The Ukrainian Spring

People in Ukraine's east are trying to live their lives surrounded by barricades and checkpoints.


    The people of Donetsk are enjoying the spring sunshine.

    Trees are bursting with blossom and new growth. In the parks, and by the roadside, are regimented rows of tulips- loud reds and pinks. The opera house round the corner from my hotel is showing 'Turandot' and 'Aida' tickets cost the equivalent of 6 US dollars.

    For the most part, life in this city goes on as normal. Students laugh and drink in cafes, the football stadiums are full for the visits of teams from Crimea (yes, the Simferopol team still plays in the Ukrainian League) and Kiev.

    A convoy of cars decorated in white ribbons makes its way down the avenue, horns blaring, drivers waving to the watching crowds. It's a wedding, not a political protest.

    It's only the barricades round the government building that suggest something untoward.

    The Donetsk administrative centre is surrounded by sandbags and barbed wire. The Ukrainian flags have been taken down, and replaced by those of Russia and the self-proclaimed 'People's Republic of Donetsk'.

    On a stage a woman shouts into a microphone "Referendum, Referendum". She ridicules President Obama, and says the West must keep its hands off Ukraine. When we approach with a TV camera, we're surrounded by youths in balaclavas, demanding to see our papers.

    "Make sure you report the truth, not like the Ukrainian channels" they say, with a vaguely menacing air.

    But the crowd is not large, and in the park just nearby, couples hold hands and children play in the fairground.  The silent majority here keep their thoughts to themselves. They're anxious, but they have plenty to get on with.

    "We want a better economy, a united country, and peace" one woman says to me.

    A drive through the surrounding countryside - past rolling hills, forests of silver birch, and the slag heaps of coal mines - brings us to a separatist roadblock.

    Masked men hand us a leaflet explaining why eastern Ukraine should join Russia, and wave us on.

    A few miles on, it's the Ukrainian army who are bringing traffic to a halt. They've parked two armoured personnel carriers across the road, and they're searching vehicles for weapons. The soldiers look very young, and not particularly happy.

    We drive through, and reach Slovyansk, a separatist stronghold.

    Here, the masked men at the roadblock are nervous and hostile.They order us out of our vehicle, pointing an assortment of pistols and sawn-off shot-guns at our chests. I'm alarmed to see that the man pointing his pistol at me has his finger on the trigger. Slowly, I raise my hands, and he pats me down. It's ok, I'm not carrying a weapon. The atmosphere thaws.

    "We are looking for fascists from Kiev", the man says, "we've heard they are in the woods nearby". It seems we're friends now, because he invites us for a drink and a bite to eat by the roadside.

    We decline, politely, and head back to Donetsk.



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