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Five Years Later – A Journey Through Donetsk Oblast

April 04, 2019 16:53 0 2471
It is now five years ago, after the Maidan succeeded in Kyiv and former President Yanukovich fled the country towards Russia, that events of the so-called „russkaya vesna“ (Russian spring) took off in Crimea. While the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia rather quickly, local russian-backed separatists occupied administration in several regions and proclaimed the so-called „people's republics“ of Donetsk and Lugansk. This led to the proxy war that lasts until today in which the Ukrainian army and volunteers on one side face pro-russian separatists and regular Russian troops on the other. Mariupol and Kramatorsk, the second and the third-largest city of Donetsk Oblast, were strongly affected by the events. Five years later we decided to visit these places and talk to those, who are still forced to live with the impact of war.

By Dario Planert and Simon Muschick


In spring 2014, Kramatorsk in the North of the Donetsk Oblast went through first heavy fights, striking an unprepared population and forcing many to flee westwards. When in summer many of them returned home they were met by thousands of people fleeing from Donetsk and other cities of the East.

Meanwhile, 1,3 mio. Ukrainians are considered internally displaced persons (IDPs). 50 000 of them live in Kramatorsk which counts 200 000 in total. As we learn during our visit, refugees have reshaped the face of the city.

We are given shelter by Tatyana who is originally from a Donetsk suburb. Today, she lives in a two-room appartement together with her eldery mother, sister and nephew. During the first four years of war she was as a voluntary aid worker for an international organization and coordinated humanitarian mission behind and beyond the front. Now she is selling organic tea and herbs from various regions of the country.

While the enemies clutch at their positions about 50 km from Kramatorsk, the city itself is changing. One reason is the resettlement of business people and the regional administration which was earlier located in the city of Donetsk. International organisations as UNHCR or OSCE established their head quarters in Kramatorsk. While in the beginning IDPs could rent rooms for affordable prices, they are now facing difficulties due to the cities growing status as a regional center. Some are even driven back to their war torn homes.

With money saved by the decentralisation and especially because of the integration of the population in public committees the city is being refurbished and for the first time an urban development plan has been brought on its way. Indeed, the traces of war vanished from the center and for a first time visitor Kramatorsk looks just like any Ukrainian midsize city. It might sound like a paradox but some residents describe the growing conscience for certain problems and the city’s growth as being ultimately triggered by and only possible because of the war.

However, the wounds slashed by the conflict heal slowly. 16-year-old Stepan Chubenko attended 10th grade of 12th public school. The proactive pupil and goal keeper at the local football club was a dedicated supporter of the territorial integrity of Ukraine but got into the hands of the so-called separatists in summer 2014. They tortured and eventually murdered the boy. A commemorative text nowadays decorates the entrace of his former school and football teams gather annually in Kramatorsk to participate in a tournament held in his name.


Mariupol was once an outpost of the Russian Empire, founded in 1779 under Catherine ІІ. The city with more than 500 000 inhabitants is an industrial center and currently the most significant intersection of the Donbas due to its access to the Sea of Azov.

After ascending the old water tower, one catches a glimpse of the apocalyptic landscape of the steel mills which extend for kilometres along the horizon. It is a puzzle of greyish-brown chimneys and pinnacles which incessantly squeeze out thick white vapor and fireballs.

In between this world and the observer lies Mariupol’s old town, historically a melting pot of various cultures of which the local greek minority wielded crucial influence. Like in any post-soviet metropolis the center is engulfed by a belt of yellowed high-rises. They bring back to memory where that half a million finds shelter.

In the summer of 2014, Mariupol became a protagonist in the war in Eastern Ukraine. In May, pro-russian separatists took the city. They were chased out in June. In the morning hours of January 24th 2015, rockets launched from positions of the separatists struck residential areas, killing over 30 civilians, while more than a dozen remain missing. Many more lost their homes and belongings.

Sasha is sitting in his small office at the local Caritas and recounts those days that changed the city. His organisation supports local residents in all matters of life from humanitarian aid to counseling for upcoming entrepreneurs. Among all his colleagues perhaps two, he says, have not been under fire. Most of them are from the surrounding villages and moved to Mariupol when the conflict took off.

People were shivering from the thought that the separatists could aim at the steel mills, Sasha says. The release of toxic chemicals through impact of rockets, especially ammonia, may lead to a deadly cloud of fumes that would extinct not only Mariupol’s population. The city was spared that fate but warfare is still happening at an arm’s length. Literally. The front is just 9 km away.

It is understandable that under such circumstances a shadow hangs upon the people of Mariupol. Yet, anybody that we have talked to during our stay of three days had one thing in common. They were all full of confidence.

Sasha even perceives the war as a chance for the city. After 2014, many intellectuals from Donetsk and other parts of the oblast resettled to Mariupol. Their skills were well needed here.

Over the course of the last five years new initiatives emerged, entreprises as well as eateries that offer vegetarian and even vegan options which did not exist before. A blossoming concept seems to be that of the co-working space. Several of such kind surfaced in Mariupol recently. At the „Halabuda“ Ira tells us that their audience consists mainly of 25 to 40-year-olds who use the premises for team meetings, working groups and presentations. The spaces flouresce in saturated white, trash is separated and recycled and the staff is typing on MacBooks.

But the city’s largest employers are still the steel mills „Illich“ and „Azovstal“. „Illich“ accounts for around 60 000 jobs which makes it the second largest metallurgic entreprise in Ukraine. 2016 „Illich“ was set to be renamed since it was the patronym of nobody else but Lenin himself. Instead of coming up with something new, officials decided to simply rededicate the old name to a little-known scientist with the same patronym. So the name remained the same. It just does not mean „that“ Illich anymore.

The metallurgic industry is both a blessing and a curse as Mariupol faces dramatic ecological issues. The river is virtually dead, while a mountain of cinder reaches up to the sea and is responsible for a fierce deficit of oxygen under water. On hot summer days with little wind the concentration of particulate matter reaches a level that forces the people to keep their windows shut. Already in 2012 protests launched against this development, says a local activists from the „Center for Civil Initiative“. Meanwhile, „Azovstal“ has mounted a closed cycle cooling system. But the action against the industry has just begun.

Politics remain the environment movement’s biggest obstacle.

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