Just a few days before Russia launched its special military operation on the territory of Ukraine, the heads of the then-unrecognized Donbass breakaway republics reported publicly that tensions were rising and called for the evacuation of the civilian population.
Since the start of the offensive, Russia has reportedly accepted around 200,000 people from the republic, while the UN estimates the total number of people fleeing Ukraine at over 2 million people.
A lot have been accommodated in Rostov Region bordering the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Local hotels are used for shelter, and food and supplies keep coming through the humanitarian effort. I got in touch with one of the organizations helping with the refugee program and have been able to interview a number of people in a hotel located on the left bank of the Don River. This is where you can meet women and children who fled from the war that tore up their homes.
Natalya is from Gorlovka, a town not far from the city of Donetsk. Gorlovka, as is well known, was the sight of the most gruesome and devastating battles a few years ago. On the morning of the interview, I was looking through the reports, and they made it clear that both Donetsk and the surrounding areas were again an active war zone that even most war reporters were no longer allowed to enter. As we talk, Natalya keeps drinking coffee, smoking one cigarette after another, and trying to keep in check a sturdy boy of about five years old. Natalya is here with her younger son and a grandson. Her husband, who serves with the DPR People’s Militia, thought it best to send them away to a safer place.
“On February 18, we were shelled at night. A bomb exploded not far from us. Thank God none of us were hurt, but we got really scared, especially the little one. As soon as evacuation was announced we packed and left. It took us no longer than 15 minutes.
“My husband has been with the militia since May 2014. Last year we were in the thick of things and saw everything with our own eyes. Our son is 14, and he is a very scared boy. He was only 5 when the war started. He learned to respond to air raid alerts before many other things. When we shouted ‘corridor!’ it meant he had to go hide in the corridor that instant, because it had no windows and was the safest place in the house. We used to hide in the corridor all the time. We didn’t have a basement we could use.
“There has been a lot of shelling over the past few years. It almost feels like we were bombed every day. Back in 2014 and 2015, Gorlovka was shelled a lot. Then it became less intense and the mines mostly landed on the outskirts, while the central parts of the town remained safe. But now it’s bad again, and no houses have any windows left in place. There’s some massive shelling going on. We’re really scared for the lives of our loved ones who are still there. I have trouble getting in touch with my husband. He calls me whenever he can, and if I pick up right away, we can talk. If I miss his window of opportunity, I keep waiting till the next time he tries to contact me. I’m scared.
“It was a very scary experience. You learn to recognize the threat by the sound. You can hear the launch, the projectile coming and you count one, two, three, four, five, explosion. “That’s when you have to hide in the corridor. If the projectile takes longer before it explodes it may land further away, but you never know, it may land closer. If it’s making a whistling sound, it’s a 120-mm gun. If it’s making a rustling sound, it’s a 150-mm one. But you can’t really guess where it’s going to hit. After each round, we get 10 to 20 minutes of silence. That’s when we can move.
“You always have to be on your toes listening, you can’t let your guard down even in your sleep. You have to walk carefully. When you hear explosions, you’d better get down immediately and hide; you have to always think where and how you can duck and hide.
“In 2014, we weren’t ready, so many were killed or injured. And now people try to stay safe and they know how to do it. My neighbor even fought on the frontline in the trenches. She had three concussions and can’t serve anymore for health reasons.
“When we arrived at the hotel here, there were fireworks. It was beautiful, there was some party not far from here, I guess. My son jumped to the floor from the bed – it’s a habit with him already. My grandson got nervous, ‘Grandma, what is it?’ So we had to take him outside and show it really was the fireworks, not the bombs.
“Airplanes also scared us at first. The last time we had to evacuate here briefly was after air raids. It’s a reflex – you see a plane, even a civilian one, you crouch, get to the ground and look for cover.
“We always tried to take our children to school and back. Sometimes the shelling wasn’t that intense and children could play outside freely.”
When asked what people from the DPR and LPR were thinking about the current events, Natalya answered in a heartbeat; she knows where her loyalty lies and why.
“People are happy. They are scared, of course, but happy. That’s progress, finally. For eight years, we’ve been living surrounded by enemies. And now they shell us more, people die, but that’s a start, we’ll punish those… monsters. Yes, monsters, I can’t call them anything else.
“We are mad. We are tired. We are waiting for them to finally get pushed away. The farther the better. Best if they were driven into Poland and got locked up there. We want to be home, more than anything else. It’s fine here, people are helping us, but we have homes. I was born in Gorlovka.
“Before the war, my husband was a coal miner. He worked in a mine until the House of Trade Unions was burned down in Odessa with people in it. It happened on May 2, and on May 5, my husband finished his shift and went off to war. And since then, I haven’t seen him much. He rarely visits us. Now they’re firing Grad missiles at Gorlovka. I’ve seen the explosions with my own eyes, it’s better to stay away from there.
“In 2014, a family was killed in a building next to ours. A shell hit the 8th floor of an apartment building. A husband, a wife, their son who’d just started the first grade at school and their 5-year-old daughter. Four floors collapsed after the shell hit. The building has been repaired, but people are too scared to live there.
“Why is it happening to us? Is it because we refused to speak and teach our children Ukrainian? Is it because we wanted to celebrate Victory Day? Or respect our elderly and history? Why did they have to kill us for that?
“I don’t understand Ukrainian. I was born and raised in Ukraine, but I mostly have Russian roots. My son knows history well – he likes to learn about these things. And he knows for a fact that we are not a part of Ukraine, and we’ve never been. It’s our region with all its resources that has been ‘feeding’ Ukraine, and now they say that we are poor and need to be subsidized.”
Nelly Ivanovna, another Gorlovka resident, has been evacuated to Rostov with her grandson. She still has relatives and friends living in Donetsk and other towns in the DPR. As she is talking to me, Elena, a younger woman from Donetsk, occasionally joins in on the conversation. There are other women, all with young children, who have something to say.
“We have been living under artillery fire ever since 2014. We keep talking to the media about it, but nothing changes. This isn’t normal. We’ve been living in a constant state of fear and anxiety. When they fire at us during the day, at least we know where to run to, but at night it’s a lot easier to give in to panic. You have to go through it yourself to understand – I could talk about these things for hours, but no words can describe what it’s really like out there.”
As the war dragged on, the women of the DPR have mastered ways of keeping themselves safe during shelling. They tell us how to move from shelter to shelter, talk about the range of fragments from shells, etc. This seems to be the first thing that comes to mind when asked about life in their hometowns.
“I used to be good friends with a family from Poltava. They speak Ukrainian. I love the language, I really do – it’s so rich and melodic. You must never use language as a pretext for war! Before, I would call my Ukrainian friends and tell them about our situation, about all the shelling. It seemed like they heard our plight, it seemed like they sympathized. And now that they heard some explosions outside their own city, they started to panic: ‘The Russians are invading our land!’ We have been living like this for eight years, and it’s still like that for us,” Nelly says.
“I called my relatives the other day. They said that on February 3, a shell hit a house on Korolenko Street. That’s the central part of the city. A family, including two young children, was hurt. People are afraid to leave their homes in fear of new attacks. It’s a nightmare.”
Nelly brings up ‘the Madonna of Gorlovka’ – the name Kristina Zhuk came to be known by on social media after she was killed by a Ukrainian shell in July 2014, along with her 10-month-old daughter. When it happened, Kristina was walking in the park with her daughter. A journalist who happened to be there witnessed the woman’s last agonizing moments, providing one of the first pieces of photographic evidence that Ukraine was using weapons indiscriminately against the people of Donbass.
Nelly cannot remember the name of the murdered woman, but she says that her story is a depiction of life in Gorlovka during the Donbass conflict. She recalls that both in Gorlovka and elsewhere in the DPR, there are monuments to children killed in the war. But the memory of these children only lives in the hearts of the local residents who have seen death with their own eyes.
“In 2014, I went out to buy something and heard this whizz. Someone shouted for us to get down, so everyone did. Several shells exploded. I lay on the ground for a bit, but when it got quieter, I decided I should try to get to a shelter of some kind. There was a church nearby – very beautiful and new. Many people rushed there, and I wondered, ‘Will I make it?’ So I ran. I guess the fear helped, because I ran very fast. I was going down to the church basement when I heard the shells flying again. They hit the ground nearby, and I felt relieved that I chose my time right.
“There were many people in the basement, including children. Altar boys brought everyone tea and some food, laid down the mattresses. Some families basically lived in this basement and others for months. And those who were living in Soviet buildings or private houses with proper basements were the lucky ones. I was living in a new building, on the top floor, so I had nowhere to run during the shelling. It’s a terrible feeling when you’re looking at the horrors around you and are helpless to change anything about it. When I evacuated in 2015, the building I lived in was hit by a shell. My neighbor on the 7th floor got hurt.
“My relatives who are still there say that after the evacuation the shelling got much worse. The Ukrainian forces started shelling both Donetsk and the outskirts. Though it’s good that at least there are no air raids now – they used to fire at us from the air, hitting residential areas.
“All these years, we asked Ukraine to find a compromise and stop the war, but Zelensky didn’t want to talk to ‘those people’ – that’s what he called us. The president we, the Donbass people, didn’t even choose, doesn’t want to listen to us.
“In 2014, many people living in the eastern regions rose up against the new regime. There were no weapons – sticks at best. Back then, Ukrainian armored vehicles would stop and turn around. They had no orders to crush the protests. Ordinary Ukrainian soldiers weren’t capable of that – it could only be done by the armed gangs.
“There are politicians in Ukraine who think that we shouldn’t be here, that we don’t deserve to live here on our land. They don’t see us as human. Well, we didn’t want to remain part of their country either. It’s not about the language – it’s a beautiful language, I learned it at school. What does language have to do with the fact that it’s spoken by fools? If Russia hadn’t interfered, they would have tried and shelled us again. We wouldn’t make it without Russia. And the US is just getting rich off the war.”
When asked about their future expectations, the women fumble for words. They simply say that they want to lead peaceful lives, like before, working and raising their kids. Meanwhile, there are more and more refugees coming from the new republics to Russia each day.
By Stepan Kostetsky
Image Credit: Sputnik News