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Donetsk: The calm before the storm?

Filip Warwick is a photojournalist who has stayed in Donetsk after many foreign journalists have left. Here he documents how daily life goes on, but is this the calm before the storm in Donetsk?

It is late morning, the skies are clear and the sun is shining - the mood is, for the moment, relatively calm on the streets of Donetsk. But if you scratch below the surface, there is a feeling of anxiety which is driving many people's activities, even as life appears to carry on as normal. Some residents have been busy exchanging Ukrainian hryvnia's for foreign currency; others have been stocking up on food supplies, and still others are preparing to leave the city although sometimes the roads are hampered somewhat by concrete blocks placed by pro-Russian separatists on various roads as you can see in the right of the photo below.

Leaving en masse

Foreign journalists have also recently left en masse as tensions continue. Many of the journalists came exclusively to cover the elections but some feared for their safety as the number of roadblocks has increased. It was suggested that I leave the city center hotel where I had been staying and move to a residential part of the city. But that move gave me a chance to observe how citizens here are going about their daily lives.

People load their car to leave the city.

Leaving the city.

Many in Slavyansk had hoped for the situation to stabilize but after fighting continued this week, in and around the city, many have decided to leave the city altogether. In Donetsk, many fear that the situation will repeat itself. Information provided by local and Russian television have laid the blame for the conflict and tension at the door of the Ukrainian forces.

Fears of urban warfare

Television stations have been warning the local population that the Ukrainian army intends to further advance their position within the city. The Ukrainian forces are better equipped, and many here fear that urban warfare could break out. This is behind many people's decision to leave the city.

Children play near their house in eastern Ukraine.

Children are still playing but they can't stray far from home.

In one of the many playground areas found around Donetsk's residential blocks, I met Olya, a mother of two children who told me the current situation is difficult for everyone: "Our children used to play outside on their own, they would walk to Lenin Square or the local park, now that is impossible."

Waiting for safety to return

She adds: “How can they now play? Knowing that the Ukrainian army is at the airport, they may attack at any moment – when our children hear a plane, they run away. They call us terrorists and separatists but who's doing all the shooting and killing?"

Olya, one of the volunteers who works with the blood donation service.

Yulia had to turn people away because so many wanted to donate blood.

After Monday's deadly assault on Donetsk airport by the Ukrainian army, many of the separatist Vostok Battalion's militiamen, including 34 Russian citizens, were killed. Further confrontation is expected.

Donating blood

Many people from Donetsk have been coming in to donate blood, not only to help the wounded, but also in anticipation of any further casualties that may result from future skirmishes. Yulia is working as a blood bank volunteer. She told me she'd been telling people to return the next day as they had reached the day's capacity for processing the blood they had already received.

People walk past boarded up shops in the center of the city.

Daily life continues but some shops have been boarded up.

Though tension hangs in the air, most cafes, bars as well as municipal buildings are open. Buses and trolleybuses that form the city's public transport are also seen running as normal. However some private businesses have taken the decision to board up the windows with large sheets of plywood.

Boarded up

The cinema is closed until further notice too; the explanation is that many people have decided to stay indoors given the current situation.

Liza the ferret goes for a walk.

Liza the ferret's owner would like the West to understand the eastern region's struggle.

As the sun sets over Donetsk Alexei takes his ferret, Liza, for an evening stroll. Walking along the boulevard he says he is sad to see the current state of affairs in Donetsk.

'Accept our cause'

He continues by asking why is there a general acceptance in the West of what happened in Kyiv and not here – just as the people in Kyiv fought for their cause, the people of Donetsk and the Donbas region are now doing the same, he believes. The Donbas region also has the right to self-determination and this can be achieved with the support of its people, the miners, the "Donetsk People's Republic" and the Vostok Battalion.

Miners take part in an anti-Kyiv, pro-Russian rally in Donetsk.

These miners support the Donetsk people's Republic actions and are pro-Russian.

On Wednesday, around 500 coal miners walked the streets of Donetsk towards Lenin Square in support of the Vostok Batallion in defense of the DNR (Donets'ka Narodna Respublika – or Donetsk People's Republic).

The miners rally

The DNR was declared "legal and valid" by the Donetsk Republic's organizational committee after the May 11th referendum but condemned by Kyiv and the West.

Denis Pushilin and other separatist leaders address a miner's rally.

Standing firm.

The miners, from the largest mine workers' union in Ukraine, held flags and banners that read "We will revive the power of the Donbas." Historically and economically the Donbas region is considered Ukraine's industrial heartland with its numerous heavy coal mines and steel mills. The miners attending this morning's rally belong to the Union of Mine Workers, an organization that has close links to the Party of the Regions (the party once headed by Viktor Yanukovych, the ousted president who fled during the Maidan protests). This marked the end of these miners' "neutrality" as prior to the rally, miners had not involved themselves in anti-government activities. Other miners' unions stayed away, to avoid association with the rally.

One of the separatist leaders, Denis Pushilin talks to miners and the foreign press.

The press surround one of the separatist leaders, Denis Pushilin.

Talking to the miners the Donetsk People's Republic leader Denis Pushilin said that "Kyiv does not rule us anymore; we will no longer accept [their rule]." Pushilin addressed the crowd saying "more and more volunteers" were crossing Ukraine's eastern border from Russia to support the Donetsk People's Republic. As he continued his speech shouting: "We will drive fascism away" a Ukrainian fighter jet could be heard overhead.

Looting and confusion reigns

The spoils of looting are on display in the city hall.

Looted goods

Things were confused on Thursday morning. By Thursday afternoon, the separatist Vostok Battalion surrounded the Donetsk People's Republic headquarters and forced all individuals to leave the building, at the same time, destroying the barricades protecting it. The Battalion's senior commanders had said that the emergency takeover of the building was not a coup. They wanted to secure the building, they said, due to a recent rise in looting and crime.

A fluid situation

They believe that certain elements within the Republic's structure had looted the entire Metro supermarket during the Ukrainian military air strike. Inside the headquarters, goods were scattered throughout the building, with discarded food and beer bottles, the place looked more like a rubbish dump than a committee building. On Friday, reports suggest the building is now empty with the Vostok Batallion nowhere to be seen.

One of the separatist battallion poses for the camera

A member of the separatist militia sits contemplating the situation.

Walking along one of the floors of the administration building a member of the Vostok Battalion simply said: "How can people live in such conditions? This is not a building, it is a pigsty." He is 30 years old with a wife and a son. I ask him, how does one manage with a family and being part of the Vostok Battalion? He contemplates for a few seconds before answering: "This is not an easy question to answer, if you had told me six months ago that I would be wearing military fatigues, body armor and carrying an automatic weapon, I would never have believed you."

'Sometimes, it is best not to think at all'

He continued: "Some acquaintances are afraid for my safety; they fear the same fate awaits me as those who are not with us. Others have called me a killer -that I kill. Sometimes it is best not to think about this, not to think at all."

The evenings are now very quiet in Donetsk. So, even before you can see them, you can hear in the distance a group of about 30 people singing orthodox psalms and prayers. They are carrying crosses and icons, many of them are pensioners. They can be seen walking the streets of Donetsk every day. On Wednesday a procession with a large cross went to the airport to stand between both sides in order to stop the fighting – but some didn't return that day.

Billboards calling for peace to the world with a white dove on a blue background can be found around the city.

Most people here hope that peace and normal life will return.

Earlier this week the mayor of Donetsk asked the city residents to stay indoors and refrain from traveling -particularly those residents situated near the airport and the city train station.

Praying for peace

But despite the advice, many locals are weighing up their options and looking for modes of transport out of this situation. In the meantime, blue boards with a white dove can be seen at busy junctions in the city. They are not specifically related to today's conflict, but their message calling for "peace on earth" seems to reflect what most normal people feel in this town, that the conflict and tension should end and their lives could return to normal.

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