In Digest, Feature Articles, Ukraine

Fleeing the bombs in eastern Ukraine to a room with a sea view

By Jon Hellevig, published in Russia Insider, April 21, 2015

Jon Hellevig traveled to Donetsk, eastern Ukraine in early April 2015 as part of a media tour organized by Europa Objektiv. Go to the original story on Russia Insider (weblink above) to see a large number of photos published along with this article. This is the second article Jon Hellevig has written based on the media tour. The first one is here. He is a regular contributor to Russia Insider. Find all his articles there by using the search function on the site.

Flag of the Donetsk Peoples Republic

Flag of the Donetsk Peoples Republic

Her eyes were watering, smiling timidly all the same, as Tatyana Bolshakova told how her family from Donetsk used to travel to the seaside for holidays.  They had always dreamt of a house with a sea view but she would never have thought this is how they’d come by one, she said pointing out through the window overlooking the Sea of Asov in the room that she and her family occupies at a Primorka refugee camp in Russia’s Rostov region. We met with Tatyana and her 13-year-old daughter, Anastasia. Living with them are also her 23-year-old son and his fiancée.

Tatyana Bolshakova and daughter Anastasia in their room with a sea view (Jon Hellevig)

Tatyana Bolshakova and daughter Anastasia in their room with a sea view (Jon Hellevig)

This room with the sea view in the refugee camp is what they have called their home for more than half a year ever after fleeing the atrocities of the Ukrainian army in Donetsk. In the summer of last year, following the violent coup that ousted the democratically elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, the new regime in Kiev moved to consolidate their power and suppress dissent by unleashing military troops on the Russian speaking population of Donetsk. In state sponsored crimes against humanity without historic precedence in Europe, the regime engaged the country’s air forces and artillery in strikes on the civilian population of Donetsk and the other dissenting region, Lugansk. Air raids by fighter jets became daily occurrences, and weapons of all kinds were deployed: Grad multiple rocket launchers, mortars and even tactical ballistic missiles.

Tatyana is ready to return to Donetsk any day, but her daughter, Anastasia, will not have any of that. Her mother tells how Anastasia is traumatized by the bombings and the horrors of war, even the sight and sounds of New Year’s firecrackers sent her ducking for cover. The assembled reporters look at Anastasia and now it is she who gets emotional. I close my eyes and clench my fists, silently cursing the geopolitical machinations that terrorize this family, one of many.

I have not visited a refugee camp before. I had seen them in television news reports where no-nonsense humanitarian aid specialists and politicians walk around in tent camps in immaculate attire with badges hanging around their necks wearing the mien appropriate for the occasion and surrounded by the assorted world media. I had been thinking how I would feel, how would I bear myself. I had realized, though, that my presence there would not make any difference to anybody but myself, and it would be just me experiencing first hand the hardships of others.

The Russian authorities and the self-organized refugees have made a great job at Primorka; everything looked fine, neat, and even cozy for me as an outsider. If I hadn’t been told it was a refugee camp, I could well have thought it was just another recreation camp of sorts, people with a special interest camping out together.  But the knowledge of what it was and why these people were there made me feel uneasy and angry at the New World Order schemers who had uprooted these people from their homes and familiar lives.

And yet there is increasing hope that Tatyana and her family will eventually be able to return. There is a frail truce following the Minsk Accord during which most of Donetsk has been spared from artillery and missile shelling. In the suburbs by the frontlines, however, there has been no ease up as the Ukrainian army, aided by the extreme nationalist paramilitary battalions, keeps shelling and attacking the city. At any time the situation could get out of hand with resumption of full-scale war.

Ukrainian blockade of Donbass

Donetsk and Lugansk suffer greatly from the near total economic and humanitarian blockade of the resisting republics. The junta has closed all Ukrainian banks in the rebel held territories; all payments of salaries to public servants, pensions, and social benefits have been stopped; no medicine, food or other supplies are allowed to pass to Donbass. The movement of people between the frontlines has been made dependent on receipt of special permission, which is practically impossible to comply with. Not only do these measures represent a breach of the Minsk Accord but some aspects of them may even qualify as war crimes under international law.

But Donbass endures

In the meanwhile, the new authorities of the Donetsk People’s Republic have made considerable progress in creating institutions for their newly proclaimed state.  There is the parliament and the government with all the ministries one would expect from a functioning state, including a Ministry of Foreign Affairs preparing for an international recognition of DPR. Donetsk now collects its own taxes, financing the rebuilding of the country. The Ministry of Economy is coordinating the reopening of mines and factories, many of which have been deliberately destroyed by the Ukrainian forces in terror attacks. Thanks to the help from Russia with seeds, fuel, and fertilizers, the authorities have provided for the springtime sowing of the fertile fields of Donbass. Despite the extra caution caused by the land mines hidden in the fields, they have managed to plant all the spring peas, barley, wheat, and oats across the country.

Hospitals are in operation, public transport is circulating, and most homes are connected to the utilities networks delivering electricity, warm water, and gas, thanks to Russian deliveries. My visit to Donetsk in mid-April coincided with the commencement of payment of retirement benefits to Donetsk pensioners. As we travelled around the city, we spotted groups of people queuing for their pensions outside the branches of the First Republican Bank, the only bank operating in Donetsk. The bank is housed in premises taken over from Privat Bank, the Ukrainian bank belonging to the infamous now exiled oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, until recently the governor of the Dnepropetrovsk, from where he established a system of terror all over Southeast Ukraine. The pensioners had not been paid since July or October last year as the government that came to power through the coup in Kiev ceased paying pensions to Donetsk residents – and in breach of the Minsk ceasefire agreement, which continues this flagrant infraction to this day. Therefore, it is now the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic that has resumed the payments of social benefits, a fact which really lifted the spirits of the long-suffering people of Donetsk.

The First Republican Bank is a bank established and operated by the DPR government, another sign of the determination of the authorities to have a functioning independent country that delivers to its people. Here we see how the new authorities are consolidating their support and military victories with initial steps to resurrect the economy. Not only do they pay the pensions, but they do it from their own newly created bank.

The pensions are paid in the new currency of Donetsk, the Russian ruble. For the time being, the Ukrainian hryvnia and Russian ruble are allowed to circulate in parallel, but due to the near total economic blockade of the liberated parts of Donetsk and Lugansk from the side of Kiev, there are less and less hryvnias in circulation.  The hryvnia rates were generally multiplied by two to give the ruble correspondence, so also for the pensions. By this rate, the pensions in Donetsk seemed to be quite comparable to the severely cut pensions that the financially ruined Kiev is paying out on the orders of the IMF.

Fresh fruit in Donetsk food store Obzhora (Jon Hellevig)

Fresh fruit in Donetsk food store Obzhora (Jon Hellevig)

Shops and supermarkets have started to reopen with a considerable improvement in supplies and diversity, of local produce or imports from Russia. We would not say that the stores were well-stocked but most basic food was available in ample supply. Many stores were still closed and some had been taken over by the government or the management. Very few restaurants and cafes were yet operating as streets emptied at twilight in anticipation of the curfew that kicks in at eleven at night.

Russia persists in unlawfully feeding the civilians of Donbass

But many vulnerable population groups and hospitals are still completely dependent on humanitarian aid supplies. Whatever aid there is comes from Russia and through numerous private charities and collections, while the bulk is still handled by the humanitarian aid that the Russian government keeps delivering in in the white truck convoys of hope that we have seen on Russian TV. This is the one aspect of the humanitarian crisis which has made headlines in the West, too. Obviously for the wrong reasons, as the West wants to portray this absolutely essential life sustaining aid as Russian interference or even a covert form of invasion.  In one of the more macabre statements that we have unfortunately grown accustomed to, Kiev accuses Russia for persisting in unlawfully feeding the civilians of Donbass. Cynical Western journalists and politicians tell that the convoys represent “propaganda stunts for Russian television.” Former NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, claimed that there was a “high probability” of a Russian attack which might happen “under the guise of a humanitarian operation” – one of a myriad of imaginary scenarios that NATO propaganda has floated.

At the same time, the UN and the International Red Cross are giving a cold shoulder to the dire plight of the residents of Donbass. They are Russians; therefore, the West prefers them to die.

With a group of alternative media reporters, we visited a bomb shelter in Petrovsky, Donetsk. People have been burrowed down there since last summer, even afraid to venture outside in broad daylight because they know from experience that the bombs may hit anytime without a prior warning. No other than occasional Russian relief efforts reach the people holed up there underground. For the children living in the bomb shelter, life is literally as the oligarch president of Ukraine Poroshenko promised it would be as he announced last October in a speech in Odessa: “Our children will go to schools and kindergartens, while theirs will be holed up in basements!”  This is the one promise Poroshenko has so far kept as president.

And Donbass endures

Donetsk has been heavily shelled and bombed by the Ukrainian forces, but it is not a city in ruins by any means. The effects of the shelling should rather be seen as so many terrorist attacks ruining one building there and another here. The very fact is that Donetsk has been a victim of mass-scale terrorist attacks organized by the Kievan junta and conducted with the connivance – or direct orders – of the Western powers and their subservient press, which has whitewashed the crimes or withheld them from the public altogether.

Donetskians are proud of their resistance and have shown a remarkable resolve of not caving in to the onslaught of the junta.  With little or no pay, the communal workers have resumed their obligations each morning and gone to clean up the mess caused by the strikes of the previous day. When the football arena built for the 2012 UEFA European Championship 2012 was hit by artillery shells in October, the workers went out and replaced the broken glass façade of the stadium in a couple of days as they had done with all the other damaged buildings. Famously, they restored the Debaltsevo railway junction in just 12 days, leaving the Kiev junta puzzled.

The hope is Russia would recognize the Donbass republics

The future of Donbass is now entirely dependent on the implementation of the Minsk ceasefire agreement. The Ukrainian side has shown no inclination to abide by the agreement, what with the economic blockade and constant military attacks. But if it would, through some miracle, rush to implement it before the deadline run out, then that would bring some respite in the lives of the people of Donbass. Not many count on that. Most likely the ceasefire agreement will fail and then Russia will be free to proceed with the recognition of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, which could then take the final steps towards statehood and end the blockade with active and open trade with Russia.

Russia’s president Putin recently hinted that a recognition of the republics could possibly be forthcoming. I see this as the only chance for a decent life of the people there.

See a biography of Jon Hellevig here on Russia Insider.


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