war crimes in Ukraine

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Letters From Donbas, Part 3: ’Dirt, Tears, and Blood’

From teachers to pensioners to families with children, residents of rebel-held towns are struggling to get on with their lives amid the chaos and uncertainty. RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service continues to publish their testimonies

Residents of the Prtrovskyi neighborhood of the city of Donetsk sit in a bomb shelter last November.

Thousands have fled eastern Ukraine since the conflict erupted in April. Some have since returned. Other people chose to stay and tough it out. From teachers to pensioners to families with children, residents of rebel-held towns are struggling to get on with their lives amid the chaos and uncertainty.

RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service continues to publish their testimonies. The names of the authors of the letters have been changed for security reasons.

Viktor Alanov, social worker, Donetsk

I am a Donbas native. I am an ethnic Russian. I speak both Russian and Ukrainian fluently, although I consider Russian my mother tongue.

I was never anti-Ukrainian. I always took Ukraine for granted, a fact I considered neither good nor bad. I saw to which abyss Vladimir Putin was leading Russia all these years and I had long stopped associating myself with this country. 

To quote the famous Yevgeny Kiselyov (not to be confused with Dmitry Kiselyov!), I will say this about myself: "I am a political Ukrainian."

I highly valued the civil rights that I enjoyed as a Ukrainian citizen and that Russian citizens have long been deprived of. By the way, I always thought people did not sufficiently appreciate these rights and understood this would inevitably lead to attempts to take them away from us. 

READ MORE: Part 1 and Part 2 of Letters From Donbas

I was never a fervent Ukraine patriot. I never felt any particular emotion when I saw a Ukrainian flag. I did not like the anthem much and I definitely never liked nationalists. But I was always interested in Ukrainian culture and against splitting the country.

Then came spring 2014. It was a time of unabashed idiocy and surrealism. Aggressive "defenders of Donbas" appeared in the streets and began assaulting residents of this very Donbas. 

Before they received weapons (at least officially), they used antifascist slogans to attack peaceful demonstrations by pro-Ukraine Donbas residents. I remember one of their statements online. It read: "Fascists will rally on March 13. Let’s meet them. Take surgical instruments with you to rid them of their Ukrainity."

These words were taken literally. 

What is this, if not fascism? On that day, thousands (!) of people rallied in Donetsk for a united Ukraine. The demonstrators were attacked by the "defenders of Donbas." They were severely beaten up, maimed, and activist Dmitro Chernyavskiy was stabbed to death.

It was a time during which ideas were distorted in a horrific manner, perhaps even more than now. Anyone who opposed Ukraine’s division was automatically branded a fascist, a "Maidanut, " a "Banderovets, " a subhuman. Even if you had never been a fascist, did not support the Maidan protests, and were not a [Stepan] Bandera follower, it was all the same to them -- you were an enemy. 

During the hysterical euphoria that followed the takeover of the regional administration building, it was wise to avoid this rabid crowd. You would have had no chance of a fair trial, lawyers, presumption of innocence. You would have had no chance to even be heard. The crowd demanded that fascists be dealt with, and the harsher the punishment the better. 

Rules against the retroactive effect of laws did not apply in the "Donetsk People’s Republic, " either. All those who participated in the Euromaidan protests (both in Kyiv and Donetsk) were retroactively declared enemies and "sentenced to death."

Once the bandits got their hands on weapons, things really got started. 

A local lawmaker was kidnapped in Horlivka. His gutted body was found near Slovyansk. For what? Simply for opposing pro-Russian militants who tried to raise a Russian flag over the city council building. That’s all! In Slovyansk, an elderly man was gunned down simply for bringing water to a Ukrainian checkpoint. Anyone who publicly expressed support for Ukraine was thrown in a separatist jail, or worse.

By the way, fans of the "Russian world" were somewhat upset that their leaders confronted Ukrainian nationalism not with internationalism but with bona fide Russian nationalism, monarchical bells and whistles, and a boorish rejection of all things progressive. For some reason, this was called "antifascism."

These "defenders" then proceeded to strip Donbas residents of their freedom of movement (they established checkpoints) and violate their private property (they freely entered flats and vehicles at checkpoints). 

It was precisely Donbas residents who were locked up, executed, deprived of their civil rights: free speech, freedom of conscience, and religion (Protestants and Orthodox believers of the Kyiv Patriarchate, for instance, were massively repressed in the areas controlled by the militants). 

These "defenders" brought war into the homes of Donbas residents, even though they were not under any real attack. They also went for Donbas journalists as soon as they got weapons. And all this happened before Ukraine’s antiterrorism operation even began!

It was because of their attempts to storm it on May 26 that the ultramodern Donetsk airport, which had cost so much to build, was destroyed. It is them, the fighters of the "Donetsk People’s Republic, " who confiscated the cars of numerous Donetsk residents (including Russian and Russian-speaking!). Businesses were raided, too. Many were forced to shut down because they had been looted by militants, and people lost their jobs. 

Because of them, banks and post offices no longer work. Because of them, our school and university graduates are receiving bogus papers instead of real diplomas. Because of them, there is no legal and social protection here and pensions and social benefits are not paid. Because of them, we have to live in this unrecognized "Donetsk People’s Republic" that is not from Donetsk, does not belong to the people, and is not a republic. 

After just a month in these conditions, you understand how much you actually love Ukraine! We were elated to hear on May 2 that the antiterrorist operation was entering its active phase. 

Unfortunately, our territories were not freed from the pro-Russians in August as we had hoped. But now, when I travel to the liberated areas and see Ukrainian flags and soldiers defending Ukraine, I feel a lot more emotional than before. I see that, a few dozen kilometers from our hell, our Donbas people lead normal, peaceful lives. They study, they work, laws and law-enforcement organs function. Yes, they are not ideal. But people there live in their country and they are protected. 

Right under my window, I can see separatists firing toward the airport. We very much want to believe they won’t rule here much longer. I think I know one more reason why Putin just can’t resolve to leave Donetsk, although all signs point to this being inevitable and necessary.

He is afraid that, when the city is freed, huge numbers of Donetsk residents to whom he and his sidekicks inflicted so much grief will gather on the central square with Ukrainian flags. He is afraid of seeing this scene, because it will be the final nail in the coffin of his propaganda.

Nadiya Nadezhdyna, sociologist, Donetsk

Many local residents describe Donetsk’s bomb shelters as hell on earth. Dirt, stench, tears, and blood. Bunkers are full of makeshift beds covered with multicolored pieces of cloth and blankets and bed linens of various degrees of freshness. It’s damp and cold. 

Anyone who has spent even just a week under shelling suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. There are currently hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in Donetsk with post-traumatic stress disorder. They almost never leave the bomb shelters, although no one is shelling them anymore. Whenever they go out, they jump at every noise, some of them collapse and go into hysterics…

Heart attacks and strokes are common. But, of course, no data is available anywhere about post-traumatic stress disorder. Doctors are starting to talk about suicides. Nobody knows how many people died from the consequences of the war, either.

Doctors say: "If no one can give us a death toll from the war, then we definitely have no idea how many people died from its consequences."

In any case, there must already have been thousands of such indirect deaths.

This lack of data is largely to blame for the state of bomb shelters. They are in bad shape, as rescuers and experts from the department of civilian protection and military mobilization already observed back in May. These services were discontinued precisely because there is no data.

I was able to find out that the technical inventory of protective structures started by the cabinet of ministers in 2009 was scheduled to end this year. It was never completed. 

The available information paints a very bleak picture. Over half of the region’s protective structures were inventoried in the past five years. In Donetsk, this figure represents 56 percent, including 88 percent of structures owned by the municipality. By law, some bunkers are reserved for people working in big companies, while others are for unemployed people. 

The majority of shelters were deemed uninhabitable.

"These structures were built in the 1960s to the 㥘s, " the Emergencies Ministry said last spring. "They were well-maintained during the Cold War era, but today they are outdated. The equipment doesn’t function, for instance. The filters of the ventilation systems need to be changed, etc."

One should also bear in mind the fact that many bomb shelters fell into disrepair when companies shut down in the 1990s. Most of these companies were privatized. 

When disaster struck, people had nowhere to hide. If the Ukrainian Army had stormed Donetsk like the Russians once stormed Grozny, tens of thousands of people would have died. It did not happen, and so the situation with bomb shelters was tackled. Experience has shown that during emergencies, wars, or terror attacks, the state and number of bomb shelters play an important role. 

The commission’s final conclusion at the time was the following: "The protective structures of companies such as the Donetsk Coal Energy Company, the Tochmash factory, the Donetsk Metallurgical Plant, the Donetsk State Factory of Chemical Products, and many other companies are not ready for use." This became a death sentence for some local residents. These are the areas of the city that saw the worst shelling. 

How are people supposed to survive in these conditions? Where are they supposed to run if they are at home or in the street during an emergency?

This is why basements and underground parking garages were turned into bomb shelters. So were the cellars of schools, houses of culture, and hospitals.

Rescuers, however, are skeptical. "This is a place to wait out the danger, " they say. "But in the event of a direct hit, it won’t protect anyone. Even a proper bomb shelter won’t."

Even several weeks ago, Donetsk residents did not take the guidance on bomb shelters issued by city authorities seriously. It seemed like out of a war movie. Attitudes have since changed dramatically. 

The situation with bomb shelters in the areas at the epicenter of the fighting is dire. In the Leninsky district, which has been shelled from the Shirokiy suburb, there is only one equipped bomb shelter: in the 21st Party Congress-House of Culture. For many, it is simply too far to reach if shelling breaks out.

Local residents say that basements are locked and that they have to run to shelters as explosions go off and shrapnel flies all around.

"I need to run three bus stops to reach the [House of Culture]. If shelling started, we would not make it alive, " a young woman told me. She was with two children ages 3 and 5. The youngest was clutching a doll; the other pressed a kitten tightly against her chest. You could see fear and despair in their eyes. 

Mafia groups are rumored to be running the bomb shelters. When the shelling starts, they let in only their own people and demand money from the others. 

There are several open shelters in the Budonyvskiy district, mostly basements on October Street. The only real bomb shelter is behind the Pushkin monument. It was built in the 1960s and is very solid, but it is unsafe to stay inside for long. It’s damp, moldy, and the walls are moist with humidity. 

The situation in other districts is just as bad. But despite the awful conditions in these shelters, people continue living in them. They have no choice. The windows of their homes are shattered, the walls are cracked, and the roofs are destroyed.

And so the bomb shelters have become their refuge. Even people whose homes were spared by the shelling are afraid of sleeping in them. They go to their homes only to wash and cook. They spend the rest of the time underground.

This is how life is now in Donetsk. One resident described it this way: "We live in basements. We queue for humanitarian aid. Many people are sick, many are dying."

Translated by RFE/RL correspondent Claire Bigg

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