DONETSK, Ukraine -- This once-booming industrial city of 1 million is now largely a lawless and lifeless center of eastern Ukraine's separatist movement, where residents live under constant threat from marauding militias.
Pro-Russian separatists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic sit atop a Russia-supplied self-propelled gun during the Victory Day parade in Donetsk on May 9, 2015. In the background are also Russia-supplied rocket launchers. Even though the evidence is clear, Putin keeps denying that he is supplying Ukrainian rebels with armaments.
Although pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian armed forces agreed to a cease-fire last February, the sounds of artillery fire and shelling have never ceased to echo through the war-torn city.
The fighting has slowed, but not stopped.
For the past year, Russian-backed separatists have controlled the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR).
Most stores have shut down, and only a few restaurants remain open, filled mainly with young separatist militia fighters in dark green fatigues who rampage through the city as if it were their own playground, civilian residents say.
Olexandra Matviichuk, who heads the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, said confrontations among varied militias are common at the expense of law and order.
"No functioning legal mechanisms (exist) in these territories," Matviichuk said.
As a result, "any person can become a victim of looting, torture, hostage-taking and execution."
Off a main street in the city center as dusk starts to fall, two DNR policemen, Bogdan Kvetka and Ruslan Ivanov, agreed to sit down with USA TODAY in a small closed cafe to describe the lawlessness that has gripped their city.
Because of their fear of retribution from fellow separatists, the café owner — a trusted friend of the men — locked the doors as the pair, still in military fatigues, nervously recounted what life is now like here.
Militia fighters, they explained, are able to carry out criminal acts with impunity.
Fighters ignore the law, knowing they have the support of their own paramilitary group that can stir up trouble if one of its members is confronted.
Both Kvetka and Ivanov said they are unable to enforce order.
"We support the DNR, and not all of the fighters are bad, but 15% of the fighters in Donetsk are, and that's in every militia group here," Kvetka said in a hushed tone despite the secure environment.
"The bad ones are the ones at the top, the most powerful members. They steal cars and property, and they have killed civilians they don't like. They control the city. They do what they want, and no one can stop them. No one can touch them."
Both policemen said they fully support the separatist movement and proudly wear the words Novorossiya, or "New Russia," on their shoulder.
They don't believe it is the DNR government that is to blame, but the gang mentality of rogue militia members.
Since the war began a year ago, Donetsk's population has fallen by more than half.
Those that remain fear not just a barrage of shells from the Ukrainian army but also their new self-appointed defenders of the region.
Khaled Sijer, a restaurant owner in the center of Donetsk, told USA TODAY he would never consider calling the police for help if he needed it, even if the problem was unrelated to the militias.
At this point, he said, everyone has some connection to a militia that could cause a much larger problem.
"The militias run this city now," Sijer said.
"There is no law here. The police are powerless. Everyone knows that."
The policemen who spoke with USA TODAY said they are aware residents feel that way.
While both hold the rank of captain — allowing each to command two dozen officers — they said they still remain powerless on the streets.
"Civilians have been killed, and executions happen here," Ivanov said.
"We know of them and have heard of them. But there is nothing we can do. If any police or any person tries to investigate or accuses a fighter of a group, then they will be killed. It is my work to stop these people, but right now, we can't do anything."
While speaking to residents in Donetsk, USA TODAY witnessed two men in green military fatigues attack a young man in civilian clothes with a beer bottle outside a café frequented by militia members.
The young man fell to the ground in front of eight other civilians, but no one moved to help as blood ran from his head onto the cold pavement.
Both militiamen flicked their cigarettes onto the victim's limp body and walked away from the scene.
After they left, one onlooker helped the young man to his feet, pressing a napkin to his head.
Bloodied and in a state of confusion, he stumbled away alone.
One woman from the café quickly fetched a bucket of water, splashing away the blood from the concrete.
Other onlookers moved on without comment.
"Unfortunately, this is a widespread practice," civil liberties activist Matviichuk said when told about the incident.
"Representatives of the illegal military groups seemingly have a mandate to make decisions on property, personal freedom and even on the life of any person."
The two police officers confirmed Matviichuk's assessment.
When civilian police arrest someone associated with a militia, it's only a few hours before other militia members show up and force the police to release the arrested man.
"The problem is there are two wars the DNR government is fighting now: the war against Ukraine and the war here against our own soldiers," Kvetka said.
"It's not easy for the DNR government to fight both. The city here is not safe from both wars."
Source: USA Today