Khutor and Nika move briskly on the sidewalk, but not fast enough to draw attention. They have tried to memorize the “wrong streets” — the ones where they know the pro-Russian rebels who seized this city now regularly stand guard in camouflage, AK-47s poised. But sometimes the two of them get it wrong. Like now.
A muscular dirty-blond bearing a studied look of intimidation and an arm patch with the banner of the so-called New Russia clutches his weapon firmly as they pass. Khutor, 42, and Nika, 33, lower their heads. They cease talking. In a place where even a trip to the supermarket has become a ritual of stress, the couple tighten their grips on their bags of groceries, as if pointing them out. See? Just ran out for some milk and bread. Thanks now. Got to go.
In this metropolis that had a prewar population of almost a million, but where the city center now feels like an Orwellian ghost town of propaganda posters and armed patrols, perhaps no one feels more alone than those who still harbor pro-Ukrainian sentiments. Since the separatists took total control here, human rights and Ukrainian activists say, an untold number of loyalists have been extorted, abducted, tortured and, allegedly, executed. Many have left in search of sanctuaries farther west. But a small number of them — like Khutor and Nika — are riding out the storm.
And they want the others — the ones who, like them, are perhaps too afraid to speak up publicly — to know they are not as alone as they might think. Three blocks later, the couple feel brave enough to take a short detour and point out a piece of Khutor’s handiwork on the wall of an old apartment building. He spray-painted it weeks ago, he said, before he was detained and tortured. It was meant to be a message to the others.
A blue-and-yellow trident. The symbol of Ukraine.
It is now hardly visible. Someone aligned with the new pro-Russian masters in Donetsk tried to blot it out with black paint. But you can still see its outline.
“They try to cover us up,” said Khutor, a nickname he assumed to hide his identity after his arrest by the Donetsk People’s Republic, the rebel outfit that now rules here. Khutor’s wife, going by the name Nika, nodded in agreement as he pointed to his heart and said, “But Ukraine is still here.”
Until recently, Donetsk was almost impassable, rocked by constant shelling and gunfire. The fighting has subsided since Kiev and the rebels agreed to a tenuous truce that began Sept. 5, and both sides have started to pull back heavy artillery in recent days. But it is less a full cease-fire than a de-escalation, and city authorities on Wednesday reported the sounds of continued artillery volleys. Meanwhile, Kiev is suing for peace, offering a deal to the rebels that would grant them broad powers of self-rule in the occupied east and could find pro-Ukrainians here living in New Russia in all but name. Rebel leaders said Wednesday that they planned to hold elections Nov. 2 for a new legislature that would rule the region.
In the more densely populated neighborhoods ringing this city, some of the hundreds of thousands of residents who fled Donetsk are trickling back in. There are slightly more people on the streets, more lights in the windows of the drab-colored apartment blocks. But infrastructure here is heavily damaged, and most residents still have running water for only three hours a day. There are rolling blackouts. Schools remain closed. Hospitals are short-staffed. Factories are shuttered. And the center of town — dotted with patrols by the Donetsk People’s Republic, boarded-up businesses and a host of billboards espousing rebel slogans — feels eerily abandoned.
Nevertheless, a few pro-Ukrainians here are still risking their safety in little acts of sedition. Spray-painting a wall. Planting a Ukrainian flag sticker at a bus stop.
“They disappear quickly,” said Khutor, who used to work at an advertising firm that went bust with the war. “But someone might see them and realize it wasn’t there the day before. They’ll know that some of us are still here.”
Even those still loyal to Kiev in this city concede that a great number of their neighbors and (former) friends are supporting the pro-Russian uprising. Even more Donetsk residents are simply pragmatic, prepared to back the guys with the biggest guns if that means an end to the fighting.
But they have all effectively found themselves living in a police state. For pro-Ukrainians, it is one where their views can mean terrifying trips to “the basement,” the makeshift detention centers for suspected spies.
For them, this is now life behind enemy lines.
“These people have had six months to leave the city,” said Konstyantyn Savinov, head of community services for the city of Donetsk. “But some of them are still hidden. Should they still be here? It is not up to me to decide.”
“Shush,” Khutor whispers as he welcomes a foreign journalist into the office of the firm where he once worked. It closed, like so many others, because of the fighting. He and Nika moved in last month, after shelling became unbearable in the neighborhood around their apartment. But in the abandoned office space next door, a pro-Russian family is now squatting.
“No English,” he said. “They can hear.”
Inside, they have piled up vegetables, water and canned goods. They’ve turned an underground storage space into an impromptu bomb shelter. In the center of the room, they have rigged a makeshift pillar to prop up a segment of ceiling damaged by a mortar round. On a shelf, they keep a Ukrainian trident plaque and the now-folded Ukrainian flag that once was draped proudly over the balcony of their apartment. Although unrest began in earnest in March, they didn’t take it down until June, when pro-Russian separatists extended their control over the city.
The dingy office is now their sanctuary, the place where they spend the majority of their time. All but a handful of their pro-Ukrainian friends have fled Donetsk. At least one, Khutor said, saw his business seized by the separatists and had to pay a bribe before being allowed to depart with his family.
They are getting out for good reason, as Khutor can attest. Over the summer, he said, he was riding his bike near his apartment block when a DPR patrol stopped him. Its members accused him of being a spotter for the Ukrainian military, which was shelling rebel positions nearby. They put a bag over his head, he said, then pistol-whipped him before taking him to the basement of an abandoned motel.
He pauses, as tears well in between manic laughs. “They don’t just beat you,” he hissed through a tormented smile. “They torture you.”
He was held for two weeks, he said. His face was so beaten that he’s now missing teeth. He was suspended upside down by a rope, he said. After some of the other men being held apparently confessed, Khutor said, they were executed. Their bodies, he added, were put on display for other prisoners to see.
If Khutor was guilty, it was of a far lesser crime. Bullets and bombs were not his style. Instead, he had joined a friend in what he calls a “graffiti war,” in which the two of them would spray-paint buildings with pro-Ukrainian symbols. This he would not tell his captors, and ultimately he was released.
Khutor and Nika have stayed in Donetsk because of elderly parents who refuse to leave. As the city has grown more dangerous for pro-Ukrainians, Khutor has stopped spray-painting buildings. But both of them still covertly leave little calling cards — small stickers of the Ukrainian flag — where they can. They have cut off most personal contact. Instead, they communicate with like-minded people though social media. In public, they keep to themselves. No chatting with strangers. “You don’t know who they are,” Nika said.
When they do engage in niceties — say, while standing in line at one of the handful of ATMs still working in the city — they have learned to fake it.
“Most people in Donetsk will not talk about politics openly now,” Khutor said. “But if they do, you train yourself to agree. ‘Yes, of course, the Ukrainian government is fascist! Yes, of course, they must be beaten!’ You tell them what they want to hear.
“But inside, we are Ukrainians,” he said. “That will never change.”