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Ukraine crisis: Long journey home to rebel-run Donetsk


Little is heard from the two rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine at the centre of Russia’s military row with the West. This is the story of one resident, forced to leave the city of Donetsk when it was seized in 2014, who went back for a visit. We are not naming them for their safety.

There used to be a comfortable sleeper train between the central station in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and Donetsk, but now you have to make the trip in an unmarked minibus.

It can take anything up to 27 hours – as long as a journey from Europe to New Zealand and far less comfortable.


Kyiv train station

Image source, Getty Images

I don’t have a permit to access territory held by Russian-backed rebels directly from Ukraine, so I have to go the long way round via Russia.

Technically it’s illegal for citizens of Ukraine to take this route, so when our minibus reaches the Russian border the driver tells us to say that we are heading to a wedding in a nearby Russian town.

To cross into rebel-held areas in Ukraine we transfer to another vehicle.

Its registration plates are issued by the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, or DNR, which is unrecognised by the outside world. The driver tells us he has already been behind the wheel for 24 hours.

When we reach the border, I am able to cross with my “internal” Ukrainian passport because I am still registered as having an address in Donetsk.

Border crossing between DNR and Russia

Image source, Getty Images

Our passports are taken from us and soon returned to everyone but me.

I am asked to step out of the van to answer some questions. I am taken into a cabin with a desk and an old computer monitor, and I try not to be nervous.

I am offered a seat as a well-spoken man in a leather jacket examines me closely. He asks how old I am, where I work and whether I travel often to the DNR. Soon I’m allowed to re-join the other passengers in the minibus.

We cross the border and it’s now just 120km (75 miles) to go before we get to my old city.

Map of eastern Ukraine

1px transparent line

I am nearly home, but Donetsk is not the home I recognise.

It was only 10 years ago that Donetsk was a key venue for the European football championship in Ukraine and Poland.

In preparation for the tournament Donetsk saw major reconstruction. A new airport was built, roads were fixed and shiny new hotels opened their doors.

Throughout Euro 2012 the city was teeming with English, French, Spanish and Portuguese fans. It felt like a joyful European city.

Donbass Arena

Image source, Getty Images

Now in early 2022 my city has changed beyond recognition.

A grand Stalinist building in the city centre is home to the rebel republic’s tax ministry. The building is in good condition and surrounded by neat flower beds. But many shops and cafes nearby are closed and their windows boarded up. An empty playground is overgrown with weeds.

There are more signs of decay on the outdoor tennis courts of a nearby sports centre; the bushes there are as tall as me.

The enormous White Swan shopping centre used to buzz with shoppers. But where there used to be every imaginable kind of shop from shoes to jewellery, there is now a ghost building.

It would be wrong to say that all of Donetsk is devoid of life. In another part of the city centre many restaurants and cafes are filled with customers. Local theatres show performances by visiting Russian troupes and I’m told they are always sold out.

But head away from the centre, to the north-east, there are streets full of deserted blocks of flats, some visibly damaged by shells and bullets.

This area was hit hard during the battle for Donetsk airport in September 2014.

Damaged building, Donetsk airport

Image source, Getty Images

Some residential buildings close to the centre have been renovated but many are left to deteriorate further.

During the daytime many of Donetsk’s streets are just as busy as they were before the war but by nightfall they are almost completely empty.

Everyone is eager to get home before a nightly curfew that lasts from 23:00 to 05:00.

It’s strictly enforced and I hear stories of people being detained for the night just for popping outside to take the rubbish out.

Faded glory at the Kaffa café in Donetsk

A couple of kilometres from the centre is Donetsk’s former contemporary arts centre. “Isolation” was my city’s answer to London’s Tate Modern. Now, according to those who survived it, the building is a notorious prison.

International high street shops, such as Benetton, Nike, Zara or Adidas, which existed here before the war, are all gone.

To buy clothes, shoes or domestic appliances, many locals have to cross the border into Russia. Those who cannot afford to travel head to the market or small shops, where supply is limited.

The supermarket shelves are well stocked with alcohol and snacks, but better quality products are pricey. Right next to imported bottles of Tennessee whisky sits something labelled Red Daniels, at less than a 10th of the price.

On one of my final evenings before I leave Donetsk I meet up with a school friend and head for a café in Lenin square.

After McDonalds closed its outlets in Donetsk in the spring of 2014, three of them reopened under the new name of DonMac.

Box of French fries from fast food outlet 'DonMak'

Image source, Getty Images

We order burgers, fries and coffee and I can’t help pointing out that it tastes different from regular fast food.

“It’s like this with everything here,” my friend complains bitterly. “Everything we used to have has been replaced with a low quality, knock-off version!”

“We live in a dystopia where people are barely surviving, but the street slogans all boast about the bright future.”

I wonder if the Donbas could ever return to Ukraine, and my friend shrugs, pointing out that most locals now have Russian passports and a new generation of children has been born since 2014.

“Anyone working in the DNR government or civil service wouldn’t want to go back to Ukraine. With each passing year we believe going back is less and less likely.”

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