School was out for the summer, and teenagers in Donetsk strolled through a city they have seen transformed, for both better and worse, during their short lifetimes.
Some gathered last week outside the soaring 52,000-seat Donbass Arena, where just four summers ago Spain, France, England, Portugal and hosts Ukraine played matches during a successful Euro 2012 football championship.
Others, wearing the glittery sashes given to prize-winning pupils, met on Pushkin Boulevard, the leafy pedestrian street at the heart of an industrial city that received a much-needed makeover before Ukraine’s biggest-ever sporting event.
But now the arena, shuttered and scarred by shellfire, is surely the world’s most spectacular warehouse for humanitarian aid, and the boulevard and its buildings are marked with arrows pointing to the way to nearby bomb shelters.
Two years ago, Moscow- backed militants declared the city the capital of their "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) and vowed to take it and the neighbouring "Lugansk People's Republic" (LNR) out of Ukraine and into Russia.
Kremlin cold feet put that plan on ice. So while Russia swiftly annexed the strategic Crimea peninsula from Kiev, these depressed eastern regions of high unemployment and decrepit industry fell into a strange and violent limbo.
Fighting since spring 2014 has killed some 10,000 people, injured 20,000, and forced two million to flee their homes for areas controlled by a Ukrainian government that seeks EU integration, or to a Russia that fiercely opposes that shift.
Artillery fire roared around Donetsk in the first months of conflict, destroying its new airport and turning it into a semi-ghost town patrolled by masked gunmen and criss- crossed by tanks and trucks towing cannon.
Fighting has now eased, checkpoints are far fewer, and some life is returning to Donetsk. But most people’s existence is still harsh, uncertain and full of reminders of how dramatically this city and region have changed.
“Four years ago we had the world of football here,” said Viktor, a pensioner collecting a bag of free food at the arena.
"Now I'm getting humanitarian aid and our team has gone," he said, referring to the Shakhtar Donetsk club, which now plays its home games 1,200km away in western Ukraine.
Viktor says he now receives a pension of 3,700 Russian roubles (about €50). “Before the war I got the same amount in Ukrainian hryvnia [€132]. No one knows what will happen, but after all this killing I don’t think Donetsk can live with Ukraine again.”
On Pushkin Boulevard, the DNR’s flag was prominent and its anthem was played as pupils at the city’s prestigious School Number One marked the last day of term with speeches, dances and songs.
“All our [Ukrainian] textbooks have been changed for ones we received free from Russia,” said Lyudmila Lupandina, the director of the school.
The DNR curriculum stipulated only one hour a week for Ukrainian language and literature but the teachers wanted more, said Lupandina, who has taught at the school for 28 years.
In 2013, the school had 1,249 pupils, and only 240 during the worst of the fighting a year later; this year 597 attended. Numbers are slowly rising, she said.
Here nor there
“It seems we are a separate republic now,” Lupandina said, “but we’re neither here nor there, although we do lean more towards Russia.
“I hope everything will end peacefully . . . but it will take two or three years to sort out whether we go to Russia or Ukraine. Life is unpredictable.”
Lupandina begins to cry as she describes how the pupils’ meals are now largely made up of humanitarian aid; of rushing them into a bomb shelter during shelling; and when looking at the school’s souvenir football from Euro 2012.
“We try to teach our children – and parents – to be patient . . . But who could have believed that our beautiful Donetsk would be destroyed like this?” she said.
Lupandina earns the rouble equivalent of about €190 a month, which she says is “half what I would get in Russia, and things here cost about the same as there”.
Her pupils also pay a high price for Donetsk’s transformation into an unrecognised breakaway region, where laws are unclear or absent and the economy is supported by Russia, contraband and murky links with the rest of Ukraine.
Jobs are now scarce and wages are lower, but goods are costlier because they are imported from Russia or smuggled in from Kiev-controlled territory. Banks and ATMs do not work, and the rouble dominates this cash economy.
The result of this upheaval is rising poverty and, for students, less chance of affording a higher education elsewhere in Ukraine or Russia. It also means little prospect of international recognition for degrees from Donetsk’s separatist-run university.
Made in DNR
In contrast to a year ago, Donetsk’s shops are now well stocked, with most goods labelled as made in Russia and
, and some in Ukraine, “DNR” or “LNR”.
Many people rely on food aid, however. The main provider is a fund created by Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Donetsk billionaire Rinat Akhmetov.
Akhmetov fled the city when fighting erupted, but his mines and factories still operate in both rebel-held and government-controlled territories. The lavish estate he carved out from Donetsk’s botanical gardens awaits his return, watched over by his staff.
The future is far less secure for the first generation of students in the Donetsk People’s Republic.
“Our children have become hostages to this situation,” said Lupandina.
“We are like foreigners everywhere now.”