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A City of Roses, Turned to Ruins

Life on the eerie streets of Ukraine's final separatist stronghold


Donetsk, the capital of Ukraine’s industrial heartland, is a city of roses. There are said to be more than one million of them in the city, one for each inhabitant. The flower is proudly displayed on Donetsk's coat of arms, and flowerbeds line quaint walkways in the center and fill the luscious green parks.

For decades, locals have tended the rose flowerbeds religiously, no matter the season. Few of those people remain today. According to the regional administration, some 300,000 have fled the besieged city since pro-Russian rebels took control in April, and most now venture onto the streets only when necessary.

“The streets are empty and the shops closed, but in the midst of all this I still see people caring for the roses. If they can do their job despite everything, I can as well,” says 30-year-old Anna, who, like most here, preferred not to give her second name.

Since the crisis in Ukraine’s east began more than three months ago, Anna has kept her job at one of only two banks still open in the city. She is now being transferred to Kiev along with a big part of the bank’s workforce, as the lack of business leaves the Donetsk branch under pressure to close. We walk through the scenic Shcherbakov Park on a Saturday evening, and she motions toward the rows of empty benches and the abandoned amusement rides. An eerie silence prevails.

The city’s transformation has been gradual, she says. “Every day more and more people leave the city. And every day people say they will starting bombing us. It’s like crying wolf.”

During the day, central Donetsk is calm and quiet. Every so often, the lull is pierced by explosions and gunfire coming from the outskirts of the city, where Ukrainian government forces are already engaging rebel positions and numerous civilians are caught in the crossfire.

Only after sunset does the deadly orchestra come alive. The explosions get louder every night, shaking bedroom walls across the city. Residents of most housing blocks have converted their cellars into makeshift bomb-shelters, filling them with tinned food, bottles of water, rugs and other items necessary for survival. Notices on street corners direct passers-by to the nearest shelter.

Thus far, the violence has been largely confined to outlying areas of the city. On July 29, Shcherbakov Park and the area around it came under fire, the first time the city center had been targeted. Locals say Ukrainian army forces were firing at a nearby student dormitory taken over by rebel fighters, but the damage spread over a far wider radius. Inaccurate shelling by both sides has become an all too common feature of the conflict in recent weeks.

Since the leadership of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic announced a state of siege in the city on July 31, walking the streets between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. is strictly forbidden. Armed men in military fatigues patrol each district, stopping locals arbitrarily to check documents. Those who disobey the curfew are sent to the frontlines to dig trenches, locals say. Rumors abound of young men being grabbed from buses and forced to join the rebel ranks, but many dismiss such claims.

On a warm Sunday evening, 31-year-old Dmitry stands drinking beer with his friend Oleg on the sidewalk of Artema Street, Donetsk’s main drag. “We have far more freedom now," he says. "Before we couldn’t even drink on the street. Now look around you—there are no police here to stop us.” A solitary taxi slowly makes its way along the otherwise deserted street, heading in the direction of the railway station. Every few minutes an expensive car with blacked-out windows and a blank registration plate rolls past, and a rebel fighter in camouflage scans the sidewalk.

Dmitry and Oleg are unfazed. Many of the separatists are former school friends, they say. “If I get into any trouble, all I need to do is make a call,” Dmitry says.

He makes no jokes about the curfew, however, and insists no one is exempted. As we make our way back along the Kalmius River that runs through the city, we pass a group of children playing, a surprising sight in an otherwise empty park. Oleg approaches the oldest boy in the group and asks where he’s from. Krasnohorivka, the boy answers.

The children, and the parents watching on, are refugees who came to Donetsk to seek shelter from nearby towns caught in the fighting. As they play, gunfire rings out in the distance.

“They have nowhere else to go,” Oleg says as we continue on our way. “At least they bring a little bit of life back to this city. Without them, this park would be completely empty.”

The rebel fighters who control the city exude confidence. At their base inside the state administration building, which they seized on April 7 during violent pro-Russian protests, the day-to-day running of the internationally unrecognized state takes place.

Ministers of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic brief bemused members of the press under the watchful eye of armed militants, and the republic’s Council of Ministers holds sessions and passes legislation. Its conclusions are published daily on the self-styled government’s website. The whole operation is becoming professionalized.

Every day around noon the silence is broken by loud gunfire, as a column of tanks and military vehicles roars across the square in front of the building. The rebel fighters perched atop them shout salutes and fire deafening salvos into the air from their rifles, leaving the road strewn with bullets. Excited teenage boys stoop to pick up the empty cartridges, gazing after the military procession.

“The guys are going to the front,” a rebel fighter outside the city administration says proudly as he watches on.

The separatists say they are ready to die defending the city, and they appear motivated by a strong hatred of what they see as the fascist government that has taken power in Kiev. On motivational billboards hanging throughout the city, young men are called on to take up arms and fight Kiev’s fascist junta, which they claim is intent on destroying the peaceful citizens of the Donbass region.

The self-styled state has a dedicated TV channel and two official weekly newspapers, Golos Naroda (Voice of the People) and Novorossiya (New Russia), named after the state envisioned by the Moscow-backed separatists. Novorossiya is distributed for free outside the state administration building and several other locations in the city, and pensioners can be seen reading it on park benches.

Maria, a 75-year-old widow, is one of them. She reads Novorossiya because she doesn’t know what to believe any more, she says. She simply wants the fighting to end.

“Look at the beauty around you. You’d think such beauty would conquer war,” she says, gesturing toward the park’s green bushes and overhanging sycamores, interspersed with rose flowerbeds. “I really want to believe this, but I am losing hope every day.”

From a distance, Donetsk’s roses look full and healthy. Upon closer inspection, it is clear they are dying.