Crossed the border to the Donetsk Peoples Republic today. After a few months of intense planning, today independent journalist Michel Spekkers and me have crossed the border to the DNR . We are planning to cover the stories of people living here for the next two weeks.
With a smile on his face, our taxi driver explained to us the financial situation with which many people living in Donetsk were confronted with. ‘Before the war started many people of course had taken out loans. But after the war started many banks closed.’ A smile appeared on his face when he said ‘I wanted to pay back my debts, but couldnSo one day the bank called me and said that we had to pay back our dept. I explained we couldn’t, the bank in turn told us they would send someone to my place if I would not pay. I gave my address in Donetsk and said they were welcome at my house.’ After having been given the address, the employee was quiet for a while, reconsidered and said they would not send someone after all.
The above situation is very exemplary of the situation many people in Donetsk are in. People here constantly fall between two stools. The rules of one country do not fully apply to them, but they are affected by them.
On the world alone
Another such situation are the issues with passports. In principle, the citizens of the Donetsk Peoples Republic are on the same level as stateless people: no country in the world (Russia included) recognizes the DNR and LNR as countries. Hence no one in the world recognizes their passports. To travel abroad people are forced to use their Ukrainian passports handed out to them before the war started in Donbass. For a whole new generation of people that did not own a Ukrainian passport before the war and that do not own Ukrainian passports, it has become impossible to travel abroad for their passports are not accepted anywhere.
‘In the Soviet Union it was easy to travel’, a woman we were traveling with told us, ‘There were no border controls and we could travel wherever we liked.’ She stressed that they ‘did not see ourselves as Russians, Ukrainians or whatever we were all part of one big country, the Soviet Union.’ This image persists to this day for she stressed her relatives lived everywhere, in Ukraine in Russia, Belarus, showing how important it is to be able to travel abroad.
One of the people traveling with us, was a man that visited his family living in Donetsk for the first time in several years. Due to the situation in the region it was very difficult visiting his family. It shows that was many people tend to forget; war is not only about people dying, it is also about ties to friends and family that are forcefully severed.
But already during this taxi ride, the first stories of people having been killed came to us as well. The woman traveling with us to the DNR told us that one of her brothers died due to the lack of medical help. “The only thing doctors could do is to extend his life, not save it” and hence she was forced to bury her brother.
Later she’d show us pictures of her grandchildren, asking us “How could anyone bomb these children?”. She went on to explain that many schools in Donetsk have pictures hanging in their schools of the students that have died in the conflict.
Divided by languages
Even on this first day of our trip, already some of the underlying problems that led to the conflict became apparent. Even before the Maidan many schools enforced a, what one of our fellow passengers called, ‘Ukrainization.’ Students in high school were forced to follow all their courses in the Ukrainian language, even before the Maidan broke out. “Even physics and mathematics for example”, I asked, ‘Yes, she added, physics mathematics, etc.’ This made it almost impossible for students from Russian families to study. Often there were not even sufficient dictionaries available to translate from.
Arriving in the DNR
After a long journey towards and an equally long wait at the border crossing (very busy because of the New Yeareventually managed to cross the border and enter the DNR. We were greeted by snow, gentle traffic and eventually Donetsk itself. A lot more things have been discussed during the trip and deserve mentioning, but more about that soon.