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Guns, girls and gangsters in Ukraine's wild east

A pro-Russian militiaman sits with two women in front of the townhall in Kramatorsk, Ukraine.

A pro-Russian militiaman sits with two women in front of the townhall in Kramatorsk, Ukraine.

Armed masked men, casual beatings and not a policeman to be seen: welcome to the 'Donetsk People's Republic'

One sunny afternoon at the end of April, a group of youngsters made the short drive north from Kramatorsk, a small, industrial town in east Ukraine, to picnic by Lake Abazovka. For the group, it was a time to escape the violence that was consuming their hometown. There were eight of them: four men, three women, and a boy, ranging from eight years old to early 30s. They got to work setting up a barbecue. They'd just cracked open the first bottle of wine when six sturdy-looking men in sports attire approached looking for a fight.

One of the men, the first to speak, demanded to know whose side they were on, meaning were they for Russia, or Ukraine? Instinctively they knew that there'd be little to gain from expressing their pro-Ukrainian allegiance so Roman, 22, told them simply: "We're on the side of peace." But pacifism was not an acceptable position in the New Donbass, the men told him, and they pressed the picnicking group again for an answer. When Roman and another of the men, Pavel, 32, reiterated a pacifist's position, they were invited to "come for a walk", so that they could be "shown what peace really means". And then they led the four young men in the group a short distance away from the lake.

"They started beating us," says Roman, "which perhaps isn't so unusual in Kramatorsk. It happens." But then, he says, he heard a deafening noise, a "clap - really loud, really sharp". At first he didn't understand what had happened, but then he saw a hole had been shot clean through his friend's hand. "Nobody saw the gun," Roman said. Even more frightening was how close his friend had been holding his hand to his body. "A few inches to the left and it would have gone into his stomach." The men left in a hurry, seemingly satisfied with their work. And the group of picnickers rushed their friend to a local hospital, where he was stitched up, bandaged, and given painkillers.

There was no question of reporting the incident to the Kramatorsk police. Ever since the chief of police, Vitaly Kolupai, was escorted out of the police station by armed pro-Russian forces on April 12, law enforcement in Kramatorsk has been on something of an extended holiday.

Calling the emergency number, 102, is an exercise in futility: The line will ring and ring without answer. Calling the non-emergency duty number, 6-99-73, yields similar results. The officers who remain on duty proudly wear their St George ribbons - the adopted symbol of pro-Russian forces in the region. When asked, they say they wear them out of "patriotic duty".

"It's never been that easy getting through to the [Kramatorsk] police," says Svetlana, a journalist who works for the local newspaper. "But it's never been this bad - that they don't pick up the phone at all." She says that she plans on leaving town. Apart from the brewing confrontations and violence of the last few weeks, it's been a difficult year for the paper. Falling sales and a lack of advertiser confidence has meant that last month's wages dropped below $100 (Bt3,260), and there is little hope this month will be any better. One of the reporters says he has planted potatoes and beans just in case things get really bad. "It's a good plan," says Svetlana. "Beans are meat." She fumbles in her handbag and produces a small, shot-sized bottle of Belarusian vodka, on sale locally for a few hyrvina. "This is where I am," she says. "Sometimes it's the only way you can calm your nerves."

There was something surreal about the Kramatorsk streets in April. On the surface, people appeared to be going about their business like normal - women pushed prams, 20somethings sat in cafes drinking Italian coffee and excited toddlers pedalled around in rent-by-the-hour toy buggies. But just across the square, a dozen or so pro-Russian "little green men" wearing identical boots and fatigues were stationed in front at the occupied executive office building, every so often performing synchronised Kalashnikov drills for the handful of supporters gathered out front. The soldiers had been in place since April 21, when they came into town to take over from the mostly local militia, who had occupied the buildings since they were seized nine days earlier. It's widely assumed that the new guard includes Russian citizens and trained soldiers; what is less clear is who is paying them, if indeed they are being paid at all.

It takes only a couple of targeted questions to bring the fear of ordinary people to the surface. Around the corner from the occupied police station, an elderly woman is selling newspapers from a small table. With a little coaxing, she opens up. "I'm scared," she said. "Not for myself - I'm just an old bird - but I don't want the kids to go through what we went through 20 years ago." Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Kramatorsk was a reasonably stable and almost prosperous place, with working factories - a rarity in this part of the world. But during the 1990s, it was better known for its gangsters, who operated with impunity. For those trying to lead honest lives here, the feeling of lawlessness on the streets has re-ignited fears that those wild years are returning.

The signs are worrying. Beginning April 27, groups of armed men began to walk coolly and confidently around town. There have now been reports of attacks on a showroom at a car dealership, and on a bank (specifically an armoured truck). A week ago, leaflets were also distributed at the market in the old section of town, purportedly from the "Donetsk People's Republic", claiming that traders would be required to pay "taxes" to the new authorities. Representatives of the Donetsk People's Republic were quick to deny their involvement; indeed, why would anyone want to put these demands down on paper? But the pro-Russia militia's response - visiting local newspaper offices in balaclavas and demanding that the paper print their denial (and that they be allowed to check all final proofs henceforth) - spoke volumes about their democratic intentions.

Some locals suggest Kramatorsk's organised criminals may be supporting the pro-Russian militia. It was noted, for example, that "Sktrok" and "Komar", two recently released gangsters, were in the supporting mob when the Kramatorsk police building was seized on April 12. Yet hard evidence beyond this is understandably vague. No local journalist dares to investigate the possible links. "You can pay with your head for such inquisitiveness," one said.

Some names have been changed for safety reasons.

Oliver Carroll is an independent journalist, formerly editor in chief of OpenDemocracy Russia and a founding editor of Russian Esquire.






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