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

Under Siege, Donetsk Slowly Shuts Down

People hunt for increasingly scarce food in the shops, and dive into Soviet-era bomb shelters when the artillery opens up.
By Denis Kazansky
  • A convoy of pro-Russia rebels as fighting escalates in Donetsk. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/copyright Getty Images)
    A convoy of pro-Russia rebels as fighting escalates in Donetsk. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/copyright Getty Images)
  • A cash machine in Donetsk with a sign saying “no money”. (Photo: Denis Kazansky)
    A cash machine in Donetsk with a sign saying “no money”. (Photo: Denis Kazansky)

Until very recently, war still seemed far away for residents of Donetsk. Yes, there was sporadic gunfire in the city, people were abducted, shops were looted, and businesses were closing down one after another, but everyone was aware the real fighting was going on in Lugansk and Slavyansk, where pro-Russia insurgents were hemmed in by advancing Ukrainian troops.

Through August, however, artillery shells have been landing in Donetsk every day, mostly in the northwestern suburbs and also in the city centre. The city council has been issuing daily bulletins on civilian fatalities.

Four people were killed in a bombardment on August 7 and three or four were dying every day before that. In the August 7 attack, apartments in luxury housing blocks were hit, along with a number of shops.

Statistics compiled by utilities agnencies indicate that about 500,000 people remain in Donetsk – about half its normal population.

The city is under siege.

Donetsk became the focus of military operations after insurgents who left Slavyansk and Kramatorsk when those towns were captured in July and who redeployed here on August 5. Some time earlier – about a month ago – the fighting unit led by Russian officer Igor Girkin aka “Strelkov” rolled into town.


Donetsk residents have swiftly learned to distinguish between different kinds of weapons. The Grad multiple rocket-launcher is the easiest, with the howl of its projectiles particularly frightening. Grad rockets have been known to rush into apartment-block courtyards, scream past the playground and rush on towards their target.

“We really got a sense of war when we had to go down to the bomb shelter,” local resident Margarita said. “It’s a unique feeling to sit in a damp smelly cellar and try to guess what you’ll see when you come back up to the surface. Every time, you imagine you’ll emerge into the street and everything will have been destroyed – nothing but ruins, like in that serial about Stalingrad. But most of the time nothing happens.”

Once Margareta was caught out in the street when the shelling started. She was half-way home, so she headed for the nearest school, which she knew would have a bomb shelter.

The shelters date from the Soviet era when there was a real fear the Cold War would tip over into full-scale war. Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, most have fallen into disrepair, allowed to flood, or simply padlocked shut. No one seriously expected there would ever be a use for them again. Bomb shelters in schools have, however, mostly been maintained, so Margarita made a sensible decision to head for one.

The shelters are now being repaired, mostly by local residents rather than the municipal authorities. The city mayor and many of his staff left Donetsk a month ago.

Sheer necessity has brought many diverse grouups together. Down-and-outs and high earners, drunks and children unaccompanied by their parents mingle together in the underground shelters. Sometimes there is not enough room for everyone to sit down, so people take turns at standing.


Many people in Donetsk have disappeared – mostly abducted by pro-Russia groups and either held in a basement somewhere or sent out to dig trenches around the city. Anyone can be picked up – for being out after curfew, even for having a mobile phone with a Ukrainian-language interface.

Anton Skiba, a local journalist held for three days on suspicion of espionage, shared a cell with a surveyer whose theodolite led the insurgents to think he was a range-finder for Ukrainian artillery. Their third cellmate had been detained for being drunk.

They spent more than a month incarcerated together. What they had in common was that none of them had relatives who could have tracked them down and paid a ransom. Skiba was freed after the media raised the alarm about his detention.

Alexander Osadchy, a cameraman for the NTN television station, spent three days as a captive of the Donetsk People’s Republic, under pressure to confess to spying.

Others who have been released from prison thanks to relatives intervening tell terrible stories of conditions there – but it is worse to be sent to dig trenches at the front.


The banks and clothing shops are no longer open. The store windows on Donetsk’s main streets are boarded up, not so much against bursting shell fragments – which plywood will not stop anyway – as against looters and vandals. A couple of shops are plundered every night.

A few days ago, the mobile networks began falling apart. MTS, the most popular company, began having major technical problems. SIM cards for other firms, Kievstar and Life, soon ran out in the shops, and no more will be arriving. Many people now have no mobile connection.

Shop shelves are gradually emptying. Some supermarkets have closed down because of the difficulties of getting supplies into the city. The insurgents are running short of food, and often rob trucks as they pass through checkpoints. It is now hard to find meat, dairy products and fish in the supermarkets that are still open. Locally-produced items are in short supply, too, and disappear as soon as they appear on the shelves.

If the siege continues, there is the prospect of hunger, which residents are already discussing with trepidation.

When one kiosk in the Tekstilschik district was hit by a mortar shell, locals gathered and began picking foodstuffs from the wreckage. Many do not have the money to buy food.

Denis Kazansky is a blogger in Donetsk.

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