When Dreams Become Nightmares

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When Russia recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine shortly before it invaded the country in late February, some locals were thrilled. They thought eight years of war would finally come to an end.

“The recognition of the republics was treated with great joy here,” said Natalia, 38, of the town of Ilovaisk in Donetsk. “Everyone was happy and thought that peace would finally come.”

Now, however, some are having second thoughts, especially in light of the increasing violence and destruction that has hit their cities – most in the region didn’t expect that, or the brutality of what is hitting the rest of Ukraine. “Our people support the president of Russia but we do not support the war in Ukraine, we do not support the killing of civilians,” Christina, 32, in Donetsk city, said. “We love our Ukrainian brothers. We all woke up in this hell and we don’t wish this on anyone.”

Maxim, 36, of Luhansk city, told Al Jazeera how he and other men of military age have been in hiding since the invasion to avoid being picked up by militias and forced to fight. No males between the ages of 18 and 60 are on the streets these days, he said: “Recognition was just an excuse to attack Ukraine. People in Donbas are still being shelled despite that Russia promised it would stop. Except how they started picking up men on the streets, nothing has changed. This is not our war, not the war of ordinary people, but the war of someone’s ambitions and whims.”

He added that while he doesn’t think Ukraine has treated its eastern regions fairly in the past and understands why the regions wanted independence, the Russians are just as bad: “Here it is such a circus…the evacuations are staged, it’s just another window dressing…a friend’s daughter went to a rally – in fact they were put on buses ‘for evacuation,’ photographed for the press and sent home.”

The residents of these regions have been living with war since 2014. That’s when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and sent troops to help separatists take control of the two regions, where ethnic Russians historically constitute a large minority of the population. Since then, some of the residents of the two regions have received Russian passports, drawn on Russian-funded pensions, used the Russian currency, the ruble, and seen their children study the official Russian state education curriculum, Reuters wrote.

Life in the people’s republics was difficult before the invasion, though. The conflict was never far away, killing thousands and destroying homes and factories. Jobs were scarce. Independent journalists were shut out, reported Rolling Stone. Local leaders banned all dissent, especially criticism of Russia’s military activities. Authorities detained hundreds and killed dozens to maintain their rule. “Amid routinized brutality, they (had) tried to fashion some semblance of a normal existence,” the New Yorker wrote.

Now, after eight years of fighting and a brutal step-up in violence since late last month, residents in Donetsk and Luhansk are now suffering from war fatigue and exhaustion – shelling and fighting have made the republics into war zones, the Wall Street Journal wrote. “They’ve experienced war not as a grand struggle of civilizations but as something nasty and grueling, to be managed and survived,” the New Yorker added. “But now, as the Russian military unleashes the full force of its arsenal throughout the country, any pretense of normalcy has been ripped away.”

Donetsk leader Denis Pushilin and Luhansk boss Leonid Pasechnik, meanwhile, have become stars in the firmament of Russia’s supporters and propaganda hucksters, said the Guardian.

Recently, Pushilin ordered people in Donetsk to evacuate through humanitarian corridors that lead to Russia, according to the Daily Beast. Many Ukrainian ethnic-Russians are not so eager to go to their supposed homeland, however, the Washington Post reported. The majority identify with Ukraine, not Mother Russia, in spite of their heritage.

The big question is whether those who identify with Russia will continue to do so as the war gets more intense and their cities get destroyed. Some scholars think it will increase opposition to Russia. “I hear from Russians the following: ‘Well, if we are one people, as Putin says, how come we’re making war on some of our own people and now launching attacks on the cities?’” noted Ronald G. Suny, a history professor at the University of Michigan, in the Post.

Others, however, say too much has already been invested in fighting for independence and that goal won’t be given up easily.

Regardless, one thing is clear: Through all the smoke and terrible noise, it’s hard to see any definitive future for Donetsk and Luhansk. Many interviewed in the region, regardless of what side they were on, had wanted to leave to secure their own future even before the invasion. And now, Western Ukrainians have been brought down to their situation, they say.

“It hurts me for the people on the (government-controlled) side of Ukraine,” said Maxim. “I realize that they will plunge into the darkness and poverty in which we (in the separatist regions) have lived all these eight years.”

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