Due to the increase in shelling and general unpredictability we decided it was time to leave Donetsk. Fortunately our friend Max was heading to the coastal town of Berdyans’k in Ukrainian territory and had agreed to take us with him. This was a relief as due to damage at the train station, buses were the only option. They were unreliable and packed with people fleeing the city so our chances of leaving would have been slim, we would have probably spent hours at the bus station just waiting for any way out.
We packed up our stuff and waited for Max, he arrived promptly and we loaded up the car and set off, slightly apprehensive about how the journey would play out. As we neared the outskirts of the city the propaganda billboards became more and more damaged and graffitied, it seemed residents on the out skirts had little love for the DNR.
Not long after we reached the DNR checkpoint and apprehensively began reaching for our passports. Instead of a grilling we were instantly let through, and just like that we had left the Donetsk People’s republic. The most surprising thing was just how close the Ukrainian territory began outside the city, less than 1 km along the highway we reached a heavily fortified Ukrainian checkpoint. It contained several tanks and heavy artillery pieces. (Coincidentally this checkpoint was entirely destroyed by a missile attack the following day, looks like we left at the right time.)
Again we were waved through, and to our bemusement we had quickly and easily entered the safety of Ukraine proper. The ease of our journey began to wain however as Max was almost immediately pulled over for speeding by the police and forced to pay 100 hrv for ‘petrol’. This turned into a theme as we were pulled over 4 more times for lack of tax (You cannot renew tax in Donetsk so it was not Max’s fault.) with donation requests varying from water to more petrol or just to help out the long suffering Ukrainian police force. Despite the cost of our generous philanthropy to the Ukrainian police force we were happy to arrive in Berdyans’k.
Max’s friend owned a holiday apartment complex and he had arranged for us to stay there for a day or so while we waited for a train to Kiev. We arrived at the rugged complex in the blazing sun after buying supplies and beer. The place was half built but the residents were very friendly and mostly consisted of refugees from Donetsk. They were helping to build the complex in exchange for cheaper rents and it was nice to see everyone working together, laughing and joking while they did their assigned tasks.
Shortly we left for the nearby beach, which was reached by going down various dirt roads until we reached a steep bank that descended down to a very pretty beach. It had a rugged charm and was a really nice way to spend a day. We returned to the complex and found everyone enjoying a round of drinking which we were obliged to join. People’s generosity here is amazing despite the fact that they are refugees with little to their name.
After we managed to pry ourselves away we got the (10 km p/h) bus into town and slowly arrived in the centre much later. It was nice to be back in a normal city again and see normal life without the accompaniment of bombs and the anxiety of fear hanging over everything you did.
We then walked to the sea front which was very lively. Elliott lightheartedly harassed a woman on a tin can throw game, knocking down the cans then saying he was only joking and didn’t want to play. We then sat and watched the night unfold with a couple of beers. It was not long before 5 policemen arrived to say it was illegal to drink in public and we would have to follow them (everyone around us was also drinking) It looked like it was going to be the 6th bribe of the day. We followed them to a dark corner and they surrounded us and tried to be intimidating, as all 3 of us had experienced the hostility of the DNR we were not very impressed with them and insisted that they just take us to the police station if they wanted to charge us. This went on for 5 minutes until the police captain, beaten and humiliated in front of his men, left with 20 hrvs ($1.50) that John had in his pocket and slunk off into the night. It was a moral victory after the day we’d had.
The next day we spent a few hours queuing for our train tickets, the internet booking system had long ago failed due to the volume of travelers. We then again spent the day at the beach and enjoyed the time relaxing, in the evening we spent more time with the refugees chatting and drinking, eating and shouting. Vodka is a very popular drink in Ukraine and as guests we were constantly supplied with shots throughout the night. It was a lot of fun losing card games we could not understand and learning how to eat whole raw fish, guts and all with your bare hands. The night was slightly soured with the news that 500 Ukrainian military vehicles had been destroyed in the last 2 days, a massive loss and a worrying development for the refugees who wanted to return home.
John retired to bed whilst Elliott continued to drink the remaining martini and badly (and constantly) impersonating James Bond before finally somehow walking upstairs to bed. We were woken 5 hours later however by Max vomiting on the floor, then going back to sleep. This angered John and Max was forced to clean up his mess and subsequently vomited a few more times, the windows and doors of the room had to be left open after that. The following day we went to the train station to catch our train, the beds were in separate births but this suited Elliott as it gave him a rest from John’s snoring.
Subsequently John Lost his ticket and so had to pay a bribe to the conductor, a fitting end to what could be the most bribes ever given in a 36 hour period.
After a 16 hour journey we finally made it to Kiev for independence day, our plan was to arrive the day before however as the train was full this was not possible. This resulted in us unfortunately missing the controversial parade of military force through the city which has been criticized due to Ukrainian fighters in the east being badly supplied and fighting with inferior equipment, this equipment should be in the east rather than paraded around the city.
The independence day in Donetsk was also a controversial one, the Separatist paraded Ukrainian prisoners of war through the city whilst onlookers threw rubbish and insults at them. This was followed by a number of street cleaners to ‘wash the scum’ off the street behind them.
We have since been trying to organize interviews here in Kiev however with the recent escalation back in the east we are now considering a trip back to Mariupol where we had been staying before Donetsk. It is going to be targeted by the ‘Separatists” as potentially the next city they want to retake. Even more worrying there are rumors that they want to push as far as Crimea to create a united Russian state. If successful this will push the limits of the separatist’s state right up to the borders of Kiev.
Even today we have been informed that there are preparations being made to defend Mariupol, with locals helping to dig trenches and build defenses. Only time will tell what will happen to the poor people of Mariupol.