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Touching down in Donetsk two weeks ago, you would have little idea you were entering the stronghold of Ukraine’s separatist rebellion. You’d arrive at Donetsk’s state of the art airport terminal – built for the Euro 2012 football championship – and glide through customs and baggage claim. Maybe you’d treat yourself to a cappuccino.
But today, Donetsk airport looks like something out of an apocalypse film. Its gleaming exterior has been destroyed by mortar shelling and air missile strikes.
To leave Donetsk these days, you must go by train or take a flight from nearby Dnipropetrovsk – a 200km drive that turns into a four-hour journey if you want to try to avoid some separatist checkpoints.
Leaving the city on Saturday, gunmen from a paramilitary unit calling itself the Vostok Battalion stopped our car at a checkpoint it had been impossible to avoid. For the first time, a fellow journalist and I were ordered not just to show our papers but to get out of the car and be frisked. With their guns trained on us, I was ordered to bend over and flip my hair over my head as one of the gunmen vigorously patted down my scalp and neck, presumably checking for some kind of illicit substance or insignia.
It was both preposterous and terrifying. Three months into east Ukraine’s separatist rebellion, the conflict is starting to feel like civil war as Kiev and the separatists turn towards more aggressive measures.
Slavyansk, a city of more than 100,000 people, sees shelling on a close to daily basis now between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russia separatists, with the surrounding villages caught in the crossfire.
The violence has spread from Slavyansk to Lugansk, a city of 450,000, reaching as far as the Donetsk city limits following the airport air strike. For days residents who live within a kilometre of the airport were trapped inside their homes during the continued shelling and bombing. More than a dozen bodies are still believed to be outside the airport, having lain in the 25C-plus heat for more than a week. When half-a-dozen rebels went to try to retrieve the bodies late last week, they were shot dead on the spot by Ukrainian military snipers.
The violence has been exacerbated by the rise of paramilitary groups that seem to sprout up by the day, their members armed with pistols, balaclavas and AK-47s, some with previous military experience, many without. The trend extends to both sides. There is the Vostok Battalion (pro-Moscow) and the Donbass Battalion (pro-Kiev); The Donbass Patriots (pro-Moscow) and the Patriots of Dobropolye (pro-Kiev). Good luck telling them apart.
While the separatist side has been filled up by Russian citizens, Chechens and Ossetians included, and the pro-Kiev side with boys from Ukraine’s west, in many cases it is Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians fighting Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians. Two neighbouring towns may end up divided – one under the control of a pro-Russian paramilitary, the other under a pro-Ukrainian one. Families are split down the middle.
A 23-year-old former riot policeman from Krasnoarmeisk has joined a group called the Russian Orthodoxy Army and adopted the nom de guerre Meteor. One of his best friends, he says, has taken up arms for the opposite side, joining a group called the Dnepr Battalion, nevermind that both grew up in the same town and share the same ethnicity, religion and language.
While there is local anger towards Kiev for its military operation in the east, this does not always extend to the soldiers who have been stationed there. At some Ukrainian military checkpoints, locals stop by to deliver food and water to the soldiers, sometimes even pro-Russian ones.
Sveta, from the economically depressed town of Blahodatne, said she bore no aggression towards the young Ukrainian soldiers who had set up camp near her door, even as she spouted Russian propaganda about the fascists in the west and Kiev. Her real concerns seemed more easily allayed. “All I want,” she says, “is peace and my pay cheque.”
Harder to placate will be the angrier locals who have chosen guns over years of economic stagnation and unemployment.
Among this group are not just separatists. “I don’t want them to break up Ukraine,” says Danil, an Odessa fighter for Donbass Battalion. “But for me today there is no real government in power today.”
The goal is twofold, he says: rid the country of separatists, then bring down the new government in Kiev. He and others draw allusions to 1917. First came the February revolution; then the October one.