and if it comes, we collect water in washbasins and buckets. I wish they would at least supply technical water! The sewers are clogged. Recently I just barely prevented a catastrophe: the toilet was clogged because of the lack of water. With great difficulty I broke through it with the help of a clog remover.

Natalia: “I don't understand why my child has to write tests under fire”.

People here are aware of what war is like, and many are against the deaths. Among people close to me nobody is happy about the deaths of civilians in Ukraine. But the war has come not only to the territories controlled by Ukraine: it has become much scarier in Donetsk.

We are on edge. Every day the city is shelled. Constant columns of smoke, ruined houses and stores, broken roads. Every day you have to remember how to behave during shelling. All of Donetsk lives this way - in constant fear and waiting for this hell to be over.

Every day you have to remember how to behave during shelling

It is impossible to walk around the city like before. People get killed every day. The other day, a friend of mine was killed by shelling. Each of us may be gone at any moment - on the way to the store, to work, to the hospital. But whom should we ask to stop this hell?

I want to leave, but my relatives are holding me back. Sometimes when it’s time to go home from work shells start falling closer and closer. Once they landed 30 meters away from my parents' house.

Schools are a separate matter. Because of the hostilities, classes were extended until the end of June. Children pretend to study, but I don't understand why my child has to write tests under fire. My daughter is doing her homework in tears: there are horrible sounds outside the window, and she is just scared. School curricula have been given precedence over the lives of our children. Where is the “minister of education” himself right now?

Sometimes when it’s time to go home from work, shells start falling closer and closer

People often ask me, “When will you leave?” And I don't know what to answer. It's very hard to leave. Especially for people with children and the elderly. There is simply no money, no one to look after your home while you’re away. Even if you leave, what will you see when you get back?

To take your pets out, you have to get a veterinary passport. And then there are relatives’ pets to feed. For that reason, my friend’s husband wouldn’t leave, and she has to stay too. We’ve already seen people killed because of a dog – when its owners evacuated they asked a neighbor to feed the dog. She died during a bombardment while feeding a dog that was not hers.

Yulia: “Back in 2014 it became clear that Russia had no plans to defend Donbass.”

When things first started, we did not support Maidan and were afraid of a repeat of May 2 in Odessa. Had it not been for that terrible event, it remains to be seen whether or not the referendum would have taken place. One thing is certain - no one was expecting a war.

It became clear back in 2014 that Russia had no plans to defend Donbass. Donetsk did not repeat the fate of Crimea, and the promised second referendum on joining Russia did not take place. Although who would remember that today? The “Russian world” came unnoticed. First via social media, then in reality. They fooled people with promises of a good life and protection for the oppressed Russian-speaking population.

In 2022, when Russia recognized the DNR, I didn't hear any salutes or see any joy on the faces of the people of Donetsk. People are so tired that they can't seem to rejoice anymore. And what is there to rejoice about? The city is abandoned, people live in poverty. Earlier we could hope for a solution to some municipal problems, but now many streets have turned into garbage dumps.

They fooled people with promises of a good life and protection for the oppressed Russian-speaking population

They haven't built anything in eight years. They haven't repaired the Druzhba Sports Palace or the Yunost Youth Palace like they kept promising every year, but they've taken away a lot. Six months ago, an acquaintance of mine said that the city had revived and that expensive cars had appeared on the streets. I asked her if she knew whose cars those were. She thinks they belong to common people. But of course that’s not true!

Since spring, they have been shelling us non-stop. And when the mobilization started, people were gripped by panic. The city has been left almost without men. Everyone is worried about their loved ones, who have long been out of touch. Are they alive? No one has come back yet.

I don't know who has been made happier by the deaths of men. Perhaps if shells hadn’t been hitting Donetsk, it would have become pro-Ukrainian long ago. But when a shell hits your house, it's hard not to think of Ukraine as the enemy.

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