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Donetsk Feels Pinch From Economic Blockade


A refugee sits in a shelter in the north part of Donetsk, near the airport Nov. 20, 2014.
A refugee sits in a shelter in the north part of Donetsk, near the airport Nov. 20, 2014.

Daily life in Donetsk, which is controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, is unpredictable.

On the outskirts of the city, shell and rocket exchanges between insurgents and Ukrainian forces have a habit of overshooting. A pump station was hit last week, leaving an entire district without water.

What isn’t unpredictable is the hardship many are facing, especially pensioners.

The shops are still well-stocked with food and other goods, and trucks ferry in merchandise along the main roads, a trade involving kickbacks and negotiations at checkpoints.

Although merchandise is still getting through, many people don’t have the cash to buy. An economic blockade ordered by the Kyiv government is now kicking in: banks are closed, ATMs don’t work and credit-card networks have been cut.

The elderly can’t get pensions unless they re-register in neighboring cities and then regularly travel to those cities to receive their money, a journey that can take six hours one way by bus.

Many can’t afford or are too infirm to make the journey.

Pavel, a 76-year-old former coal miner, said the government should pay pensions and allowances. He said his wife died and he needs money to bury her but can’t get the allowance to do so.

Kyiv hopes the blockade will disrupt the separatists and turn ordinary people against them. Even if it does, it isn’t clear how that will hasten the end of the armed insurgency.

Western diplomats worry the blockade will prompt a backlash against Kyiv instead. They say the Ukrainian government should better explain the isolation policy.

Refugees face hardship, too

Although those who fled Donetsk no longer face the artillery exchanges' threats to life and limb, they are facing tough times, too.

No one knows for certain how many have fled the easternmost parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. The United Nations said more than 400,000 people have been displaced, but many don’t register in camps.

In the city of Donetsk, only about a third of the lights are on in apartment blocks in the evenings.

Vladimir, 38, fled Donetsk in June with his two children. The final straw for him was when intense fighting started up at the airport.

He said the separatists started to build roadblocks and had heavy weapons, so he realized it wouldn’t go easy. He now lives with his family in one room, wondering what is next for him.

He said he doesn’t know what he should do in the future. It depends on how long there will be fighting in the east.