Drafted in Russia’s Rostov-on-Don
At the militia’s rally point in Rostov on Don, in Russia, hangs a boxing bag. A day can start with shadow-boxing. Or passing a soccer ball. In the morning there’s a lineup along a faint green line on the pavement.
A wounded volunteer lives on the second floor. He has a fixing frame on his calf and moves around on crutches. His legs are thin and hairless, the skin is yellow. They try to send such wounded here. They take care after them here.
The flag of Russia, Donetsk Republic, and the Russian fleet hang over the base. At the entrance there is a slide and gym bars from a playground. It’s hard to imagine what grown men do with them.
“A war without chicks is no war” – a volunteer notes thoughtfully and laughs at his own joke. There’s a bathroom at the base, the washing is done in a plastic basin, a jar on the table is used as a common stash for cigarettes and tea. A volunteer has St. George ribbons instead of shoulder straps. We are having spaghetti for breakfast. Someone shares his memories of Chechnya.
A bespectacled volunteer, looking quite intellectual, cusses when speaking of cellphone packages. Those are mostly local ones from Rostov. A guy comes up to me and asks to borrow my phone: he has to call his wounded friend in a hospital in Ukraine.
As we leave, it is an absurd picture: in the early morning the beach is already full of fishermen and swimmers, and we pass them and load into cars with tinted windows. Two of them are Russian vans with consecutive numbers (could be stickers), and the third is a “HQ” Mercedes van with a Ukrainian plate. The locals know who we are and where we are going to. They pay us no attention. They’ve gotten used to us. They don’t care about either us or them. We drive away. I keep feeling we are playing a spy game.
A joke “Well, put on your aloha shirts, learn English and go capture some yanks” prompts a burst of hysterical laughter. Some are hungover.
A chanson [Russian criminal folk genre] is playing as we drive. “We’ll have to hide our things,” a rebel states, tucking his backpack under the seat. During the time the rebels have spent together, they’ve already formed some opinions of each other. “Let’s write ‘children’ on the bus,” they joke.
There are fourteen of us in the van, including the driver. A heavy odor is everywhere. A volunteer shows us motivational pictures hailing Novorossiya on an old laptop.
“We have no relation to the DNR’s army. Remember that,” Petrovich, one of our guides across the border, lectures us. He has a “Book for notes” colored as the Russian flag. Along the road we often see “Farewell” signs.
The mood changes as soon as we get on a highway. “We don’t know where we are going,” the volunteer Maloy [Little One] says in a complete silence. There are many land plots around Rostov region surrounded by outlines of fences and gates made out of pipes. They say those are for the refugees, but we haven’t seen any yet.
As we approach the border, the road quickly becomes empty. Rare cars drive only from the opposite direction. Along the highway there are lots of memorial tanks dedicated to the Great Patriotic war [World War II]. The comparison just comes naturally. The volunteers readily speak of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who fought here, as if getting a blessing for the war from them.
Customs at the Russian-Ukrainian border
We are approaching the customs. The tension mounts. There’s a risk that they won’t let everyone through. A brief instruction on how to behave. “Any questions?” “What if they don’t let us through?” “Then you wait and go through “the green” with a guide (around the checkpoint, through a forest).
At the customs we are greeted by an old lap-dog. It walks along the road beside the building. She is followed by two buses with refugees entering Russia from Ukraine. Then, as about 20 minutes pass, five army trucks go through. There are no number plates. They go both ways.
The sun is very bright, but it’s windy and cool. There is an abandoned tractor in front of the customs building. Grass, tall as a man, has grown through the rusty metal. On the splash plate over the wheel lies a brand new book by L. Ron Hubbard, still wrapped in cellophane. An outhouse’s back wall clings to a local store. “Here’s where the confiscate goes,” someone jokes. The only brand of cigarettes they sell here is St. George, empty packs lie scattered on the ground. In the dusty grass I see a dog’s jawbone. I keep feeling we are passing through a border in time as well.
I ask why we are going through this checkpoint. From here it’s the shortest way to Donetsk. They say we will be going through Snizhne. They pronounce the town names with local stresses. We stand, waiting and smoking. A car comes up with a crushed left side. Inside there are four volunteers and the driver. They look like action movie heroes. I realize I’m thinking that’s how one goes from one Aftrican state to another. Their knee and shoulder pads remind me of Mad Max postapocalyptic gangs.
Here everyone talks about life and how they understand what’s going on. Almost all the volunteers are idea-driven.
Here’s a rebel named Yegor. His nom-de-guerre is Miesiats [Crescent]. Miesiats is twenty two. He did not serve in the army. But he confirms Strelkov’s words: at a real war some civilians learn to get around better than soldiers. He fought in Sloviansk. He’s an AGS mortar crew commander. He was wounded; they got the shards out of his face but left the ones in his hand. He recovered in Rostov and is going back to Donetsk to fight. When I asked why he decided to join the rebels, he answers with a vacant stare: “After Odesa.” This was one of the points of no return.
We have another veteran with us. His nom-de-guerre is Jinn [Genie]. He was a scout, got wounded and sent to Rostov to recover. He left his papers on the other side of the border. He can’t go back now – a DNR militia ID is obviously not valid. Jinn has a family in Donetsk. This is another tragedy of the new borders: people of Jinn’s age seem unable to believe that there’s a border between Russia and Ukraine. Aren’t we brothers? This is my first encounter with the problem of unrecognized or partially recognized states: What their citizens should do with the papers is a mystery to everyone. Especially border guards and customs officers.
Our turn is coming. Everyone understands everything but they pretend not to. One of the volunteers, when asked where he is going, answers: “To visit my granny. And granddad’s grave. He’s buried there.” I’m questioned by a tall and fat border guard in a wife beater stretching over a huge beer gut hanging over the belt. “Where are you from?” “Moscow.” “As if I couldn’t have guessed. Why? Running from your wife and kids to escape childcare payments? Or going for the thrill?” While I’m trying to think of something, a volunteer who’s already passed the passport control suggests the same tale: “To visit granddad’s grave.” “Are you his tongue?” “I’m from Moscow as well, it doesn’t matter.” “It does. So who are you going to?” “To visit friends.” Somehow he is satisfied with the answer.
Other militia groups
Right after we get across the border, we get into a bus with new militants. They aren’t novices either. In a war where artillery and rocket strikes are followed by infantry sweeps of the enemy positions, any shelling is a baptism by fire. So the “veterans” are both those who fought their way out of Sloviansk and those who came under fire in a trench just once. Those who’ve served for a month are considered experienced.
The Ukrainian soldiers jokingly call them “dickheads.” As we wait for others, they joke on their own. They tell how they fed their comrade erection pills and he couldn’t cum. A vehicle of an “emergency funeral” service comes. They collect bodies at “cleared” territories. Their job is to prevent epidemics and give headcounts of “Cargo 200’s,” as they call the killed in military slang. The dead Ukrainian soldiers are carried away on tracks without number plates. The rebels call them “the Black ones.”
Some of the “veterans” of the summer campaign have sun-bleached hair. I notice wedding rings. The rebels sit in the front, clutching guns with their knees, barrel up. People give up their seats to them. They talk with each other, but loudly enough so that we would hear too. At some point the volunteer Kalmyk who has crossed the border half an hour ago, bursts out: “They can, you know, get us killed here too.” I nod in silence. The rebels trust us (or pretend to): they casually leave their weapons when they get out of the van. We aren’t going yet. A plastic bag with open tin cans stands near the driver’s seat. Flies buzz over it.
Cows graze to the left of the road. One is lying down, others stand and chew cud with dull gazes. Litter lies on the roadside. This is probably a traditional stop for buses meeting the new volunteers.
We wait, we sit, we stand, we smoke. Some go into the field to take a piss.
“Just as boring after the customs as before,” says a newcomer. There’s a no man’s land at the border. This weird space seems the same on both sides. “When land stops changing, it dies,” I recall someone’s quote.
Finally a roll call and off we go.
A smell of burning whiffs through the window sometimes. The views mostly resemble shots from war movies. We hear the veterans’ talk, keeping silent and soaking in every word. “Isn’t anyone allergic?” “Just to dill!” [Dill is “ukrop” in Russian, which also is a derogatory term for Ukrainians]. “One rode a BMW and got on a mine. It was brand new, limited series, he seized it.” “How many were there?” Kalmyk wonders. “About 500, they say. Well, one less.”
The rebels laugh, a lot, perhaps too much. Real laughter. They boast of their Sloviansk heroic feats. It’s there, the rebel Dub [Oak] recalls, that they finished off dead or heavily wounded Ukrainian soldiers with a “control” shot to the head.
Refugee’s cars roll past us towards the border. There are just a few – everyone is probably afraid of groups of people and cars that could be good targets for rockets. They drive slowly, always ready to be stopped abruptly. You can examine the cars in detail. They are mostly of Russian make. White bandages are tied at the door handles. The rear seats have been removed, there are things there, everything necessary that they’ve had time to take.
The rebels discuss “address visits.” There still are “saboteurs” in Donetsk’s suburbs, and as soon as they get information, a group of rebels moves in to clear the area. I believe some overly vigilant people could falsely accuse their neighbors. To be fair, I haven’t heard of any “address visits” except from those “border” rebels. Meanwhile we are overtaken by a truck full of soldiers in masks. There are rumors that it is the “invisible” Russian aid.
We pass an empty Ukrainian border checkpoint. It has been destroyed. Traces of burning are everywhere. Rebels are roasting barbecue at the abandoned checkpoint. The memorial Soviet T-34 tank bears a graffiti: “To Kyiv!”
Occasionally the rebels rack the slides of their guns with a dry click that usually comes before a shot. But even without the sound it would be clear that war is all around. You can’t take a burnt-out tank carcass with an abandoned tractor if you wanted to. They resemble remains of huge prehistoric animals. The rebels watch power transmission wires closely: if the wiring is damaged, it’s hard to see. The power lines accompany us, uninterrupted, along the way.
A rebel comments on the sights in the window, yawning. He jokes that in a little time he will work as a guide. This obviously means “after we win”.
Makiivka greets us with a graffiti: “All who follow orders of the Kyiv Junta are fascists”.
“At least there are no traffic jams,” someone jokes as we enter the half-empty town. Most stores have 70% discounts as well.
Later, when the bus stops and we all get out, I’ll notice the unnatural silence – there is no city noise in Donetsk. Now, in the suburbs, I only see lots of abandoned houses. They were built recently. Some have broken windows.
The booths at the traffic stops are working. This seems to be the city’s new trade network that replaced supermarkets and smaller shops. At some checkpoints there are flags with the face of Christ. Street names are arbitrarily “translated” from Ukrainian to Russian: A4 sheets are glued over the old signs, new names written by hand, some are on colored and laminated paper.
Now Donetsk is impregnable. The hills surrounding the city are more and more often called “heights,” in a military slang. Almost all the city vans have been seized and fitted for military use. The largest checkpoint is at the entrance. On the concrete slabs it’s written in white paint: “Thank you for your help!” Now this place is a sort of Arc de Triomphe for Donetsk. Another checkpoint bears a similar writing: “We are winning only with your help.”
The old name of a central street in Donetsk, “Donbas Liberation Avenue,” has now got a totally new meaning. It is there that we are admitted into the militia.
I’m happy that Donetsk didn’t suffer from the shelling much. It looked a lot worse on TV. They say here that it’s because the Ukrainian army often uses fragmentation shells. “Anti-personnel,” not anti-building. Those that really suffered were Snizhne and Makiivka we’ve already passed. You can’t take the damage of a direct hit by a shell or a rocket for the elements’ impact: It looks like a giant fist delivered a crushing blow, aiming right at the most vulnerable spot.
We are approaching our future unit. We unload and form a line. A roll call. Veteran militants explain to us the right way to drink water: it should be warm and you should drink in small sips to quench the thirst.
We are passing an inspection in the courtyard. Drops fall from an air conditioner. As if in tune, far and rare artillery shots start coming. The volunteers are divided into two groups – those who served in the army and those who didn’t. In the first group there is one who used to serve in the Ukrainian army before the war. When the commander finds out his unit, he notes with pleasure that those have also been destroyed.
A Bentley nearby seems an object from another world. Probably a commander’s car.
They write down our civilian professions (obviously not many have military ones). One of us forgot to add he was a psychologist, but the clerk has already gone. They probably don’t need psychologists here. Later I found out our unit has an FSB [Russian Federal Security Service] man who wrote in the questionnaire he was a “secret policeman.” There is a guy from Belarus.
The Donbas People’s Militia isn’t short on manpower, so we are transferred to a reserve unit. After they pump us up to a hundred, they will think what to do with us. “For now,” a rebel called Gorets [Highlander] jokes, “you can wash the dishes in the canteen.”
There are four people in the room with me, all veterans: A rebel Yura recovering from a wound, two very young guys from Donetsk (both ex-convicts) and another guy waiting assignment.
Rumors come that during the curfew four were detained and given a choice – the “Hole” (I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m afraid to attract attention asking) or the DNR’s People’s Militia.
Militants recently from the frontlines have vacant stares. As if they are looking at something we cannot see. They are still there, at the front. The front holds you, its trenches and checkpoints crawling into Donetsk. Those who’ve been shelled never part with a bandage and tourniquet, carrying them in the side pockets of their pants, just to have them at hand in case.
Meanwhile, our reserve company is transferred by profession. Mostly they haggle about medics. It’s obvious: There’s a lack of even nurses, not speaking of doctors. There are jokes they can do CPR in a gas mask.
A dog, a York-Terrier, which looks like a joke here, runs around the yard. Women tidy up the garage. There is the passage to the HQ guard barracks.
Commanders’ cars keep coming into the yard. They carry people trying to look like Chechen heroes. They’ve grown beards and shaved their heads. The counterintelligence prefers less distinct cars. Those who have to drive around Donetsk a lot try to get better cars. The biggest dream is for sure a SUV.
At six o’clock there’s an improvised prayer and a cross-bearing procession around the Russian Orthodox Army’s compound. They say it’s the local leader on violations (a unit known for cruelty, rapes and torture. — Editor’s note).
Women working in the canteen wear St. George ribbon bracelets as jewelry. When the rebels eat, they place their guns to the adjacent chair or lean them on theirs. Before the meal everyone wishes each other a bon appetit: “polite people” [pro-Russian nickname for little green men]. T-shirts with this inscription and a picture of a balaclava’ed rebel tenderly holding an AK-47 are popular. Russian and DNR tricolor stickers on gun butts are also in fashion.
A TV is working. An interview is playing with a Russian politician telling of his region’s success.
Another, a higher level canteen is in the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine] building across the road. A middle-aged woman sits at the checkpoint. She has dyed hair, wears a gray dress, sits cross-legged and is smoking. In the yards there is a pickup with an Utes machine gun on it. The rebels call this sophisticated design an “iron”: it “irons” the enemy positions. What is it, a modern Tachanka [a machine gun horse carriage] from the Civil War? A reminder of the 90’s gangs?
At lunch the rebels boast of their boldness: they picked watermelons on a minefield. This reminds me of a summer camp war game, just like the machine gun pickup and the civilian-clothed woman at the checkpoint.
In the morning we have physical training at a stadium. On the way I notice the drain holes covered with piles of sandbags so that “saboteurs” couldn’t use them to move around the city.
Windows with broken glass are called “blind”, but in Donetsk many have a “black eye”: Some are criss-crossed with several layers of tape so that when they break at least there won’t be shards. Other windows are closed with plywood sheets (some are torn-out back walls of wardrobes).
Near our compound there is a trolleybus depot. Now only a fifth of the rolling stock is working. Other trolleybuses, of Dnipropetrovsk make, sit there idly. They are arranged in long straight lines, like on parade.
During the physical training it becomes clear, that, honestly, we are no warriors: some can’t do pull-ups, someone has an unhealed bone fracture. If the talk is true, only a fifth of DNR fighters have military experience.
Meanwhile, more talk. Cobra, a rebel from Kharkiv, who led us from the base to town to get papers and buy local SIM cards, tells us that Ukraine is fighting with the oligarchs’ hands. Rinat Akhmetov, the local tycoon, cherishes his Donbas-Arena stadium, so it’s not fired upon and got hit by but one stray shell (since then Donbas-Arena has been shelled many times. — Editor’s note). Some of the local robber barons lost a lot when malls shut down. He also mentions Russian Uragan rockets passingly: Cobra believes the Russian oligarchs moved them to the border.
In the evening another rebel, Tuz [Ace] tells that they haven’t yet been able to destroy the “saboteurs” in Donetsk. Local gangs dress up as DNR fighters and seize people’s cars and even apartments. The “saboteurs” themselves are most likely professional mortar operators, probably locals, armed with either a Soviet 82-mm or an American mortar, move on a truck, fire from yards surrounded by apartment blocks where there are no checkpoints nearby.
According to Tuz, a third of the people of Donetsk were pro-Russian, another pro-Ukrainian and another tried to keep out of the fighting. Now only people from the first group remain in the city, the population is united at last. Where do the “saboteurs” come from then? I finally refrain from asking this hard question.
“The Hole” – a military prison
I ended up in “The Hole” – a military prison in the former SBU building where the security service is now located – the next day after arrival. I’d like to note right away that I’m still not entirely sure about the sequence of all that had happened there.
They compile a report of my detention. In the mistake-riddled text the headline attracts my attention: “former SBU.” Seems like even the DNR isn’t yet sure how to call their security service. Although the breakup with the Ukrainian past is obvious: Donetsk seems to be moving back in time, gaining speed, back to the 90s and then to the USSR leaving independent Ukraine behind.
They seize my belongings. They stick a paper with my surname to the bag. I switch off the phone and put it in a file together with the money (they count it meticulously), they tape up the file so that I can see it. On the way to the cell I notice that at the leg of a chair jamming the elevator’s doors (it’s not in use – access to some floors is restricted) has a rope with a noose tied to it. I’m very scared. A conversation strikes up, the guards correct me: “DNR, not Donetsk Region.” They jokingly call Dnipropetrovsk “Dniprozhidovsk” [“Dniprokiketown”, for its notorious Jewish oligarch governor Kolomoyskyi].
Donetsk seems to be moving back in time, gaining speed, back to the 90’s and then to the USSR leaving independent Ukraine behind.
The cell they lead me into is a 3×1.5 meter rectangle with no windows. Here you can neither stand straight nor stretch on the floor, only sitting is rather comfortable. The ten convicts lie across, not down the cell, tucking their legs under them or jacking them up the wall. Else we just won’t fit in there.
Strangely enough, news come very fast into the “Hole.” I learn the latest: there are around a hundred paratroopers in the Kalmius battalion, and recently five hundred volunteers came from Odesa. They talk about the scale of refugees from Donetsk: in a 144-apartment block the light in the evenings goes on only in four.
The next day they lead a woman into our cell. The guard snaps: “Don’t touch her yet.”
My cellmates: Mikhail, an ex-miner who cussed at a checkpoint and got a week detention; another miner, Vanya, who served in a special unit consisting almost entirely of miners – he knew the guard regulations two well so when he was on guard duty he shot a comrade-in-arms and wounded another for not answering to the password and got severely beaten and shot in the leg for that, spent a month in an unlit solitary cell in Kuibishev, and finally got transferred to the “Hole”; another man argued with his wife too loudly and attracted the neighbors’ attention who thought it their duty to report him (that’s also a valid reason for jail); a man from Donetsk who was careless enough to follow a stranger girl online request to take a picture of her house in a shelled district and send her the photo: he was apprehended by vigilant locals who called for a DNR patrol soon enough. He also was a member of subscribed to pro-Ukrainian pages at Vkontakte [Russian Facebook clone]. That’s probably what he was severely beaten for. I’ll tell more of others later.
They summon me to an interrogation. I’m accused of not telling of my journalism experience when I arrived. I say I mentioned it multiple times and added that I was a historian by education. I’m being closely interrogated by three people. At a specialized clothing store in Rostov I grabbed the last sailor’s shirt with maroon and white stripes. Now a man comes up to me, fiddling with a combat knife and asking if I know whose vest I dared to wear. I say no, I don’t. He tells me of the maroon berets [a sign of distinction in Russian special forces]. The knife shines in the bright electric light, and I realize that the man in front of me wouldn’t hesitate one bit to slit my throat. I suggest I immediately take the shirt off. “That’s for later,” he says and walks away. Some time later I’m led away as well. Back to the cell. Silently I thank God that they aren’t beating me. At least for now.
Two main categories almost all suspects are divided into: “spotters” and “pointers” (in the local military lingo those are practically synonymous). The laws here are harsh and very easy to break. Framing a person is just as easy. It seems like they beat people not to force the right confession out but get off of that.
The next day they lead me to the toilet. It’s evening. Near the elevator, under the table, there is blood. A trail of blood leads to the ladder. They beat people in the corridor very rarely, only those who really distinguished themselves. And even then it’s unlikely that it’s the guards who do it. Seems like one of the investigators decided it prudent to continue the interrogation.
After I’m back, they shove in another guy. He came to Donetsk to get his belongings from the rather calm Avdiivka, he was detained at a checkpoint, because the rebels found the map in his car too detailed. They beat him, but not heavily. They took his car away for a night.
Who else is here? A Ukrainian soldier, he is twenty eight and wounded with a mine’s shard in the leg. For two days he hid in the growth, on the third day he approached a DNR checkpoint and surrendered. He had no weapons. He says the company he served in ran after the very first volley. He has a pregnant wife at home. At the military commissariat they promised to discharge him after 45 days of service; he’s been in the army since May. Naturally, he came to hate the war.
The next day in the evening (one of our cellmates forgot to take his watch off, so no we can know the time or it would probably be worse) they lead in a woman. The guard snaps: “Don’t touch her yet”. Her name is Anya, she huddles in the corner by the door, she is struggling to breath, gasping for air. She is hysterical, slowly sliding down to the floor. Vanya the miner speaks with her firmly, yet not raising his voice. Anya slowly comes to her senses. No one will touch her here. If she is to be believed, she committed what is considered a felony in wartime: as she was leaving Donetsk, she was detained at a Ukrainian checkpoint, made markings at the city map and wrote down her phone number there. The Ukrainians were pushed back, the rebels took the checkpoint, found the map dropped in the confusion and “traced” the number by calling and asking the person at the other end to help with delivering children’s clothes from a humanitarian cargo. Anya agreed. She was seized, beaten and raped, despite her menstruation, with a rifle’s barrel as well. She was brought to the “hole,” They threatened to shoot her. (What are the Ukrainians worth, I think, if they can’t find points to shell on their own?) Here, in the cell, Anya shivers from any loud sound, especially footsteps in the corridor or the clanking of a latch.
In one room on a drawer unit under the table there is a pistol. I catch myself thinking: “Wouldn’t it be better to shoot myself?”
Each day a nurse walks the corridor along the cells. She does not go in, despite a gunman guarding her. She stops at a door, asks in an indifferent voice if we have complaints, and gives a miracle medicine for all ailments – Citramonium (a cheap Soviet and post-Soviet painkiller). Those who were beaten, like Vanya, may get some brilliant green, hydrogen peroxide and a piece of cotton wool. We haven’t had light in the cell for a day, so the wary nurse refuses to examine gunshot wounds. An Orthodox priest we met going back from the toilet didn’t come to our cell either. We asked him to and got an indifferent “We’ll see.” Well, maybe he’s too busy. On Sunday it’s one of the main holidays in Donetsk: Miner’s day. In the evening by the same elevator we see two men – one beaten bloody, another on a stretcher with gunshot wounds on legs. I thought they were captured Ukrainian soldiers. Turned out they were miners that continued their celebration after curfew.
A day later they finally fix the light. Almost all my cellmates went to do the chores, leaving me in the dark space alone with Mikhail the miner. We lie down, silent. A guard comes with an electrician. They lead me out of the cell, while Mikhail stays to help – hold the ladder and pass the wires and lightbulbs. A rebel comes up, his nose broken and face swollen after a beating. He speaks with the guard, every second word is a half-statement-half-question “got it?” he uses instead of swear words. He tells what they beat him for. He was giving a girl a lift and saw some people doing something with a switchboard on a staircase. He took them for spotters and shot to kill. They turned out to be from an Internet service provider company, but it was too late.
Next time they bring Anya is in another day or two. We already have the light on, so I see the condition she is in. Her light-colored pants are covered in streaks of blood. Anya talks with Vitya the food dispenser through the “feeder” a hole in the door with a tray to pass the food. He is one of the few in the “large” cell (there are thirty people there) who treats her well. He’s been at the “Hole” for fifty days now. He used to be a policeman, and someone from the new management decided to settle old scores with him. They put Anya to our cell on purpose: they know she has breathing issues, and there are ten of us in a small and stuffy space. We get news from Anya: there were two teenagers, one 16 and another 17 years old, who were just forgotten. However, they’ve been let out already.
One of these days they lead me out to work. In my case I have to clean up. I sweep and wash the floors. In one room on a drawer unit under the table there is a pistol. I catch myself thinking: “Wouldn’t it be better to shoot myself?” There’s a strict prohibition law in the DNR militia, but some are more equal then others, and in a trash bucket I see an empty brandy bottle. Used condoms too.
I’ll see a man whose job is beating people. He is a tall and thickly built man, wearing sunglasses, earbuds and a service cap.
I carelessly leave the bucket with dirty water near the door of a higher-up. He comes out and trips it over. I expect they’ll beat me or add another ten days, as a guard suggests. No, he smiles, it was his fault, he has to look where he steps. The bosses here are very different, including quite well-mannered people from the Caucasus who don’t swear and are even friendly in their own way. After the work they offer me coffee or tea, I catch the moment and ask to bring boiling water to our cell. They agree. In an improvised guardroom the guard play Counter Strike.
When I’m back to the cell, they shut our feeder, and in a minute we realize why. A man from the adjacent room has declared a hunger strike and now they are beating him. They beat him mercilessly. He cries. I pray. In the evening of the next day he’ll be brought back to the “Hole” from a hospital. On a stretcher, with multiple fractures. And I’ll see a man whose job is beating people. He is a tall and thickly built man, wearing sunglasses, earbuds and a service cap.
And we have a new cellmate – a former district policeman who resigned from the previous place of service, went to redo his papers, he allegedly even approved his new job in the newly-created DNR’s Ministry of Internal Affairs beforehand. He was detained at a checkpoint, they got his car, did not beat him but managed to “lose” his documents. He says he couldn’t even imagine what’s happening at the “Hole.” The cell is a resort compared to the “Hole”.
We have another detainee moved in – a rap singer suspected of looting. Later he’ll manage to find connections with the bosses and they’ll send him to work – cleaning hospital rooms – every day. Any labor is valued at the “Hole” – anything’s better than sitting in a cell all day long. Finally the last “newcomer” is a Government Expert Review Service employee. He was taken right from his apartment: his concierge called him and asked to come down: He is not allowed to sit so he has to stand in the cell. Two hours later he is summoned for interrogation and then set free. We are all surprised. Even more surprised we are the next day, when he comes back to personally bring us food. I haven’t felt so sincerely happy for a long time. These things are essential here – they keep switching off the water and the food leaves much to be desired as well. However, we should be happy they give us any food at all.
It gradually becomes hotter and hotter in the cell. We wave pieces of cardboard around so we can breath. Above us they keep Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner. They say there are over 170 on a single floor. And they sleep in beds, unlike us who sleep on anything we can find. They also get better food and are walked to the toilet more often. As time passed, they started walking us to the toilet three times a day as well. I spent six days at the “Hole.” This was the most frightening time of my life.
DNR’s press service in “Taruta’s Palace”
Life is always like a good story: I get from hell straight to heaven. At least that’s what the place I get to from the “Hole” feels like. The DNR’s Ministry of Defense Political Division’s Information Bureau is on the same street as the former SBU building, just a few houses from it. Everything is close by in the emptied Donetsk. In the same building there’s the intelligence, one of Pavel Gubarev’s offices and a humanitarian aid warehouse. The rear tries to copy the front: we live where we work, just on another floor.
I’m assigned to the military reporter department. They tell us that we are soldiers first and journalists second. This means only one thing: we can be sent to the front if the need arises. There is almost no difference between DNR reporters and foreign (including Russian) journalists: we get accreditations, IDs, passes and approvals of all kinds and levels in the same place, go to nearly the same places and get in nearly the same danger. We may be even better prepared – we have bulletproof vests, helmets (in short supply) and even weapons (only for the bosses, though). And we are under quite tough control of the Political Department. You can’t forget it’s war even if you wanted to: it’s not so much that the written and filmed materials are censored as the decision if they should be brought to public eye. Although foreign journalists are checked much more thoroughly. The underlying principle is that each piece should aim at victory. No unbiased approach is needed, even if relative.
It’s probably here, in the former “palace” of oligarch Taruta [was assigned as head of Donetsk regional administration by Ukrainian President Poroshenko and is known for his pro-Ukrainian position], I meet the most devoted people ready to work for DNR’s victory for days on end, staying at the workplace. In two or three departments not only those on duty, but other employees stay for the night. No one gets a salary here, everyone works for food allowance. This might be sharpening the competition. The bosses just have to mention the “Hole” to get all the initiative and will to take risks out of their subordinates. Meanwhile, there is lots of work: although a ceasefire is in place, shells explode in Donetsk every day, and at night Ukrainian shelling starts right on schedule. They rarely shoot in volleys as the risk of missing is too high. A single mine, shell or even a rocket is one thing, and a volley raining on several houses is quite another.
In the morning, right after the planning session, our first (and the hardest) task is driving out to the shelling sites. Sometimes it may take a whole day, if it’s a settlement far from Donetsk itself. Instead of newshooks we have newspoints – too often those are ruined houses and killed civilians. Despite the war, one can’t get used to daily deaths. That is why the losses in the reporter department, as a boss of ours announced, yawning, are as high as 40%.
A top Russian paper is offering a whole column for reprinting DNR news, but the management isn’t ready to take such an important decision at such short notice. No wonder – they have to settle this with everyone, but actually they are afraid to be framed. You can frame anyone or be framed here at any moment, the main thing is that it’s unclear where the danger might come from. The intelligence and counter-intelligence really work perfectly. Stalinism is in the heads of many here.
I’m on duty, receiving calls. Sometimes they call the military reporter department just because they don’t know where else to get help. A clothes maker complains a rebel woman doesn’t want to pay for the clothes she ordered. An elderly man’s son was detained during curfew, he was offered a choice between the “Hole” and the militia, he preferred to volunteer. A week has passed, now he is missing in action. An owner of a trading point at the market reports camouflaged people breaking in the warehouse and confiscating almost all the merchandise.
On the first floor humanitarian aid is piled up. There’s a lot, the Russians are a kind people. The distribution proceeds slowly. A volunteer lazily circles the yard on a bicycle. Some of the clothes and footwear ends up sold at the market. The result of unfinished competences and jurisdictions is that you may not get, say, mineral water from the warehouse, and it’s essential for going to places with heavy smoke. Curious things come up: a pile of laminated cardboard icons depicting the sainted tsar Nikolay II, who is somehow hailed as a “warrior tsar,” with the 90th psalm on the back and a church hymn to the warrior Yevgeniy Rodionov.
On one of the field trips I meet women huddled at the former SBU building. These are wives, mothers and daughters of the captured Ukrainian soldiers. In the press centers yard, under a tent near the garage, there is a kind of “field military museum”: remains of a rocket, unexploded grenades, bullets, even some grenade launchers. The “museum exhibits” can be exchanged for something valuable around Donetsk. For the bosses, obviously.
On one of the trips we stumbled upon an unexploded shell. A guy familiar with military equipment determines right away that it has no detonator and is safe. Our bosses step aside, and he is given a pulling rope to pull that rocket out for being so clever. He turns out to be right. This time.
In the “Taruta’s palace” canteen there is a real fresco depicting St. Mary. On the bar counter there is a paper crane made of a newspaper. On his wing there is a picture of Igor Strelkov. At the table former classmates, working in adjacent departments, meet by chance. Guys flirt with a girl, asking how old she is. “How much would you give me?” “Twenty? Twenty two? Twenty four?” “I haven’t graduated yet,” the girl laughs. “We do have married girls with children. Some of them have already divorced. For everyone her own. I prefer to do my service first. I realize, though not right away, that she resembles (or wants to resemble) the current prosecutor general of Crimea.
We have three meals daily, they are tasty and we can get another helping. However, we hadn’t had fresh bread for three days – a rocket hit the bakery plant. But the hunger lingers, and once in several days the department chips in and gets a chicken. Condensed milk is especially valuable. In the evening in the garage of “Taruta’s palace” a rebel thoroughly washes a commander’s car. Another rebel seized a Mini Cooper with a Red Bull ad on it. He did get the huge Red Bull can off, so there is an empty space in the back, practically begging for a machine gun. The car is repainted in camouflage. Probably for increased safety: from time to time it’s used to give lifts to girls in mini skirts and on heels.
The next day after the shift I have a day off. I take a friend to go to the “Hole” to pay a visit to my ex-cellmates and bring them food.
I sit on a bench in the SBU’s courtyard. It’s hard to believe such a building could have a courtyard, especially with a chapel and a food warehouse. And yet, I have a bottle of Baikal [Coca-Cola knockoff]. I offer it to a guard I know. He guzzles it. Things are going so-so for him. Today they are short of one detainee. This could mean the “Hole” for the whole shift. For an unidentified term. They have trips to the front, but rarely. Mostly they are guards in the SBU. He calls someone on the phone, swears softly. He walks away.
I’m waiting for my friend who went to bring the food. I can’t be sure he wasn’t detained. I’m scared. Another rebel sits next to me. I pass the Baikal to him, he refuses. He has just eaten. Today they serve tasty food in the SBU canteen. Probably to honor “us” finally taking the airport (as of now, Donetsk Airport hasn’t yet been taken. — Editor’s note). Yesterday they took six spotters that caused the deaths of civilians at Putilovskiy market. The rebel wishes they’d shoot them right away. He says: but that’s the difference between us and the enemy that we don’t have vigilante justice, right? Let them bring barbarism, we will bring civilization.
The echo of shots bounces off the walls of the SBU courtyard well like a tennis ball. The explosions are replaced by assault rifle bursts. I inquire when the general assault on the airport is supposed to happen. It was to be at night, but they’v rescheduled it. At first, right after Sloviansk, Azov battalion holed up there [actually Donetsk Airport is defended by the Ukrainian Army and Right Sector units.— Editor’s note], and recently a reinforcement from Avdiivka broke through to them – there are rumors that there are mercenaries among them. The rebel continues: by the way… They say the Ukrainian army has already got NATO vehicles from the US and Germany. Well, the more the rebels will capture. They also say they’ve seen blacks after all. They are mercenaries, explains the rebel, from the USA, and there they’ll sell their own mother for money. He personally joined the People’s Militia of Donbas not only to protect the Motherland (also that’s obviously the main reason) but to see everything with his own eyes and find out how things truly are. Everyone has long stopped believing the Ukrainian media. His relatives are saved by cable TV, which gives them access to Russian channels, that, the rebel believes, show the whole, unbiased truth. Well, no matter: the rebel has finished his cigarette and now wants to get a few hours’ sleep before the night shift. Could this sleep save his life? Although this night their commander ordered everyone to sleep clothed – there was a risk of a Ukrainian air raid. It never came.
And I keep sitting there alone and waiting. For new volleys, explosions, assault rifle bursts. And for my friend who went to see the cellmates and get them food. But actually, it’s my time to go. I mean, finally go.
I had no problems leaving. The rebels at the border are polite, they sort through my things thoroughly and carefully. They give us, the passengers of the Donetsk-Rostov bus, time to pack the things back. Next to me sits a woman, a pediatrician coming to visit her children. As we leave Donetsk, tears well up in her eyes. She tells me the familiar words: “If only Russia helped us more.” The bus drives on, soon we will see Russia from our windows.