August 21, 2014 01:00
By Anna MALPAS
A shell explodes close by in the twilight on Donetsk's beach and everyone falls silent for a moment. Then the chatter - about where it fell and who fired it - starts again.
A tiny oasis of sand, grass and water at a reservoir in central Donetsk, a city surrounded by Ukrainian troops fighting pro-Russian rebels based there, the beach is a popular spot with the locals – those who have opted not to leave the eerily deserted town bombarded by shelling.
Every evening elderly men play chess, children scramble on a climbing frame, and friends drink beer or wine together at a couple of open-air bars serving customers until night falls.
Alexander, a tanned 76-year-old in a pair of faded shorts, says even in “a hard time” it’s good to take a moment for a game of chess including timer clocks with Viktor, 67, a retired computer programmer in a khaki T-shirt.
Pausing their game, they admit the beach’s tranquillity is an illusion and soon the talk turns to war.
“We think about that day and night, but we need a way to get rid of stress,” says Alexander, a former Communist politician who said he left the party after losing his belief in a communal society.
“It is tense here,” agrees Viktor.
Both men are opposed to the rebels.
“If I was younger, I would be more active as a citizen, and I don’t hide it, I would defend my country,” says Viktor.
“Here there is one country – Ukraine.”
And Alexander shares that view: “Donetsk is not just the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, there are those who are for Ukraine too.”
Such talk is not risk-free
in a city under rebel military rule – even on the beach.
A pair of armed rebels regularly come and sit at the waterfront, one carrying a Kalashnikov rifle with an attached tin for ammunition.
The two pull out a tablet computer and watch a video together, laughing.
Other beach-goers say they back the rebels.
Karina, a curly-haired former policewoman who is no longer working under the rebel rule, drinks beer in an unlit bar where only the jukebox glows.
She says she would like to go and fight with the rebels, but cannot bear to part with her boyfriend.
As she speaks, an explosion rings out close by, apparently a shell, and there is a momentary hush.
That could be rebels firing from their position at a mine on the opposite bank, Karina says.
Then talk turns to a peaceful topic: her favourite US star, Jared Leto.
Looking across the tranquil reservoir there are pricey mansions with their lights turned off. But the waters of the reservoir are so polluted that fish have mutations, says a local taxi driver.
Still, tanned teenagers go in for a quick dip and fishermen stand with rods, pulling out silvery minnows.
On a shaded bench, Lyudmila, a retired engineer in a print dress, has taken off her sandals.
“You come here to forget about war,” she says. “Here you have a rest, you get away from it. It’s such a hard, unpleasant time, it’s awful.”
Irina, a young woman wearing a white crochet top, feeds the ducks with slices of bread from a plastic bag.
She says she works for the local government and comes here every couple of days.
“I call it duck therapy,” she says.
“Everyone is under great stress – to get rid of it, they come out for an hour,” she adds.