The houses on Mikhail Kravchuk’s nearly deserted block are riddled with craters — the aftermath of heavy shelling that badly damaged his neighbourhood in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, starting back in 2014.
Some homes are missing roofs and windows, others their entire facades. A beige couch hangs out of a gaping hole on the second storey of one property, a sign of the family who once lived there.
“If there wasn’t any shooting, then you could live here,” said Kravchuk, stopping to talk to CBC News as he walked down a snowy street. “Of course, all the infrastructure is destroyed.”
It’s a typical scene in Oktyabrsky, not far from the Donetsk airport, which was the epicentre of many battles between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine after conflict broke out eight years ago.
After violent protests in Kyiv brought down Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, fighters in the country’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk started seizing government buildings and later declared independence.
While Canada and the rest of the world doesn’t recognize the self-declared republics, the area has served as ground zero for this intractable war, where no territory is being gained and multiple attempts at ceasefires have failed.
Now, after a buildup of Russian troops near Ukraine’s border, U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders warn that an invasion of Ukraine could be imminent — and those who’ve been living against the backdrop of this deadly conflict feel a sense of resignation that there might never be peace in the politically divided region.
Ukraine estimates about 14,000 combatants and civilians have been killed on the two sides of the 420-kilometre “line of control” that separates Donetsk and Luhansk from the rest of Ukraine. And hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes.
Access into the areas no longer under Ukrainian control is severely restricted.
Over the past few years, foreign media, other than Russian citizens, have frequently had their requests to visit the region denied. But a small CBC News crew, along with local Ukrainian producer Kateryna Malofieieva, was given rare permission to visit on Jan. 14.
Kravchuk returns to his damaged neighbourhood often. He lives in another part of Donetsk but is trying to repair his home and hopes he and his wife, Natalia, will one day be able to move back.
Part of their roof is still missing and the windows are shattered.
Kravchuk, who speaks Russian, worked for nearly 50 years as a flight engineer at that nearby airport.
As he led CBC News into his backyard, he grabbed a metal sheet near his shed, demonstrating how he had to crouch down and take cover during one bombardment.
On the ground, there was a pile of shell casings he had rounded up to use to collect rainwater for his garden. Inside his home, he proudly pointed to some of his harvest: crates of onions and a pile of pumpkins on the floor.
On a mantle were pictures of his three sons. But he grew emotional as he explained that his oldest son was killed while trying to flee during an attack.
After the fighting began in 2014, Kravchuck and his wife were forced to take cover in one of their son’s basements. But when the shelling got too intense, they fled into the city centre, where they now pay for a rental apartment.
They have family living in Kyiv, including grandchildren, but haven’t been able to leave Donetsk in the past two years, because it is too difficult to secure permission.
Crossing in and out of the region requires going through a series of checkpoints.
For CBC’s visit, the crew had to be granted permission by the Ukrainian military and security services, as well as from the authorities on the Donetsk side.
After crossing the Ukrainian-held side of the border, travellers jump on an aging shuttle bus and are taken down a bumpy dirt road. Red signs warning of explosive mines on an adjacent field could be seen out the window.
At one point during the trip, a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag was visible in a field. But directly across was the black, blue and red flag of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), denoting the start of non-government-controlled territory.
After getting off that bus, then boarding another, travellers reach the Donetsk checkpoints, where they have to show they have permission to enter and are often questioned by authorities.
WATCH | Signs of war are everywhere in this damaged Donetsk neighbourhood:
The pandemic has made freedom of movement even more difficult for residents living in the region. Some of the border checkpoints have been partially closed while the main one only operates twice a week.
Between January and September 2021, there were 28,000 crossings over the control line in the Donetsk region — a dramatic drop from 2019, when nearly eight million people crossed during the same period.
When CBC visited the checkpoint, crowds of people huddled together on the Donetsk side during a bitterly cold day before finally getting on a shuttle bus.
Some women, who didn’t want to give their names, said young people, particularly men, are often denied permission to leave Donetsk.
Around 30 kilometres southwest of the city lies the coal-mining town of Oleksandrivka, perched close to the conflict’s front line.
It’s also home to Vita Ozorin. Her house backs onto a field, which the family frequently crosses to go to work. In recent months, she says, they’ve noticed an increase in shelling.
The ground just explodes. It all comes raining down.
Back in November, Ozorin said, she feared she was going to die when she got caught up in an attack. “The ground just explodes. It all comes raining down … one shell, then another. Then the shrapnel,” she said.
One month later, a similar story played out for her husband.
Pyotr Ozorin was walking to his job at the mine around 6 a.m. on Dec. 23; he remembers hearing four explosions before he lost his hearing.
After crawling 100 metres along the ground, he started walking toward the mine; a car stopped to pick him up and took him to the hospital.
He lifted up his shirt to show a large scar that runs the length of his abdomen and another just below his left shoulder. He had emergency surgery, but doctors told him there are still 20 pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body, including in his head and feet.
The couple live in a small house, along with their daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren.
Their five-year-old grandson,Yaroslav, doesn’t speak much and stared blankly ahead while CBC visited with the family in their living room. Vita Ozorin believes he has been left traumatized by the war going on around him.
“I want calmness, so my grandchildren can go out,” she said. “The other side is also suffering.… Peaceful people are dying, like we are. We feel bad for them too.”
On the day that CBC visited, a monitoring team with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported 175 ceasefire violations, including 96 explosions, in the Donetsk region, an area covering about 26,000 square kilometres.
A deal to strengthen the ceasefire was reached in July 2020, which included a ban on sniper fire and deployment of heavy weapons near communities. But in reports published online, the OSCE monitoring team routinely notes hundreds of violations on both sides each week.
The reports say that the drones used by the OSCE to gather aerial surveillance of the security situation are frequently jammed by electronic interference; last year, its drones were fired upon dozens of times.
In a separate report, the monitoring team noted that ceasefire violations and the ongoing challenge of getting both sides to agree to security guarantees is putting infrastructure at risk and delaying crucial repair work.
Last year, between April and October, the ongoing fighting impacted water, gas and electrical services for about 200,000 people living on both sides of the contact line.
In the city of Donetsk, home to 900,000 people, a curfew is in place four days a week but lifted on the weekend.
WATCH | Life in central Donetsk continues amid ongoing fighting nearby:
Inside Banana, a bar and dance club in downtown Donetsk, on a Saturday night, dancers perform wearing bunny ears and little else while patrons sip cocktails or smoke hookah pipes out back.
Most weren’t keen to talk to a news crew about politics and war, but one young woman, who only wanted to go by her first name, Yulanna, said she worked for a Russian company and hoped to move to Moscow as soon as she could.
“The worst thing about this all is there is no future,” she said of living in Donetsk. “We are cut off from the rest of the world.”
She acknowledged that Russia is “playing a role” in the conflict but believes Ukraine is to blame, too.
“They just won’t give up our republic so easily,” she said.
The signs of Russian influence are obvious and everywhere in the city.
Russian flags fly in the squares, next to the Donetsk People’s Republic flag. On a boulevard near the city’s Lenin Square, where a large statue of the former Soviet leader stands, there is a sign in Cyrillic that reads “I Heart Russia.” Nearby billboards boast of a “Russian Donbas,” another name for the region that takes in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The Donetsk People’s Republic is led by Denis Pushilin, first appointed in 2018 after his predecessor, Alexander Vladimirovich Zakharchenko, was killed in an explosion at a café. But officials with the self-declared separatist republic say Pushilin was formally elected later that year in a popular vote.
In an interview with the CBC, the 40-year-old Pushilin said he wished the situation in Donetsk were resolved as it was in Crimea — through a referendum.
The 2014 referendum in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, however, is not recognized by most of the world, which instead sees Crimea as having been annexed by Russia.
Six days a week, buses from Donetsk head to Russia’s border, where residents can pick up Russian passports. According to Russian officials, several hundred thousand have been handed out to residents of Eastern Ukraine since 2019.
Whether Donetsk is autonomous or becomes part of Russia, Pushilin is adamant that it shouldn’t be part of Ukraine.
“Ukraine as a state for us, it no longer exists,” he said. “The vast majority of our residents want to be as close as possible to Russia.”
When asked about Russia’s involvement in the war, he repeated what the Kremlin says when asked about the topic: He denied that Russian weapons, equipment or troops were on the ground and said the region only receives political support and humanitarian assistance.
As for the recent troop buildup near Ukraine’s border with Russia, Pushilin dismissed the idea that there was going to be a Russian invasion, saying the country is entitled to move its military however it wants on its own territory.
Back in Oktyabrsky, Kravchuk called speculation that Russia will invade nonsense. He sees Russians as “brotherly people” and wants to see Donetsk become an internationally recognized autonomous republic under the “wing” of Russia.
But above all, he said, he wants the fighting to stop, so he and his wife can move back to their family home.
“If the same things happen [as] in 2014 and 2015, I would just throw down my hands,” he said. “There would be no reason to live anymore.”
WATCH | CBC’s Briar Stewart on how Donetsk residents cope with the conflict that has engulfed their region for close to eight years:
Copy editing and digital production by Amy Husser.
Written by Moscow correspondent Briar Stewart, with support from Moscow producer Corinne Seminoff, London-based video producer Jean-François Bisson and Ukrainian producer Kateryna Malofieieva.
Lead photo: Mikhail Kravchuk holds one of the many shell casings he collected from around his neighbourhood in Donetsk. He has been using them as watering cans to irrigate a small garden in his backyard. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)