Residents of Ukrainian getaways tell of fleeting joy and hope | Russian-Ukrainian crisis

After living in the conflict zone for eight years, residents of the Ukrainian separatist-controlled regions of Donetsk and Lugansk welcomed Russia’s recognition of the independence of their self-declared republics, believing it would bring peace and stability.

The joy of the February 21 announcement lasted just three days as Russian President Vladimir Putin used the security of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) in eastern Ukraine as a pretext for a full-scale invasion of the country on February 24.

Al Jazeera spoke with residents of breakaway republics about life after recognition, all-out war, and their relationship with Russia and Ukraine.

Maxim, 36 years old, city of Lugansk

“All my relatives are in Lugansk. It’s quiet here, but heavy gunfire is heard from or near town. An oil depot exploded in the Luhansk region, in the city of Rovenki.

I’m not leaving where I am now, because the mobilization is going on and everyone of service age is being taken away. At almost every bus stop, people in uniform get into minibuses and pick up men.

Almost all my acquaintances and friends do not work and hide in isolated places. There are hardly any men of military age on the streets.

Men are sent to military recruitment offices after a declaration of mobilization in the Donetsk region under the control of pro-Russian separatists [File: Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

Recognition was only a pretext to attack Ukraine. People in Donbass are still being bombed despite Russia promising it would stop. Except how they started picking up people from 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.

Russian President [Vladimir Putin] and its pocket politicians should themselves be waging this senseless and stupid war.

None of my relatives and friends have left town yet. Here, such a circus with this evacuation is staged, it is just another facade.

A friend’s daughter went to a rally, in fact they were put on buses ‘for evacuation’, photographed for the press and sent home.

Regarding my feelings about Ukraine. During these eight years [since the separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk broke away from Ukraine in 2014]the [central] the country’s authorities did nothing to make the people themselves want to return to Ukrainian control.

Map of Ukraine

Their silly laws on decommunization, banning the Russian language [refers to a language law requiring all Ukrainian citizens to know the official state language]renaming streets and towns just puts me off.

And utility prices are generally out of this world in Ukraine, although in Luhansk prices have gone up a lot and food prices are the same as in Moscow, if not higher, while wages are a few cents.

Everyone here has suffered from the war, there is no train or air traffic here, there are no international banks.

I divide Russia into government and people. I don’t respect the government for its policy and attitude towards people, but people are all different. There are sane people, but there are people who are zombified by propaganda.

It hurts me for the people on the [government-controlled] on the side of Ukraine, I realize that they will plunge into the darkness and poverty in which we [in the separatist regions] lived all those eight years.

Christina, 32 years old, city of Donetsk

“People were happy because of the recognition. For us, it was another small step towards peace. We rejoiced because we were recognized, heard, seen.

People believed that the world community would pay attention and that the prayers of the people of Donetsk would be heard. People were happy, it’s true.

We understood that there would be a war [in Donbas] and tensed, but in general in the Donbass people exhaled and said “maybe everything will end”.

To be honest, nothing has changed [since recognition] except for the joy of our compatriots.

Bombardment has been added. It hit downtown today, which has never happened before.

A woman is seen in front of a damaged building in Donetsk's PetrovskayaA woman is seen in front of a damaged building in Petrovskaya of Donetsk, which is under the control of pro-Russian separatists [File: Leon Klein/Anadolu Agency]

All the men were mobilized throughout the city. There are only women in town now. The men went to war.

Of course, everyone is tense and afraid for their fathers, brothers, sons and children. Many of my friends, classmates, parents of classmates have volunteered in the military over the years.

Our people support the President of Russia. But we don’t support the war in Ukraine, we don’t support the massacre of civilians.

We all woke up in this hell and we don’t wish that on anyone. We love Ukrainian brothers.

We don’t know for sure, but we think it’s not ordinary people who have been shooting at us for eight years. We guess that they are nationalist battalions [Putin and other officials have claimed that Russia has been targeting only ultra-nationalists in Ukraine].”

Natalia, 38, city of Ilovaisk, Donetsk

“The situation after the arrival of the missile is calm. [The night before the interview DPR air defence shot down a rocket that fell near a private residential building].

Even though it was very scary, we didn’t know what to do and where to run. Many people left after this blow. Now the city is deserted, but all businesses are open in the city and goods and necessities abound – there is enough of everything.

I have a sick mother and grandmother. I can’t leave them and they don’t want to leave either, even though I tried to persuade them.

Most of the city was mobilized, few remained. There are almost no men. Our town is small and there are many of my acquaintances among these people.

I can’t say how I feel about the introduction of [Russian] troops [in Ukraine]I don’t understand the whole point of this war, people are dying on all sides, it’s a disaster for everyone.

The recognition of the republics was treated with great joy here, everyone was happy and thought that peace would finally come. Nobody expected such a turn of events, at least I don’t know it.

Anton, 23, Makiivka, Donetsk

“I feel fear and anger. I hoped there would be no war, and now I watch Ukraine – the country where I spent the best years of my life – crumble.

But I try not to lose heart, I have to think about myself, about my career. After all, nothing will change because of me (or us).

I feel no emotion about the recognition of DPR and LPR. Not everyone is bad on the Ukrainian side. My relatives remained in Ukraine and we remain in contact.

I now have a Ukrainian passport, but I applied for the DPR passport due to recognition. I decided this would be helpful.

In this file photo taken on January 19, 2022, a pedestrian walks past a huge state emblem of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic in Donetsk, eastern UkraineA pedestrian walks past a huge emblem of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) state in Donetsk [File: Alexander Nemenov/AFP]

Regarding politics, I am upset. I believe that everything will return to normal, but it will take 10 or even 20 years.

I disagree with the travel ban. I plan to leave, but I can’t leave now. I want independence and almost everyone told me that if there are goals in life, it is better to leave Donbass.

The fact that they began to pick up people from the streets, I saw only in photos on social networks, but my friends received convocations for the army.

I can’t say anything about the situation in the city because I don’t go out at all because of the mobilization. It’s scary to be on the war front. Very scary. I have more plans for life.

Christi C. Elwood