Citizens of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk say they did not ask for pro-Moscow separatists to take over their city and they should not be punished for the breakaway insurgency by the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, which will end the funding of all public services in rebel areas by this weekend.
On a misty and bitingly frigid Tuesday morning here in central Donetsk more than 200 mainly elderly people, wrapped up against the sharp cold, start queuing up for food handouts donated by a local business oligarch. They say without the aid they would starve.
"The aid is crucial," says Aleysa, 43, a widow and mother of two. "A lot of people don’t have anything to eat. Old people aren’t getting their pensions unless they are able to drive outside separatist-controlled areas to register and then collect their allowances," she says. "Most of the elderly and infirm don’t have the means to do so."
The aid center in Kalininsky District is open every day and hands out bags containing basic foodstuffs, from butter to cooking oil and grains as well as processed and canned food. Each bag contains enough food for two weeks and recipients can return twice a month for supplies. The center is funded by one of the eastern city’s biggest business oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov, who has fled to Kyiv.
There is a surreal aspect to daily life in the city. The growl of artillery and rocket exchanges can be heard on the outskirts of Donetsk, mainly from heavy fighting around the wrecked airport to the north and in sharp skirmishes to the east.
Near the airport, a well-heeled district is virtually empty of people who have fled because Grad rockets and shells were over-shooting. In the southern edge of the center, shops and malls remain open but retailers have trouble restocking and most people do not have the cash to buy.
Over the weekend, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, amidst a military buildup by Russia and Ukrainian reinforcements being rushed to the east, announced the government would stop funding public services in insurgent-held areas in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two eastern-most provinces. That includes halting funding of public hospitals.
Reaction from civilians in the city of Donetsk is fierce.
Galina, a 66-year-old pensioner, says she has not received her state pension for four months and is worried about the ending of funding of public services. She says the separatists took over the city and no one asked them to do this, but why should Kyiv punish ordinary people. "Without state funding what should ordinary people do, just starve and die?" she asks angrily.
Kyiv hopes that by isolating Moscow-backed rebel-held areas, it will push ordinary people to turn against separatists. But some critics fear it will have the opposite effect, saying most locals opposed to the insurgency have long fled, leaving either diehard supporters or those too poor or old to go.