Children of Ukraine's 'absurd' separatist war see bleak future

Local residents watch honour guards of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Jan 22, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

DONETSK, UKRAINE (AFP) - Ruslan Chebotayev was just 10 years old when pro-Russian separatists seized his hometown in eastern Ukraine, sparking fighting that he and other teenagers say has robbed them of hope and prospects.

The sounds of shelling punctuate life around the industrial city of Donetsk, where younger residents are used to tanks rumbling down their streets and a curfew bringing an eerie quiet.

"Throughout my childhood in Donetsk, I heard the war - shelling, tanks rolling around the city," Ruslan told Agence France-Presse, snow blanketing the war-scarred city.

"I've wanted peace for a long time. I'm fed up with the fighting," the 17-year-old student with auburn hair said next to a statue of Soviet revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in central Donetsk.

The prospects for peace, however, are especially tenuous now with Europe and the United States warning of a huge Russian troop build-up on the edges of separatist-held territory.

It is only the latest chapter in nearly a decade of war that has claimed 13,000 lives - including friends of relatives of many Donetsk residents.

"It's hard to talk about it," said Mr Daniil Chebotok, a 20-year-old student hoping to leave.

"It was scary at first, but then it somehow became normal and now explosions, shootings - it's already so ordinary, familiar even," he said.

Not far from the centre of the city - the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic - shooting continues to claim lives.

"It's just an absurd situation. We don't even know why the war is going on," said Mr Maxim Bliznyuk, 20, who sports a crucifix-shaped earring.

'Detached' from the world

Not only are fears of escalation growing, young men are bracing to be dispatched to the front in the wake of a new decree by political leaders in the breakaway regions.

Separatist authorities last year introduced mandatory six-month-long military service at the age of 18.

"I'm preparing for it mentally," says Ruslan, adding he hoped to get an exemption if he goes to university.

Life for his generation has long been turned upside down by the war.

Donetsk has been under a curfew for eight years. It was recently lifted at weekends, but Ruslan has to be indoors by 11pm and cannot leave before 5am.

While people his age in the rest of Ukraine might be out at nightclubs, Donetsk is a ghost town.

"I'm young. I want to go out at night, but I can't," he complained. "We don't have any freedom."

Ms Nastya Karpushina, a 20-year-old medical student with a nose piercing, said living in territory that was not officially recognised was an added complication.

"We have to put together a lot of documents to travel, and it is not certain they'll let you out. It's stressful," she said.

Life in the separatist region is also dominated by only a handful of companies. Just one mobile operator functions and the only bank leverages its monopoly to impose its own terms.

Without an account with that bank, all payments must be made in cash.

"It's really impractical," Ms Karpushina said. "Even in Russia, you can choose which bank to use.

"We can't afford to shop online or get orders from other countries. It all makes life harder."

With travel to Ukrainian-controlled territory all but impossible, many see Russia as the only route to escape, particularly since Moscow has simplified procedures for obtaining a passport.

"I want to leave here," said Mr Chebotok, who added he wants to apply for a Russian passport and dreams of working as a doctor in Asia.

"When we were still in Ukraine, we of course had prospects in life. But now, they have, concretely, changed. Unfortunately."

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