Yuriy Tkachenko, his wife Iryna and several women in the neighborhood got fed up watching masked men with Kalashnikovs drive in and out of a mostly abandoned brick factory in front of their houses in Kramatorsk, a northern Donetsk Oblast city under control of Kremlin-backed separatists for more than a month.
So, on May 19, they got together and bravely approached a minivan with armed men and demanded that they leave.
The Kalashnikov-carrying men, wearing the orange-black St. George’s stripes that have become symbols of the separatist movement, tried to frighten the civilians with threats and by pointing guns at them. But seeing that the residents were not intimidated, they drove away.
A video showing how several women dared to confront the armed men in military uniform soon went viral on the web.
“Get out of here,” women shouted at the gunmen. “They got used to protecting themselves with women and children because the (Ukrainian) army will not start shooting up places where women and children live.”
Residents of Kramatorsk, where some 165,000 people live, every day witness armed militiamen and the absence of police officers on the streets. They navigate roads barricaded by burned cars and felled trees.
At night, they turn off the lights and hear shooting between separatists and Ukrainian forces.
The anger is bound to grow with the murders of at least 18 soldiers on May 22 in the Donetsk Oblast city of Volnovakha. Many other soldiers were wounded in an ambush by Kremlin-backed separatist gunmen.
Regardless of which side of the conflict they support, people are tired of living in constant fear for their lives and the lives of their children.
Tkachenko, who lost both his legs in the 1980s when serving in the Soviet army, said he noticed the masked men were often driving with heavy loads from the plant in front of his home and he believed they were carrying guns.
Tkachenko said he didn’t want them to use these weapons near his house where his grandchildren play or against the Ukrainian army, which he supports. “I was born in Ukrainian Donbas and I will die in Ukraine,” he said.
He believes that the regular workers’ national unity strikes called for this week by Donetsk billionaire Rinat Akhmetov are the first steps to combating pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
But after hearing Tkachenko’s opinions, several neighbors who disagree started arguing with him.
Grigory, who is former plant worker and a fierce supporter of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said Ukrainian troops were bandits. “Your pro-Ukrainian friends have already left from here and you will leave soon as well,” he yelled at Tkachenko.
Video shows residents of Kramatorsk venting their anger with Kremlin-backed separatists.
Another neighbor Valentina, who also feared giving her last name, stopped this bitter argument when she burst into tears. “We lived a normal life here, but then someone has divided us,” she lamented. “There are guns everywhere, there are masked men. We don’t need this, we need peace.”
Tkachenko believes there are many people in Kramatorsk who support his views, but he said they are afraid to openly confront the armed people terrorizing the city.
There are no cars at a big central square of Kramatorsk because of barricades.
Dozens of men in masks and with Kalashnikovs hang around the local city hall, which is under the control of the Kremlin-backed separatists. They don’t pay attention to Orthodox Christian women in long skirts and scarfs on their heads, who come to say prayers for peace and call for a ceasefire.
But one of these women, Lidia Podushkina, has one more reason to be there. She comes every day for the last two weeks to get some news about her son, Dmytro Podushkin, who worked as a director of the airport in Kramatorsk and was captured by separatists on May 11. Podushkin was preparing to escape the city but didn’t manage to do it in time.
Initially the woman thought her son was kept in Kramatorsk, so she brought food for him to the police station. But later she was told he was in Sloviansk, a stronghold of the fiercest pro-Russian militants.
The chief of separatists in Kramatorsk became a kind of mediator between Podushkina and the militiamen in Sloviansk, agreeing to report news about her son, and assuring her that he was alive and fed and would probably be released soon.
“I was asking why did they keep him, he didn’t possess any gun,” Podushkina said.
The woman believes her son was punished for criticizing the pro-Russian men after several Ukrainian helicopters were shot down last month. “My son doesn’t support the authorities in Kyiv, but his problem is that he loves Ukraine,” she added.
The woman said not many men guarding government offices in Kramatorsk are locals, while the majority of them came probably from Russia. She was afraid to visit her son in Sloviansk because she thinks the men there are too dangerous.
Nevertheless Podushkina said she didn’t want to leave Kramatorsk. “It’s not easy to be a Ukrainian patriot here when the majority is so passive,” she said.
Seeing a car with men in military uniform, the woman hurried over to them to ask them for news about her son.
“They told me that he is alive,” she said on the way back, leaving the square with a happy smile.
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.