After a year and a half of war in the Donbass region, people there are desperate for peace, no matter how they get it. But according to politicians in Kyiv and separatist leaders, tensions are on the increase.
During the day, life in Donetsk almost seems normal. The worst fighting usually happens at night. In the morning, people explain how shots were fired over their houses and where the canons and mortar guns were positioned.
"I went on the balcony and saw two cannons. First, they shot in one direction, then in the other," said one woman who lives in the city center. "The Donetsk People's Republic pretends as if it's being fired on from the Ukrainian side. And that's easy at night, because no one can tell who is shooting in which direction and killing people," she said.
Many residents on the outskirts near the front line are reporting that Ukrainian government troops are firing shots that are hitting their homes. Pro-Russian separatist media in the Donbass region report the same, saying the activity is part of the build-up to a large-scale offensive by the Ukrainian army. There were even rumors that President Petro Poroshenko personally wanted to reclaim Donetsk on Monday to mark the country's Day of Independence. "People are only talking about this coming offensive, but it's ridiculous. Poroshenko is at a meeting today in Berlin," said one Donetsk resident.
Hundreds of thousands have left
Quiet nights are a blessing for people in Donetsk. After a peaceful period, they try to adjust to a life without war and forget the terrible experiences they've had. They take their children to school again, and those who still have jobs go to work.
According to unofficial numbers, there are still about 600,000 people living in a city that once had a population of 1.1 million. The city often feels deserted. Crowds only gather when there's something to be had for little money. Even former luxury boutiques now offer cheap goods.
"You have to be happy when you wake up in the morning, and if you're still getting a salary or pension. And you also have to be happy when you can buy something and it doesn't cost too much," said one pensioner. High prices for food have people once again turning to their dachas, or small country houses, with their little fruit and vegetable gardens.
Adjusting to a new way of life
The city walls are plastered with peeling, faded posters promoting the Donetsk People's Republic. Donetsk is also full of little notes telling people how and where to get what they need, for example, cash withdrawals at Ukrainian banks and transport to get there. Many people want to get to transit areas along the dividing line, or to go to Russia. That's because it's now safer and easier to get to Ukrainian territory controlled by Kyiv via Russia, than to cross the front line.
"Because of the blockade, you have to look for other ways around. Everyone is adjusting, trying to get used to this new way of life," said a bus driver.
A life suited only to pensioners and criminals
Supposed humanitarian aid convoys from Russia arrive regularly in the Donetsk People's Republic. "They're probably carrying food and weapons. How else can the separatists continue to run their camps?" said Alexey from Donetsk. He lost his job on a large construction site due to the war, and is now making ends meet by doing odd jobs.
He says that only criminals and worn-out senior citizens could possibly enjoy life in the Donetsk People's Republic. "Many of them are poor, but it's also no secret that many are successfully drawing two pensions: One from Ukraine, and one from the separatists. And criminals always feel at home in grey zones," Alexey said. He's convinced that most people in Donetsk are unhappy living a life without opportunity and dealing with the frequent shelling. Yet he doesn't think that anything is going to change anytime soon.
'A proxy war can take forever'
"Politicians are negotiating, business people are making deals, but normal people have to bear the brunt of the situation," said one woman living in a district of Donetsk near the front. She says her brother went to war to fight for the Donetsk People's Republic, against his family's wishes.
"The whole family tried to stop him, but it didn't work. He's climbed the ranks now and has an influential position," she said, adding that commanders get a good salary.
"I heard someone recently describe our situation as a proxy war. And that can take forever. Then we have to continue to live like this. One side wants to liberate us, the other wants to protect us. And it's the mothers who suffer," she said sadly.