Sunlight flashed on the water as two fishermen cast their lines, and a swimmer strode from the sandy shore into the river that slides lazily through Donetsk – three people seeking a moment of calm in a city living in fear.
Along the flower-lined waterfront, locals strolled and then sipped coffee on a cafe terrace, surrounded by the strange emptiness that is spreading through eastern Ukraine’s industrial capital.
The sun blazing yesterday over a city that was formerly home to a million people rose to the boom of artillery in the suburbs, just as Monday began with shells hitting a residential area by the main train station and killing at least four people.
Two summers after it helped host the European football championship, Donetsk is traversed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers driven by pro-Russian rebels, who are increasingly edgy as government forces close in.
The heavily armed militants whose checkpoints guard approaches to the city also tear through its semi-deserted streets in their cars, which include luxury models without number plates allegedly stolen from showrooms and terrified owners.
The rebels, who reject Ukraine's pro-EU government and want its eastern regions to join Russia, are now the only authority in Donetsk, where the police have vanished and the elected mayor and the Kiev-appointed governor have fled.
Men in masks
A hub of mining and industry where people prided themselves on hard work, order and discipline – even while violent organised crime flourished – operates by the law of the gun, enforced by men in masks known only by noms de guerre.
No official figures exist on how many people have fled Donetsk and nearby towns caught between the rebels and increasingly aggressive government forces, but trains and buses out of the region have been packed for weeks. The exodus has only accelerated with the deadly shelling of recent days.
There are no food shortages but prices for most items are creeping up and, though gas and electricity supplies to Donetsk are stable, a major utilities firm warned on Monday that damage to pumping stations meant Donetsk only had enough drinking water for five days.
Many banks have closed down, including all branches in largely rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Privat Bank, Ukraine’s largest lender, which belongs to billionaire oligarch and staunch government supporter Igor Kolomoisky.
“I’m getting threatening letters from Privat Bank because I haven’t made my loan payments,” said Seryoga, a miner from Shakhtyorsk outside Donetsk city.
“But Privat has closed down in our town. I asked them what I should do, because I want to pay, and they told me to take my money to a branch in Dnepropetrovsk – that’s 300km away!”
Seryoga and colleagues at the mine said they were still receiving wages, but that pensions and other social payments – many of which go through Privat – had ceased in Shakhtyorsk.
“Lots of us would leave, but have nowhere to go. Where else are miners needed?” asked Seryoga.
“And you can’t just stop work at the coalmine or at a metal works. If all the machinery stops, it’s a long process to get it running normally again.”
This week Sergei Taruta, the Donetsk governor now in Kiev, told residents of the eastern city: “If you have the opportunity, do not be afraid to leave . . . The state guarantees that everyone seeking shelter will be given care and attention.”
Perhaps the only thing that the government and rebels agree on is that civilians should try to escape Donetsk and Luhansk.
Kiev insists it will not use artillery in residential areas but the rebels – and most locals – blame Kiev’s forces for deadly rocket fire that has intensified in and around Donetsk in the last 10 days; the government says militants are responsible.
As people living around Donetsk’s railway station – and before that in the Petrovsky suburb and the nearby town of Mariinka – fled or hid in basements from fearsome shelling, panic soared that Donetsk would share the fate of Slovyansk.
The rebels made the town of 100,000 people their military stronghold, but were forced to retreat and regroup in Donetsk after concerted artillery fire by Ukrainian forces that hit several apartment buildings and killed at least 20 civilians.
Annihilation of separatists
flight MH17 plunged into this already bloody and bewildering crisis, and western accusations that the rebels brought it down have left Donetsk fearing that Kiev could be given carte blanche to annihilate the separatists at almost any cost to the city and its residents.
“The fascists in Kiev will do to Donetsk what they did to Slovyansk,” Pavel Gubarev, a rebel leader, told a gathering of locals last week, suggesting the city would be shelled until the separatists fled, surrendered or were killed.
“You should all escape the city if you can . . . and we will fight until we are victorious,” Gubarev said.
An elderly woman in the crowd asked: “You say you will fight to the end. But what does that mean for people who have nowhere to go, or don’t want to leave?”
Before Gubarev could answer, a man sitting next to the worried lady replied: “It means we will die.”