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In Donetsk, desperation sets in

Inna Kuprijanova / glbDecember 11, 2014

The people in the mining region of Dunbas in eastern Ukraine are growing weary of the promises made by pro-Russian separatists who control the area. Their trust in the Kyiv government, however, is also in short supply.

Ostukraine Krise Zerstörung in Donetsk
Image: Reuters/A. Bronic

"When I leave my house, I see more dogs than people on the streets. And outside city hall, the people there are screaming for bread." This is how Igor described Ilovaisk, a small city near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Hundreds of people died here this summer in some of the most violent confrontations between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatist militias.

Amid those battles, there was substantial pro-Russia support in Ilovaisk, as many hoped in earnest that the promises made in Russian media for higher wages and pensions would be fulfilled.

That's all gone now, said Igor, who like others requested his last name not be used for his own safety. He is one of the people whose hopes have been dashed. The war has cost him his business. He hasn't seen his family in six months. During the clashes, his wife took their two children to the neighboring region of Krasnodar in southern Russia. "All I can do is cry when I walk into their empty room," Igor told DW. He may have a home here, but he said the chances for a life here with his him family are dim.

Ukraine Euromaidan Gedenken 21.11.2014
Promises in the People's Republic of Donetsk have fallen on deaf earsImage: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

'All we want is peace'

The situation in other parts of Donetsk itself isn't much better. When the violence began, most of the younger people and people who could work fled. According to the Kyiv Institute for Sociology, around 700,000 people now live in Donetsk. At the beginning of the year, the population was over 900,000.

Donetsk was once thought to be a burgeoning economic hub in Ukraine. Now it has quickly becomes a place where needy, sick and old people congregate, people who are waiting in vain for humanitarian aid. According to the Kyiv institute, 60 percent of the people living here are in "serious need" of food.

Svetlana, a former physician here, told DW that she cast her ballot in the referendum organized by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. She, too, hoped Russia would pay her a higher pension. Today, however, she said she no longer believes the separatists, the Kremlin or the administration in Kyiv.

"We don't expect anything from them. All we want is peace. Stop the war - I'm so mad I could call up the hotline for the Donetsk People's Republic and give them a piece of my mind!"

But then the pensioner quickly added: "No, I won't do that. If I did, they would probably come and shoot me."

No money

Unlike Svetlana, Larissa, 45, never backed the separatists, but she did stay in Donetsk.

"My dad was a miner. He is ill and bed-ridden. I will never leave him." Larissa's biggest problem is a shortage of money, though she claims to still have a savings account. "The banks have all closed down their branches here because it unstable," she said.

"At night I dream about searching for banks and cash withdrawal machines," she added.

Larissa also said she has no access to her father's pension. At the moment, Ukrainian pensions are only accessible in areas governed by Kyiv. To get the payments, her father would have to travel to such places, which means, he would have to cross separatist checkpoints. "It's no surprise that he can't access this money," she said.

Kohlmine in Donezk, Ukraine
Donetsk and the surrounding region is the heart of Ukraine's coal industryImage: /AFP/Getty Images/S. Supinsky

'Never thought once about consequences'

Oleg, 50, from Donetsk, said he doubts that normalcy will return to his home during the next few years. From his perspective, the conflict will only end once the money runs out to pay the soldiers' salaries.

"But they have weapons. They will rob our population. There won't be real peace," Oleg warned. He also said he doubts that reconstruction of Donetsk and the surrounding area will set in any time soon, because "investments are only for stabile regions."

Oleg blamed the current crisis on the administration of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after being deposed earlier this year.

"These rulers have divided our country, and all they wanted was to gain wealth," Oleg said. "Did they think about the consequences of their actions? No, they never thought about that once."