Ukraine crisis: An Orwellian nightmare for government supporters in the rebel-held east

In ruined Donetsk, a few anti-Russian activists still dare to carry out small acts of defiance

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The Independent Online

Khutor and Nika move briskly on the pavement, but not fast enough to draw attention. They have tried to memorise the “wrong streets” where they know the pro-Russian rebels who seized Donetsk now regularly stand guard in camouflage, AK-47s poised.

A muscular dirty-blond bearing a studied look of intimidation and an arm patch with the banner of the so-called “New Russia” clutches his weapon firmly as they pass. Khutor, 42, and Nika, 33, lower their heads. They cease talking. Even a trip to the supermarket has become a ritual of fear.

In Donetsk, the city centre now feels like an Orwellian ghost town of propaganda posters and armed patrols. Nobody feels more alone than those who still harbour pro-Ukrainian sentiment. Since the separatists took total control, human rights campaigners and Ukrainian activists say, an untold number of loyalists have been extorted, abducted, tortured and, allegedly, executed. Many have left.

Until recently, Donetsk was almost impassable, rocked by constant shelling and gunfire. The fighting has subsided since Kiev and the rebels agreed a tenuous truce that began on 5 September. But city authorities this week reported continued artillery volleys.

 

Some of the hundreds of thousands of residents who fled are trickling back to the city outskirts. But infrastructure is heavily damaged, and most residents have running water for just three hours a day. There are rolling blackouts. Schools are closed, hospitals short-staffed, factories shuttered. And the centre of town – dotted with patrols by the rebels of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” – is abandoned.

Nevertheless, a few pro-Ukrainians still risk little acts of sedition: spray-painting a wall; planting a Ukrainian flag sticker at a bus stop.

“They disappear quickly,” said Khutor, who used to work at an advertising firm that went bust with the war. “But someone might see them... They’ll know that some of us are still here.”

Residents have effectively found themselves in a police state. Pro-Ukrainian views can mean terrifying trips to “the basement”, the makeshift detention centres for suspected spies. Over the summer, Khutor said, he was riding his bike near his apartment block when a rebel patrol stopped him. Its members accused him of being a spotter for the Ukrainian military, which was shelling rebel positions nearby. They put a bag over his head, pistol-whipped him and took him to the basement of an abandoned motel.

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A destroyed flat that was shelled in Donetsk (Reuters)

“They don’t just beat you,” he said, “they torture you.” He was held for two weeks, his face so beaten that he’s now missing teeth. He was suspended upside down. After some of the other men being held apparently confessed, Khutor said they were executed, their bodies put on display for other prisoners to see.

Khutor and Nika have stayed in Donetsk because of elderly parents who refuse to leave. As the city has grown more dangerous for pro-Ukrainians, Khutor has stopped spray-painting buildings. But both of them still covertly leave calling cards – small stickers of the Ukrainian flag – where they can. “We are Ukrainians,” he said. “That will never change.”

© Washington Post

Pipe dreams: Kiev’s energy crisis

Hungary’s gas pipeline operator has suspended delivery of gas to Ukraine “indefinitely”. The move will intensify pressure on Ukraine this winter unless a dispute over its gas supply from Russia can be resolved.

As a result of this dispute, Kiev has been relying on supplies from Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Now the Hungarian pipeline operator FGSZ has stopped its flow to Ukraine, citing an unexpected increase in demand.

It comes as Russia and Ukraine held talks in Berlin to solve their gas dispute to head off a winter supply crisis. The action by Hungary came three days after a meeting in Budapest between Alexey Miller, the head of the Russian gas giant Gazprom, and Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.

Andrew Johnson

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