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War zone with no frontline

Roman Goncharenko / glbApril 20, 2014

The trip from Donetsk to Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine is like a journey into a different country. The further one travels, the more apparent this becomes. DW's Roman Goncharenko describes a warzone without frontlines.

Stadtmitte in Slowjansk
Image: DW/R. Goncharenko

It is a mild, gray April morning as we depart from Donetsk. We are heading around 110 kilometers (70 miles) to the north, to the small provincial city of Sloviansk - the unofficial headquarters of eastern Ukraine's separatist movement.

It's where the "green men" are located, as the heavily armed officers without any insignia here are called.

Blockades for referendum

The asphalted road leads us past blackened fields that seem to go on forever, with smoke billowing from the stacks of chemical plants in the distance. Around 20 minutes into our journey, we encounter the first roadblock. Two rows of stacked tires force cars to divert from the main road. Black, red and blue flags flap in the wind, the colors of the "Donetsk People's Republic." Young men are directing traffic. There are no weapons, only a few Molotov cocktails.

"We're not interested in any Geneva deal," says one man, who has a dark face and is missing a few teeth. "We're staying here," he says, and takes a drag of his cigarette, "Until we get an independent Republic of Donetsk or are allowed to join Russia." A referendum is scheduled for the start of May.

Barricades surrounding a municipal building
The further east you go, the more barricades you'll seeImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

In eastern Ukraine, there are many people who share these sentiments. The coal-mining region of Donbas has been industrial since Soviet times. Gigantic steel factories and simple one-storey homes are what you can see from the streets. It seems some houses haven't been painted in over 30 years. On some, you can still see the hammer and the sickle.

Fear of jets overhead

We arrive in Kramatorsk, a city of around 165,000 people. You can see posters lining the streets with the Ukrainian colors: blue and yellow. "Ukraine is united," they say. On one of those posters, the word "lies" has been scribbled. The center of town is completely abandoned. A few people are taking a walk with their children, past the statue of Lenin, feeding the pigeons. "I'm in favor of joining Russia," says Shenya.

Local resident Shenya
Shenya told DW that her son was afraid of fighter jets flying overheadImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

She is in her twenties and is a nurse. She doesn't accept the new Kyiv government. "They used a violent coup to get power," she says, and complains about how Ukrainian soldiers mistreat separatists here. "Fighter jets fly low over our city. My son is afraid."

Shenya would vote to join Russia if a referendum is held - "because Russia is richer," she says.

Not everybody here sees it that way. Wassyl, a 57-year-old, cringes at the very word, "Russia," but makes the impression of not wanting to say the wrong thing.

Local residen Wassyl
Wassyl said Ukraine should have more independenceImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

"We would like to remain in Ukraine, but with more autonomy." Andriy, standing next to Wassyl, doesn't want to belong to Russia, either. But the unemployed 30-year-old also doesn't endorse the Kyiv government, and agrees that a referendum is needed. Would they welcome Russian troops? A woman standing nearby, who says she's retired, replies before anyone else. "Sure! They should come," she says with a wide smile.

'Green men' with Russian accents

But Russian troops have already arrived, says the government in Kyiv. Russia denies this. In Sloviansk, around 15 kilometers from Kramatorsk, masked and heavily armed men in unmarked green uniforms have had control for weeks. They have occupied several municipal buildings, and they are known here as the "green men." That's partly because those uniforms were worn by soldiers in Crimea - before it was annexed by Russia.

Technically, the uniforms aren't the same here in Sloviansk, but many of these officers appear to be Russian. Three of them face reporters and hold a kind of improvised press conference. "We are former Ukrainian soldiers who can no longer stand to watch how Russia is subordinated here," says one man with a black mask on. His Kalashnikov was given to him by Ukrainian paratroopers, he said, who just days ago gave up their weapons and disbanded.

Soldiers in green uniforms
Citizens seemed to have no fear of the 'green men'Image: DW/R. Goncharenko

The way he speaks raises suspicions that he is actually Russian. There's a big difference between the Russian spoken here in eastern Ukraine and that spoken in Russia. And the sandbag barricade outside the occupied municipal building in Sloviansk looks a lot more professional than the one in Kramatorsk. "We're staying here until the referendum," says another soldier. Supplies are unloaded from a car outside the building - munitions and food. One man, in civilian attire, installs a metal screen on the door. "So that nobody can throw a grenade in here," he explains.

Desire for a better life

The scene on the street outside the building paints a more peaceful picture: Soldiers have borrowed skateboards from local kids and ride around the Lenin statue. Parents take walks with their children. The armed men appear not to bother them. "We're not afraid," says one young mom. "They've come here to help us."

You can hear the same from young men sitting next to one of the barricades. Whether it's with Ukraine or Russia, it doesn't really matter. "Russia is wealthier," says one of them, so that's why he would join the neighbor to the east. "We just want a better life here, that's all," says another. He repeats that sentence a number of times. It seems to represent the view of most people here.