The grass is being trimmed, the flowers tended and the potholes on roads filled. Jazz plays out from a cafe, and a few people are out enjoying the sunshine.
Yet puncturing the scene of a European summer is the distant boom, boom, boom of artillery fire and emptiness.
This is Donetsk, nicknamed the Ukrainian city of a million roses and now the headquarters of a pro-Russia group wanting to break up the country. With separatists blamed by the U.S. for shooting down a Malaysia Airlines plane last week and killing almost 300 people, the semblance of normality masks a foreboding among residents as to the fate of their city with Ukrainian forces fighting militants in the suburbs.
“All this is idiocy,” said Olga, 25, keeping an eye on her toddler son Artyom in a city playground. Like most locals, she spoke Russian and declined to give her last name. “Each side is fighting for its own benefit, and these are common people that suffer unnecessarily.”
The downing of flight MH17 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Donetsk brought the regional conflict back into the global spotlight with rebels at first hampering access to the crash site. Rather than prompting a pause in the fighting, it risks escalating while world leaders pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to speed an investigation.
About 40 percent of residents have already left Donetsk, Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, or DPR, told reporters this week. Of those who remain, most who were asked yesterday said they were bracing for a siege after shellfire forced many into shelters.
Elena Anatolyevna, 52, who sells the traditional soft drink “kvas” outside Donetsk’s main railway station, was among those ushered to safety by the DPR when a shell landed, she said.
“The main thing is that the region has had enough of being ruled by the same oligarchs from Kiev,” she said at her cart. “It has been seething for a while, and now it exploded.”
Donetsk had a population of about 1 million before Ukraine started disintegrating. While its downtown area is full of tree-line boulevards, cafes and stores, the city is an industrial hub in the Donbas region bordering Russia, the center of the country’s coal mining and steel industry.
It’s the domain of Ukraine’s richest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov. DTEK, the largest private energy co. in Ukraine, owned by Akhmetov, was forced to shut down its office in Donetsk this month because of the tension in the city.
A group of foreign players at local soccer team Shakhtar Donetsk, the country’s most successful in recent years and funded by Akhmetov, failed to return to Ukraine from a pre-season tour because of concern about the dangers, the club said on its website. It said player safety was paramount.
Few militants can be seen in the city and so far the sound of fighting is confined mostly to the suburbs. Driving through Donetsk yesterday evening, most buildings lay in darkness with the lights off, as if waiting for the battle to come.
Rebels remain in or around the imposing 11-story headquarters of the DPR since the separatists took over the building from the regional authority in May. Inside, there’s a makeshift memorial to fallen comrades adorned with orange-and-black Georgievsky ribbons of the Russian military rather than the yellow and blue of the Ukraine national flag.
“Nowhere to retreat, Donbas is behind us,” graffiti on the wall says. At the DPR’s press service next door, youths update their website and disseminate releases. Middle-age armed militants guard the entrance.
About 7 kilometers northwest of the center on Tumanyana Street, the concrete slabs of Soviet-era apartment blocks replace the shiny office towers of downtown. In one abode, windows were blown away and the apartment’s innards were hanging out, a red backpack ripped open, furniture shattered and an Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary blown off the wall.
Sergey, 41, a former miner, was lucky because the apartment where he lives wasn’t hit. He and his wife and two children had been too tired to go to a shelter, he said.
“My relatives from Kiev and Belarus keep inviting me to leave the city and come to them, but you can’t be a guest forever,” he said, also declining to give his last name. “I have no money to make build my life again.”
The unrest in Ukraine began when the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, snubbed an integration pact with the European Union last November in favor of deepening ties with Moscow. Yanukovych was ousted in February after street battles with riot police that left at least 100 people dead.
Putin responded by declaring he had a duty to defend ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Russian forces seized Crimea. Then a pro-Russian insurgency ensued in Ukraine’s easternmost regions, which include Donetsk and the Donbas area.
Ukrainian authorities say Russia is supplying money, arms and training to the separatists. President Petro Poroshenko asked countries abroad to acknowledge separatist organizations in Donetsk and Luhansk as terrorists.
Anatolyevna, the drink vendor at the railway station, largely supports the DPR. She blames the “Kiev elite” for ignoring the region and its Russian speakers.
“Mentally, Donetsk is not Ukraine,” she said. “It is an industrial fringe of the big Russian empire.”
Supporters of a united Ukraine in Donetsk mainly have left or are getting ready to depart. Andriy, 24, works in a local subsidiary of Russian-owned Alfa Bank and is looking for a transfer to Kiev.
“I think our country should remain unified,” he said. “All my friends have already left Donetsk.”
Sergey, the former miner, refers to Ukrainians opposing a breakup by the derogatory term “Ukry,” as does a teenager playing with a bullet, a Kalashnikov assault rifle on his shoulder, as he took the bus back to the city from a suburb.
He was regaling the passenger next to him about how the “Ukry” are given drugs to feel no pain and one had allegedly laughed when a pro-Russian militant stuck a knife into his leg.
“We have feelings, we think with our own heads,” he said. “We know what we’re fighting for. They don’t.”