DONETSK, Ukraine: Donetsk, one of the last bastions of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, has become a ghost town as residents clog the roads and railway stations in a desperate scramble to escape advancing government troops.
The self-proclaimed prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Oleksandr Borodai, claims more than 70,000 of the city’s 900,000 inhabitants have already fled as Kiev’s forces move within 20 kilometers of the city.
Every train was full on Friday as residents calmly joined long queues to buy tickets.
“I have lived here more than 40 years and it is very difficult for me to leave this town. But there is no other solution,” says Natalia, who was catching a train to Dnipropetrovsk, 250 kilometers west, from where she plans to cross the border into Russia.
She is fleeing after months of daily “bombardments” by Ukrainian government planes, which have laid siege to the separatist stronghold.
“The planes fly near my house permanently and fire on the town,” she says.
Watching over a pile of bags, a man in his fifties prepared to join his parents in Russia with his daughters and grandchildren.
“Everything is shutting down,” says the man, who did not give his name. “There is nothing to do here. No work — and it is getting too dangerous.”
Stall-keepers and shoppers at a small market outside the station jump at the sound of artillery fire that breaks out sporadically a few kilometers away at the airport, where the separatists and government forces are vying for control.
“It is very scary,” says Yaroslava, who runs a stall selling sunglasses. “But we do not want to leave. We just want to survive and to no longer be bombarded.”
No time for football
The exodus from Donetsk is also taking place by road.
“I would say that one car in five is filled with refugees,” says a young separatist volunteer manning a roadblock around 20 kilometers east of the city.
“But me, I’m not going anywhere. My mother and my two grandmothers are buried here, so I will fight, even though I have sent my wife to Russia.”
Minibuses and trams are still operating in the city, but cars and pedestrians are sparse.
There are hardly any cafes or restaurants open, and those that are hurry to close up before nightfall.
Only food stores appear to be functioning normally. Banks and any shops that could be pillaged have shut long ago.
Rumors of imminent clashes and military offences are rife, echoing around social media and increasing hopes and tensions throughout the city.
Ukraine’s military says it controls all routes in and out of Donetsk and have vowed reprisals after 30 government troops were killed by defiant rebels in the past 48 hours.
On the outskirts of the city, the rebels manning the roadblocks are on high alert. Some passers-by offer them packets of cigarettes or biscuits.
The Vostok (East) Battalion is in charge of one barricade. One of the most professional and organized of the rebel units, they have vowed to “defend the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic” and “reclaim our land”.
That means sacrifices, said one rebel. Still, he predicts “we will have time to watch the football final on Sunday,” referring to the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany.