Donetsk, Ukraine – The city’s central market was empty. A black dog and a white dog slept in the shade of a kiosk, undisturbed by anyone shopping for faded jeans, ripe pink tomatoes or medicinal badger oil. In the vegetable section a man took his change for a bag full of Crimean strawberries and thanked the woman.
“Come again soon,” she said.
“God knows when,” he replied.
“It’s terrible. I know. What a horrible situation. Nobody knows what will happen next,” she said, making a downcast face. The man took his strawberries and a big bag of other produce and walked off through the empty market, after stocking up on essentials.
Such was the state of the population late Tuesday afternoon in Donetsk, Ukraine’s fifth largest city, as the people here waited to see what would happen next after the Ukrainian army fought pro-Russian separatists all night for control of the airport, splitting the darkness with gunfire and the explosion of mortars and RPGs.
In the morning the situation around the airfield remained unclear, with both sides claiming control. In yet another surreal scene that is visible everywhere in this quasi-civil war, Ukrainian traffic police in iridescent green vests stopped civilians from continuing down the road from the city to the airport, while on the other side of a low barricade of tyres stretching across the road, gun-toting separatists did the same.
On the way out of town, a crowd had gathered around an army transport truck, flipped into the verge between the pavement and the road in front of an old residential apartment building and across the street from a car dealership.
People from the neighbourhood gathered around with their kids and snapped pictures with their mobile phones. The bare white trunk of a cottonwood tree was exposed where the shot-up flatbed had smashed into it at high speed and flipped over, its windscreen riddled with bullet holes and its bed covered in thick patches of dried blood, bath towels, a bush hat and an unused tube of toothpaste.
Taking narrow back roads through the neighbourhoods surrounding the airport, Al Jazeera eventually found a way in, only to be flagged down by fat, middle-aged men in tracksuits and sunglasses. “Don’t walk any further,” they said, helpfully. “There are two Ukrainian army snipers in position on the roofs over there and they are shooting.”
Gunfire rattled closer from the airport and rifle rounds cracked nearby. The men took cover behind a crumbling concrete wall separating an overgrown wood strewn with bullet casings, discarded water bottles, canteens and bloodied bandages from the afternoon before.
His hands deeply stained with automotive grease, one of the men tried to email photos of the snipers’ positions to “somebody”. He looked up from his phone and said, “I’d take you forward if I had a darker shirt. I can’t wear red up there. They’ll spot me and shoot me.”
Since early morning, bodies were being brought out of the airport. At the Kalinina Hospital, the morgue to which bodies are brought in the event of one of the region’s frequent mining disasters, separatists mingled with police, blocking the entry of a large group of journalists. “There are a lot of them and they are heavily armed. We can only cooperate with them,” said Sergey Khokholya, chief police investigator for the Kalininsky police district in Donetsk, when asked if he was nervous about working so closely with the fighters.
Back in the centre of the city, one that was beautifully restored and cleaned up ahead of the 2012 Euro Cup football finals, the streets were nearly empty. Rumours were circulating that the Ukrainian army planned to assault and retake the city. The provincial administration building and banks, offices, the McDonald’s, the Nike store, coffee shops and hotdog stands were all shuttered and dark. One high-end clothing store along Artyom Street had even taken the precaution of nailing plywood over its large windows – obscuring a phalanx of scantily clad mannequins.
The normally bustling market, centred around a Soviet-era dome built in a dated space-age style, was quiet. The inside was nearly empty and diners in the canteen were told that they would have to be out soon, since they were closing early.
“Yes, we’re open! Can you believe it?” said the young woman at the checkout counter. “We love money more than our lives – that’s why we’re here,” she said in a tone mixing black humour with bitter irony, when asked why they were open when the McDonald’s nearby was closed.
Past the newly built Svyato-Preobrazhenskii Cathedral uphill from a series of small lakes ringed with pleasant restaurants and croaking frogs, a beat up dump truck spewed exhaust and chugged up a slope past the Liverpool, a Beatles-themed nightclub and hotel. Halfway through the intersection it stuttered to a halt as a small car full of sweating men clad in camouflage field uniforms honked and pushed through traffic, in a hurry to get from one manoeuvring to another.
On the No 2 electric bus that runs along the main road, nearly every seat was filled, but the aisle was empty during rush hour. Most people sat and stared out the windows in the evening light. As the bus passed the Donetsk Provincial Clinical Trauma Hospital, Chechen fighters newly arrived from Russia guarded the main entrance. Riding through their city, the faces of the passengers betrayed feelings of shock, worry and surprise at the change Donetsk has undergone in the past 24 hours after hearing a night of fighting just a few kilometres from the centre of the city – fighting which has left more than 35 dead.
No matter the result of high level political manoeuvring in Kiev, Moscow, Washington or the European capitals, today in Donetsk, people are starting to feel the full force of the unrest that has been destabilising and radicalising the surrounding countryside for weeks but that has mostly left the provincial capital untouched.
“Oh, what are we to do?” a middle aged woman said to the elderly woman next to her on the bus. “Everyone is sitting afraid in their homes. What are we to do?”
So far, there is no answer.