This winter is not on fire, at least it’s written on an agreement between Ukraine and Russia.
The latest Minsk agreement was signed to ensure both Ukrainian army and pro-Russian militants to stop taking any aggressive action on each side. The deal was sealed off among Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in February 2015, after continuous fighting in Eastern Ukraine that claims 9,000 deaths and nearly 21,000 injured, according to a UN report.
Now the Ukrainian Revolution, a 93-day protest that ousted its former president Viktor Yanukovych, has ended for more than 2 years, yet the armed conflicts between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces seem to be prolonged since March 2014.
There is a border between Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian militants, dividing the Ukrainian soil into two parts. While some Ukrainians from Kiev have started to build a new community after the pro-EU protest, there are foreign students being trapped in the self-acclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and a family fleeing from their motherland Donetsk to Kramatorsk, another city in Donbas region.
When the revolution still matters
Kateryna Gladka, journalist and protester in the Ukrainian Revolution during late 2013.
Kateryna Gladka was the first batch of protesters who started to demonstrate against then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and she once struggled with her dual identities of being both protester and journalist.
‘It’s my job to tell a story. I then decided to be a journalist in the protest, but with my own positions,’ she affirmed her status while telling her story of EuroMaidan, the once popular name of the Ukrainian Revolution as the protest unfolded.
‘This revolution is our revolution. We were dubbed as the “generation of independence” since we are the first generation of Ukraine who grew up after its independence,’ she said.
Ukraine has declared independence since 1991 but Russia remains its influence with one-third of Ukrainians who are identified as ethic Russians or native Russian speakers, according to a media outlet Radio Free Europe.
Ivona Kostyna, volunteer at Anti-Terrorist Operation zones in Eastern Ukraine
The 1996-born protester Ivona Kostyna stood up for a different cause, though. She was a volunteer who made a kitchen to provide food for the protesters. ‘I was thinking if I’m not standing up today, I won’t feel safe in the future.’
The roles of Gladka and Kostyna were different while taking part in the protest, but their thoughts somehow lead them to a similar path–they don’t want another revolution.
‘I want something more than Molotov cocktail–a revolutionary development of education,’ the 19-year-old said. Kostyna didn’t attend to university as EuroMaidan started after graduating from high school, but her revision drives her to go further in Anti-terrorist operation (ATO) zones and get through most of the hotspots in Eastern Ukraine.
‘There wasn’t much resources for Ukrainian army as the former government was ousted,’ Kostyna said. So the 19-year-old decided to bring a hamlet and bullet-proof vest to go to the battleground and send Ukrainian soldiers water and food. It was before the first anniversary of the start of EuroMaidan.
Even after 2 years of EuroMaidan, the revolution still matters to Gladka as she still remembers hundreds of protesters who sacrificed in the tragic event. ‘I remembered people were brave and they saved each other. I still fell the responsibility all the time,’ she said.
‘We need evolution, not revolution,’ the Ukrainian journalist said. ‘You can’t sit at the chair and wait for nothing,’ Gladka continued. ‘So I started some cultural projects to make videos about portraits of Ukrainian artists.’
The civilians in Donetsk Oblast
A Russian family living in the civilian area near the destroyed Donetsk airport
The Maidan protesters demanded a new government and they succeeded, but there were waves of pro-Russian protests across Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts after the pro-EU movement, which was later intensified by the occupation of pro-Russian militants.
Abdullah Rafid and Sahen Jebodh are 2 out of 5 students who are still studying at Donetsk National Medical University for dentistry major in spite of the on-going war. They are classmates who can’t go to either Ukrainian side or Russian side.
‘There were several blackouts in Donetsk but no one cares. The Ukrainian government even cancelled our VISA,’ said Rafid, an Iraqi who has been studying for 4 years in Donetsk. ‘I like this city because it has better education than rest of Ukraine. Although my home (Iraq) will not accept the diploma issued by Donetsk, I will show what I’ve learnt. I will take action,’ Rafid continued.
The university was offering more than education during the war, according to Mauritian student Jebodh. ‘The school was supportive during the war. We were depressed but the school gave us hope in the midst of shelling and bombing,’ he added.
‘People from Donetsk didn’t care about foreigners before the war starts. They were ignorant but now they start to appreciate foreign students who are staying,’ he said.
As a foreigner, the 24-year-old Mauritian still feels the ignorance of Donetsk people because of the ‘former Soviet barrier’. But his classmate has a closer bonding to the locals.
Rafid said that he felt the respect from Russian people as he decided to stay with the locals during the war. ‘They consider me as part of the family, even though they are living in a church. The mother of that Russian family even said that I’m her son.’
A displaced native Donetsk family living in Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast.
While the foreigners are staying for studies, some locals decided to leave because of their family.
‘I don’t want my son to see the war,’ said Dmitriy Korniychuk, one of the displaced Donetsk natives living in Kramatorsk. He was a cable worker in Donetsk but decided to quit his job later due to the war. ‘My family moved to Kramatorsk for more than one year since the start of the war. I moved in few months ago because I want to unite with my family,’ he said.
But the case of Korniychuk is only the tip of an iceberg. With more than one million of Ukrainians who are forced to flee from their hometowns, there are over half of the displaced civilians coming from Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
‘I want to see my family including my parents,’ the Donetsk native said. ‘But my father is too old and ill to move out, so I have to come back from Kramatorsk to Donetsk regularly,’ he continued. ‘Getting a “propusk” is difficult now.’
A Propusk card is a document granting people to have a special permit to travel between Anti-Terrorist Operation(ATO) zones from the Ukrainian side and Donetsk’s ‘border’ controlled by pro-Russian militants. Not only do people line up at different checkpoints for up to a day, but they also have to cross the border before it starts snowing.
The future of the divided territory
Sahen Jebodh(front) and Abdullah Rafid(behind) are studying in Donetsk National Medical University in Donetsk city, Eastern Ukraine
There aren’t much armed conflict at the city centre of Donetsk in spite of a couple of shelling and shooting near the terminal of Donetsk’s airport. So does Maidan Square in Kiev–people are holding pigeons and dressing up like cartoon characters, hooking up tourists for photo opportunities to earn more money.
‘Most of us worry about our safety–how our government would deal with the safety issues,’ Ukrainian journalist Gladka said. ‘After the revolution, there are young people working in the parliament but they have a wide gap with the older lawmakers who were raised in the former Soviet Union–the older generation is communist-minded.’
‘I’m getting out here sooner or later. I will graduate from the medical school in 6 months,’ the Donetsk-based dentistry student Jebodh said. The tone of him remained low-keyed, just as the way he described this Russian-controlled city. ‘I don’t expect much help from Ukraine. Too much cloud. No hope.’
Gallery: Parallel Universe of Kiev and Donetsk
Soundbite of bombing and slideshow of the aftermath