This Is Life in Militia-Controlled Eastern Ukraine

Photographs behind the rebel lines of the Donetsk People’s Republic

by ZACK BADDORF

This article was originally published on April 25, 2015.

Crossing the border into the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic is a pain in the ass.

I must have gone through 30 checkpoints on both the Ukrainian and separatist sides of the border, despite only being in the country for about a week. I waited nearly two hours at one checkpoint alone.

The guards aren’t friendly and the process is tedious. But once you get through the borders and into the cities, life is pretty normal.

Well, unless you count the near constant shelling and small arms fire at the Donetsk International Airport — which lies in ruins just five miles from the center of the city. That’s one of the hotspots in the war. The fighting there has gone on for months.

All photos by Zack Baddorf

Russian-backed separatists posted this sign inside a former Ukrainian government administration building.

To demonstrate their loyalty, some residents in the separatist-held areas have put DPR stickers over their Ukrainian license plates.

Inside the mayor’s office of a DPR-controlled town, a drawing of a woman and a child wished a family member good luck. “Get back home victorious and alive,” the card stated. “We are waiting for you!”

Another drawing depicted a cute tank. “It’s not easy to be a man in our days, to be a winner, a wall, a reliable friend, a sensible person, a strategist between war and peace,” the drawing read.

“In this festive day [Defender of the Fatherland Day], we wish you patience in your life. We wish you to have health, love and inspiration.”

“We wish you have artistic success and good fortune!”

The other two cards commemorated the Feb. 23 “Defender of the Fatherland Day,” which celebrates members of the Soviet army.

The orange and black stripes adorned many of the Soviet Union’s medals during World War II, and the symbol has become ubiquitous in eastern Ukraine and Russia in recent months.

Inside Donetsk, the first thing I noticed was the empty billboards. I’d reported from Donetsk back in 2014, months before the fighting began here.

Back then, it seemed like a booming and prosperous city — and a surprising place for a rebellion.

“Defend the Country — Revive Donbass,” a billboard with the DPR flag on it urged motorists. The billboard next to it was empty. Most of the ads in the city are gone, a sign of a weak economy.

Rebels captured the city and held a referendum in May 2014. The predictable results were for independence from Ukraine. Western nations said the day of polling had “no democratic legitimacy” while Russia said the world should respect the results.

Ukraine has been at war with the Russian-backed separatists since.

The city seemed peaceful, but there were some big changes since I was last in the region.

Inside the formerly Ukrainian-run administration building, a wall honored the “memory of the militants killed for the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic.”

Outside the Donetsk Regional State Administration Building, a Russian flag flew higher than the DPR flag.

There are traces of the war throughout Donetsk. One battle-scarred bank closed down during the fighting.

Retirees lined up outside another bank to collect their pensions. The DPR is now paying out retirement benefits in Russian rubles.

In his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman wrote that no two countries with McDonald’s restaurants had ever gone to war.

But there was a McDonald’s in Donetsk … which is now shuttered. The fast food franchise has recently been a popular target of anti-Western sentiment in both Russia and countries with strong ties to Moscow.

Someone had scrawled graffiti on a bus stop painted in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag. “It [this area] is not for you anymore,” the Russian-language graffiti warned.

At a makeshift checkpoint on a road leading to Donetsk, guards repeatedly refused to let me photograph them, citing security concerns.

This separatist fighter carried a sidearm next to his camouflaged car. Soldiers on both side of the conflict often rely on homemade gear and crowdfunded weapons.

The industries in the east continue to function, but the conflict has devastated production. Donetsk and rebel-held Luhansk are steel towns that once provided metal to both Russia and Ukraine.

Near a DPR-Ukrainian border crossing, truck drivers chatted by the side of a road while waiting in a long queue. The Ukrainians have stopped much of the trade going into the DPR to pressure the rebels.

The young man in the white shirt is from Russia. He said he’s fighting on his own behalf to protect children and civilians in the area.

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