Fate of Donetsk,city of one million, rests in hands of a 26 year-old commander recruited by social media.
All out war and humanitarian disaster looms dangerously close with increasing hardships for residents.
By Nigel Pivaro.1st published in Die Zeit 10/7/14
Two years ago Donetsk was playing host to thousands of England football fans during the European Championships, today this city of one million is teetering on the brink of an all out war.
As the battered remnants of self styled Separatist commander Gregor Strelkov’s fighters retreat from Slaviansk and regroup in this formerly prosperous industrial city, normal life is beginning to fall apart.
Water is restricted to 2 hours a day due to bomb damage to filtration plants, interruptions to electricity and internet services are becoming more frequent and lasting for longer.
Supermarkets are refusing credit card transactions and cash is no longer available from the cash machines. The few banks that remain open do so for only two hours a day.
Residents are reporting increasing incidents of robbery, kidnap and assaults at the hands of elements of the Donetsk Peoples Army (Donetsk Narody Army)
One family told me they were visited by soldiers of the DNA who ransacked the house and stole 50, 000 Ghrivnas around £2500.
They did what the rebel army has advised residents to do in case of a complaint about the conduct of separatists soldiers – they called the emergency hotline .
Within a few minutes officers and troops from the DNA arrived at the family’s house in time to catch their colleagues who were leaving. Instead of the first group of soldiers being arrested and the money returned as the family had hoped the second group decided that the family could have their money returned if the father and eldest joined the Separatist Army if not the money would be their contribution to the war effort. The family decided on the donation.
Worryingly for residents this type of incident along with car hijacking to facilitate rebel troops with transport is on the increase.
Donetsk a coal and steel town (think a Soviet era type Sheffield) founded 150 years ago by a Welshman, John Hughes, is the centre of the self proclaimed Donetsk Peoples Republic, following the violent takeover of the regional administration building in April.
Pro-Russian rebels went further after a referendum in May (not recognised outside the region) which the rebels say returned a majority of votes in favour of independence from Ukraine.
The Donetsk rebels linked up with the neighbouring region of Lughansk to declare the confederation of Novo Russiya (New Russia).
In the interim Ukrainian forces have been slowly and painfully attempting to bring the region back under their control.
The countryside and towns around have seen increasing fighting that has so far claimed at least 500 civilian casualties and countless more numbers of rebel fighters and loyalist Ukrainian troops.
Speaking exclusively to me from with the barricaded rebel stronghold in the former Interior Ministry Police HQ the commander of the Orthodox Battalion of the Donetsk Peoples Army 26 -year-old Dymytry Boytsov (Nom de Guerre) said: “ Our aim is not war but we stand ready to defend the people from the Kiev Nazis who are coming with their alien ideology, they want to impose different cultures and traditions on us.
“We are Russians by nature, we want to defend religious freedom and the multi national background of the region.
“We have had the referendum we just want to be heard and for the world to recognise we are different .”
The fate of Donetsk and its one million inhabitants now rests with this militarily inexperienced young man his face hidden behind a camouflage mask for fear of reprisals.
Dimitry openly admits to having little combat experience apart from that gained in the recent takeover.
In fact he says he became involved in the separatist movement via the VK social media network the Russian equivalent of Facebook.
I ask Dimitry “Are the Separatists prepared to stay embedded in the built up areas of the city and risk the lives of the civilian population. ?”
“Yes why should we leave our fortified areas so we will become vulnerable to the Ukrainians.”
What about the safety of the civilians who will be caught in the crossfire and bombardments? Rather casually the Commander answers: “ We will try to defend the civilians and facilitate their safety with instructions and advice.
“We do not want to disappoint the population saying : “We will take some of the civilians out of the city.”
Though he did not offer any clear idea where hundreds of thousands of people will go he added:“There are bomb shelters ready and we will declare martial law to keep order.”
“We are not going to leave,we are ready to accept volunteers with the same ideology we demand that the Ukrainian troops give us a chance to develop ourselves and leave us to our own choices.”
“We do not want to be sold to the USA ! Why is it only Nazi people are helped? Why is there no help for the Russian people.
“We want help from Russia we hope they will help us.”
“The world’s media says we are being supplied by Russia with heavy weaponry – that is not true- where are the heavy guns from Russia?
We have only light weapons that we took from the armouries of the Ukrainian Police”.
As we leave the Separatist’s stronghold in the HQ of the former Ukrainian Secret Police (SBU) reinforced with sandbag dug outs and concrete blocks, a car backfires and my young female interpreter freezes in fear.
“Its alright its just a car! a sentry shouts as she allows herself a nervous laugh.
Following our two hour interview we headed into the city centre to enjoy some respite from the tension of the possible looming catastrophe.
The bars, restaurants, cafes and shops that adorn the wide boulevards of this pleasant city and have just enough customers to give the impression of normality.
Despite the armed Separatists manning the roadside checkpoints, the water shortages, power cuts and constant threats from the Kiev Government that the attack will come very soon, life goes on… just.
However something will have to give, the Ukrainian Army will build up its forces outside the city after clearing the separatists from the key strategic towns of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk to prepare the ground for the final assault on its most important objective.
If the rebels reject Ukrainian President Poroshenko’s peace plan with its offer of safe passage into Russia , then there is no alternative to a bloody battle that will add to the growing list of casualties. That will turn the stream of 34,000 refugees from war torn areas into a deluge numbering the hundreds of thousands.
Thats when the inexperienced Commander Boystov of the Orthodox Battalion will have to quickly learn the full challenge that his decision to remain in his city HQ will bring on the 900 fighters and one million inhabitants under his control.
There is no doubt if the separatists do remain embedded within the city then the consequences for the civilians trapped there will be horrendous. Ends.