Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Quiet Chaos in East Ukraine City

Torez was largely untouched by conflict, but now it has become a paramilitary hub.
  • A truckload of paramilitaries drive though the east Ukrainian city of Torez flying the Russian flag.  (Photo: Vadim Shamdan)
    A truckload of paramilitaries drive though the east Ukrainian city of Torez flying the Russian flag. (Photo: Vadim Shamdan)
  • Pro-Russia forces bring an anti-aircraft gun through Torez.  (Photo: Vadim Shamdan)
    Pro-Russia forces bring an anti-aircraft gun through Torez. (Photo: Vadim Shamdan)
  • The office of the Gornyak newspaper in Torez were destroyed by petrol bombs. (Photo: Vadim Shamdan)
    The office of the Gornyak newspaper in Torez were destroyed by petrol bombs. (Photo: Vadim Shamdan)
  • Playgrounds in Torez are mostly empty because parents are afraid to let their children out.
    Playgrounds in Torez are mostly empty because parents are afraid to let their children out.

Until recently, the city of Torez was relatively untroubled by the unrest sweeping eastern Ukraine. Its location in the eastern part of Donetsk region ensured meant it was a backwater as pro-Russia groups seized control of towns further west. 

That has now changed, precisely because of the city’s location. As it is close to sections of the Russian border seized by separatists, Torez has become both a military stronghold and the first port of call for tanks, armoured personnel carriers, trucks carrying arms and ammunition, mercenaries and volunteer fighters coming into Ukraine.

It is hard to get a clear picture of what is going on in Torez because local media outlets closed down after editorial offices were ransacked and burned. Many journalists have left Torez, and those who remain are working underground as they are at risk of assault and detention if they are captured and cannot produce official accreditation issued by the “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

Residents of the city have told this reporter that it is now run by paramilitary groups, not by local government. Many businesses have ground to a halt, creating an even worse economic situation for an already depressed coal mining centre. Pro-Russia forces have bedded down in Torez, with ground-to-air weapons deployed in open spaces in residential areas and sniper positions on the rooftops. The fighters themselves have taken over apartments left empty by past recent economic troubles.

Many residents who have relatives living in the surrounding countryside have moved out there, fearing that if Torez is encircled by Ukrainian forces, they will be unable to get out. There are few children in the streets and playgrounds as their parents do not let them stray far from home.

“I don’t watch TV – not Russian, and not Ukrainian, either. I watch the roads. If you do that carefully, it will tell you more about the situation in the town than all the rumours put together,” one local resident said, adding that he kept an eye on the vehicles going past, who was in them, how packed they were, and which direction they were heading in.

Most recently, the traffic has included tanks and other military hardware that crossed from Russia near the village of Dmitrovka.

The police in Torez do not respond to callouts, and general crime levels have increased, with thefts of metals said to be commonplace.

There is also a turf war going on between the recently-arrived pro-Russia fighters and established local gangsters, with the former seizing businesses from criminals and the latter fighting back by abducting separatists. One asset they are fighting over is illegal coal extraction and trading, a business that has been going on since the late 1990s. The conflict has led to the murder of a leading figure in the illicit mining trade, and the homes of several others being torched.

Denis Kazansky is a blogger in Donetsk. 

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