After several busy days in Eastern-Ukraine and meeting lots of people one unavoidably wonders whether central government in Kiev will ever be able to reverse the situation in this region.
One thing is for certain: believing the impression given by media as if the Ukrainian army is in control of most of the Donbas region and the extreme separatists besieged in Slovyansk, you’ve surely been deceived.
In reality, separatists are to be found basically in every settlement in Donbas. They’re either standing guard at roadblocks or are otherwise busy – like with picketing. And they aren’t intelligence officers from Russia – even though Donbas has hundreds of these, probably – but just simple locals. To see them is to grasp that.
They all are unavoidably interested in you, as every foreign journalist is a suspicious element. So suspicious as they need to have pistols waved in their face and screamed at: any king of photographing is potential espionage – any picture taken of self-defence vigilantes and published over the media may mean being murdered by Ukrainian bandits later on.
And should the roadblock chief discover that the journalists are driving a car rented from the hostile Kiev, at once the option arises to confiscate the vehicle for the good of the People’s Republic. Luckily, we weren’t so unlucky due to being protected by a small sheet of paper with a stamp – an official journalist accrediting certificate issued by Donbas People’s Republic.
Extremely rare in Donbas, however, are Ukrainian soldiers seeing to order. In our searches, we failed to find one.
Militiamen abound in the region, but they are siding with the pro-Russians. Or, what else should one conclude from the sight one beholds in the checkpoint while entering Donbas, where a bunch of Berkut special forces machine-gun men in red berets are whiling their time away behind the traffic inspectors.
Yes, Slovyansk is indeed surrounded by the Ukrainian army, but in the radius of dozens of kilometres the surrounding access roads are still controlled by local combatants. As a local Ukrainian-speaking village guy was showing us a bloody surprise attack scene the day after, he used the word «ours» for separatists and the Ukrainian army were «they» for him.
Kramatorsk, a dozen kilometres from Slovyansk and according to media «cleansed» from separatists weeks ago by the Ukrainian army, is in reality under total vigilante control. In this Postimees, coming on the scene, was fully convinced as eyewitness.
Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas are sitting around in some bush somewhere, lacking manpower and military technology to take permanent control of the surroundings. On the public highways, one will not meet the «Ukrainians». One does, however, meet hundreds and hundreds of separatists there.
Separatists involved in clashes claim that behind the young Ukrainians, in battles, there stand the infamous Right Sector representatives seeing to it that none of the youths draw back. «Like the Czekists of old who shot those who retreated,» said a vigilante wearing British army uniform.
Does anybody remember news from a German newspaper that seemed such a folly, telling us that there were over 400 mercenaries of a private security company, now unemployed after Afghanistan, serving in Ukraine? Perhaps a claim that is part of the information war, but the story was repeated to us in Kramatorsk by several self-defence vigilantes. «More than knowing it, I have personally been destroying them here – Negroes, Americans, Englishmen, Italians, Frenchmen,» said a local combatant who randomly wandered towards our camera.
He wasn’t ashamed of his name or his face. «Over here, in the morgue, we got several Negro corpses. Since when do we have Negroes fighting in the Ukrainian army?»
As the Ukrainian regular forces were approaching the region by highways a couple of weeks ago, to commence an anti-terror operation to «cleanse» the surroundings of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, they had to pass through and burn up a dozen roadblocks by separatists.
«When they came with their technology you know they were shooting over our heads and my men took running unto the field. Can’t go against tanks with your bare chest, can you,» said the chief of a Druzhkivka check post, close to Kramatorsk. His guys are armed with one-barrel shotgun and a pistol. And most of the burnt roadblocks have been restored.
The separatists involved in real military activities do, however, have real battle technology at their disposal. On Wednesday in Kramatorsk, Postimees beheld how armfuls of new, still packaged battle technology were brought to the separatist headquarters. «You just try to take a picture of me right now,» threatened a combatant hauling several RPG grenade launchers into the shelter. Minutes before, the guy had been involved in a friendly talk with Postimees.
There having been no news of a Ukrainian army storage being seized, it is not difficult to guess where these new guns come from. And what should we think of a Kramatorsk separatist chief driving around in a SUV with a half concealed diplomatic number plate?
Kramatorsk self-defence vigilantes vow not to give in to the Kiev junta. They will fight till death. The sentence sounded repeatedly. Thus: without negotiations, hard to see a swift end to the conflict. But to speak from power positions, by guns, will wind up very bloody for both sides.
In Kramatorsk, there were several ladies, advanced in years, tending to lawn and flowers a few hundred metres from the separatist headquarters. We asked them what they were thinking of it all, seeing ordinary civilians were still prevalent in the area. Surprisingly, our question was not followed by the usual rant against the journalists who are nothing but «NATO stooges who only write lies and aren’t worth talking to anyway».
Rather, the women asked us if we would be satisfied with a war situation in our hometown, lasting for weeks. «We have to be reconciled to this war. We cannot agree with these self-imposed rulers in Kiev, as they took power without asking anyone,» said the ladies. «Is this normal, that they are now throwing out parties that do not fit them, out of the parliament in Kiev?»
«Do you really want a merger with Russia? «Well who needs Russia? Nothing good comes from there. We want a mutually considerate Ukraine.»
Mutual consideration, in Donbas, would not be bad at all. While by the look of it people are quite indifferent towards the separatist uprising, there isn’t a word of praise towards the Ukrainian army.
As a telling proof of that, there’s the bar named Totshka, standing at the highway leading to Slovyansk. Late in the evening of May 3rd, heading towards the city, Ukrainian troops shot it full of holes from machine guns and automatic weapons, as they blasted by. Just for the fun of it.
For several weeks now, the bar is having forced repairs. «I don’t know why the army did that, what did they have against the building,» shrugs the bar owner. «Good that we’d give our staff a night off, and the bar was empty of visitors. Just imagine if we’d have a company here, celebrating something...»
Hard to win favour with locals, like that. But: what would bring peace to the Donetsk area?
«The Ukrainian army should get out of here. Back to where they came from. We did not invite them and we will fight them till death. Over there, at home in Kramatorsk, I got a wife and two kids waiting, but I will not go home till the enemy is beaten,» vowed a local combatant.
The end of East-Ukrainian crisis is still nowhere in sight.