Fear and Trembling in Donbas

By Lesia Hanzha, exclusively for Ukrainska Pravda

I’m a girl, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was scared while in Donbas. But it weren’t the bullets I feared the most.

It was the captivity.

The husband of my new acquaintance from Donetsk is a businessman. He was driving from Donetsk to Kharkiv when he was stopped at a checkpoint that belonged to the “militia” near Kramatorsk. They took away his car. Emptied his wallet, withdrew money from his credit cards. Detained him. A usual story.

What is unusual or not usual here at all is that, his family managed to free him literally just a few days later – they found “connections” in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR). Now this grown man does not speak to anyone. Does not want to. The only thing he has said about his captivity was, They are beasts.

This woman I met here invites me to a cafe for a lunch – “except that we aren’t going to talk about politics.” And once she sees there someone she knows, she adds, “Now we are definitely not talking about it.”

“I know a man whose mother was kept on the 7th floor of Donetsk Regional State Administration,” she talks about kidnapping as if it were something ordinary. And it scares me even more.

Pulling out a camera near the Regional State Administration building is scary. A girl named Milana was captured near this building, and held a prisoner for taking pictures. All my friends have sent me a link to an interview with Milana that described her stay in captivity.

“Our colleagues from Horlivka had their daughter kidnapped today. Got a call, they demand a sum of 150,000. Never specified the currency,” a cable operator in Donetsk tells me. We know by now that the young woman managed to free herself several days later. But I couldn’t know that back then. I was thinking about my own daughter. And it got me scared even more.

On April 28, a journalist named Zhenia suffered a head injury at a rally. I look at him, and I become scared again. Zhenia, on the other hand, seems pretty cool about it. Perhaps, when looking at me, he thinks I’m not afraid, either.

“I got caught up in the storming of Mariupol’s City Department. Thank God, I managed to keep my impressions to myself,” Zhenia is able to joke about it.

I plan to go to Kramatorsk in the morning. My colleagues keep warning me: it’s a jeopardy, you either make it, or you don’t.

I get a PM: they talk about you on the Zello [the radio channel that the separatists use for their communications – LH]. When I ask them about the context, they say, seems like nothing special, they only say that you work in Volnovakha.

A friend of mine comments: perhaps, they are watching you, considering you for a possible bounty. If for whatever reason they decide they’re short on dough – you could be “erthat.”

It is scary in Volnovakha as well. But in a different way.

It’s scary to see our soldiers. One of them is a temp worker from Volyn. His ear is scratched. 15 men were shot dead before his eyes, and 31 were wounded. He asks me not to film him. The officer explaining the details of the fight shouts at the Russian TV crew, “Did I not make myself clear when I said not to show my face? I’m afraid for my family!”

It is scary when you see a smiling toothless guy guarding the approaches to the place where the National Guardsmen at Volnovakha were killed.

“I really love your Channel 24, honestly, but it’s not permitted to go any further, the Military Prosecutor’s staff is working there. I’d very much ask you not to film anything. I have my orders. Please,” this kid of about my height and my constitution says in Ukrainian. He smiles widely, and for some reason repeats the last word in Russian. This smiley and toothless “please” in Russian makes me scared again.

Driving to Kramatorsk was scary all right. It was scary having to produce my ID at every checkpoint. The good thing was, they didn’t examine it too closely. After all, my ID showed my place of residence as Kyiv, and my place of birth as Kyiv, too.

It’s not necessarily a guaranteed ticket to the basements, but still, it’s a good enough reason to detain me, to check my phone for any pictures or text messages that could link me to their enemies, or for any suspicious contacts. This is when you realize that having the phone number of Vika Siumar [the Secretary of the National Council for Security and Defense of Ukraine, a former journalist – EMPR] in your Contacts is scary. Or go through my belongings, find streaming equipment, take away my netbook, money, and whatever else they may think they need.

But the scariest thing isn’t having a camera or a modem, it’s possessing a Ukrainian flag.

You can have your car smashed for it, for example. Or whatever they can get hold of.

“Every day I used to drive to work from Donetsk to an overspill town. Once, I got stopped at a checkpoint that belonged to the militia, and they decided to search my car. They opened the glove compartment – and suddenly I got chills. I remembered that I had forgotten to take out my Ukrainian flag after the rally. Thank God, my husband took it out for me. I got to work – and asked to take a month off.”

I imagined myself in her place, and I became scared.

Vera, a 12-year-old girl from Kramatorsk, tells me, “our teacher has told us that if you get caught in a crossfire, you should lie down on the ground and scream for help. You mustn’t run, or you can get hit.” You look at this child – and once again, it is scary.

A colleague from Kramatorsk is packing his bags. He is leaving for Kyiv with his family. He says, “they visited me three times. The last time, a man was sitting just where you’re sitting right now, and here, where your notepad is, his machine gun was lying. I could almost feel its smell.

Do you know what a gunpoint smells like? I know now.”

His edition is on the separatists’ black list. They call it Kramatorsk Fifth Column List.

He quickly locks his office behind me. “What, are you going to walk past the Executive Committee building [the location of the headquarters of the Donetsk People’s Republic – LH] right now ? Aren’t you scared?” he asks.

That question does make me scared.

At the Executive Committee building, a camouflage-clad guy with a machine gun is kissing a girl. I would have taken a picture of it. But as soon as I reach for my camera, my friend grabs my arm: now she is scared. Her child is with us. I don’t take any pictures even though I really like the scene.

It is scary when not a single one of the six people in Slavyansk, whose contacts I had gotten from my friends and acquaintances, agreed to confirm that I am going to their place.

No, they tell me, there’s too much risk.

“ What risk?” – “It’s too much risk explaining why there’s too much risk.” In reality, their replies sounded like, “just not on the phone…”

“Driver,” a woman in the front seat of a Kramatorsk bus heading to Donetsk says, “my daughter’s just called me, she says there’s shooting near Donetsk.”

“So?” the driver replies. “I’m from Slavyansk, there’s shooting there every day.”

One of the bus passengers suggests, “Call your daughter, ask her what they’re shooting, a machine gun or a bazooka.” Everyone laughs.

Donetsk is already blocked. The driver drops everyone off in Yasynuvata. “Looking for separatists, aren’t they,” a heavy-faced angry man grunts. ”They’re separatists themselves, Kyiv freaks…”. I carefully force my way past him to the exit.

We are on a suburban train, on on our way to Donetsk. A helicopter sweeps past above us and lets out a burst of fire. “Down!” the conductor shouts. Everyone drops to the floor.

Then there is the central station, the Kyiv train. A group of separatists starts with kicking people out to the platform, then disappears in the general direction of the cargo depot. The conductor’s lips turn white. “When is this going to end? It’s like riding to the battlefront every time.”

Our checkpoints at the border with Dnipropetrovsk oblast. Our flags. We blow our boys kisses.

Now it’s scary to call Donbas and ask, “So, how are you? How’s it going there?!”. It’s scary when they don’t answer their phones.

And Kramatorsk was calm and quiet. Poplar fluff was swirling in the air, sinking onto the concrete, and turning the roads into white cotton.

Source: http://life.pravda.com.ua/society/2014/05/28/169897/

Translated by Dasha Darchuk
Edited by Inga Kononenko

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