What is taking place in Donetsk, East Ukraine?
Last week I went to visit the Donbass in East Ukraine and the People’s Republic of Donetsk.
The trip was organized by Europa Objektiv, a German-Russian non-governmental organization whose mission is to provide journalists with a tour of the region in order to better understand the reality there and to see the situation for oneself, unobscured by misrepresentation by the corporate media. Due to the fact that it is difficult nowadays to get an accurate view of what is taking place in Ukraine from the mainstream Western media, the importance of visiting Donetsk and seeing the reality with one’s own eyes cannot be underestimated. In this article, I am writing only what I saw. I do not work for the Russian government and do not receive a penny from them for my reporting.
During the course of the first day in Moscow we heard lectures from speakers on the subject.
Maxim Grigorev, of the Foundation for the Study of Democracy, produced a comprehensive report based on testimonies of victims on the torture of civilians by the Ukrainian forces. Those who are severely damaged and injured usually end up being killed, according to Grigorev. One woman (passport picture below) was aboard a medical team on an ambulance. The ambulance was shot by the Ukrainian army. She was kidnapped by the Ukrainian forces and tortured. The Ukrainian FSB held her guilty. Yet she survived the torture and was later exchanged for captive Ukrainian soldiers in a process supervised by the OSCE. Another victim, a civilian by the name of Andrey Panchenko, was kidnapped by Ukrainian forces at a checkpoint and tortured by electrical shocks and beaten on various parts of his body by a hammer.
Maxim Girgorev, overlooking the ruins of the neighborhoods by the airport
Maxim Girgorev, presenting his book on EuroMaidan
Olga Verbitsakaya was arrested by members of the neo-Fascist Right Sector, and during her interrogation was injected by drugs and beaten. Olga Selitskaya was arrested in Mariupol and hit on her head by an heavy object.
According to Grigorev, the same methods of torture were carried out by the fascist UPA and followers of Stepan Bandera, a fascist leader who sought a Ukraine ethnically cleansed of Poles and Jews (for an academic perspective see Per Rudling on the history of the UPA and OUN).
Indeed, a 18 years old nurse said she encountered what was known as “Bandera strangling”. Kiev forces, many of whom are openly pro-Nazi such as the Right Sector’s National Guard and the Azov Battalion, receive training from US forces. According to Grigorev, water boarding against civilians has also been used, most likely taught by American instructors. Grigorev said methods of torture used by the US in Guantanamo Bay are now carried out by the Ukrainian forces.
95% of the homes surround the airport were damaged, according to Grigorev. Neighboring areas are shot at daily by Ukrainian forces in violation of the Minsk II agreement. The Ukrainian army is systematically destroying the civilian infrastructure of the area.
He explained that Donbass is being cut off by supplies by Kiev. Had it not been for continued Russian humanitarian assistance, the region which is already undergoing a severe humanitarian crisis, would have been far worse.
Grigorev said that a local woman testified how the Ukrainian army took bed linen and TV sets from private homes. The woman could only reach her home after the area was liberated once again by Novorossiya forces. Various cases of rape and killing took place in areas taken over by the Ukrainian forces, he said. The area has been taken over by forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and survivors could finally share their testimonies without fearing for their lives.
That the Kiev government has been bombing citizens of Ukraine rather than Russian forces in East Ukraine has escaped the notice and scrutiny of most observers. Indeed, not only have the Ukrainian forces engaged in deliberate shelling of civilian areas and of the elderly trapped there, while knowing full well that civilians reside in these areas, but the Ukrainian media as well as Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and President Poroshenko have incited the Ukrainian public against residents of Donbass. Yatsenyuk has famously referred to fighters in Ukraine as subhuman, borrowing the historical term (untermenschenusen) used by the Nazis against the very same populations, even while the translation of his words was later retracted from the print. President Poroshenko had promised that the children of Donbass will be holed up in basements and will be unable to go to school. Ukrainian forces actions can be seen as following the incitement and words of hatred spewed by Ukraine’s US-supported regime.
According to Grigorev, young Ukrainians who did not wish to serve in the Ukrainian military have fled to Russia. At the same time, some residents of Donetsk have relocated to Ukraine in search for better ways of providing for themselves. An estimated one million refugees migrated to Russia from East Ukraine but data remains elusive.
According to Grigorev, the EuroMaidan movement has been sponsored directly by Brussels, Germany and the US. Indeed, some of the EuroMaidan events were sponsored directly by the US State Department. John Pilger argued the same.
Grigorey’s book on torture by the Ukrainian Armed Forces
That military actions resumed against the Donbass following the visit of CIA chief to Kiev, suggests that much as oppressive regimes in Latin America which were supported by the US in the past, Kiev operates upon orders from Washington.
Grigorev argued that while he attempted to make public his findings based on multiple recorded testimonies with survivors which include private data, names and personal details that can be verified, Human Rights Watch confirmed that they received the report but did not get back for additional scrutiny or investigation on the matter. Amnesty International responded belatedly and it remains to be seen whether it will investigate these cases. OSCE that participated in the exchange of prisoners and saw the difficult state of those released by the Ukrainian forces has not interviewed them in a search for justice.
According to Grigorev, many others in Ukraine were imprisoned due to views which do not correspond to that of the Kiev junta. Hundreds are probably being tortured with their location unknown. The report can be read here. A new report based on fresh testimonies will be available soon and can be obtained from the organization.
Donetsk is a beautiful city, with a large industrial base, where Russians, Ukrainians, Arabs, Vietnamese emigres and Greeks reside. The area was once an independent republic following a decree of Lenin. Following the coup in Kiev which was spearheaded and made possible by the actions of the neo-Nazi Right Sector gangs, the people of Donetsk did not recognize the new regime and declared their own republic. One of the first steps taken by the new Kiev government was to make the use of Russian and other non-Ukrainian languages illegal in official uses. The Kiev government later vetoed the decision but has gone on steadily and systematically to glorify fascist Ukrainian leaders who engaged and supported the mass murder of Jews, Russians and Poles while taking actions to render Communist parties and symbols illegal. Pro-Kiev activists took the hint and demolished various statues of Lenin in different cities. Donetsk is a region which the USSR helped advance and whose people fought against the Nazi invasion while in West Ukraine the self-declared Independent State of Ukraine of 1941 collaborated with the Nazis and its people participated in extremely brutal massacres of Jews in Lviv and in Babi Ya’r, Kiev. Nostalgia for the Soviet era and love for Soviet symbols, pervades in Donetsk, rendering the current Kiev regime which holds that the USSR invaded, rather than liberated, Ukraine in 1944, an anathema.
The general impression an outsider may get of the Donetsk region is that anarchy prevails there and that the city was taken over by Putin’s spies. This is simply untrue and one needs to merely visit the city to see for oneself.
We left Rostov for Donetsk. On our way to the border, signs of tension can already be seen. Groups of MiGs and helicopters were flying in large numbers. Either as a drill or as a way to secure the border and intimidate a potential attack. Indeed, NATO has been conducting wide ground exercises throughout Eastern Europe close from Estonia to the Black Sea.
On the way to Donetsk
On our way we stopped at a refugee camp, organized for children who had to flee their area and the elderly. We encountered an elderly woman who showed us with tears a medal of her husband from the Red Army. The children were playing but there was a heavy sense of sadness and uncertainty in the air. Several teachers explained that the tens of children remain in the area before they are sent later on to various parts of Russia. In response to my question on the hardships faced by children, the director explained that adults pose a greater challenge while the children adapt quickly. She said many of them nevertheless were traumatized by the war, as they were exposed to constant sounds of explosions. It was difficult to see the children in their state, knowing full well that the war is far from settled and that the region they are form may be occupied by Ukrainian forces or may remain autonomous according to the wishes of a majority of its residents. Whether the children would be able to return to their homes in the future, remains unclear, especially as Ukrainian forces have been widely targeting the civilian infrastructure and many homes were demolished as we saw later. I asked a teacher where she was from. “From Lugansk”, she said, with a quiet sadness expressed on her face. Several dogs were roaming the area. One of the dogs was nicknamed “Obama”, the other “Poroshenko”. Unlike what may expect based on how locals viewed these two people, the dogs were treated with kindness and care. Children were cycling around. Yet many of the fathers of their children were not in the area but fighting in the field. There was a sense of sadness and of orphanhood. Again, the feeling of sadness was increased by the broad sense of uncertainty on what the future holds.
After passing through strict security on the Russian side we proceeded by foot to the other side of the border. We were greeted by soldiers of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The sense was that of a period after a revolution. Whereas on the Russian side the soldiers were behind booths, here we encountered soldiers standing in various positions. Sand bags were to be seen in various areas. The atmosphere was one of tension but also of excitement and victory. Female and male soldiers in uniform greeted us warmly and hugged one another. They had wide smiles on their faces but the sense was that a war was going on and the tension could not be hidden. Their worn uniforms with sweat and dirt were a far cry from the ironed bureaucratic uniform the Russian officials had. Here, we encountered border guards who were also fighters.
We then proceeded to our commercial hotel. We slept peacefully, tired from the long journey which took several hours. Throughout our time we were accompanied by guards.
In the morning, we woke up early and went on to a state building. The streets of Donetsk were very clean, far more clean than in Moscow and nearly impeccable by any standard. It was clear that despite the tense situation, residents of the city were working hard to preserve their city. We were forbidden from taking pictures of soldiers in uniform, a majority of whom were unmasked. Throughout our time in Donetsk and its surroundings, we did not encounter masses of Russian soldiers, nor lines of Russian tanks in perfect order. We did encounter many fighters who were mostly locals. Either way, it was difficult to tell who was local and who was not. Yet at the same time it would be unfair to say that there were not a significant number of Russian soldiers in the area who volunteered to join existing local units of the Donetsk region.
We did see later various tanks and Armed Personnel Carriers with flags of the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic). We were forbidden from taking pictures of military formations for security reasons.
At the state building, we encountered, Yury Syvokonenko, a middle-age man, shy and warm, who could not hide his emotions and sadness, who was the of one of the local commanders of the local units. He told us that he lost 20 of his soldiers in fighting with the Ukrainian army and irregular militias sent by Kiev to crack down on the uprising in Donbass. His eyes were filled with tears. He apologized for being emotional but said that this was a dear personal matter to him. In his office, flags of the Donetsk People’s Republic were spread, along with Orthodox icons and a picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In the hall, a corner was dedicated to the memory of perished fighters.
We then went on to visit a neighborhood by the airport. Constant shelling and sounds of explosions could be heard in the distance. The decaying buildings had marks of bullet holes in nearly every wall. Windows of glass were replaced by aluminum. And inside this living hell, this lonely place of suffering, we encountered several elderly people who still live in the area since they have nowhere else to go. One woman, Alla, said how she has no kids or husband to take care of her. She lives on her own and has become so accustomed to the constant shelling that she no longer bothers to go to the bomb shelter. Her face revealed her pain and in her desperate plea she had nothing left but sad desperation.
An elderly man invited us to his home. We saw bullet holes in the mirrors and windows, and large gaps in different walls caused by shelling from the Ukrainian Army. He had no other reality to turn to but to his scarred home, every day. With no hope in sight.
While we were walking shelling took place very near to us, forcing us to run for cover (video). Again, while we were about to leave, shelling again took place probably a mere 500 meters from us (video).
In our wanderings between the orphaned buildings and while experiencing the death and intense loneliness around, an elderly woman appeared from nowhere and planted trees. She did it for her own sake, few were the people left there to appreciate the trees, and the elderly can hardly walk around peacefully without an occasional shelling hitting the area, forcing them once again inside. There was something eerie about it, yet full of hope too. Despite all the death and destruction, the woman struggled hard to continue to live and find beauty in the inferno surrounding her.
The visit to the neighborhood made it clear that not only is there no genuine ceasefire in the area as the constant shelling of civilians doomed and demonized makes a mockery of such claims, but that the EU and US are entirely silent on the constant shelling of civilians. It was indeed incredible that Ukraine is constantly being presented by the West as defending itself from “Russian aggression” while it continues to besiege and bomb the people of Donbass. The crimes can only be carried out due to the full impunity to the Kiev government provided by the West. The corporate media hardly reports on this unbearable inferno which people must undergo.
We then went on to visit the University of Donetsk where Vietnamese students were interviewed by Vietnam national TV. The Vietnamese students seemed happy in Donetsk and fairly at peace. They certainly did not suffer from any kind of attack or harassment by locals. A flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Novorussiya hung high on the entrance to the university.
At the university, professor of history and former dean of the school, Sergey Baryshnikov, laid out his vision. In his opinion, the new Kiev government is outright fascist and Nazi and therefore the people of Donetsk must and will resist it. The spread of pockets of resistance to the junta through the creation of a Novorossiya region encompassing Russian towns, is in his mind an inevitable process of history. Nothing can stop the Russian people from returning to Russia, following the tragedy of the collapse of the USSR. When asked if he could conceivably live in a federal Ukraine which respects the rights of minorities rather than preaching a triumphant, racist and fascist sense of narrow ethnic nationalism, he said this would be an option but only after the Kiev regime is replaced and the criminals are brought to justice. This same sentiment was expressed many times by nearly all people we talked to. Here lies the point. Whereas Kiev claims that it is defending itself from Russian forces as it targets it own citizens and seeks their destruction while engaging in racist and hateful speech towards them (“their children will be holed in basements,” Poroshenko), the people of Donetsk will not tolerate a regime that praises pro-Nazi leaders and views them as subhuman but they have no issue living with ethnic Ukrainians so long as justice is restored and their right to practice Russian is respected. The difference between the narrow chauvinist ultra nationalism of the Ukrainian regime and the inclusiveness and tolerance of the people of Donetsk could not be made more clear. Yet paradoxically, the narrative espoused by the corporate media is exactly the opposite. It claims that Ukraine seeks to preserve its integrity while it is being attacked by neighboring country. Yet the issue cannot possibly be Ukrainian territorial integrity when millions of people, oppose the government and do not wish to live under its pro-fascist umbrella.
Towards the late afternoon as the sun was setting, we went to visit the area where the Vietnamese students live. A view from the rooftop revealed a scenic and calm Donetsk and it was hard to believe war can prevail in such a beautiful place. In one of the rooms in the building however, we encountered a huge hole in the ceiling created by a bomb that entered. The immensity of its size it created was quite shocking. Clearly this was not a “human rights missile” but a missile whose goal is to cause as much killing as possible. We encountered an elderly man who showed us the original Grad missile which entered. While sitting in the car, I noticed a peaceful woman coming in to us. In her quiet sadness and method of not seeking attention to herself, it seemed to me nevertheless that she came to see us and communicate something. I smiled and waved to her, signaling my request from inside the van to take her picture. I did so reluctantly, embarrassed to be this intrusive. She , however, smiled a quiet resigned, optimistic yet sad smile. I am still trying to understand why she disturbed me so much. I suppose it was her gentle kindness, her lack of privacy due to the fact that I could violate it by taking her picture and yet her willingness to do it wanting her story to be heard, all the while holding no resentment or anger towards anyone as far as I could tell. Her face still haunts me.
In the following morning, after a night filled with too much vodka, I went on to view the local Rabbi of the Jewish community. There were various reports of anti-Semitism in Donetsk. Leaflets were spread about a year ago shortly after the Republic was declared, asking all Jews in the area to concentrate at a given location at 9 in the morning, mimicking the same leaflets distributed by the Nazi occupation forces. A closer investigation revealed however, that this was a provocation created by others, possibly the neo-fascist Right Sector or by others who had an interest in blemishing the image of the new self-declared republic. At the same time, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, jumped on the incident by making it public and presenting it as an action taken by the DPR, while not bothering to provide backing to his accusations.
Similarly, when Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko said that the Jewish people are a great nation and is not represented by the actions of current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and others who are Jewish, Reuters and others used the opportunity to present Zakharchenko as an anti-Semite. A funny accusation considering the fact that a close reading of Zakharchenko’s words proves the opposite and since the foreign minister of the DPR, Alexander Kaufman is Jewish.
I wanted to hear what the rabbi himself had to say about these claims. We spoke in Hebrew and had an upfront conversation, considering the fact that I come from Jerusalem from a religious background similar to his and that we related well on a personal level.
I asked the rabbi whether he encountered any incidents of anti-Semitism and how the Jewish community is doing. He responded by saying that the current Jewish community numbers around 70 families and participated in various activities offered, from Torah classes to soup kitchens and to regular prayer services. When asked about the issue of anti-Semitism, the rabbi rejected it outright with an incredulous look on his face, saying that far from it, the DPR was very supportive and hospitable to Jews and that the foreign minister is also Jewish, and that he knew him personally.
Jews were not only safe in Donetsk, but it was their home. Yet the danger for Jews in Donetsk comes not from the DPR but from the Kiev forces. One Jewish woman was killed in the neighborhood by the airport while the rabbi himself experienced a missile hit in close proximity in downtown Donetsk.
When asked how he reacts to the fact that the current Ukrainian Government praises and glorifies fascist leaders who encouraged the mass-murder of Jews, such as Stepan Bandera, he said that of course he is not too happy about this. He also said that he is in constant communication with other Jewish communities inside Ukraine.
Shortly later, we visited a Russian Orthodox Church shelled by the Ukrainian forces. The ceiling was missing and all the walls were severely damaged. The walls were naked of icons. It was as if the church visible from a distance was an empty shell once one entered. The priest met us and explained how he works to ensure regular communal life will continue despite the massive destruction of the church. The strong determined look on his face and the sadness in his eyes made his words resonate. Outside, several Donetsk local women were working on cultivating the gardens.
We then proceeded on to visit the village of Stepanovka (video) which experienced heavy fighting. Entering the village was akin to entering destroyed villages during World War II, and was a scene reminiscent of various war films. Entire rows of homes were demolished and in ruins. Shards of bombs were to be seen everywhere. A surreal sense of death and destruction prevailed.
A school we visited in the vicinity was also badly hit. A monument marking a partisan fighter was hit in various places, exposing the concrete behind the metal surface, yet the statue remained, signaling a sense of defiance.
We then went on to visit a major monument located on top of a mountain overlooking the region. Its strategic location made it an ideal spot for the Ukrainian army which occupied the area and shelled surrounding villages from the high vantage point. A monument marking the victory of World War II was demolished in various places by explosives instigated by the Ukrainian forces.
At the bottom of the monument lay fresh graves of DPR fighters. While the media often reports that Russian soldiers who died in the war were brought back to Moscow creating the sense that the conflict was one fought between the Ukrainian army and the Russian army, it has not mentioned that many local fighters were killed and buried locally, not too far from their homes in which their families have lived for centuries.
In the evening, we had a personal meeting with the foreign minister of the DPR, Alexander Kaufman. In response to my questions, Mr. Kaufman said that he cannot possibly believe that Israel, which was justified on the basis of the Holocaust, would possibly send arms to Ukraine, which is currently not only praising but seeking to imitate fascist leaders such as Stepan Bandera and Shukhevych. Mr. Kaufman told me that since both his ancestors and mine were slaughtered in the largest killing that took place during World War II in the Babi Yar ravine by Ukrainian fascists of the OUN and the Einsatzgruppen- C, it would be an utter shame and Israel would lose its reason to exist if it goes on to provide the Kiev junta with arms, which would, of course, later be used against the citizens of Donetsk. We later sat down for a more casual meeting with the minister who took off his suite and tie, put on slippers and played the guitar. He sang partisan resistance songs and songs in Yiddish and Hebrew. We hummed along.
That same night (several hours earlier actually), I went on my own to explore the city, meeting a local I knew earlier. We sat down in a café. Despite the ongoing war in the outskirts of the city and the constant sound of shelling which could be heard in Pushinksy Avenue, the café has several people sitting there. Prices were high for most locals, however. A cup of coffee costs at least 30-50 hryvnias. Only 50% of the population can afford to go to cafes, as prices have rose significantly due to inflation and as salaries declined in war-torn Donetsk. Despite the ongoing war, however, cafes operated. In the morning again, I met a friend in a local café with a visible number of people. The worker was smoking a hookah in the back. At the same time, people were not loudly talkative but there was a solemn sense of sadness. The nearby national theater, however, continues to operate despite the war. Theater shows are shown daily every afternoon at 14:00, due to the curfew imposed on the city in the evening after 10 PM. Supermarkets function as normal, with locals paying in hryvnia or in ruble, but economic conditions are harsh. Banks are closed upon orders from Kiev. Camera shops are closed too.
We then made our long way back to Rostov. Making our way back to the Russian border was not easy, as we had to wait hours inline and underwent a thorough security check while our press credentials were examined carefully. Our luggage was searched by sniffing dogs. We then made our way back to Russia but the sense of a defiant city and the warm hospitality we left behind was still with us, and we knew that we would not encounter the same unique atmosphere back in Russia.
Poem for Donetsk
I visited the city. Despite the economic blockade imposed by the Kiev regime,
A poem for Donetsk:
The trees are blossoming
sounds of explosions heard every several minuets
people walk the streets, resilient
the banks do not operate, thanks to Kiev
locals are friendly, kind, in sorrow
nothing is normal yet people are
fascism will pass, thanks to Washington
but not here.
Text and pictures by Joshua Tartakovsky (All rights reserved (C) 2015.)