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‘Trapped in a Cocoon of my Own Grief’: Putin’s Promise of ‘Liberation’ Brings Terror to Donbas

Tom Mutch reports on the plight of Ukrainian families that remain trapped in Russian-controlled enclaves

Volnovakha in Donbas. Photo: Tom Mutch

‘Trapped in a Cocoon of my Own Grief’Putin’s Promise of ‘Liberation’ Brings Terror to Donbas

Tom Mutch reports on the plight of Ukrainian families that remain trapped in Russian-controlled enclaves

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Reporting credit Lelia Katalnikova

Alexandra Businka woke up in Kyiv last week to find her childhood home in the Donbas region had been destroyed by a Russian bomb.

“Every time I talk to my family, I am afraid that this is our last conversation,” she told Byline Times. “I have so much anxiety, I don’t know how to change their mind if our house being destroyed didn’t make them move! My mother doesn’t want to leave our hometown, and she is worried that my brother could get drafted. I don’t know how to convince them to leave.”

After a meeting a stiff and effective Ukrainian resistance, Russia seems to have scaled down its war aims from a full takeover of Kyiv and ousting Zelensky’s Government. Instead, the Kremlin says it will focus firepower on “liberation” of the Donbas region.

For many in Ukraine, this is a victory and admission Putin will never take the full country. But for those from the region, it is a portent of more terror.  

Irina and her family: Photo: Tom Mutch

For Businka, a 24-year-old fashion designer living in Kyiv, this announcement brought equal parts relief and anxiety. She believes she will soon be able to get her own life back, and that Ukraine’s capital will be safe again. But her family still lives in Lysychansk, which is in a part of Luhansk oblast still controlled by the Ukrainian Government, very close to the current frontline.

This city would be right in the firing line of Putin’s troops, who have shown elsewhere they are willing to brutalize civilian populations to bend them to his will. The Ukrainians who have fled the first stage of the assault on Donbas know what could be waiting for the towns in these Oblasts that remain in Ukrainian hands.

Irina Popova is a 34-year-old hairdresser from Volnovakha, a small city in Donetsk oblast that was recently overrun by the Russian military and Donetsk’s separatist forces. She managed to escape the fighting. But in the chaos, her sister Svitlana, who has cerebral palsy, and her mother, were left behind.

Irina Popova: Photo: Tom Mutch

“I briefly saw the ruined city. 85% of the city is destroyed, officially…the city of Volnovakha does not exist anymore,” Irina Popova told Byline Times. If her phrasing is evocative of those who fled nearby Mariupol, it is because they are describing the Russian approach to siege warfare that the cities of the Donbas are experiencing.

Before the current invasion, Donbas experienced a ‘frozen conflict’ phase when low-intensity fighting took place across static front lines after the signing of the Minsk accords in early 2015. But Popova notes that “people would cross from the DNR all the time. No one ever discriminated against anyone, not with one word, one act or a glance. We communicated with them like we would anyone else- and of course in Russian, which is my native language.”

“There was no fighting in Volnovakha [in 2014-2015]. We were separated into zones and have lived peacefully since. Nothing portended disaster. Nothing at all. [At that time,] we thought they’ll try to take Volnovakha, but no. There was one provocation, so that’s probably why we thought there would be something in Volnovakha. But nothing happened. No shelling, no explosions, nothing.”

Now, this peace has been shattered, and she and her family hid in a shelter for the first weeks of the invasion. “We didn’t think that they would be shelling and destruction of our houses, residential houses, hospitals,” she told Byline Times. “No one expected that. And then, after we’d realised that, we wanted to leave, but it was already impossible.”

They spent eight agonising days in a shelter underneath the city.

“There was no electricity, gas, or heating- it was damp, dark and cold. There was no light at all, we lost the sense of day and night. In three to four days, everyone got sick. There were people with babies. On the 5th day, the men tried to cook something on a bonfire, looking for discreet places. Like, you run out of the bomb shelter, light up a bonfire, run back inside. But it ended with a shell hitting a spot near the bonfire. Some people from our basement had managed to cook soup—they were on the other side—and they fed our kids. There were no hot drinks. When the military men found out about this, they started bringing us food, water and tea from their rations. Sometimes they would make us hot tea or coffee, that was huge luck when it happened.”

Volnovakha in Donbas. Photo: Tom Mutch

After more than a week of hiding, the Ukrainian military finally managed to find an escape route for her and her children.

“One day, a Ukrainian military man came down to us. One of my kids was already sick and the other one was crying, acting up, in panic, wanting to go outside, he started throwing tantrums. As I said, the sense of night day was lost. It’s dark all the time. All the time.

At that time, we had been in that basement for eight days. So that military man saw this dirty three-year-old, and he said he would try to help us. In a minute he comes in and says: take your child, let’s go. It took just a second. People cried to me: “Ira, come on, come on, go!”. I said: “I’ve got my mother and my sister who can’t walk!”. It was impossible to get to them. They said: “We will take them, we’ll come back”. I wrote them notes, passed them through our military men, and volunteers, but nothing came out of it. It’s just that their house stood where it was the worst.”

No reputable western or Ukrainian journalists have been able to access Russian or separatist-controlled territory since Russia’s invasion began. But Russians have provided access to media they deem friendly to their regime, and video from Chinese state television shows post-apocalyptic scenes of destroyed apartments, schools, and churches. Every sort of building has been indiscriminately bombed.

Despite being safe in Dnipro, Popova remains in a state of despair for the safety of her relatives, who she still cannot contact. “I am waiting for my mother Yelena Melekhova and sister Svitlana Abdulaieva. I don’t know if any of my friends are alive, got out, or are still there. I lost my phone with all the contacts. I’m in a cocoon of my own grief.”

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