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In Eastern Ukraine, Pro-unity Activists Emerge from Shadows

  • Henry Ridgwell

Amid the pro-Russian uprisings in eastern Ukraine, there is a large body of activists who support Ukrainian unity and reject Russian intervention. Their activities have remained largely underground, but they are preparing to take on their pro-Moscow opponents.

In the middle of a pro-Russian crowd gathered in Donetsk, Kolya - a young man barely out of his teens - is trying to go unnoticed. It is not easy.

He is holding up a digital camera that’s live-streaming the event to a pro-Ukrainian website, so that fellow anti-Russian activists can monitor what is happening. Kolya manages to infiltrate inside the barricades. It is a dangerous game, but he emerges unscathed.

Later, Kolya demonstrates the radio app on the same device that like-minded activists use to coordinate their actions. “It is how we find guys who want to be in Ukraine ... who want to defend the Donetsk region from Russian occupation,” he explained.

In Donetsk, Orthodox priests are putting themselves on the frontline.

On a central intersection, below monuments bearing old Soviet emblems, they fly the blue and yellow Ukrainian colors and hold hourly prayers for national unity. In a city elsewhere adorned with Russian insignia, it is a brave stance.

Pietro Matyshenko, a priest from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchy, said they are in constant danger. “At first we began praying in the central Lenin Square in Donetsk, but we were attacked with bats and stones,” he said. “Still people are aggressive and evil, and they come here to try to destroy the tent.”

Inside a café overlooking the intersection, pro-unity activists gather to watch over the priests’ tent. In hushed tones, they plot how to respond to the pro-Russian uprisings.

Sergiy Yeryiomin is head of the council of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Self-Defense Force. “What could happen is a full civil war, with a resistance movement,” Yeryiomin said. “People would not stay silent to Russian intervention. They would have problems here, it would not be like in Crimea.”

Pro-unity demonstrators are trying to counter their pro-Russian opponents. Hundreds turned out for a rally in Donetsk Saturday, linking hands along one of the main roads in a sign of unity linking east and west - an act repeated in cities across the country.

“East and west are together,” says this woman. “I want Ukraine to be a free and independent. We Ukrainians are all brothers,” said one protester.

In Donetsk, there are plenty who would disagree. So far the two sides have stayed apart. Both are preparing for conflict.

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