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This little war appears to be getting nastier by the day.
DONETSK, Ukraine — Vladimir Piskunov repeated the phrase like a mantra as he sifted through the remains of his living room.
“This is how they’re defending us,” said the 39-year-old coalminer, whose home on the outskirts of this rebellious eastern Ukrainian city came under apparent rocket fire on Saturday.
The attack — which Piskunov and his neighbors blame on the Ukrainian military —not only destroyed his home and incinerated his once verdant garden. It also killed his wife, Tatyana, as she attempted to dive into the basement with her husband.
“With what’s happening to us here, there’s only one option: to pick up a weapon and fight back,” said Piskunov.
It’s been a week since Ukrainian officials hailed the “liberation” of a key rebel stronghold and promised a swift end to the separatist uprising in the country’s east. But as fighting creeps closer to a major urban center, they are facing the prospect of a long and drawn-out conflict, the increasing collateral damage of which threatens to further consolidate anti-Kyiv anger.
After reclaiming Slovyansk, a former separatist nerve center, as well as a handful of other nearby cities, the focus of the military’s effort has now shifted to this city of nearly one million, the regional capital of Ukraine’s industrial heartland.
But it is both sprawling and densely populated, posing a serious challenge to the anti-separatist campaign that has so far been waged largely against compact towns in the countryside.
Since the fall of Slovyansk, separatist forces have massed here and dispatched many of their fighters to the perimeter of the city, where they’ve set up checkpoints and remain locked in a standoff with Ukrainian forces pressing the city on several fronts.
Donetsk itself — a cosmopolitan city of charming boulevards — has steadily emptied out in recent days. Many shops are closed, traffic is eerily sparse, and the city’s once-bustling nightlife has almost entirely faded away.
There is no visible panic, but the occasional roaming gunmen — who’ve even taken to mitigating car accidents in town — and the uncanny evening silence create an image of a city in constant anticipation.
Both residents and local officials here say they’re bracing for an eventual conflict.
According to Maxim Rovinsky, a spokesman for the Donetsk city council, there are no concrete figures as to how many people have left the city, though many outbound train tickets, for example, appear sold out days in advance.
“We’re telling residents to act according to the situation,” said Rovinsky, adding that officials have been disseminating information about the location of bomb shelters around town.
But for now, the violence remains on the city’s outskirts and in adjacent suburbs, where a string of mysterious rocket attacks in recent days have boosted tensions.
Piskunov, who’d fortuitously sent his 12-year-old daughter away to a neighboring region before the bombardment, is among the civilians who’ve become trapped in the nightmarish crossfire.
Like in Slovyansk, it is virtually impossible to tell who is firing and from exactly where.
During a visit on Sunday to the Petrovsky district — where Piskunov’s wife and several others were reportedly killed during the attack on Saturday — a GlobalPost reporter found casings of what appeared to be Grad rockets, Russian-made, truck-mounted missiles that translate to “hail.”
Beside Piskunov’s house, they’d also struck a nearby nursery school and several other homes.
Yet also like in Slovyansk, many residents here readily blame the Ukrainian military — not the rebels, who the Kyiv authorities blamed for staging attacks on their military forces this week with the exact same weapon system — for what they say is indiscriminate bombing.
“They kill people, and no one answers for it,” said Piskunov, stepping over the shattered glass strewn across the floor of his house.
Security officials have consistently claimed that rebels are behind the attacks and are using civilians as human shields.
There is no shortage of evidence that the separatists, who are nominally fighting under the banner of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, have resorted to violence to further their cause.
A report by Amnesty International released last week found that rebels have abducted and tortured a range of critics, such as activists and journalists, since the uprising began.
But there are few signs of anti-rebel anger, outwardly at least, in these separatist-controlled neighborhoods rocked by apparent missile attacks.
In Maryinka, a dusty settlement of crumbling apartment blocs that neighbors the Petrovsky district, locals on Sunday were still cleaning up the debris from a separate bombardment that had ripped through an apartment building on Friday night.
A 65-year-old pensioner who introduced himself only as Garik, for fear of what he said would be retaliation by pro-Kyiv forces, claimed a neighbor was killed in the attack.
“His skull was blown open,” said Garik.
Cursing Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, he added: “You don’t do this to a peaceful population.”
Yet despite the violence closing in Donetsk, as well as the Ukrainian military’s virtual encirclement of the city, many rebel fighters here appear to be in high spirits.
A telling, if somewhat bizarre, sign lies in the small series of insurgent weddings in recent days.
A GlobalPost reporter attended one such ceremony, which began at a rebel base outside the city center and involved a makeshift convoy — led by an armored personnel carrier with the couple perched on top — that barreled down dusty streets toward a local marriage registration office.
There, the sound of wedding bells was replaced by the clinking of gunmetal as the groom’s closest comrades, their Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders, crowded into the hall to look on.
Most of the men — including the groom, a lanky man with the nom-de-guerre “Tagir” — had been based in Slovyansk, and had pulled out last week after the Ukrainian military’s decisive assault.
In private, some fighters bemoaned the rebel leadership’s decision to fall back to Donetsk.
But Tagir — who married a café worker named Tatyana — insisted “our mood is always good, even during a firefight.”
“We’re living on,” he said, “defending our land.”