Last week, not far from Donetsk in southeastern Ukraine, a man in camouflage-style underpants and a stained sleeveless shirt brandishing a Kalashnikov assault rifle demanded to see my passport. Over the past decade, lots of men with all sorts of weapons have asked me for my ID -- some of them were far from pleasant, but at least they all had the decency of wearing trousers. My first impulse was to suggest that he get dressed before asking other people for identification documents. But his Kalashnikov made me reconsider, and I handed over the passport with a bright smile.
Southeast Ukraine in the days before the May 25 presidential election made one think of those unforgettable documentaries from Darfur or Somalia -- people dressed in fatigues, swinging their guns out of car windows. In fact, my colleague and I saw one truly impressive vehicle in Slavyansk, the insurgent stronghold in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
The car, a local resident told us, was “confiscated” from a man who had dared break the curfew and drive around at night. Anti-Kiev insurgents spray-painted it in camouflage colors, smashed the windows, cut out a “skylight” in the roof, and drove around at top speed, with their Kalashnikovs sticking out. It would’ve been funny if the place wasn’t increasingly becoming reminiscent of a war zone, mortar strikes included.
A tiny elderly woman led us through the ruins of her house in a village near Slavyansk, telling how she was reading her Bible when a deafening noise resounded, and the wall just collapsed. “Where should I go now? It’s all lost,” she said. In the evening, when shelling begins, Granny Zina, as her neighbors call her, hides in their basement. Electricity is gone in that part of the village, and the candle supply is already running low.
Another house on the same street is half-destroyed by mortar shells, and several more damaged houses are just steps away. The sites of the strikes leave little doubt that the shells are coming from the Ukrainian military base on a hill across from Slavyansk – in response to shooting and shelling by insurgents who are in and around the village.
Granny Zina speaks to us in Ukrainian, the only language she knows. She does not understand what’s happening and says that she did not expect to see another war in her lifetime. As a matter of international law, the intensity of the fighting appears to fall short of being an armed conflict for which the laws of war apply, but try to explain that to Granny Zina and the others. A mortar shell strikes nearby and as the ground shakes from the explosion, I’m no longer confident in my own legalese.
The next day, two journalists die in mortar fire in another village close to Slavyansk. One of them, Andrei Mironov, worked and survived through both Chechen wars to be killed here and now.
A psychiatric hospital damaged by shelling, which we visit the following day, still has dozens of patients in it, and the story told by nurses about evacuating the patients to the basement at night has an uncanny resemblance to that of the psychiatric ward in Grozny, where patients wailed helplessly as the bombs fell. In both cases, the patients who were left have no one in the world.
As we drive through insurgent roadblocks we get to see armed teenagers and armed middle-aged men who were clearly drunk. Men with real military bearing and discipline are few, most of the roadblocks are manned by rag-tag people. In Luhansk, a local resident told us that to get a gun you just have to go to the insurgent headquarters with your passport and sign up. So much for discipline. Having overtaken the government security services and the police, they have plenty of military weapons. The neighboring Donetsk region is no different.
While in the rest of Ukraine people were casting their ballots for a new president, all election-related activity was paralyzed in the southeast of the country, with armed groups raiding election commissions, harassing, beating and even kidnapping commission members and staff. Ukraine's southeast, with its population of 6.5 million people, is sliding into chaos and essentially turning into a lawless enclave where armed people are running amok.
We were due to fly out of Donetsk on May 26, the day after the election, which for all practical purposes did not happen in this region, but early that morning, some armed men took over the local airport and our flight was no more.
The taxi driver who drove us to the train station grumbled on the way, “I’m not pro-Kiev, I’m not anti-Kiev, I just want someone to stop this mess.” Many people we spoke to in the southeast feel precisely the same and crave normal life above and beyond anything else.