Ukrainian military forces have gained ground in the flashpoint cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast over the past week, but government authorities in general have largely lost their grip in the tough industrial oblast, home to 10 percent of Ukraine’s population of 45 million.
Pro-Russian separatists have captured strategically important buildings and claimed to have installed their own “people’s governments,” whose representatives are preparing to hold a referendum on independence from Ukraine on May 11 contravention of Ukraine’s constitution.
Amid the lawlessness stoked by the Kremlin, police here have vanished, replaced by pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic’s law enforcers. A hotline residents can call to report incidents has been set up.
Several hundred armed - and jumpy - rebels patrol the city in search of dissenters ahead of the impending illegal referendum. They roam the streets with itchy trigger fingers and a sense of impunity, nabbing drunks and anyone deemed a threat or a spy, dragging them into buildings barricaded with sandbags, discarded objects and razor wire.
Some are released within hours, but others simply vanish, and at least two-dozen people are missing or being held hostage.
Resting against a barricade outside the protester-occupied Donetsk’s Regional State Administration building, a guy named Slava, who is dressed in military fatigues and a black face mask, shifts his Kalashnikov rifle from his side to a horizontal position over his crossed forearms. He explains that the gun battles and building seizures, hostage-taking and referendum plans are all part of an all-out “fight for freedom.”
He would like for Donetsk to eventually be a part of Russia, but the first step is independence from Ukraine.
“Look around,” the pro-Russian militiaman says, rolling the bottom of his face mask up to the bridge of his nose without fully revealing his face. “This is war.”
Slava, who asked that his last name not be used in this story for fear of reprisals from the militant, nationalist group Right Sector, was a university student who had worked as a taxi driver in Donetsk before joining his separatists-in-arms.
He chose to do so, he said, because he feels Kyiv and western Ukraine do not respect the Russian-speaking east and because, like his grandfather before him, a Soviet Red Army soldier who defeated Hitler’s Nazi army, he feels an obligation to defend his homeland from what he says is a “fascist invasion.”
Pro-Russian rebels train their sights on the entrance of the military academy as Ukrainian troops stand in the entryway on May 6.
In this view, the “fascists” are members of the central government in Kyiv, which Moscow has repeatedly called a “junta” and “coup” government, and the Right Sector, which played a role in the Feb. 22 ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych during the EuroMaidan Revolution.
Slava is not alone. Several other men with whom the Kyiv Post spoke share similar sentiments. They are armed with everything from wooden clubs and daggers to double-barreled hunting rifles and Kalashnikovs.
On May 4, they strutted in their camouflage up and down several blocks surrounding the regional government building, weapons in hand, with an air of supremacy.
They are the new order here, and they show it.
A group of them dragged at least two men who appeared to be firefighters through the streets blindfolded and with their hands tied on May 4. There wasn’t a police officer in sight and no one at the city’s police station is explaining why.
The Kyiv Post watched other pro-Russian rebels with automatic weapons take three unidentified men, march them at gunpoint up the stairs of the regional government building and shove them through a fifth-floor door on May 5. Asked where they were being taken, a man shouted: “Keep walking! Nothing to see here!” before he shoved a Kyiv Post journalist.
The mysterious fifth floor is off-limits to journalists and to even most of the pro-Russian separatists. Each time its door opens, it is done so with only enough space for a person to pass and then promptly slammed shut. No light is seen emanating from it. Questions asked about the floor elicit angry responses.
But Donetsk isn’t alone in its lawlessness.
In Luhansk, a similar situation is playing out, prompting the regional headquarters of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry to lose control amid increasing reports of robberies, car jackings and kidnappings. “A large number of firearms, which fell into the hands of inhabitants of the region, has led to the fact that the criminal situation today is out of control,” the office said in a statement on May 6.
Regional police are mostly useless in the meager attempts they have made to quell public dissent and, especially, the actions of the pro-Russia rebels. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said many police in eastern Ukraine are also “sympathetic to separatist groups.”
In the latest show of outlaw justice, the Kremlin-backed rebels stormed PrivatBank branches in Yenakievo and ripped out ATMs around Donetsk. The bank is owned by oligarch and Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Governor Igor Kolomoisky, who the rebels allege is a Right Sector backer.
The incidents led to many banks this week to do away with personal service all together. On May 6, lines stretched nearly a block long at the few operating bank machines, as customers made a mad dash to pull out their savings before more branches shuttered their branches.
Olga Mikhailova, a spunky 70-year-old Donetsk pensioner and former school teacher, came to an ATM with a neighbor to see if they could withdraw money from their account. She doesn’t support either the Kyiv government or the armed gunmen besieging the city of her birth. The relative stability she has enjoyed here for years is now gone, she said, shaking her head.
“Look at these boys with guns. They are hooligans and who is going to stop them from terrorizing our city. They are not police. Where are the police? Are you the police? No, I think no,” she asked, gesturing to a young masked man nearby.
“We’re no hooligans. We’re your guardians, protecting this city. You should know from whom, from fascists. You would know fascists,” he replied. “Shut up and take your money.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from the project www.mymedia.org.ua, financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action.The content in this article may not necessarily reflect the views of the Danish government, NIRAS and BBC Action Media.