Stuck in the middle of a war zone on a Donetsk-bound train

As the fighting between government forces and eastern separatists grows more heated, residents find themselves wishing the rebellion had never happened.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Women sit in a wrecked bread shop in the Simonovka district, as eastern Ukrainian residents cope with the aftermath of months of pro-Russian separatist control of their town of Slaviansk, Ukraine, on Sunday.

Nearly 12 hours into the journey, Train 38 had yet to reach its destination. Its string of aging carriages had set off from Kiev and sliced through bucolic farms and forests without stopping. Now it was approaching the rebel stronghold of Donetsk

But its arrival wasn't looking so certain now. This recent morning just after dawn, an hour outside of Donetsk and still in government-controlled territory, No. 38 was at a halt. News spread that fighting between government and rebel forces had blocked the way, and a part of the track had been destroyed in an explosion.

For Marina, one of the many dazed passengers, it was too much. She supported the rebellion in its early days, when it promised higher wages, an end to what she and many other Russian-speaking Ukrainians here see as humiliating abuse from Kiev, and perhaps even a Crimea-style union with Russia. But now, stranded on this train as violence unfolds across her hometown, she wishes the rebellion had never happened.

“I no longer have any hope in any good anymore,” says Marina, who wears a blonde ponytail, a tank top, shorts, and two Orthodox cross necklaces, as she sits in her second-class four-bunk cabin. “I feel like Russia is fighting the US on our territory, and we are in the middle. This is all part of a big game.”

'We have seen enough of this'

Fighting in the east has been ongoing since April, when the government began its "anti-terrorism" operation against Russia-backed rebels. But it has reached a crescendo with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. US officials say satellite data and other intelligence indicate the plane was shot down from rebel-held territory with a Russian-supplied BUK-11 missile, a charge Russia and the rebels reject.

Regardless, Kiev has pushed hard in recent days, retaking control of 10 towns and cities according to government sources. They have gained ground north and east of Donetsk and fortified tank positions to the south, in a bid to cut off Russian supply lines along two main roads, and to seize control of the MH17 crash site.

At the same time, Ukrainian and US officials say that Russia is now bolstering its support to rebel forces, and stepped up support from heavy artillery fired from the Russian side of the border into Ukraine.

This has left eastern Ukrainians like Marina, who asked that only her first name be used, trapped and wishing simply for an end to the violence.

After less than an hour, the train restarts its journey to Donetsk, but stops again after 30 minutes at the town of Ochertino. Marina knows it is due to heavier fighting, though the train is still too far from Donetsk to hear it, because she calls her husband, who is trying to drive out of town to collect her at another station.

He is stopped at a checkpoint with fighting all around. The soldiers are ordering him to leave immediately, saying it is “crazy” to be there. Marina hangs up, her eyes welling with tears. 

“The people have seen enough of this – we just want to live in peace,” she says.

Growing uncertainty

Like many Russian speakers from eastern Ukraine who are steeped in Russian news, Marina believes that Kiev provoked the rebellion; that its politicians want to “kill” all like her who prefer Russia over the European Union; that Ukrainian forces routinely murder civilians; and that they shot down the Malaysian jetliner. “Evidence” to the contrary, she says, “is all faked.”

People in Kiev “provoked all this by taking down the statues to Lenin” and many other actions, that Marina says “showed disrespect for people here, and their values.”

Ukrainians in Kiev, likewise steeped in their own news sources, often believe exactly the opposite. Both sides have hurled accusations about terrorism, murder, and fascism, and played on the worst fears of the other.

No place feels safe. When Marina and her daughter walk in the forest in Kiev, she is fearful of an airstrike at any time. And at night when she hears a noise, she rushes to the window, expecting to see tanks.

“First of all fear appeared, fear that tomorrow might not come,” recalls Marina. “I was expecting something bad from the beginning, because a revolution never brings anything good – it lets bad elements float up to the top.”

Indeed, even if Marina is inclined to support the aims of the pro-Russia rebels, she has grown suspicious of them. She no longer drives her car in Donetsk so they can’t steal it.

Marina finally made it into the arms of her husband – and the train made it to Donetsk, using an alternative northern route – after 28 hours, some 16 hours behind schedule.

“All our lives, me and my husband worked hard, raised our daughter, bought a car, and saved money,” she says, wistfully. “We finally thought we were free to enjoy life – then this happened.”

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