DONETSK — At first glance eastern Ukraine is continuing to function.
Buses and trams run on time. The daily commute in the city of Donetsk is as busy as ever as workers clock in at factories, offices and stores.
Municipal workers tend to public gardens and the grounds of government buildings, cleaning up winter debris and planting brightly colored spring flowers and saplings.
But beneath the surface, anxiety is mounting for small businesspeople and workers. The pro-Russian separatist insurgency roiling east Ukraine is taking its toll.
Many locals fear a prolonged a crisis will lead to them losing their employment. Some store and restaurant owners and hoteliers are laying off workers. Some businesses are closing.
‘We don’t know what to do’
Café owner Galina, 49, a mother of two, laid off five workers in the flashpoint town of Slovyansk, 100 kilometers north of Donetsk.
She shuttered the café at a once-busy junction on a highway linking Donetsk region with Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.
“It used to be very busy here and there was a lot of traffic coming through, but now with the recent fighting and all the checkpoints hardly anyone is traveling,” she said. “The staff can at least get state benefits.”
Her husband’s advertising business is suffering also with little new work coming in.
“We don’t know what to do, whether to stay or leave,” she said. “Many people are leaving at least for a temporary period; they are scared. But I have family here and I don’t want to leave them.”
Galina is too frightened to travel far beyond Slovyansk and has not visited an aunt living in a smaller town 20 kilometers away.
The loss of work and the threat to jobs is starting to trigger a backlash from workers.
‘Up in the air’
Last week, thousands of steel workers and miners started to mount their own patrols in the city of Mariupol and in Donetsk and to dismantle separatist barricades and checkpoints. The workers say they want to establish law and order on the region’s streets.
They appear to have been encouraged to do so by their boss, Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, who has thrown his considerable political weight behind the interim government in Kyiv.
In towns strongly in the grip of insurgents, schools and courts have shuttered leaving kids to lose precious class-time and legal disputes to go unsettled.
“It is very stressful,” said Slovyansk lawyer Vladimir.
With the court in the town of 130,000 closed and rebels occupying the town hall, commercial and land disputes, and divorces are on hold.
It’s adding to local frustration especially among mercantile and professional townsfolk. Vladimir and his lawyer wife have had no work for two months.
“Everything is up in the air,” said the 49-year-old lawyer.
Only two of the 25 banks in Slovyansk are functioning.
There are long lines to withdraw cash from the ATMs of the two banks still operating. The elderly have had a challenge to secure their state pensions, which are still being paid via banks by the government in Kyiv.
‘I can’t leave’
In Slovyansk, people are cautious about complaining or voicing their frustrations publicly.
There is an air of menace in the town, which has become the epicenter of the pro-Russian insurgency.
With armed gunmen patrolling the streets, and the town encircled both by separatist and government-controlled checkpoints, townspeople unhappy with the insurgency are keeping mostly quiet.
The town’s self-proclaimed “people’s mayor,” former Russian soldier Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, has urged locals to report anyone behaving suspiciously, including anyone overheard speaking Ukrainian.
His gunmen have abducted dozens, including local officials and pro-unity activists.
The body of a town councilor from the nearby town of Horlivka, 42-year-old policeman-turned-politician Volodymyr Rybak, turned up in a river near Slovyansk in April.
A critic of the insurgency, he had been badly beaten and stabbed but probably was dumped still alive into the Torets river.
In Donetsk, there has been a steady stream of people leaving, fearing increased violence or the arrival of Russian soldiers massed on the border.
But some say they can’t.
“I can’t leave,” said Sergey Layrih, the franchise holder of a rental car business. “But my wife and daughter are going to Kyiv to stay with her parents for a couple of weeks to see if things improve here.