Fear and hardship in the Donbas After years of frozen conflict, Donetsk residents describe life under constant shelling
Before Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the intensity of the hostilities in the Donbas had been declining steadily since 2014. In 2021, the United Nations recorded 36 civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine, most of which were caused by landmines and the mishandling of unexploded ordinances. Since mid-June 2022, however, regular explosions have plagued the city of Donetsk. Ukraine has either refrained from commenting on the blasts or reported the destruction of Russian ammunition depots in the region. In response, the authorities in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Moscow have accused Ukrainian forces of deliberately targeting civilians. (Meanwhile, Russia’s constant attacks on civilian areas across Ukraine have claimed thousands of lives). For insight into what everyday life is like in wartime Donetsk, Meduza turned to local residents.
Anna left her hometown of Donetsk for Russia at the end of May. Staying in her neighborhood, the Kuibyshevsky district, had become “simply impossible.”
“There was chaotic shelling from the Pisky side. It went on all spring with varying frequency. They mostly hit [us] with bombs and Grad [missiles]. It became dangerous to go outside, but we needed to eat something,” recalled Anna, who declined to give her last name.
Donetsk has come under shelling before. In mid-March, for example, a missile exploded in the city center, killing 16 people (the “Donetsk People’s Republic” blamed Ukraine for the strike). But since June 15, the attacks have been systematic. Roughly 300 shells were launched at the city on that day, DNR officials reported. One of the projectiles hit a maternity hospital, but there were no fatalities. Denis Pushilin, the leader of the “republic,” immediately accused the enemy of violating the “rules of warfare” and said that consequently, Russia would be sending in additional forces. (As you may recall, Russia bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol on March 9, killing five people.)
Writing on Telegram, Petro Andryushchenko, an advisor to Mariupol’s mayor, refuted the accusations against Ukraine, claiming that Russian forces had shelled Donetsk so that Pushilin could appeal to Putin to bring in more troops.
In the weeks since, local news blogs have become live feeds chronicling the shelling of the city and the surrounding area. (According to the DNR “health ministry,” 3,500 civilians died between February 24 and July 1.) The Telegram channel Tipichny Donetsk (“Typical Donetsk”), for example, posts crowd-sourced photos and videos of the results of shelling daily. These updates are interspersed with messages advertising the cost of passage to Ukrainian-controlled territory, Russia, and Europe.
On July 14, a shell hit a bus station in the city’s Voroshilovsky district, killing two people and injuring six others. DNR head Denis Pushilin blamed the Ukrainian Armed Forces for the strike. Kyiv has yet to respond to the allegations.
Pond water and fear
Olga (named changed) was drinking a coffee in a downtown cafe when ambulances began whizzing by, one after another. She checked the news and learned that the bus station had come under shelling yet again.
For the past few months, Olga has been living with her boyfriend in the Voroshilovsky district, a neighborhood in central Donetsk. Since February, she has only returned to own apartment in the Kyivsky district a few times.
“Recently, the building that my apartment overlooks [was hit]. My windows were presumably blown out, but I wasn’t there and don’t know for sure. That same day, my neighbor was killed, she was walking home from the store. My sense is that 20–40 percent of the districts that are being shelled have been destroyed already. That’s without counting broken glass, doors, and destroyed furniture from [strikes] on neighboring buildings,” Olga recounted.
All of the people from Donetsk that Meduza interviewed talked about problems with bomb shelters: either they weren’t ready when the full-scale war began or there’s no signage indicating their locations. Damage from shelling has also disrupted public utilities: part of the city is almost completely cut off from the water supply, while other areas only have running water for a couple hours every few days, local residents told Meduza.
“At my [place] in the Kyivsky [district] there’s water for a couple hours every four days. And the [water] pressure is such that it only reaches the first floor, so all the neighbors go to one apartment and get water there. In the Voroshilovsky district the water runs from six in the evening until about ten o’clock. There’s gas and electricity almost everywhere where there’s no shelling for a certain period of time. Sometimes, when [a shell] falls nearby, the lights flicker,” Olga explained.
Olga’s parents, who live on the other side of the city, don’t have running water. She has to bring them bottles of untreated water, which is pumped out of a pond by a Russian Emergency Situations Ministry (MChS) vehicle.
In local social media groups, members often post about free drinking water being distributed to residents and share videos of the queues. On July 12, the Telegram channel Tipichny Donetsk reported that you had to show your passport to get water. Olga is convinced that the authorities are cataloging local residents’ passport data in preparation for an impending referendum on the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” joining Russia.
Local businessman Oleg (name changed) said that half of Donetsk doesn’t have running water at all, while the other half has it for “1.5–2 hours in the evening.” “We fill up everything we can. The outskirts — the Petrovsky and Tekstilnik [districts] — have no power, Internet, or television 80 percent of the time. Some streets never do,” he said. Oleg called local utility workers “our real heroes.” “There are utility workers who died while restoring and repairing gas, electricity, [mobile] communications,” he said. Despite the serious damage to the city’s housing stock, Oleg maintained that Donetsk “won’t surrender.” “Everyone has adapted to survive, there are just fewer people. Many are leaving,” he explained.
Olga, however, said that the city is literally “permeated with an atmosphere of fear” — not only due to shelling, but also due to forced mobilization. According to various reports, up 140,000 people have been drafted into the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s militias” since the start of the February invasion. Any careless man can go out to pick up bread and end up at the front in Nova Kakhovka, Olga stressed.
‘Everyone’s up to their elbow in blood’
Oleg had no doubt that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are responsible for shelling Donetsk. He claimed that Ukrainian forces began striking Donetsk and nearby settlements after Russian troops decided to “liberate” the north of the Donetsk region and encircle Avdiivka (a town located just 13 kilometers, or 8 miles, away). Anna said she also “tends to think” Ukraine is responsible.
Though she sought refuge in Russia in May, Anna considers herself Ukrainian and underscored that she was born in independent Ukraine and had no interest in the “Russian world.” “The only thing I would like to say — probably even on behalf of most of my acquaintances and friends who have lived in Donetsk for the last eight years — is that we realized that there are classes of people in Ukraine. And if you live in occupied territory, then you’re a second class [citizen],” she told Meduza.
Olga said that in her opinion, “both Ukraine and Russia” betrayed the inhabitants of the Donbas. Ukraine, she said, is like a “mother who abandoned her” — but she mostly just misses the way things were before 2014. “I haven’t thought about who’s doing the shooting for a long time,” Olga said. “This is a war, its consequences are the same and they’re all bad. What’s the point of thinking about who’s pulling the trigger right now if everyone’s up to their elbows in blood?”
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart