Monday, March 23, 2015

For Pro-Separatist Ukrainians, Hardship Replaces Hope

AMVROSIIVKA, Ukraine — Ethnic Russian residents in this eastern province who cheered on a rebel drive a year ago to separate from Ukraine are now suffering buyers' remorse.


People gather to receive humanitarian aid packages from Responsible Citizens, a Donetsk-based humanitarian assistance organization, on March 12, 2015, in Amvrosiivka, Ukraine.

While local governance such as schools and law enforcement continue to function, many ties to the outside world have been broken since fighting erupted between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian security forces.

The Ukrainian government in the capital of Kiev cut off the banking system here and instituted travel restrictions between separatist-held areas and the rest of the country.

As a result, pensions, salaries and many jobs have dried up, and residents in separatist-held areas have difficulty leaving.

Residents who once had comfortable lives now live in poverty and geographic seclusion, prompting some to change their minds about separating from Ukraine, said Olga Lapteva, 35, a grounds cleaner at the Victory Cultural Center in downtown Amvrosiivka, about 50 miles southeast of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk and close to the Russian border.

Lapteva said she hasn't received a salary in months.

Like other women waiting in the cold for handouts of baby food and diapers, Lapteva said the new rebel government has provided no help at all:

"The new authorities promise but don't do anything," she said.

When residents ask the Russian-backed People's Republic of Donetsk for aid, the authorities say they've not received official requests from her town, so things must be OK, Lapteva said.

When residents call the Akhmetov Foundation, a local charity, aid workers say the Ukrainian military won't let convoys go through, Lapteva said.

While government services are mostly restored in Donetsk, amid an uneasy cease-fire, separatist authorities in outlying areas provide almost no assistance to medical clinics, hospitals, orphanages, old age homes and other social service institutions, said Evgeny Shibalov, an aid worker with Responsible Citizens, which provides baby food and diapers to the mothers in Amvrosiivka and other aid in the region.

"Supplies that rebel forces have given to the armed groups and almost nothing is left over for civilians," Shibalov said.

"What's good: They never interfere with anybody providing services" to those in need.

In Donetsk, life is not like before, either, even with a functioning government.

At the Ocean Humanitarian Cafe, a man in military fatigues yells at the proprietor about the high price of food and storms out.

The man was injured in fighting with Ukrainian troops and spent weeks in the hospital, explained the Ocean's owner, Vitalina Lavrinovich.

"Now he's out and surprised at the prices," he says.

Ocean used to be a restaurant but turned into a soup kitchen for students and the needy after paying customers dried up, Lavrinovich said.

Her supplies are provided by the Russia-based aid group the Cossack Union, but she's ambivalent about the war.

"It's more difficult than before because many sons and husbands are in the (separatist) army and we worry about them," Lavrinovich said.

She then lowered her voice as she added in Russian, the dominant language here:

"I speak Ukrainian and love my country — I think I'm Ukrainian — and I really worry all this will destroy the country."

Not everyone at the Ocean shared her feelings.

"Ukraine is an invention," said Valerie Lejenine, a construction worker with a handgun under his black blazer who's been digging graves for the region's fallen fighters.

"We want to live in our own independent state and then see where we should go, Ukraine or Russia." 

Residents in Donetsk who haven't fled say garbage collection continues, streets are relatively clean, and crime appears to be down since before the war.

At the Golden Circle Mall, three officers direct traffic.

That's half the number of officers that would have been at the circle before the war, but there is only half as much traffic because so many people and jobs are gone.

The walkway from street level to the mall's underground passage is empty of the usual panhandlers.

The air is cleaner because there's so much less traffic and many of the city's industrial plants are idle. 

At the Porochovsky district of Donetsk's public school system, the war has led to a drop in student enrollment from 6,625 last year to 5,989 because some parents fear it is unsafe to attend school and others left the district, chief administrator Svetlana Malina said.

As a result, teachers must correspond with absent students through the Internet, she said.

Donetsk authorities have ordered educators to continue organizing academic competitions, humanitarian aid and meals for students like before, and they have made changes in the history and language curriculums, Malina said.

The district increased Russian-language instruction from two hours a week to three, matching the number of hours devoted to the Ukrainian language.

History lessons, which had focused on Ukraine, now put more emphasis on the region's relationship to Russia, the history of World War II and the Soviet Union's role in liberating the region from Nazi occupation.

"New textbooks were delivered to all the schools two months ago," Malina said.

Asked if her schools still prepare students as well for future jobs, Malina took a breath and said the question should be posed to parents.

"They made their choice," she said.

"They stayed here."

Malina's deputy, Ludmila Batrak, said the district has "no evidence" the children are unhappy or stressed.

The next day, however, a class of 11th-graders provided a different impression when asked how the war has affected their lives.

First to speak was Nastya Koznztsova, 17. "Many people had to go.

Many families lost their houses.

It's hard to think about because my brother was killed," she said.

Then her eyes welled with tears and she looked away.

A classmate put her hand on Koznztsova's forearm, and another student spoke in English.

"Half of our class has left to Ukraine or to Russia," Inna Dychenio said.

"Our only hope is for this to get better, for peace, and for our loved ones to be safe."

A question about what country the school resides in was met with confused silence — until a boy named Anton Chernyaev spoke up:

"The People's Republic of Donetsk."

Source: USA Today

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