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Better not to tempt fate in Donetsk

Geert Groot Koerkamp, DonetskFebruary 17, 2015

The Petrovsky district of Donetsk has been under fire since summer, forcing local residents into dark basement shelters. Geert Groot Koerkamp went to see for himself and says there is little faith in a durable peace.

woman stands near entrance to a shelter in Donetsk
Image: DW/G. Koerkamp

The Petrovsky district is only a 20-minute drive away from the center of Donetsk. For months this has been a virtual no-go area for most people. Apart from a handful of armed men, few people risk going out onto the streets here. Since last summer, this area has seen shelling on an almost daily basis, forcing many locals to seek shelter underground.

The main bomb shelter in the Petrovsky district is located in the huge basement of the local Culture House. In peace time this was a venue for concerts and other cultural activities. But for several hundred people, the basement has been their home for weeks and, for some, even months. Eleonora Tsvetkova has been living here since last August.

"We only rush home every now and then to wash, but apart from that we stay here permanently," she said just days before the ceasefire brokered in Minsk set in. "Last night there was heavy shelling, on one side of this building all windows are broken. Not one day passes without us being bombed, both at night and during the day. Who is shelling? The Ukrainians, of course."

Woman in a basement shelter in Donetsk
Eleonora Tsvetkova has lived in the basement shelter for monthsImage: DW/G. Koerkamp

Ceasefire has not changed much

According to the inhabitants of the shelter, the situation has not changed significantly since both sides in the conflict agreed to a ceasefire from February 15. "Virtually nothing has changed here," says Lyubov Voyevchik. "There is no ceasefire, or it is very fragile, to say the least. Yesterday several shells landed not far from here. During the day, people run to their homes to have a shower or do some other things. But in the evening they go back to the shelter, because nobody believes the ceasefire will hold."

Voyevchik says she heard shelling when she visited the Tekstilshchik neighborhood not far away. "Any minute they may open fire again. You cannot trust them."

With "them," she refers to the Ukrainian troops, whom she holds responsible for any breach of the ceasefire. People here in general believe that Kyiv started the war, not the pro-Russian separatists who say they seek independence or, at any rate, a high degree of autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. This is the message that people here have been hearing since early last year, via both Russian television channels and local rebel-controlled media. The overthrow of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was presented as a "fascist" coup d'état. The new rulers in Kyiv then sent troops to quell an uprising in the Russian-speaking east of the country, according to this narrative.

Among the hundreds of people living in the Petrovsky district shelter there are up to 70 children. They do not go to school and hardly ever venture outside. "They have been robbed of fresh air," says Lyubov Voyevchik. The children get little to eat, and the food they do get is low-quality.

Little help from outside

Humanitarian aid rarely gets here, though recently some goods were finally delivered by military men. "That was for the first time in six months," says Voyevchik.

Most children have lived through traumatic experiences, among them Stasik, a 4-year-old boy. "Grandma went to make dinner for me," he recalls. "Then there was an enormous bang. There was even shrapnel coming through the ceiling. Then there was another bang. I was very scared. But then mama came to help us."

The people living in the shelter are afraid to go outside. But why haven't they tried to leave for somewhere that's safer? Zina Yesikova, 70 years old, says that she simply does not have the means to go anywhere else.

"My husband worked in the mines for 40 years," she says. "He died on August 15 from heart failure. On my own, I am afraid at home, that's why I'm here. At home, when shelling started, I would have to run to this place, but I then can never be sure whether I will make it or not. Many people have chosen to stay in their homes, many others have left altogether. I have stayed, because I would not know where to go." Yesikova says her daughter lives not far away, in the Maryinka district of Donetsk. But at least until the ceasefire the shelling there was even worse.

The 250 or so people in the basement of the Culture House sleep on mattresses and foldaway beds. Katya Dynya, a young mother, occupies a small tent on the basement floor, together with her 1-year-old daughter Miroslava. There is only one toilet for all inhabitants.

People in a shelter
People hardly dare go outside, and nobody believes the truce will holdImage: DW/G. Koerkamp

Some people here say they preferred to stay in their homes until they realized that that had become too dangerous. Olga Berestovaya, 60, had a narrow escape when a shell hit her apartment on January 20. "It went straight through the piano," she says. "Luckily I happened to be in another room at the moment. But then I decided to leave and no longer tempt fate."

Sharing the little one has

The members of the basement community share whatever they have, says Eleonora Tsvetkova. "We cook together and eat together, so that there is enough and that it is affordable." She lives here with her 3-year-old daughter Lilya. The little girl has markedly grown older as a result of the ordeals. Tsvetkova says she even tries to calm her parents in stressful situations, for example when they were visiting their house just when a shell landed on it. "She will turn 3-and-a-half on February 15," Tsvetkova says. "But she has grown up all of a sudden. Every day she asks me: When will the war end? Don't worry, mum, it will end. But just tell me when!"

Eleonora's husband - Lilya's father- prefers to stay in the apartment, because he does not like to live in a basement with so many other people. In case of heavy shelling he will dash for the shelter. "When they start shelling I am here with my child, in safety," Tsvetkova says. "My husband is tall and thin, he can quickly make his way. He knows he can save himself, but he would not manage to save all three of us, in case something happened."

The school next to the Culture House has been bombed, the roof has been heavily damaged. But the children in the basement still receive tasks they can carry out at home, from children who visit another school which is still in use in another neighborhood. Eleonora Tsvetkova: "And with the small children we draw and we dance, we talk to them as much as we can. The last remaining kindergarten in our neighborhood was destroyed on January 26."

Lyubov Voyevchik does not hide her sympathy for the rebel cause, but acknowledges that ordinary people like her suffer on both sides of the front line. "Of course, our fighters are also shelling, for example in Debaltseve. But what can you do? This is a war. They came here with their weapons. Donetsk was a beautiful city. We had the best airport in Europe, and see what has happened. What have they done to our city?"

Sooner or later, each war ends in peace. Will reconciliation be possible after all that happened? Voyevchik is not so sure. She says she feels that Kyiv has always considered the people from the east to be second-class citizens: "Will that change when the war ends? What will happen? Nobody knows."