By Yulia Malkina, published on Liva.com, Dec. 23, 2014
Yesterday for the first time in my life, I saw a tank. It wasn’t on a pedestal, not a reminder of the Second World War, but instead was staring at me with its cold and empty eye, standing in a farmer’s garden. Yesterday for the first time, I really felt what war means. The places where it has passed through can be identified by broken windows and bullet holes.
The locals said that the road from the town of Kostyantynivka to the city of Donetsk usually takes no more than forty minutes to drive, but it took us some three hours. A skilled, older driver chose country roads, away from the main road, so the view from the bus window was limited by forest, hills, or fences. At each checkpoint, people with guns were checking documents and wished a happy journey, – many wishing happy Christmas. But still, each time it was a bit painful and scary to look at them.
I was surprised that two of the roadblocks – one of the Ukrainian army and the other of the Donetsk Peoples Republic – were situated less than one mile from each other. Both were guarded by boys of 18-19 year old – adult babies with large, frightened eyes.
Windows closed off by plywood, office buildings riddled with shell fragments, the remains of barricades – these are the first things you see upon entering Donetsk. Then you notice the people. They are in a hurry from work, carrying packages of food, talking on cellphones. They are in permanent motion, telling stories to each other, hugging each other, smoking at entrances to buildings or discussing while on public transport their plans for New Year’s Eve. You suddenly realize that life goes on, in spite of everything, and the people are ready to go on–to build houses, to work, to marry, to bring children into the world. By the way, the wedding salons are busy, offering great discounts because everyone understands that people have less money.
In the apartments, there is now heat and hot water, but people save water because they remember last summer when there was no water due to the fierce battles that took place. And they know that there are those whose homes are still not restored from the shelling that struck them. So they save water also out of a sense of solidarity – for other people. Several times people told us proudly that their public services operate properly, that Donetsk has become even cleaner than it was before the war.
And the truth is, while wandering over the city all day long, we have noted that despite the physical destruction and closed shopping malls and boutiques, there is a sense that people really care about their urban environment. As well, though less than in other cities, there is anticipation in the air of the upcoming holidays. A decorated Christmas tree sits in the central square and the drama theatre is staging performances of ’The Nutcracker’.
My companion was here, visiting home, nine months ago. He says there is half the number of people on the streets compared to previously. Locals say that during the summer, the city was almost completely empty. Now, many of those who were displaced or made refugee have begun to return to their homes. There are almost no cars on the streets. The traffic in the street resembles that in in Kiev in July at half past four a.m. But public transport functions properly, as before the war.
Yesterday, upon arrival at our bus stop, a girl handed us a leaflet with an invitation to a street fair, where Abkhazian tangerines would be on sale at a very cheap price – 9.50 UAH per kilogram (60 cents US) at Lenin Square in the center of the city. As a big fan of tangerines, I could not miss this event. A local TV channel also announced the holiday fair, so we assumed that there would be a lot of people gathering on the square. And indeed, it seemed that half the city had gathered! Approaching the fair, we heard someone singing a song that is part of a traditional children’s show with popular cartoon’s characters–Shrek, the animals of ‘Madagascar’ and the Little Humpbacked Horse [the character of a popular fairy tale]. But this time, the characters of the play were Spongebob, little Masha and a Zebra. They sang:
Spongebob and Zebra: We want burgers and anchovies!
Masha: But we have no money for burgers and anchovies…
In the play, Little Masha convinces her friends to eat nuts, as they are very healthy and they grow for free in the forest. It seemed to us a bit silly and funny, but it was obvious that the kids who watched it really enjoyed the play. The adults, meanwhile, were crowding in lines for cakes, sweets, milk, cheese and tangerines. We didn’t wait in line, as even an attractive price of 9.50 for tangerines cannot convince me line up for an hour and a half.
Then we were drinking Ethiopian coffee at the coffee shop of local owners-Ethiopians. They had opened their coffee shop just before the conflict began. At first, they hired employees, but now they work and serve a few visitors themselves, to save money. By 7 p.m. local time,, all the shops and most of the cafes close and the streets empty out long before the curfew. (DPR authorities, in defiance of Kiev, have changed local time to Moscow time, as they believe that 23 years ago Kiev moved the time forward by one hour just to defy Moscow.)
Donetsk turned out to be a surprisingly beautiful city. All day long my eyes were greedily catching the views of elegant buildings built in the beginning and middle of the 20th century – every column, every window, and every brick. It’s so strange that I never even thought to come here before during the times of peace. Probably because no one told me of the beauty of the city.
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