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Originally published August 20, 2014 at 5:55 AM | Page modified August 20, 2014 at 11:22 PM

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Ukraine's rebel capital seeks ersatz normality

It has been weeks since Donetsk last had a traffic jam.


Associated Press

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DONETSK, Ukraine —

It has been weeks since Donetsk last had a traffic jam.

The regular rumble on the edge of this besieged city in eastern Ukraine is a constant reminder of the government's effort to shell armed pro-Russian separatists out of their stronghold. Rebels give as good as they get, blindly lobbing shells back at an unseen foe.

As fighting edges closer to the center, hundreds of thousands have fled a city once home to 1 million people. The bustle of a major industrial center has given way to the stillness of fear.

College teacher Nataliya Badibina said she would have left to stay with relatives in Russia were it not for her mother and father.

"My parents are ill. They live nearby and I am not going to leave them," said Badibina, whose apartment block in Donetsk's western Petrovsky district had its windows blown out by shrapnel from a Grad rocket that landed in her courtyard.

Petrovsky district is on the edge of Donetsk and near some of the heaviest fighting seen in the city.

A local supermarket is still open and provides groceries for anybody with the money to buy them. Most people do their shopping before lunchtime, said Badibina, after which the daily booms of artillery start anew.

A few restaurants have braved the shelling and serve customers, albeit typically giving notice that they close well before the 11 p.m. rebel-imposed curfew. After that, the streets become deserted and an even ghostlier silence descends, only to be periodically punctured in the night by artillery booms.

Funds for many are running dry as pensions and government salaries are held up. City council spokesman Maxim Rovinsky said those paid on bank cards still get their money. Many others haven't been paid since June.

On Tuesday, a crowd formed outside the 11th floor rebel headquarters in Donetsk amid rumors that pension and disability payments and child assistance were being given out.

Holding a sheaf of photocopied documents, Vyacheslav Melnikov said he was there to apply for money for his two disabled grandchildren.

"I don't even have enough money to feed them. I hope they will help us," he said.

One woman in line, Tatyana Ostrovksaya, said she wanted to be paid the money due to her brother, Viktor, who was killed in a rocket attack earlier in the month.

"They're supposed to pay out two months' worth of pension, but nobody will pay it to me," Ostrovksaya said.

It is not immediately clear where the funds to pay such applicants will come from. Rebel leaders announced months ago that they would raise funds by levying taxes from local businesses, but almost all private enterprises have ceased to operate altogether.

Shops in pedestrian underpasses feel relatively safe from bombardment, although the racket of trams passing overhead can unnerve newcomers likely to mistake it for a rocket hitting the ground. Business owners say they have long become accustomed to the sounds of war. The sheer imprecision of the weapons being indiscriminately used by rebels and government forces alike makes a target of everybody.

Even as chaos brews, a kind of ersatz normality has taken over.

The rebel headquarters, once the Donetsk region administrative building, has been substantially tidied up since it was first occupied and ransacked by separatists in April.

Many windows and fittings are still smashed, but the smell of stale alcohol that permeated the stairwell is largely gone, as are the random piles of binders once stacked up haphazardly in the offices. Rebel bureaucrats sit at their desks and ink documents with their own self-styled stamps.

The barricades of bricks and tires that once skirted the building were removed in late May, although some crude graffiti remains.

The regular police service has been disbanded and in its place are officers from the self-described Donetsk People's Republic. Drivers still mostly stop obediently at traffic lights, not least because the rebel road police now carry automatic rifles. Stories abound of drivers caught speeding having their cars impounded at the point of a gun.

As part of an ostensible law-and-order campaign, the rebel leadership announced this week that it was introducing the death penalty for the most serious crimes. Pressed for information about which offenses would be punishable by death, Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the rebel republic, was unable to offer specifics.

The struggle to maintain normal life took a major blow over the weekend as water taps began to run dry. Local authorities explained that damage to an electricity line had cut off power to the water treatment facility that provided for most of the city's needs. Supplies are now sporadic or nonexistent in some neighborhoods.

Electricity and gas supplies continue to be provided to most of the city because of the efforts of utilities workers who, amid the fighting, repair damaged pipelines and overhead cables. Even gardeners working for City Hall continue to carefully tend flower displays; street cleaners have ensured Donetsk's streets do not pile up with trash.

Rovinsky of the city council said the hospitals and the fire service are also still operating, although there is a shortage of personnel and medical supplies.

The rebel FM radio station, Radio Respublika, broadcasts tips on how to behave in the event of shelling. Among the pieces of advice offered by the radio presenter in one afternoon show was to always keep mobile phones fully charged, have an emergency suitcase with basic items at hand and stock up on medicine such as painkillers and tranquillizers.

"And you must also have water. Plus some food, which should be high-calorie and not take up too much room, like dry fruit or hard cheese," he said.

If larger numbers of people have not fled the prospect of all-out urban fighting, it is partly out of fear that their homes will be looted, as Badibina said happened in the Petrovksy district.

Many once eagerly fulminated against the government or grumbled quietly about the rebels. Now a kind of resigned trepidation is setting in as winter beckons.

"Let's just hope this is all over before the cold sets in," Badibina said, "because winter is going to be hard."



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