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Six Things I Saw In Eastern Ukraine

Posted: April 20, 2014

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NPR's Ari Shapiro went to Kiev this month planning to report several feature stories on the Ukrainian revolution. Instead, he found himself documenting a country edging toward civil war.

A tank in Kramatorsk.

A tank in Kramatorsk. Ari Shapiro

Unfazed by the political turmoil a few blocks away, street musicians in Donetsk play Adele songs on Pushkin Boulevard.

Unfazed by the political turmoil a few blocks away, street musicians in Donetsk play Adele songs on Pushkin Boulevard. Ari Shapiro

A view from inside the Horlivka police headquarters, which was seized by protesters.

A view from inside the Horlivka police headquarters, which was seized by protesters. Ari Shapiro

One group of babushkas said they were

One group of babushkas said they were "praying for Luhansk to join Russia" and that they also wanted weapons. Ari Shapiro

In the rundown Ukrainian town of Perevalsk, near the Russian border, 80-year-old Lida Vasilivna has just planted a garden.

In the rundown Ukrainian town of Perevalsk, near the Russian border, 80-year-old Lida Vasilivna has just planted a garden. "Business just went belly up," she says about her town's hard times — after asking, "Are you gonna put this granny on TV?" Ari Shapiro

A pro-union rally in Donetsk.

A pro-union rally in Donetsk. Ari Shapiro

Join NPR's London Correspondent Ari Shapiro Monday, April 21, at 2 p.m. Eastern Time, for a live Facebook chat about his reporting in Ukraine.

I arrived in Kiev a little more than two weeks ago, planning to report a series of features on the echoes of the winter's revolution — from the Maidan protests, to the change in government, to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

That's not how I ended up spending my time.

Demonstrators in the east took over government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, demanding closer ties with Russia. A week later, the separatists expanded their footprint to nearly a dozen cities. Kiev accused Moscow of orchestrating the upheaval as a pretext to invade. The Ukrainian army mobilized an "anti-terror operation" to take back the occupied buildings. The country now seems to be on the brink of civil war.

I spent most of the last two weeks traveling around Eastern Ukraine, speaking with locals and militants across the region. Now that I'm back at my home base in London, here are six things I took away from the experience.

1. Signs Of Russia

When I flew east from Kiev to Donetsk on April 8, I was determined to find out whether Russia was orchestrating the protests, as the West claimed. Everyone had opinions and theories, but I couldn't find much evidence either way. One demonstrator occupying the security services building in Luhansk told me, "If we were funded by Russia, we'd have food. We're starving in here."

Everything changed that weekend, when organized militants took over government buildings across Eastern Ukraine. These separatists were professional, highly coordinated and heavily armed. Locals in several cities told me that the militants spoke with foreign accents and couldn't find their way around town. A video showed a uniformed man in the town of Horlivka introducing himself to police as an officer in the Russian military. The next day, a spokesman for the rebels told me that the man had disappeared, nobody knew who he was, and "he probably escaped in back, through the fence." After four years covering the White House, I'm used to spokespeople spinning me, but that claim actually made me laugh out loud.

2. Locals Who Sympathize With Moscow

My interviews in Kiev were usually in Ukrainian. In the east, people invariably spoke Russian to me (Well, to my invaluable translator, Zhenia Afanasiev). Moscow wouldn't be able to pull off an operation like this in the Western cities of Odessa and Lviv, where people align more with Europe than Russia. This certainly wouldn't fly in Kiev. But eastern Ukraine has deep linguistic, cultural and historical ties to Russia. There is a grassroots independence movement here that has existed for years.

So despite the presence of Russians, many of the protesters actually are local, and their demands are genuine. This makes the Ukrainian government's mission very complicated. If the military starts retaking occupied government buildings by force, Ukrainian protesters may die. "I realize how strange it sounds," a woman in Kramatorsk incredulously told me, "but I am trying to protect our town from our army." The situation is explosive, and the threat of civil war is real. Russia may be stoking the flames, but to riff on the immortal words of Billy Joel, they didn't start the fire.

3. Cops With Divided Loyalties

I had a beer with a member of the Donetsk police force one night. He told me that his mother calls him every day and says, "If they order you to open fire on the people in Donetsk, don't do it!" He tells her, "I won't, Mom." Last month, he was frustrated to learn that because of border tensions, he couldn't go to his sister-in-law's wedding in Russia. "These are our friends and family," he told me. "Why should there be border tensions?"

That identification with the separatists is common among law enforcement here. Besides, Ukrainian cops are paid about $5 a day. In Russia, the salary is around $50 a day. Suddenly, being part of Russia doesn't seem so bad. Is it any wonder that six hungry, dirty, sleep-deprived Ukrainian tank drivers in Kramatorsk were willing to fly the Russian flag in exchange for a little food, water and nice conversation?

4. Daily Life

When we arrived in Kramatorsk, the first thing we saw was a welcome sign that had been painted the colors of the Russian flag. The second thing we saw was a Ukrainian military jet zooming low over the city, followed by a camouflage helicopter buzzing the rooftops. Then we saw elderly women carrying groceries, students wearing backpacks and professionals on their lunch break from work. Even with a dozen Ukrainian tanks parked on the outskirts of the city, life for most people continued as normal.

In the city of Donetsk, just a few blocks from the occupied administrative building, street musicians played Adele. A young man sold pony rides to kids. A separatist sympathizer admitted to me that "only about 10 percent of the people who live here really understand what's happening." But he said that has always been the way. "The minority decides the fate of the majority."

5. Bad-Ass Grannies

Some of the toughest militants I met in the last two weeks were women over the age of 65. This generation grew up in the shadow of World War II. They spent their adult years under communism. As pensioners, they now survive on around $100 a month. One woman in Donetsk had a full set of gold teeth, top and bottom. When she told me she was ready to die for Russia, I believed her. A woman in Luhansk told me that every day she prays for God to make her city part of Russia, and every day she asks the militants to give her a weapon. Luckily for everyone, the militants tell her no.

When photos showed a roadblock in Slovyansk guarded by old women in headscarves, rumors started to fly that the grandmothers had been paid to stand there. That's entirely plausible. But it's also wholly believable that these babushkas were the first to volunteer for the front lines.

I must add that I also met one babushka who I wanted to take home with me. Lida Vasilivna, 80, of Perevalsk, was planting tomatoes and onions when I met her. She is the happiest woman I've ever met, even though her town resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland. When I asked if I could take her picture, she told me she was waving to everyone in America.

6. Differences With Crimea

The West accuses Russia of trying to repeat the Crimea scenario, where Russia quickly staged an independence referendum and then annexed the peninsula from Ukraine. But there are important differences.

Crimea already housed a Russian military base, so Russian troops didn't have to invade. They lived among the people of Crimea. In Eastern Ukraine, Russian troops have gathered by the thousands just over the border. In order for the Russian military to enter this region in large numbers, they will have to cross that border.

Another key difference is public sentiment. The International Republican Institute recently asked 1,200 Ukrainians, "Do you support the decision of the Russian Federation to send its army to protect Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine?" In Eastern Ukraine, 61 percent answered "no." Only 24 percent answered "yes." (15 percent were undecided or refused to answer.)

A pro-union rally in Donetsk Thursday night attracted more than a thousand demonstrators to counter the separatists' message. A similar rally in Crimea was a bust. Everyone was too afraid to show up. "It happened in Crimea because people were apathetic," a man named Genady Baglikov told me at the rally in Donetsk.

Yes, there are many Russian sympathizers here, but lots of people I spoke to in the east also told me that they are ready to fight back against the separatists. "It's like a raping of my country," one woman in Horlivka told me. "I'm ready to take a weapon [into] my hands."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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