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Portrait of Donetsk militants: Disgruntled soldiers, naïve idealists and reluctant revolutionaries

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May 2, 2014, 2:33 p.m. | Ukraine abroad — by Lily Hyde

Armed pro-Russia activists walk outside the city state building they seized in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on April 16, 2014.
© AFP

HORLIVKA, Ukraine -- Harassed Dmitry Chas doesn’t know what day it is, or exactly how long he’s been in round-the-clock charge of the Dynamo roadblock outside Horlivka, a city of 250,000 people north of Donetsk.

But one thing he is sure of: he’s not a terrorist.

“We’re so fed up with what’s being said about us: that we’re wild; that we’re armed,” he said, hurrying to pull on a balaclava to hide his face. “To occupy a building can seem like the work of terrorists, but this road block protecting the town shows that the town supports this goal; that it isn’t terrorism, it’s from the people.”

The armed takeover of state buildings and one whole city in regions of eastern Ukraine has been blamed by the Ukrainian government and media on Russian agents and paramilitary groups from both sides of the border.

But many small-town locals like Chas seem to be closing their eyes to the ominous proliferation of weapons on their streets, or a possible wider geopolitical agenda. They have joined the movement calling for greater independence from Kyiv out of a simple sense of grievance, disillusionment and despair.

“I’m not a politician, I just want my town to be peaceful and to know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Chas. “After those revolutions in 2004 and 2014, there’s no faith in tomorrow. I want to be confident that my kids will finish school and institute and get a job; not like now, when you work and work and then there’s a revolution and you lose your job and have nothing to feed your children. We’re just sick of it.”

Chas, a father of three, lost his job as a grocer after the 2004 Orange Revolution. Most people in Horlivka have forgotten what it’s like to have job security, or hot water or money to spare. A people who largely define themselves proudly as workers, without employment many Donbas residents feel lost and abandoned by the rest of the country. 

The 2004 Orange Revolution happened without their participation, or bringing them any noticeable benefits.

When Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2008, he let down his home region of Donbas, instead miring the whole country deeper in corruption and economic decline. When Yanukovych was ousted by EuroMaidan protests, again the east felt ignored, and even demonised as home of paid supporters of the former regime.

The interim government in Kyiv failed to reach out; instead it shut off Russian TV channels, watched by the largely Russian-speaking and Russian-oriented population here, and hurried to sign agreements with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund as it engaged in an escalating war of words with Russia over Crimea. Prices in Donbas have risen, more jobs are being lost. 

Now, more and more people here have lost patience with what they call the Kyiv "junta" and with Ukrainian media which they believe characterises anyone protesting for more voice and a better life in East Ukraine as "separatists," "insurgents" and "terrorists."

“Here we are working people, and when we had work and could feed our families we kept quiet,” said Chas. “But how much can we endure? A democratic government is made up of the people who live in that country. But who asked us about a revolution? Who asked us about privatizing factories? We just want to be heard.” 

Many of the local people on roadblocks, like Chas outside Horlivka, characterize themselves as peaceful and even acting legally to defend their rights, and say they are not armed. 

But the Horlivka militia building and its store of weapons was seized by a violent crowd more than two weeks ago, and just days after this interview with Chas, the Horlivka city hall was taken over by men in masks armed with pistols, Kalashnikovs  and grenade launchers who roamed the town, often in commandeered police vehicles. 

When asked about these armed takeovers in towns like Horlivka and Sloviansk, and now further afield in Luhansk Oblast, everyone insists it is self-defence against the government’s anti-terrorism operation launched in the region, but even more so against the far-right paramilitary organisation Pravy Sektor. 

Pravy Sektor, which played a role in the EuroMaidan protests, has been represented by Russian media as an American and Kyiv government-backed army of fascists and nationalists invading east Ukraine in a repeat of World War II – and many people here believe that to be true.

“Local people took up arms at the last minute, when they understood there was no other way, that otherwise those fascists would come and kill, rape, rob and enslave us,” said Boris, a militant from Sloviansk, who feared retribution if his surname was published. “Only then did we take up arms. We watched what happened [with EuroMaidan] in Kyiv and we didn’t like it, but we didn’t go there; we sat here quietly and carried on with our own lives. But when they came here to us, we had to organise ourselves.” 

It is not just the alleged threat posed by ‘nationalists’ and ‘fascists’ that spurs the Donbas militants’ anger, but also the perceived injustice that in the rest of Ukraine Pravy Sektor, they believe, are legally allowed to be armed and are still occupying buildings. “Why does Pravy Sector have the right to carry arms and we don’t?” said Grigory, from a roadblock by the village of Pantaleimonovka. “Why do they have legal status and we don’t? let them free buildings and disarm first, and then we’ll do the same.”

Grigory, who feared retribution if his last name was published, is from the unrecognised republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and fought both in that separatist war and in Afghanistan. If unemployed grocer Dmitry Chas is typical of one kind of  participant of the east Ukrainian unrest, Grigory is representative of another – the dissatisfied former soldier who takes the penurious state of the Ukrainian army as a personal affront and has found a more rewarding, military-type home in the Donetsk people’s militia.

Grigory talks about shadowy ‘generals’ and ‘coordinators’; he says he is commander of an attack brigade of the Donetsk people’s militia and shows several pieces of paper stamped by the Donetsk Republic to prove it. He says there are Russians in the occupied regional administration building in Donetsk, but declines to elaborate on that, or on exactly who the real leaders of the new movement are. “It’s not [self-styled president of the Donetsk People’s Republic] Denis Pushylin; it’s someone else,” he said. 

For Grigory, as for most local supporters of the uprising, the leaders calling for a referendum on independence for Donbas do not seem to matter. Most protesters and militants cannot even remember Pushylin’s name, or, in Slavyansk, that of self-proclaimed Mayor Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, and express no respect for or trust in them or in any politician from the region - including former president Yanukovych. Utterly disillusioned with any government, they insist their movement is a straight-forward and spontaneous expression of the people’s desire for a better life. 

“I’m not in politics, I’m in enforcement,” Grigory said. “I don’t care who becomes the president of the Donetsk Republic, or the governor, but if the people complain again that they live poorly, I will take that president or governor and hang him out of the 17th floor window, head first, in front of the people… This is the only way we can keep order.”

As they are indifferent or confused about who is apparently in command, so the militants are vague about what the positive aims of their movement are, other than an improved economic situation and that their voices should be heard. Any discussion on the future of the Donetsk People’s Republic ends in so much confusion and disagreement that Chas has banned politics from his road block after one argument nearly came to blows.

“I’m head of the roadblock and I have three rules: no politics, no news, no alcohol,” he said. “Someone might be anti-[Ukrainian prime minister Arseny] Yatsenyuk, someone might be pro-Russian, so this is so there’s no conflict of interest. We have a common goal, and that is to get independence from the Kyiv junta. It’s not important if we go towards Russia or stay independent; we just don’t want a revolution, we don’t want people to suffer. In principle I can’t say who we trust, there so much disinformation out there.”

Militants says they have their own sources of information, but most of them watch Russian TV and are uncritical of its coverage, while they loathe the Ukrainian media’s negative bias against them. But despite the proliferation of Russian flags, and the common reiteration that Russians are fellow Slavs and brothers, active support for joining Russia among the militants is by no means universal.

“We could join China, for all I care; maybe someone wants that,” said one man at the Pantaleimonovka road block, with a shrug. As the violence increases daily in Donetsk region, the sense of "us" and "them" is increasing too, but before May 2, when the Ukrainian army launched a major assault on Sloviansk, many of the militants still said they hoped never to fire their weapons, and want a peaceful solution. 

“I’d like it to end as soon as possible so I can take off this green uniform and go home to my family,” said Boris from Sloviansk, who also did not give his surname. “None of us need this. They came with weapons, so we had to defend ourselves. We don’t want war, we want to live in peace.”  

These men who have taken up arms for peace and invaded government buildings because they don’t want revolution are living a strange paradox. They want to go home, but not one person could explain when exactly would be the moment when they could lay down their arms and go home. There is no politician or leader they trust. They are convinced the rest of Ukraine ignores and despises them, and is overrun by fascists. Many express no major desire to be rescued by Russia. There is a lot of talk about the "people’s will," but on Chas’ roadblock the people have been banned from talking about news or politics because they cannot agree. 

All Boris could say, when asked when he would feel able to change out of his green uniform and go home to his children, was “It’s a question for the soul. For the heart.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been produced 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.

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