Roadblocks, gunfire and fear on the road to Donetsk
Eastern Ukraine is adapting to a volatile and uncertain way of life
Pro-Russian activists outside the occupied regional administration building in Donetsk, which serves as their local headquarters. Photograph: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
The military cadets were marching briskly across the cobblestones, gold braid and polished boots glinting in the morning sun. “They cancelled the main parade,” says Nikolai, nodding towards the Kharkiv governor’s office that overlooks the city’s main square.
“To prevent provocations, they said. But those cadets are rehearsing for something. It would be a shame not to have any parade on Victory Day.”
Facing possible civil war or Russian invasion, Ukraine says great danger attends today’s commemoration of the Soviet victory over fascist Germany; officials warn that someone trying to pitch the country into disaster could attack families or veterans at public gatherings.
The traffic lights change and Nikolai’s thoughts return to the road ahead.
“So we’re going the direct route,” he says quietly, as if to himself.
The map showed the main road from Kharkiv to Donetsk, capital of the neighbouring region, running close to Slovyansk, the town at the epicentre of Ukraine’s separatist insurgency and a military “anti-terrorist” operation to crush it.
“The other way is quite a bit longer but without the same, let’s say, inconveniences,” Nikolai muses, a little louder now and glancing at his passenger. “No checkpoints or other things that might, you know, hold us up . . .”
Many things are unclear in eastern Ukraine. Are Moscow’s agents orchestrating unrest? Does the Kremlin want to annexe the area, like it did Crimea? Do most locals want to stay within Ukraine or join Russia? And can rebels really hold credible independence referendums on Sunday in Donetsk and Luhansk?
Another mystery concerns who controls what at any one time. Reports of gun battles, ambushes and other incidents ricochet around the region, only a few of which can be confirmed or make a lasting change to who holds a certain part of a town or stretch of road.
In relatively stable Kharkiv province, villagers sit in the shade of cherry and chestnut trees and tempt motorists with simple specialities from the nearby woods and streams: jars of jam and pickled mushrooms, and plump fish dried in the open air.
“Izyum,” says Nikolai. “The last town before Donetsk oblast. There’ll be a checkpoint here.”
A little further on, armoured personnel carriers block the road. Government troops – some wearing khaki uniform, others black; some in facemasks, others not – stop and search cars and check drivers’ documents.
Nikolai gets out and with a smile gives his papers to a soldier. The young man adjusts the Kalashnikov slung over his chest and peers blindly into the car. Other soldiers and armoured vehicles are half-hidden in the trees, among glossy green leaves dappled with sunlight.
An empty, tinny, trivial sound. Nikolai is still smiling, but the soldiers are not. Two take cover behind a barricade of concrete blocks and another shoves the papers back into Nikolai’s hand.
They are not panicking, but they are moving quickly. Nikolai is not. He is just standing there, eyes wide, expression rigid. Finally, as if having waited for a leisurely farewell that never came, he gets back into the car. A bus roars out of the checkpoint. Still grinning, Nikolai starts the car and the little Daewoo spins its wheels in the direction of Donetsk.
The strange smile takes time to fade, but soon a stream of Russian invective is bubbling through it. A little later, composure regained, Nikolai recalls the two years that he, like most men in the former Soviet Union, served in the Red Army.
“It was a Kalashnikov set to automatic. We were taught to hold down the trigger and say ‘22’ in our head, then release it, and that gave you two shots close together, just like that: dvadtsat-dva . . . dvadtsat-dva – tack-tack . . . tack-tack.”
They could have been warning shots, or a soldier firing at suspected rebels, or a rebel firing at the checkpoint, or a dangerous accident; they were not a prelude to a gun battle, they injured no one, and will be remembered by only a few people. “What scares me is how quickly people get used to these things,” Nikolai says as we near Slovyansk.
“In the protests in Kiev more than 100 people were killed. In Odessa the other day nearly 50 people were killed. Maybe it will take 1,000 deaths to shock people next time.”
It turns out to be impossible to reach Donetsk without driving through Slovyansk. Every kilometre or so there is a rebel roadblock: at some, grey-haired men and young lads wave traffic through with wooden sticks; at others, fiercer characters carrying guns glare into the car through ragged facemasks.
After a dusty detour along a jolting track, past an elderly lady tending goats in a field, cars rejoin the main Donetsk road. A short distance on stands a government roadblock, where a lean, bearded soldier in black checks the car with pistol drawn.
Ninety minutes later, smoking a cigarette in Donetsk, Nikolai ponders the journey home to Kharkiv.
“I’d use so much more petrol going back the long way. Maybe I’ll take my chances again with Slovyansk,” he says, already reconciled, it seems, to the strange new realities of life in eastern Ukraine.