Fog of Ukraine's dirty war engulfs Donetsk orphans

Truth hard to pin down as exchanges of lurid claims stoke public panic

Nikolai Fyodorich examines a neighbour’s house in a Donetsk suburb, which was hit by deadly shellfire at the weekend. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Nikolai Fyodorich examines a neighbour’s house in a Donetsk suburb, which was hit by deadly shellfire at the weekend. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Tue, Jul 15, 2014, 01:00

In a classroom in a suburb of Donetsk, six Ukrainian teenagers complained bitterly that their summer was ruined.

“We wanted a lovely, peaceful holiday,” Maria Tsigankova (17) said yesterday in the children’s home and boarding school where she lives.

“We thought we’d spend it at the place where we usually go in Ukraine, which we love. But what’s happening now is terrible.”

The six girls, along with more than 100 other children in the care home, have been told to prepare to be taken to Russia by pro-Moscow rebels who are fighting government forces for control of eastern Ukraine.

“They are trying to show that only Russia cares for us, and not Ukraine,” said Nastya Kasumova (19). “But they don’t care about us. They are doing this for their own interests.”

The home, which educates orphans and children whose parents cannot care for them, has now been engulfed by a fog of war that gets thicker by the day.

Kiev and its western allies accuse Russia of aiding the separatists, while the rebels and government troops trade allegations of shelling residential areas, and make almost hourly rival claims to control certain areas of the east.

Last night, Ukrainian officials said Russia may have fired a missile that downed a military transport plane near the countries’ border, and Nato claimed Moscow was again massing thousands of troops near the frontier.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Donetsk, Alexander Lukyanchenko, announced he was leaving the city, in fear of his life having refused to put the rebel’s demands above the basic daily needs of the rapidly emptying industrial centre.

The fate of the care home’s children, who are aged between seven and 19, is in some ways typical of a conflict in which each side’s use of the media to demonise its enemy is fuelling a bewildered public’s sense of terror and panic.

Olga Volkova, director of the home and school, explained that 29 children had left for a holiday camp near the Azov Sea, in Donetsk region, on June 18th, six days before rebels arrived and ordered her not to let any more leave.

“The first time they came, it was with guns,” she recalled.

“The children didn’t cry but they went quiet and were scared. When they see war on a film it’s one thing; when it’s there right in front of them, it’s very different.”

Self-proclaimed officials from the separatists’ “Donetsk People’s Republic” say the government’s military operation to restore control over eastern Ukraine puts the children at risk, and they must be taken to Russia for safety.

“If the rebels are worried about the children we can drive them to the place they usually go on holiday, in a safe part of Ukraine, in a couple of hours,” added Pyotr Misyura, head of an orphanage in the nearby town of Mariinka whose children are also now staying in the Donetsk care home.

The carers believe the rebels may want to use the children in an elaborate PR exercise, aimed at showing Russian state media and the watching public that Ukraine’s most vulnerable citizens desperately need Moscow’s protection.

Pro-Kremlin media have for months depicted Ukraine’s new leaders as anti-Russian fascists, bombarding the public with lurid horror stories including, last week, a tale of Kiev’s troops crucifying a three-year- old boy when they retook a town from the rebels this month.

The gruesome story was utterly false, but flew between Russian-speakers on the internet and stoked more calls for Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine. The managers of the children’s home also whisper another fear – that the convoy of buses carrying their wards could be used to shield fighters returning to Russia from attack by Ukraine’s military.

In Mariinka yesterday, locals accused Kiev’s troops of launching the shells that killed residents in an apartment block over the weekend. In the latest of several such incidents, Ukrainian officials blamed rebels for the attack.

“Why bomb peaceful civilians? People are simply terrified,” said Sergei Kornienko (45), as he surveyed walls and roofs gouged by artillery fire. In a town now left without electricity, gas or running water, he added: “There’s nothing else for it, we have to become part of Russia.”