"Everything is just beginning," said the looming billboards in the half-empty Ukrainian city of Donetsk.

The quote is from the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR), a pro-Russian rebel group that now controls much of this region. Though the separatists enjoy the support of most people here, we joked about how that statement could be perceived by those who don't necessarily welcome them.

"It's kind of scary. If this is just a start, it is hard to imagine how it could get worse," a local said, laughing.

"It is not meant for us. It's for those who have businesses. They'll suffer the most," said another. 

The beautiful, lush green Donetsk - that had a thorough face-lift just a couple of years before the conflict thanks to the ousted pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovich - is now a virtual ghost town.

And much else has changed. 

Shops don't have to compete for customers anymore. All they have to do is open, as almost every business appears to be closed. If you do find one with the shutters up, you can pay in both Russian roubles and Ukrainian Hryvnia.

Commercial billboard ads seem a thing of the past, with hundreds of empty frames lining the streets.

There are no civil courts in rebel-held territory, so if you were to be hit by a car, you'd have to depend on the conscience of the offender. Criminal cases are dealt with by the rebels, we were told.

Armed rebels are always present be it in the streets, opera house, hotel lobby or restaurant [Rabii Kalboussi/Al Jazeera]
Those rebels are always present - in the streets, at the opera house, hanging out in hotel lobbies and restaurants, at the next table drinking beers with kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders.

The opera house itself stutters along - the show must go on. But most of its members have left. A violinist had to take over as orchestra director when the previous one didn't come back from a holiday.

Cinderella is now played by a 45-year-old.

The rebel administration didn't allow us to conduct interviews with the cast of the opera without the presence of a minder and questions about politics were strictly off the table. The minder gave us a programme of upcoming shows, but used a pen to cross out many of the names and replace them with new ones.

There was caution at the Donetsk State Medical University as well. They allowed us to talk to students only after we got permission from the DPR's self-established ministry of education. The verbal permission came with a verbal instruction: limit your visit to an hour and ask only "politically correct questions to avoid an awkward situation".

The university appeared to be suffering as most of its students, especially the foreign ones, had left because they now faced studying for degrees that would not be internationally recognised.

At the end of our visit we had to report to the rebel administration - which flew a Russian flag at the top of the building - and outline our activities since we arrived.

The measures the rebels took - and the caution of ordinary people and officials - reminded me of stories about the Soviet Union that I heard from my parents and grandparents.

As we left the building, we stumbled upon another reminder of Soviet times: a man handing out month-old newspapers that spoke colourfully of the Soviet victory against Nazi Germany, and included rebel views on Russia and Ukraine.

All of this creates an atmosphere of a place now different to what it was before. 

And Ukraine's government seems to be giving the new administration exactly what it wants - the sense that where rebel-held territory starts Ukraine ends. The string of checkpoints set up by Ukraine's security services, that take hours to pass, make you feel you are crossing into another country.

Follow Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter: @tamila87v 


Follow Rabii Kalboussi on Instagram: @rabiikalboussi

The lush green city of Donetsk had a thorough face-lift just a couple of years before the conflict [Rabii Kalboussi/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera