They share a long, rich and sometimes bloody history, but today, the relationship between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians may be the greatest casualty of the Ukrainian crisis. We hear their stories.

“We are brothers,” says Dima, his eyes lowered, his fingers fidgeting nervously in his lap.

 

The 33-year-old builder sits in military fatigues outside an old, single-storey cottage, its windows and doors painted a brilliant blue.

 

This is Luhanske, a village in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Scarcely populated even before the conflict broke out with Russia in the summer of 2014, it is now home to just a handful of pro-Russian villagers and dozens of Ukrainian soldiers and contractors - people like Dima, who either occupy the abandoned buildings or hide in the trenches nearby.

 

It is just 15km from the enemy line.

 

And on the other side of that line are the people Dima calls brothers; the Russians he says crossed into Donetsk to wrestle the region from the control of the Ukrainian government.

 

Brothers: it is a word used repeatedly - by both Ukrainians and Russians - to show just how closely related these two nations and their citizens - descendants of the ancient people of Kiev Rus - are.

 

But it is especially interesting to hear from Dima, a man with actual Russian brothers and sisters - the offspring of his mother’s second marriage – living in Moscow.

 

He is voluntarily fighting alongside the Ukrainian army as a contractor; fighting against Russia and the ethnic Russian Ukrainian citizens who rebelled against the central government in April 2014, declaring independence and establishing what they call the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Dima has been on a battlefield before. A smile creeps across his face as he remembers it. His blue eyes suddenly seem brighter. It was in Iraq.

 

He was there in 2004 for nine months, providing security for convoys delivering food supplies to US military bases.

 

“It was a foreign country,” he says. “We were not there to fight. We were there to keep peace between people. It was interesting,” he reflects.

 

The same cannot be said for the battlefield he currently occupies. Here, on the frontlines, the days pass slowly; the threat of violence sometimes more troubling than the reality. And that leaves him with plenty of time to reflect on the plight of his people – on both sides of the line.

After a month of training, Dima signed up voluntarily in August 2014, to serve alongside the Ukrainian army. But he did so with sadness. “Here everyone is Slav, fighting with each other,” he says, looking down as though in shame.

He is referring to the Ukrainians, the ethnic Russian Ukrainian citizens and the Russians caught up in this conflict.

 

“We are all brothers. It would be painful if my brother, a Russian, came here and died,” he says.

 

And for Dima, that possibility is more real than for many of the men he fights alongside. He has two Russian brothers and two Russian sisters from his mother’s second marriage. They live in Moscow and are the reason he chooses not to reveal his surname: he fears they could face reprisals should anybody find out that their half-brother has taken up arms on the Ukrainian side.

 

That he is fighting against ethnic Russian Ukrainian citizens and Russian soldiers has already created tension within his family, he explains.

“This topic is a taboo for us,” he elaborates. “They have their own opinions [and] I have mine. It doesn’t make sense to argue about it.”

 

Dima blames the politicians on both sides for instigating this feud between two brotherly nations.

 

He would never have joined the battle, he says, if Russian soldiers had not crossed into Ukraine’s eastern regions. “To be honest, I was thinking until the very last minute that Russian soldiers wouldn’t come in,” he says. “When they did, I made up my mind about joining the army.”

 

Had it not been for that, Dima would now be with his wife, Natasha, and nine-year-old son, Daniil, in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Instead, he’s risking his life for roughly $100 a month.

 

In peacetime, he earned his living building roofs – not that many people in Kharkiv could afford his services. That’s why he used to shuttle between his home city and Moscow. There were many more customers in the Russian capital.

And, although he doesn’t want to say it in front of his comrades now, that is exactly where he may need to seek employment once his military contract expires.

 

It’s a prospect that doesn’t trouble him too much – after all, he may be opposed to those Russians he believes are trying to cause a split in Ukraine, but he doesn’t consider the Russian people as a whole to be his enemy.

 

“It is not right to put everyone in the same bowl,” he reflects. “Ordinary people don’t have anything against Ukraine. I’m talking to my friends in Moscow. They are in shock. They don’t understand how this all happened.”

Modern-day Ukraine was pieced together at the end of World War II, but not before many bloody decades of tug-of-war took place, with Poland pulling from the west and the Soviet Union from the east.

 

When the Soviets invaded Poland, of which western Ukraine was then a part of, at the beginning of World War II, they incorporated the region into what was known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

 

But, unlike the rest of Ukraine, much of the west had never previously been part of the Russian empire, and many remained resistant. Rebel forces, among them the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the Ukrainian Liberation Army, fought up until the 1950s for an independent Ukraine, allegedly collaborating with Nazi Germany in the process. And that historical detail has proven hard to shake. Even today, pro-Western Ukrainians are sometimes labelled Nazis by Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians.

 

The Crimean Peninsula, a land mass in the south of Ukraine, was given to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.

 

Several decades of unity – both during and after Soviet rule – seemed to have healed many of the wounds inflicted by multiple civil wars, massacres and even a politically-induced famine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population – many of whose ancestors had been resettled in the region by Josef Stalin to replace the more than three million Ukrainians who died during the 1932-1933 Holodomor famine, caused by his aggressive collectivisation policies – seemed to be fully integrated into the country’s social fabric.

 

But when protests erupted in early 2014, following the ousting of the pro-Russian central government in Kiev, eventually spilling over into armed conflict between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces in the east of the country, old wounds were reopened - and seeds of estrangement planted.

 

More than half of the population of the region crossed into government-held areas. The majority of the remaining residents of east Ukraine – people like 67-year-old Valentina Riabshinka – are ethnic Russians who unilaterally refer to their region as ‘former Ukraine’. “Ukraine has failed me,” says Valentina from the rebel-held city of Uglegorsk, in eastern Ukraine.

 

“I used to work as a teacher in a kindergarten .... I have spent 33 years, four months and 16 days teaching children kindness, loving their Ukraine and at the end it turned out that Ukraine does not need me,” she continues, crying.

Valentina Riabshinka does not mention that her son was arrested by the Ukrainian army for being associated with Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels. But, according to locals familiar with the story, he was found hiding in the basement of his house after the rebels were forced out of the eastern city of Uglegorsk by government forces.

 

Neither does she mention that the boxes of humanitarian aid she thanks Russia for, actually come, as the labels themselves indicate, from Ukraine. The pro-Russian rebels pass them on to the residents of the areas under their control after getting them from those areas held by the Ukrainian army. “I don’t care,” she says, shrugging that fact off. “They were delivered by the rebels.”

 

When the 67-year-old former kindergarten teacher voted in favour of independence for the Donetsk region, in the May 11, 2014, referendum organised by the rebels, she says she was simply hoping that it would improve the lives of her family. “We thought we would live like we used to live in Ukraine. Just our budget would stay with us. Why send the money to Kiev?” she says.

“Of course we wouldn’t be able to imagine that out own government would go against us. They made brothers kill each other.”

 

Tears roll down her flushed cheeks as she recounts cowering in her home while battles were waged all around it. A medical problem with her legs meant that she was unable to make it to the relative safety of her basement. Instead, she explains, “I just sat under the stairs on the ground floor and prayed to God”.

 

She continues loudly, unable to hear herself as a result of damage to her ears caused by the explosions, describing that first round of heavy shelling on September 12 last year, when the city was bombed – by both sides - for 10 consecutive hours. That happened after Ukrainian forces had taken control of the city and as the rebels were trying to recapture it.

 

“When the rebels re-entered, we were shelled once again,” says Valentina, wiping her tears away with  black sock. “The shell fell into my bedroom. It left me paralysed on the left side. Debris injured all of my face and body. Window glass, cupboard, mirror, everything was falling on top of me.”

Valentina blames the conflict on the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, who fled the country following several months of anti-government protests in Kiev.

 

“Yanukovich abandoned us. If Yanukovich didn’t just sit and wait but be tough like [Belorusian President Aleksandr] Lukashenko on everyone there, there would be peace,” she says, suggesting that would have made the pro-Russian rebellion unnecessary.

 

“Life was good under Yanukovich. We were getting salaries on time and pensions too. They were bringing the pension to my house every month on the 15th day. I would go and buy whatever I needed from the shop. Now I go to the shop, look at the prices, turn around and come back home.”

 

The tears begin to fall again as she recalls how happy she was when a Ukrainian soldier, stationed outside her home when the government forces were in control of Uglegorsk, gave her great-granddaughter a bottle of milk.

When the pro-Russian uprising began in early 2014, with protests across eastern cities, the demonstrators spoke of how the country’s ethnic Russian population felt threatened. They feared, they said, that the new Ukrainian government, which had come to power following the ousting of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, would seek to strip them of their identity and make them align with the West by joining the European Union.

 

Then, in March 2014, following a local referendum that revealed overwhelming support [95.7 percent] for cutting ties with Ukraine, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula without any military confrontation with the Ukrainian army.

 

In April, pro-Russian rebels in the neighbouring Donetsk and Luhansk regions took over government buildings and declared people’s republics. They claimed that the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic would rather be annexed by Russia than stay within Ukraine.

 

It was a position widely supported by citizens of the highly industrialised Donetsk region – people like 56-year-old half-Russian widow Svetlana Vladimirevna – who say they are “fed up feeding” the rest of Ukraine from the money generated in their region’s mines and factories.

 

“For 23 years we were sending 65 percent from all that Donetsk was earning to Kiev. We were receiving only seven percent back from there,” says Svetlana, who has two sons and two sons-in-law fighting against the Ukrainian forces.

Disobeying adult members of the family, who were wary of the Ukrainian troops, six-year-old Sonia and two-year-old Polina, the daughters of Valentina’s only grandchild, 22-year-old Nastya, would go out onto the street and tell the Ukrainian soldiers poems in exchange for sweets.

 

When a “decent man” among the soldiers Valentina considers to be mainly “fanatics” and “hired killers” gave Sonia a bottle of milk, it made their day. She remembers her great-granddaughter’s words: “Look, the uncle gave me some milk. We haven’t had milk in such a long time.”

 

Today, the two girls and their parents are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Kramatorsk, a city in government-held territory. They live in a small house provided by the authorities there, which Valentina says she despises, and receive a monthly aid payment.

 

But Valentina’s gratitude is reserved for the rebels – who, until recently, used to give her two loaves of bread a day and who continue to provide her with a monthly pension of $100. She is also appreciative of the Russian media. “Channel 24, 25 and 2 … show exactly what is happening [in eastern Ukraine],” she concludes.

Oh, how Svetlana misses the Soviet Union era “when bread cost 20 Kopek [coins], the most expensive carton of milk only 22 Kopek, and bacon just 80 Kopek”.

 

“Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, we used to be extremely stupid,” she says, standing with her arms folded by the back door of a bomb shelter in the basement of the Palace of Culture in rebel-held Donetsk city.

 

Laughing, she says she would like to take pictures of the prices in the city’s market now and show them to Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a rebel leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and ask him how exactly residents are supposed to feed themselves. But this thought, spoken aloud, is quickly brushed aside as Svetlana’s attitude shifts.

 

“It’s okay,” she explains. “We understand that nowadays the prices should be up as the war is going on. The fighters need to be fed and armed so that they protect us.”

The 56-year-old has a particular interest in the wellbeing of four rebel fighters – two are her sons and two her sons-in-law.

 

She refuses to give their names or her own surname in order to protect them and the rest of her family in case they should need to cross into government-held territory. But, with a hint of pride, she does reveal that: “One of my sons is a sniper and the other one shoots from a machine gun.”

 

She says that, like her, they learned how to shoot playing target games at an amusement park.

 

But if Svetlana’s skills are limited to amusement park games, her knowledge is not. She reels off the names of the artillery she says the Ukrainian forces used against civilians in Donetsk like an expert in heavy weaponry. “We became experts. We already know what is flying towards us, where it is flying from and in which direction we should run,” she says with a cheeky smile as she scolds some noisy children nearby.

Five of the boisterous children are Svetlana’s grandchildren. Three are the offspring of her oldest daughter, Elena, who is making dinner inside the bomb shelter, and two are under Svetlana’s guardianship. Their mother and father, Svetlana’s son, died before the conflict. The grandmother cares for them now. But she is clear about what she would be doing if the circumstances were different.

 

“If I didn’t have grandchildren to take care of, I would go to war along with my boys,” she says, her dark brown eyes gleaming with certainty. “I am not old yet for war. Only 56. I’d do anything that is necessary.”

 

Even killing another human being?

 

"They [the Ukrainian government forces] are not human beings. What kind of humans would come to kill my children and my grandchildren? Why?” she asks loudly. “I haven’t even slapped anyone in my life. But under these circumstances, I become a beast. Simply a beast. My family is my temple. My children are my everything,” she adds softly.

 

Svetlana’s husband died a year before the conflict began. He suffered a heart attack while working at the mine where he was a guard. It is a fact she is now grateful for. "Thank God he didn’t live to see the war,” she says.

“He wouldn’t [have] come to the bomb shelter,” she adds, laughing.

 

Svetlana was also reluctant to do so at the beginning. Instead, she would wrap her grandchildren in a blanket and sit them beneath a table. “I was so naive,” she reflects.

 

But when the battle reached her home on July 8 and the air strikes intensified, she knew it was time to flee.

 

“There was a lot of heavy weaponry near my house. Both warring sides were shelling each other with us in the middle. Our roof got damaged and we escaped in less than five days after that,” she explains. “[The] children were not able to sleep, or play outside.”

 

For two months after that, she gave the children medicine to calm their nerves.

But her house survived, and Svetlana takes her grandchildren there from time to time to shower and pick up clean clothes. She refuses to move back in, however, even though most of the heavy fighting in the area stopped after the two sides called a ceasefire months ago.

 

She believes the war is far from over and the danger far from passed. So she and dozens of others continue to make their home in the bomb shelter. Some people, including the administrators of the building that hosts concerts, ballets and different children’s cultural activities, think the real reason so many people remain there is that they fear losing access to the humanitarian aid they receive in the shelter.

 

Svetlana says they are grateful for the food assistance from the Renat Akhmetov Fund, a humanitarian organisation run by Ukrainian businessman Renat Akhmetov, and the hygiene kit from UNICEF, but denies the allegation.

 

Then she declares, enthusiastically: “I think this will all end soon. And we will go home. And we will live happily. It can’t be otherwise.”

 

But that does not mean that she expects a peaceful resolution with Kiev.

“Nothing will finish here until we overcome them and kick them out all the way to Kiev and Lviv,” she concludes, adding: “And it will happen.”

On the other side of the conflict, another half-Russian mother, 65-year-old Klaudia Kraynikova, who fled the violence in the rebel-held city of Horlivka, insists that all of the justifications for the uprising were unfounded and blames Russia for orchestrating the conflict.

 

For its part, Russia denies that it is involved in the Ukraine crisis, despite the United Nations, NATO and other sources providing evidence of the presence of Russian soldiers and military equipment in the country’s conflict zones.

Some people tie colourful ribbons to a tree, placing their hopes in the superstitious belief that this will make their dreams come true. But 65-year-old Klaudia Kraynikova prefers to weave them into nets - camouflage nets used by the Ukrainian army to conceal their hideouts on the battlefield.

 

She has just one wish: that her 42-year-old son, Aleksandr, will be rescued by the same army.

 

According to Klaudia, he has been “a prisoner of war” – held by the rebels in Donetsk - since he was abducted from his home city, Horlivka, on June 23, 2014.

For her, it is almost too much to talk about. She takes deep breaths, struggling to hold back the tears. Then she begins.

 

“For me Kramatorsk Bees means a lot,” she says, referring to the volunteer group that organises the work she does, as well as many other activities in support of the Ukrainian army. “It is a salvation and … [it is] my life.”

 

That is enough to start the tears rolling. The half-Russian widow arrived in the government-controlled city of Kramatorsk in August 2014, after fleeing the violence in Horlivka with her daughter and granddaughter.

 

But she had to leave much behind – her disappeared son, her flat, which she has since learned was damaged after her departure, and the private dental clinic she used to run, which is, thus far, unscathed.

 

In Kramatorsk, she started to frequent a church, where she met some women who told her to stop crying and start putting her energy into something more useful. They brought her to the volunteer group.

Then, later in the year, Bezler was blown up in his car along with six of his bodyguards. Klaudia speculates that it was punishment from Russia for some kind of disobedience.

But while she continues to hope for her son’s safe return, she has no such hope that the conflict will end peacefully.

“I understand that [Ukraine’s President Petro] Poroshenko wants to protect people’s lives. He wants [a] peaceful resolution of the war, but it is not possible,” she says, spreading her arms in disbelief.

“[The] Donetsk People’s Republic [DPR] is Russia’s ethnic trash. It is made of people who have been kicked out of Russia and they came to loot and kill. What are we going to do with them? What negotiations can there be with them? [Ukraine’s Prime Minister Evgeniey] Yatsenyuk said it right that [the] ‘ground should be burning under them’. I’m for it.”

 

“It is possible to peacefully reach an agreement with Russia to withdraw [its] military from Ukraine, but with DPR, it is not possible,” Klaudia insists.

She sees “Ukraine blossoming in the future” and hopes it will eventually become a member of the European Union and NATO, where she believes it belongs.

“For me this is [an expression of] patriotism, [a way to] … help … [secure] the liberation of my land as I am not able to fight at the age of 65,” she says, sobbing.

 

She blames her mother’s homeland - Russia – for the conflict, claiming that the Kremlin had been instigating it for about five years, at least in Horlivka. “There was … a man called [Igor] Bezler – ‘Bes' [meaning ‘demon’ in Russian]. A military man. [A] veteran of [the first] Afghan war. He was from Moscow. He moved to Horlivka five years ago,” Klaudia explains.

 

“He and his two local friends set up a platform for Russian fighters. They mobilised 1,800 fighters, including locals, Russians and Kadyrov guys,” she continues, referring to the fighters of the Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov.

 

Klaudia says her son was abducted by Bezler’s men, and that there is CCTV footage of the moment he was taken while leaving a shop. She even insists that Bezler confirmed as much when she door-stepped him a day after her son’s disappearance. Bezler promised to set him free that same day, she says, but it never happened.

Then, later in the year, Bezler was blown up in his car along with six of his bodyguards. Klaudia speculates that it was punishment from Russia for some kind of disobedience.

 

But while she continues to hope for her son’s safe return, she has no such hope that the conflict will end peacefully. “I understand that [Ukraine’s President Petro] Poroshenko wants to protect people’s lives. He wants [a] peaceful resolution of the war, but it is not possible,” she says, spreading her arms in disbelief.

 

“[The] Donetsk People’s Republic [DPR] is Russia’s ethnic trash. It is made of people who have been kicked out of Russia and they came to loot and kill. What are we going to do with them? What negotiations can there be with them? [Ukraine’s Prime Minister Evgeniey] Yatsenyuk said it right that [the] ‘ground should be burning under them’. I’m for it.”

 

“It is possible to peacefully reach an agreement with Russia to withdraw [its] military from Ukraine, but with DPR, it is not possible,” Klaudia insists.

She sees “Ukraine blossoming in the future” and hopes it will eventually become a member of the European Union and NATO, where she believes it belongs.

The relationship with Russia, however, will take time to repair, she says, pointing to her relationships with her own sisters as an example.

 

“At the beginning, I don’t think we will have a friendly relationship with the Russians, because we don’t have the same information. One sister lives in Kramatorsk, another in Briansk and she [believes] … not that Russia attacked us, but we attacked them. And we don’t know what is really going on in the occupied territory.”

 

“A lot of time will have to pass before people start to feel normal about each other,” she concludes.

 

The feud between the Ukrainians and the Russians has a long history. But the seeds of the latest stand-off were planted as the Soviet Union was coming to an end.

 

Ukraine claimed its independence in 1991.

 

Russia did not approve.

 

At a NATO summit in 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin is alleged to have told then-US President George Bush that “Ukraine is not even a state”.

 

A year later, Anatoliy Vasserman, a political pundit and an adviser to the Kremlin, announced that Ukraine’s integration into Russia in the near future was inevitable.

 

The Ukrainians claim the pro-Russian rebels are part of a Russian plan.

 

It is an allegation the rebels of Donetsk reject. They say they are simply defending their homeland.

Forty-three-year-old Aleksandr Popov is better known by his nickname, Sasha Dollar.

 

He believes destiny has been preparing him his whole life for the role he currently holds as commander of a rapid response unit within the rebel force’s ‘Shakhtyor Division’ in Donetsk.

 

It is a group of 20 to 30 people, aged from 18 to 61.

 

“Why do less when you can do more?” he asks, sitting at a garden table in the corner of a rundown building that once served as a military hospital in Donetsk’s Tekstilshik neighbourhood.

 

The red brick building has housed his unit since June 2014. It is surrounded by landmines – for the safety of those inside, he says – but Sasha insists it is safe to walk down the path to the lake, about five metres away, where he often goes fishing in his free time.

From an early age, Sasha had many hobbies, some of which have turned out to be especially useful on the battlefield, he says. He calls on a female friend, Alachka, to bring him some knives so that he can demonstrate his knife-throwing skills. It doesn’t go well. None of the knives puncture the wooden target attached to a tree. He just needs a bit of practice, Sasha insists.

 

“I … [was] into weapons from an early age,” he says, lighting a cigarette, “and also into fixing stuff. I used to assemble bicycles, motorbikes and even cars from the age of 10. I finished the first car when I was 14.”

 

He continues: “In some movies, they show that people are unconsciously being prepared by fate for something. You are learning something, because you are interested in it and one day you realise that it was all for a reason.”

 

“It happened to me about a year ago,” he adds.

Then he points to some old wooden toilet doors, on top of which a Ukrainian national coat of arms is attached. He laughs, explaining how this symbolises his attitude and those of his men towards the Ukraine against which they fight.

 

Sasha says his involvement in the rebel movement began as Donetsk was preparing for the May 11 referendum on independence. He and his friends would chase pro-Ukrainian protesters in the city – “to maintain order,” he adds. “We were unmasking people who were brought in by Kiev to sabotage the referendum. And we were doing things to them,” he says. A smile creeps across his bearded face, but he will not elaborate further.

 

After the referendum, he signed up to join the Shakhtyor Division of Donetsk’s armed rebel group. At first he was just an ordinary member, but he quickly rose through the ranks by, as he explains, “doing a maximum from a minimum”.

 

“To succeed in the group, one must be a man first of all and not just a homo sapien. [A] ‘promised something and did it’ kind of a person. And he should treat others according to the same principle as well,” he says, banging his fist on the table. So, how does he deal with disobedience within the ranks?

“I am against violence,” he reflects. “Here we are a family. Here everyone knows what he is able to do. So everyone should do whatever he is able to do without being forced by a leader. Just like a machine - if one part is not working, the whole thing is struggling.”

 

And when a machine is not working properly, it does not fight the enemy efficiently. But just who is the enemy?

 

It is, he explains, “whoever is shooting at us. Ukraine itself and Ukrainians are not enemies. I speak Ukrainian sometimes. We kind of have a mix of Ukrainian and Russian in the Donetsk dialect. I speak just as I used to. In short, I don’t have hatred for those people.”

 

Sasha’s views on the US, however, are a little less ambivalent. He considers the country, and its support for the ousting of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, to be the root cause of the conflict. “It became clear that it [the US] is the aggressor country. It is not Russia that is the aggressor as it is now called. The US is the country that is constantly leading wars everywhere. They are naked bosses themselves and they are trying to grab something somewhere,” he says.

“Even if you look at Hollywood: they used to make good movies, but they were apparently not doing it just like that. It turns out they were writing screenplays for Maidan and other wars. They are falsifying the facts and people are believing them,” he says without referring to a specific production.

 

But he did not always feel this way. He once admired the US, immersing himself into the world of hip hop music, mimicking the style of its performers and wearing a ring emblazoned with a US dollar sign. That earned him his nickname, Sasha Dollar, and inspired his tooth job. He covered his teeth with pure silver and had dollar signs engraved onto four of them. He also got tattoos, which cover most of his arms and torso.

 

About a year before the conflict began, Sasha travelled to Kiev to participate in the Ukrainian version of the X-Factor TV talent show. He and a friend performed hip hop music.

 

But, it is there, he says, that he observed the disdain with which his region was viewed.

 

“We came within the first 25 contestants out of 45,000,” he explains. “But then either we lacked talent or we were blocked by this comrade who is an obvious Nazi. As soon as he saw we were guys from Donbass, his face became red and you could sense hatred in his words.”

Sasha seems hurt as he remembers it, but quickly shakes it off and reverts to his usual cheer.

 

“I am always looking at things from a positive side,” he says. “It became a good platform for further work. People started to invite us for performances more and more. We had a gig at the Lenin Square [in Donestk], toured around different cities for wedding events, funerals and corporate events.” He hopes to go back to that life when the war is over. But he thinks that will only happen once the rebels achieve their aims.

 

“The final goal is to make people all over Ukraine understand that they need to fight [the Kiev government] so that it is not just us battling. We need to make everyone understand where the enemy is and where the friends are, because we are a small group and we will not be enough to fight for the whole world. The separation, isolation, annexation and all that is not the goal of my men. Our goal is more global, deeper.”

 

The rebel authorities may not agree with him on that. But Sasha, at least, seems certain of one thing: he is not fighting for Russia. “I am from Donetsk. Why would I be fighting for Russia? We are fighting for Donbass," he says.

The conflict has not only divided the territories of Ukraine; it has also torn apart families – physically and ideologically.

 

Millions of people have fled the conflict zone for government-held territories. But many of those have family members who have stayed behind in the rebel-held towns and villages – and whose allegiance is with the separatists.

 

Often, both sides accuse the other of being brainwashed by the media – whether Russian or Ukrainian.

 

And the information war is, indeed, fierce.

Lyudmila Fialka’s ethnic Ukrainian mother lives in Crimea and supports the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia. But Crimea-born Lyudmila, who is ethnic Russian from her father’s side, supports Ukraine. She fled the pro-Russian rebel-held town of Makiivka, near Donetsk city, with her husband, Mark, and six-year-old son, Sasha. They now live in the government-held town of Druzhkovka.

 

Lyudmila, who volunteers as a humanitarian aid distributor, helping fellow IDPs in Druzhkovka, believes the information war being waged between Ukraine and Russia, is tearing her relatives away from her.

 

“We used to watch [Russia’s state-owned] Channel 1, TNT and other Russian TV channels through a satellite dish and when these events started taking place around us, we understood that something was not right,” she says, implying that the Russian media coverage of the crisis did not match the reality she witnessed unfolding around her.

 

“Many people continued watching them and it is influencing them. Even my mother is calling me and telling me that I need to be careful with Ukrainians.”

 

But her mother and siblings, who also still live in Crimea, speak only tentatively about the conflict with Lyudmila in order to avoid a confrontation.

 

“My grandmother, though, who lives in Russia’s Nizhniyi Novgorod with my aunt, called us at the beginning of June 2014 and when she learned about our view on the conflict, she never called back again. She and my aunt think that my husband and I don’t understand something and that there is no point in talking to us.”

 

But what Lyudmila really does not understand, she says, is how her mother, who was born and bred near Kiev, in Ukraine’s Zhitomir region, could support the cause of rebels she believes want to break the country apart.

“Maybe [it is] because of the fact that the relations of my late father, who was from Russia, were telling her she was from a village, as Ukraine was seen by them. She was ashamed of being a Ukrainian,” she speculates. “It has always been considered that Russia is good, a superpower, while Ukraine is insignificant.”

 

Many of Lyudmila’s neighbours in rebel-held Makiivka were also happy to imagine their region’s future in Russia. “A lot of our neighbours took part in the separatist referendum. Many people … [were in] a celebratory mood thinking they would end up in Russia through a … [peaceful annexation] scenario,” explains Lyudmila, emulating their cheerfulness in her tone of voice and swaying her body to imitate their enthusiasm.

 

“I already understood by that time that it was Russia orchestrating this and it would end with a war. I even said so at work and many people laughed at me.”

 

Then, when a shell fell close to her workplace in Donetsk, in the summer of 2014, she knew it was time to flee. Her husband, who was working for an insurance company, had hardly any clients left in the city due to the mass exodus anyway. “So whatever life we managed to build during our 10 years of marriage, we had to leave behind,” she says, sitting in the house of a friend who has given them her place in Druzhkovka for free.

 

Too afraid to stay in Ukraine, the friend has chosen to live in Russia instead.

 

Lyudmila’s own flat back in Makiivka seems to have survived the war. The Ukrainian armed forces were positioned 2km away from her five-storey block of flats before her departure. And the rebels were keeping an eye on the army from the roof of the building. “We were very hopeful that the army would liberate our area, but it didn’t turn out that way,” she says. “It’s a pity.”

 

It is also a shame, she says, that the whole crisis was started on a false pretext - that Russian-speakers like her were under threat from Ukraine’s new, pro-Western government.

 

“Honestly speaking, there was no threat whatsoever to the Russian-speakers. We had a Ukrainian school and a Ukrainian kindergarten in my area and people were taking their children there without any problem. They started talking against it only when the information war [was] started by the Russian media.”

 

She laughs as she remembers her recent experience when registering her son at a school in Druzhkovka. The head teacher apologised for not being able to find a spot in a Russian-speaking class and for having to place Sasha in a Ukrainian one instead.

“If you live in Ukraine, you must be able to speak the Ukrainian language,” Lyudmila says. “In recent years, the Ukrainian language became mandatory. Many just don’t want it.”

 

She recalls a recent discussion with friends about how, since the independence of Ukraine, Ukrainian traditions have never been forced upon Donetsk. In contrast, she says, there was a period of “forced Russification” – from 1720 [when Tsar Peter I of Russia issued a decree banning the use of all Ukrainian linguistic elements in theological literature] to 1991 – when Ukrainian holidays were abolished and Ukrainian children taught their mother tongue only as an optional subject in school.

 

Lyudmila believes that the damage done to relations between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians will take many years to repair – lasting long after the territorial dispute has been resolved. In the meantime, she plays her part, placing a Ukrainian flag and posters about the separatists at the entrance to the storage facility from which she distributes aid to the IDPs. “So that people who come there start thinking about who is who,” she says.

 

The city of Debaltseve bears some of the deepest and most visible scars of the conflict in Donetsk. It has been ravaged by the war.

 

On a bench in front of a badly damaged block of flats, 19-year-old Pavel Hrinko sits with friends. It is a work day, but the young men are smoking cigarettes and drinking beer under the afternoon sun.

 

“I’m just on a lunch break,” Pavel says. He is lying because he is embarrassed to admit the truth.

 

The electrician could not work today because his company was unable to provide fuel for the crane he needs to reach the city’s damaged electrical cables.

 

And, with no home to go to, after two separate instances of shelling destroyed his modest family house, he spends his time sitting outside.

 

When the first shell hit the storage room beside the main building of the house, Pavel and his family had already been hiding in their basement for a month. They decided it was time to flee.

 

They heard about the second shelling from their friends, and returned a few days later to find just the burned out shell of their home. All of their belongings had been destroyed.

 

Now, Pavel believes the only possible way to build a better future is to leave for Russia.

 

But not everyone trapped in the conflict zone is looking for a way out. Evgeny Udovin is determined to stay in Donetsk – and believes the show must go on.

During work hours, Evgeny is the fearless Count Almaviva, plotting ways to secure the hand of a beautiful noble woman, Rosine, in marriage. But when the opera performer finishes work, and steps outside the historic Donetsk National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, he becomes just like anyone else in the conflict zone - living under the constant fear of yet another round of shelling.

 

Even during a ceasefire, he is haunted by the horrors of the recent past - witnessed in person or on television.

 

“There is a psychological pressure. Even during quiet times, you think that a shell might fall near you at any time,” he explains. Having changed from his costume into his casual clothes, Evgeny is standing outside the beautiful theatre, a bicycle helmet in his hand as he prepares to cycle home.

 

“I live in [the] Kiev area of Donetsk and you can imagine what it is like there. Every day there are shootings [even during a ceasefire as it is close to the rebel positions where truce violations are frequent].”

 

Once, before the truce was announced in February 2015, a shell exploded near Evgeny’s block of flats. The sound was deafening, and he and his wife immediately ran to the basement.

 

“We lay there hiding, plastered to walls,” he says, his face still pale from the traces of theatre make-up. “Life changed. I am somehow managing to seem calm, but inside … I wake up with my pulse rate at 90, when I start walking it reaches 100 and when there is a shooting nearby my heart is doing like this [he makes the sound of a heart beating rapidly as he bangs his fist on his chest] and blood rushes to my brain. It’s scary, consciously and subconsciously.”

 

His work is his salvation. But it is something else too. He feels it is his duty to keep the show going in Donetsk. That is one of the reasons why, unlike many of his colleagues, he made a decision not to flee the conflict zone. The opera, like the city itself, seems at least half empty.

 

“Here there’s nobody to replace me. I’m more needed here,” he reflects. “We are supporting each other here and work so that we don’t lose our audience, so that peace returns faster.”

 

Besides, the opera has been his second home for the past 10 years. During that period he has been on tours to Switzerland, Spain, Romania, Hungary, Japan and the US. But nowadays, he is finding it hard to even visit his parents outside the rebel-held territory - in the Dniepropetrovsk region.

 

“When will I be able to go there? I don’t know,” he says, pausing to contemplate the possibility. “Risking through the checkpoints? Once a bus exploded, [a] second time another one was shot at. It’s better not to risk it. It’s better to sit here and worry.”

Evgeny’s parents are also worried. They fear that their son is risking his life by remaining. But Evgeny thinks that is a better option than moving to be with them. That would mean “sitting on the neck of the pensioners”, he says, as his income would be limited to the $50 a month he would get from renting out his flat in Donetsk.

 

He also worries that “hot-headed” people would target him for being an ethnic Russian from Donetsk, if he were to move to one of the government-controlled areas. “Anything could happen,” he says. “Even journalists on Lviv TV say ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians’. I wish people would just come to their senses. There is not a single country in the world with only one ethnicity.”

 

Evgeny believes it is ridiculous that Ukrainians want to push their country away from Russia’s zone of influence in favour of a long shot chance of European Union membership.

 

Evgeny fears that west Ukraine will be claimed by Poland, in the event of EU membership, as it was before it became part of the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. He also believes that east Ukraine belongs with Russia, just as it was during the rule of the Russian Empire.

He does not see any sense in fighting for Ukraine anyway.

 

“War doesn’t make sense, it only brings sorrow and misery,” he says. “One historian said in spring that empires of thousands of years vanished and Ukraine is only about 20 years old. Even if it disappears the world will not lose anything.”

 

But, while Ukraine still exists, he believes Ukrainians should “repent and acknowledge their mistakes”.

 

“They have brought us so much pain and sorrow already that it is hard to forgive,” he says, “but it is necessary.”

 

Story

 

Photos & videos

 

Editing

 

Design

 

Production

 

Tamila Varshalomidze

 

Rabii Kalboussi

 

Carla Bower

 

Konstantinos Antonopoulos

 

@AJlabs

© 2015