Locals in Ukraine breakaway regions recount short-lived joy, hope

Residents of Ukraine’s breakaway regions recount their joy over Russia’s recognition of their independence – and what came next.

Pedestrians are seen walking under boards displaying the flag and coat of arms of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic
Pedestrians walk under boards displaying the flag and coat of arms of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in the rebel-held city of Donetsk [File: Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters]

After living in conflict zones for eight years, the residents of Ukraine’s separatist-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions rejoiced at Russia’s recognition of their self-proclaimed republics’ independence, thinking it would bring peace and stability.

But their over the February 21 announcement lasted just three days as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin used the security of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for a full-scale invasion of the country on February 24.

Al Jazeera spoke with residents of the separatist republics about life after recognition, the all-out war, as well as their relationship with Russia and Ukraine.

Maxim, 36, Luhansk city

“All my loved ones are in Luhansk. It’s calm here, but shots from heavy weapons are heard from the city or near the city. An oil depot exploded in the Luhansk region, in the city of Rovenki.

I do not leave the place where I am now, because mobilisation is under way and everyone of military age is being taken away. At almost every bus stop, people in uniform get into minibuses and pick up men.

Almost all of my acquaintances and friends do not work and hide in secluded places. There are practically no men of military age on the streets.

Volunteers are being sent to recruiting offices after a declaration of mobilization in the Donetsk region
Men are being sent to military recruiting offices after a declaration of mobilisation in the Donetsk region under the control of pro-Russian separatists [File: Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

Recognition was just an excuse to attack Ukraine. People in Donbas are still being shelled despite that Russia promised it would stop. Except how they started picking up people on the streets, nothing has changed.

This is not our war, not the war of ordinary people, but the war of someone’s ambitions and whims.

Russian President [Vladimir Putin] and his pocket politicians should themselves fight this senseless and stupid war.

None of my relatives and friends have left the city yet. Here such a circus with this evacuation is staged, it’s just another window dressing.

A friend’s daughter went to a rally, in fact they were put on buses “for evacuation”, photographed for the press and sent home.

Concerning my feelings about Ukraine. Over these eight years [since the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk broke away from Ukraine in 2014], the [central] authorities of the country have not done anything to make people themselves want to go back under Ukrainian control.

Ukraine map

Their idiotic laws on decommunisation, ban on the Russian language [refers to a language law requiring all Ukrainian citizens to know the official state language], renaming streets and cities only repels me.

And the tariffs for utilities are generally out of this world in Ukraine, although in Luhansk tariffs have risen very much and food prices are the same as in Moscow, if not higher, while salaries are pennies.

Everyone here suffered from the war, there is no railway or air traffic here, there are no international banks.

I divide Russia into government and people. I don’t respect the government for their policy and attitude towards people, but the people are all different. There are sane people, but there are people that are zombified by propaganda.

It hurts me for the people on the [government-controlled] side of Ukraine, I realise that they will plunge into the darkness and poverty in which we [in the separatist regions] have lived all these eight years.”

Christina, 32, Donetsk city

“People were happy because of the recognition. For us, this was another little step towards peace. We rejoiced because we were recognised, we were heard, we were seen.

People thought that the world community would pay attention and the prayers of the people of Donetsk would be heard. People were happy, it’s true.

We understood that there would be a war [in Donbas] and tensed up, but in general in Donbas, people exhaled and said “maybe everything will end”.

To be honest, nothing has changed [since recognition] except for the joy of our compatriots.

Shelling has been added. It hit the city centre today, which has never happened before.

A woman is seen in front of damaged building in Donetsk's Petrovskaya
A woman is seen in front of a damaged building in Donetsk’s Petrovskaya, which is under control of pro-Russian separatists [File: Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency]

All men were mobilised throughout the city. There are only women in the city now. The men went to war.

Of course, everyone is tense and afraid for their fathers, brothers, sons and children. A lot of my friends, classmates, parents of classmates became volunteers in the army over the years.

Our people support the president of Russia. But we do not support the war in Ukraine, we do not support the killing of civilians.

We all woke up in this hell and we don’t wish this on anyone. We love Ukrainian brothers.

We do not know for sure, but we think that it’s not ordinary people who are firing at us for eight years. We guess that these are nationalist battalions [Putin and other officials have claimed that Russia has been targeting only ultra-nationalists in Ukraine].”

Natalia, 38, Ilovaisk city, Donetsk

“The situation after the missile came is calm. [The night before the interview DPR air defence shot down a rocket that fell near a private residential building].

Although it was very scary, we did not know what to do and where to run. Many people left after this blow. Now the city is deserted, but all shops are open in the city and goods and essential products are in abundance – there is enough of everything.

I have a sick mother and grandmother. I can’t leave them and they don’t want to leave, either, even though I tried to persuade them.

Most of the city was mobilised, few remained. There are almost no men. Our city is small and there are a lot of my acquaintances among those people.

I can’t say how I feel about the introduction of [Russian] troops [in Ukraine], I don’t understand the whole point of this war, people are dying from all sides, this is a disaster for everyone.

The recognition of the republics was treated with great joy here, everyone was happy and thought that peace would finally come. No one expected such a turn of events, at least I do not know such.”

Anton, 23, Makiivka, Donetsk

“I feel fear and anger. I hoped that there would be no war, and now I am watching as Ukraine – the country in which I lived the best years of my life – falls apart.

But I try not to lose heart, I have to think about myself, about my career. After all, nothing will change because of me (or us).

I feel no emotions about the recognition of DPR and LPR. Not everyone is bad on the Ukrainian side. My relatives stayed in Ukraine and we keep in touch.

I now have a Ukrainian passport, but I applied for the DPR passport because of recognition. I decided that it would come in handy.

In this file photo taken on January 19, 2022, a pedestrian walks past a huge state emblem of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine
A pedestrian walks past a huge state emblem of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in Donetsk [File: Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

Regarding politics, I am upset. I believe that everything will return to normal, but we will have to wait for 10 or even 20 years.

I disagree with the travel ban. I’m planning on leaving, but I can’t leave now. I want independence, and almost everyone told me that if there are any goals in life, then it is better to leave Donbas.

The fact that they began to pick up people on the streets, I saw only from photos on social media, but my friends received summons for the army.

I cannot tell anything about the situation in the city because I don’t go outside at all due to mobilisation. It’s scary to be at the war front. Very scary. I have more plans for life.”

Source: Al Jazeera