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The 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.
The article below is based on a phone interview I conducted with Lou in March 2013, ahead of his TV series on the Discovery Channel. I had met Lou personally several years earlier in 2009 at Waterstones book store in Manchester. He was giving a talk on his autobiographical book and his self proclaimed mission to get prisoners in jails reading as a method of enlightenment, hopefully leading them to reform. Reading, he claimed had been his way out of crime and a return trip to prison. I was a little cynical, was this just his Styick to help promote the book? or give himself a new identity in society- you know “The bad guy turned good Roadshow’? However Lou’s passion shone through and I was soon convinced by his story and his original way of telling it. Lou’s new found love of books and the art and joy of reading them was irrepressible. The TV series was an international success, but did not achieve the impact I felt it deserved in the UK. It was such a breathe of fresh air to have the real deal investigating the subject of crime and criminality as opposed to the ersatz offerings of similar programmes on British TV. I hope Lou makes further programmes… have a read of the interview based on our telephone discussion. …
Nine years of prison hell, including solitary confinement, fights with Black, Hispanic and Aryan Nation gang members, numerous face offs with prison guards have more than equipped former Mafia fast tracker Lou Ferrante to delve into the world’s most deadliest and secretive Gangs . Ferrante interviews gang members both inside and outside prison including Neapolitan Camorristi and El Salvadorian street hoods for the Discovery Channel programme ‘Inside the Gangsters Code’. The ex mobster grills them in a way only a man who has shared the same experiences as they have can and the results are both startling and frightening. The mobsters reveal methods of killing and relate openly how they feel nothing for rivals they have killed or fellow gang members they have brutally punished for breaking the gang’s code of honour. Does his gangster background help I ask him: “ Absolutely it is crucial in gaining the access, it’s by far the biggest part of the show. “ There are invisible walls and rules that the ordinary journalist can neither see or climb, these guys know that I walked in their shoes that I am not judging them or setting them up in any way.” Ferrante is a diminutive fast talking wise guy from the Queens District of New York and was a rising star in the notorious Gambino Mafia clan, who pulled his first major truck hijacking aged 17. Well organized and efficient Ferrante came from nowhere to earn the grudging respect of older more experienced criminals and was soon running his own crew as part of the Gambino crew one of the five Mafia Families that dominates the New York underworld. After ten years of putting countless robberies together and moving millions of dollars of drugs around the US, Ferrante was due to be formally inducted into the Mafia as a ‘made man’, a status that would have rendered him untouchable amongst other gangsters. Being “made” into the Mob enables a member to order hits and run his own rackets. “That was everything I had worked towards when I got busted everything got put on hold. “ I was not so bothered about going to prison but more because I would have to wait before I became a fully fledged member of the Mafia.” “The cops that busted me could hardly believe that here was this young guy ordering tough guys around almost twice my age. “I was good I at what I did and I had an easy way with people, that meant I could get them to do what I wanted without friction and above all I was a good earner. “I loved the Life it came naturally because in my neighbourhood there not so many legit opportunities and everybody knew somebody who was connected. “My uncle would go in and out of jail and that seemed normal, people would say hey how is your Uncle Jimmy? We would say ‘oh he’s away at college’ it was part of the fabric of life.” “For a young man growing up in Queens entering into the lifestyle of a professional gangster seemed natural.” “Having money, respect and girls this was the life to aspire to, but more than that, it provided you with a sense of belonging.” Ferrante adds: “I also had a hot temper which in a normal job would get you into trouble, but in my line of work it was a plus, so I did not have to worry about it. “What you do not realise is that it is all fake – but you do not realize that until the wave comes that knocks down the sand castle.” Ferrante explains: “When I went to jail and I started to think about what we did and discuss the people that got whacked (many who were our friends) and I realized they didn’t get killed for honour or justice by our own code, but for money and greed.” Lou remembers vividly the moment he sought to change his life saying: “Soon after that a prison guard called me an ‘animal’ I thought about it and he was right as far as the prison system was concerned that was what I was.” From that moment Ferrante did everything he could to reclaim his human dignity. He started by reading, something he never paid attention to while a free man he devoured books so much so that the prison authorities asked him to start to teach classes in literature and history. Eventually he gained parole and continued to improve himself with classes and published a bestselling book of his own about his experience as a criminal and a prisoner before finding salvation through education. Before landing his current role as a TV presenter Ferrrante has travelled the world preaching his message of education to youngsters on the pathway to crime. He thinks that lack of education and an economic problems are the biggest contributors towards crime, he also feels passionately that prison systems should recognize and reward good behaviour. Lou says: “With the TV programme we have travelled far and wide and you see the differences and similarities in criminal societies but one of the common factors is ignorance and poverty. “Here in America we warehouse criminals it does not stop them wanting to be criminals when they get out of prison when cons are going before the parole board they never get credit for doing anything good the parole board does not reward them. “That is so wrong, criminals are hustlers right? you give them chocolate cake they will find away to get more. “So we should reward them for doing something positive like reading a book, taking a class, that may not make them better people but if they do reform then they also learnt something useful that they can put to good use.” Would he change his past if he could? Ferrante responds rapidly with the speed of a high velocity bullet: “Unequivocally, I would change everything, I would be an architectural engineer, but what am I gonna do now? kill myself or make the best of what I got? it’s all I can do. “ .