In Ukraine's Donetsk, the 'death clutch' of a forgotten war

Despite half-hearted attempts at peace, the fighting in eastern Ukraine carries on, a frozen, almost forgotten conflict in which half a million people have been displaced and there are long lineups for humanitarian aid.

Both Russian and Ukrainian economies in tatters, half a million people displaced

A Ukrainian family in Donetsk camps out in their basement, which they are using as a bomb shelter and which they have tried to adorn with festive decorations. (Reuters)

Frozen and forgotten  it's a tempting way to describe the bitter, low-grade war in eastern Ukraine.

It started in the spring, it drags on. Almost 5,000 people have been killed while the world yawns. ISIS, Ebola — these are more terrifying crises.

But for Liuba from Snizhnye, a mining town near Donetsk, the memory of conflict sears.

"I turned around right when the missile landed. The building began to collapse, windows were raining down on us. My legs were injured by the shrapnel, and a shock wave hit my eyes.

"One eye immediately went blind," she says. "My husband and I crawled to the basement. But my mother had stayed on the sixth floor under the missiles and bullets. We went up and brought her down."

I met Liuba this fall in the city of Kharkiv, just outside the war zone. She had escaped the shelling with her husband and mother.

She wasn't sure where the missile came from but she blamed the Ukrainian army. In trying to dislodge pro-Moscow separatists, they had destroyed her family's life.

Liuba and her husband spent almost all their meagre savings to hire a car and then buy train tickets to get them and her mother to Kharkiv, about 40 kilometres from the Russian border. She's one of more than 550,000 internally displaced Ukrainians because of the fighting.

But Liuba's ordeal had only begun. She spent days begging authorities for an operation to save her eye. Finally an operation was arranged — in Odessa, on the other side of the country.

She paid her way but the operation didn't save her eye. And now she must still pay the state for her hospital stay.

The husk that is Donetsk

Liuba is one of the luckier ones. Tens of thousands more Ukrainians are still trapped in a lower circle of hell.

They remain in Donetsk and nearby towns where, despite a ceasefire decreed on Sept. 5, hundreds have been killed in shelling since.

Viktor Mikhalev holds the remains of a spent shell at his blacksmith's shop in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine earlier this month. (REUTERS)

The battle is between the Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Moscow separatists who proclaim that the government in Kyiv is run by fascists and who wish to create Novorossiya ​— New Russia — the Czarist name for the Russian-speaking region.

It is also the name resuscitated by Russian President Vladimir Putin this spring when he offered open support to the separatists. That support has extended to Russian arms and Russian troops, although Moscow continues to deny that it is doing anything officially.

In the post-ceasefire fighting, the prize is the airport, currently held by Ukrainian government troops and under attack by separatists. As recently as Dec. 29 three soldiers and 14 separatist fighters were killed in a bloody, failed attack by the rebels.

As for Donetsk itself, it barely breathes. Shops have closed, banks have no money, most of the young have fled. The city of 900,000 has seen an estimated 200,000 people flee.  

Many of those who remain are old or care for older relatives. Until the fighting started the old managed, just about, on their pensions.

But it is the Ukrainian government that pays the pension money and it is the Donetsk People's Republic, the separatist pro-Moscow paramilitary that controls Donetsk.

Ukrainians line up for monthly humanitarian aid packages in front of the Donbass hockey stadium in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on Dec. 3, 2014. People are starving, rebel leaders have acknowledged. (Antonio Bronic / Reuters)

So pensions are not paid, and people must depend on charity. Even Alexander Zakharchenko, the self-declared prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, admits that some pensioners have starved to death as winter deepens.

Frozen in more ways than one

Away from Donetsk, the noises from Kyiv and Moscow are confusing and angry.

In a year-end news conference, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he would meet Putin as well as Germany's Angela Merkel and France's François Hollande in Kazakhstan on Jan. 15 to try to negotiate a durable peace.

In the next breath, he threatened to invoke martial law if Russian forces moved openly into eastern Ukraine. The day before Ukraine had revoked its non-aligned status and signalled its intent to join NATO one day.

In return, Putin signed a new Russian military doctrine specifying NATO expansion as the greatest threat to his country.

What this all likely means is that the conflict in eastern Ukraine won't be ending soon, even assuming that the Kremlin has some control over the separatist leaders there.

The standoff is frozen in more ways than one. The ruined towns and villages of the region appear trapped in Soviet time, where coal was king and bronze Lenins bestrode the landscape.

But, thanks to the war, coal is no longer king. Seventy per cent of the mines in the Donbass region have closed. What remain are kopankas, unofficial, indeed illegal small mines, run by out-of-work miners to supply themselves and their towns with coal for winter heat, and to sell the surplus for a little cash.

The reasons for the conflict also lie frozen in the past. Putin is on record as describing the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which created 15 new countries including Ukraine, as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century."

Unmarked 122-mm self-propelled howitzers are seen on the road from Luhansk to Donetsk in the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, in eastern Ukraine, December 1, 2014. Picture taken through a car window. (Reuters)

The war in eastern Ukraine is part of his strategy to regain what he sees as Russia's rightful place and rightful size in the world.

Yet the result of the war, along with the annexation of Crimea, which triggered Western sanctions, has been to wreak economic havoc on both Ukraine and Russia.

Ukraine's central bank chief has called 2014 the worst year for Ukraine since 1945, with the economy forecast to shrink by an astounding 7.5 per cent.  

Thanks to war, sanctions and the end of the oil bonanza, Russia will do scarcely better, with forecasts suggesting a five per cent contraction next year. Bitter times.

And particularly bitter for those trapped in the war zone and for the internally displaced scattered about Ukraine.

The help most receive from their embattled government is tiny or non-existent.

Liuba, her husband and her mother spent the fall camping in a room their daughter found near Kharkiv.

"We don’t know where to live anymore," she said. "We can't go home because the trains don't go there now, there’s no gas, the windows are smashed, there’s no heat."

She had two more eye operations; they were unsuccessful. The bills mounted, the Ukrainian government offered no help.

In the end, just before the new year, they did go back to Snizhnye. 

Her husband covered the windows with plastic sheeting. There’s only intermittent heat, but the Donetsk People’s Republic gave them a little money.

They chose home, and Putin’s men.

Putin sees Russia and Ukraine as inextricably entwined by language, history, culture and religion. And now the two countries clutch each other in an economic death spiral.

Don Murray visited eastern Ukraine recently as part of a UN High Commission for Refugees team preparing reports on the plight of people forced to flee their homes because of the conflict.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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