View from Switzerland: Report from Donbas

11:48 22.05.2024 •

This was leveled two years ago. Mariupol, April 2024. The Russian rate of construction has amazed most observers.
Photo: Guy Mettan

“How could they do this to us? Why does Kiev want to destroy us?” – these are the questions that the people of Donbas have been asking themselves for the past 10 years. Considered from Switzerland or France, they may seem incongruous, as we are so used to believing that only Ukrainians are suffering from the war with Russia. In Europe people don't want to know that the battle has been going on for a decade and has primarily affected the civilian population of Donbas.

For a week in April, I was able to criss-cross the two provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, visiting towns that had been destroyed and those that were being rebuilt, meeting refugees, and talking to people. This is my report,” writes Guy Mettan, a well-known Swiss journalist and politician.

This project began in a very Russian way

Mine is that Russia and the people of Donbas will never stop fighting until they have won.

This project began in a very Russian way, through an unlikely chain of circumstances. Nine years ago, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital, I met a Tajik entrepreneur from Moscow who was marrying off his daughter. He didn’t speak English and, without paying any attention to my miserable Russian, he invited the delegation I chaired, comprised of Swiss business people, to the wedding. I made a short speech in honour of the bride and her parents.

Since then, Umar Ikromovitch has become a close friend, one that neither distance nor the linguistic barrier could separate. Once or twice a year, on important holidays, he sends me a message via Telegram. In February, I was surprised when he invited me to join him to tour his work in Donbas, a region he had never visited before. Umar is an entrepreneurial builder—of roads, playgrounds, sports fields, and the like. His company employs several hundred workers in the Moscow region and a few dozen in the reconstruction of Donbas.

So, at 3 a.m. on 3 April, he and Nikita, one of his friends from the Russian Ministry of Defence, were waiting for me outside Vnukovo airport to begin our drive to Donbas.

In Rostov, the bustling port and congested capital of southern Russia, we barely had a chance to put down our luggage and take three steps before setting off on our first visit. This was to an enormous pumping and turbine station, located at the mouth of the River Don some 20 kilometres from the city.

Workers are still finishing the external work. Two gigantic tubes, dozens of 20,000 m3tanks, and eight pumping stations, each with 11 turbines, now transport fresh water to Donetsk, 200 kilometres away, which is deprived of drinking water because of the embargo Ukraine has imposed. Everything is automated. The 3,700 workers started as soon as the republics were reintegrated into the mother country, in November 2022, and finished the huge worksite and the construction of the high-voltage line powering the turbines six months later, in April 2023.

My first conclusion is that, after such rapid and colossal investments, Russia’s will to fight until its final victory seems unshakeable. And I don’t think Russia will ever again agree to separate itself from the Donbas. This territory is now Russian, full stop.

The next morning – Mariupol

The next morning we set off for Mariupol – 180 kilometres and three hours away. After Taganrog, a small port near the river’s mouth, the road runs alongside the Sea of Azov and is jammed with convoys of lorries coming and going from Donbas. The road is currently being widened. Military vehicles are clearly marked with a “V” or a “Z” — Roman letters, not Cyrillic, adopted at the start of Russia’s intervention to signify victory.

The city centre, however, has survived the war much better: At first glance, half of it was destroyed, half survived. Mariupol is currently undergoing a major renovation. In the central square, the reconstruction of the famous theatre — bombed or blown up, we’re not sure — is due to be completed by the end of the year. Umar is happy: The children and young mothers have already taken over the park and playground that his company has just completed. The bus routes, with buses donated by the city of St Petersburg, have been re-established. The café terraces have reopened.

Then we head back to the west of the city, which offers a very different landscape. Everything here is new. The old districts have already been renovated; new districts, clusters of buildings, a school, a nursery, and a hospital have all been built in less than a year. A lady walking with her dog tells us that she just moved into her brand new flat a fortnight ago, after living for months in a slum without running water.

Supervised by the Russian Ministry of Defence’s Military Construction Company, with the help of Russian towns and provinces, work goes on day and night. Ten thousand residents have already been rehoused and the town has regained two-thirds of its prewar population of 300,000. In the afternoon, we will visit a second 60–bed hospital, completely new and demountable – designed to be taken apart and moved if the need arises. They are very well equipped and run by volunteer doctors from all over Russia.

Destruction in Mariupol, resulting from the battles between the Ukrainian neonazis and Russian forces.
Photo: Guy Mettan

The most spectacular buildings, however, are the schools.

On the seafront, a new naval academy will welcome its first class of cadets at the start of the new academic year in September. Classrooms, dormitories, sports halls, and training facilities: Four gleaming glass-and-steel buildings have been completed in 10 months. Designed to accommodate 560 uniformed pupils aged 11 to 17, I am told they will take in mainly orphans from the two wars in Donbas, 2014–2022 and 2022–2024. With six days of instruction per week, eight to 10 hours a day, there's hardly time to get bored. At the end of the course, students can either continue their training in the navy or enter a civilian university.

A second school is more traditional but even more spectacular. It’s an experimental school, the like of which has never been seen before in Russia (or in Switzerland, to my knowledge). The design is very sophisticated. The classrooms are equipped with the latest technology, including computers, robots, cyber– and nanotechnologies, and artificial intelligence. More traditional are the rooms for drawing, sewing, cooking, painting, languages, ballet, drama, chemistry, physics, biology, anatomy, and mathematics. There is even a room equipped with compartments for learning to drive and fly.

Begun at the end of 2022 and completed in September 2023, this school welcomed its first intake of 500 students last year and expects 500 more at the start of the new school year in September.

The HIMARS rockets are silent until the final explosion, the French SCALP and British Storm Shadow missiles make an airplane-like hum

In the late afternoon, we set off on the brand-new motorway linking Mariupol to Donetsk, 120 kilometres away, making a short stop in the small town of Volnovakha, whose Palace of Culture was hit by HIMARS rockets last November. The roof has collapsed, and scaffolding clutters what remains of the stage and auditorium. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured in the blast, as the show scheduled for that day was moved at the last minute.

As far as the locals were concerned, there is no doubt that the Ukrainians were trying to kill as many civilians as possible. My guide explained that they always fired HIMARS rockets in groups of three — the first rocket to pierce the roof and structures, the second to kill the occupants, and, 20 to 25 minutes later, a third strike to kill as many firefighters, rescue workers, relatives, policemen, friends, and neighbours who had come to help the victims as possible. I heard this kind of story several times.

Donetsk is a city of one million inhabitants — very spread out, very busy, with heavy traffic. Few buildings or façades have been destroyed. On the other hand, the city is alive with the sound of cannon fire.

I didn’t pay much attention to it when I arrived, because of my fatigue, and the intense emotions provoked by all I was seeing. But when I woke up at 3 a.m., I was suddenly struck by the sound of the cannon. Every two or three minutes, a shot goes off, rattling the windows and lighting up the sky with an orange glow: It’s Russian artillery firing on Ukrainian positions a few kilometres from the town centre. The Ukrainians retaliate with missiles, drones, or HIMARS rockets, which trigger Russian counter-battery fire, at a rate of one or two an hour, I believe.

The next morning, I was taught to distinguish one from the other. The HIMARS rockets are silent until the final explosion, the French SCALP and British Storm Shadow missiles make an airplane-like hum, as do the Russian anti-missile batteries, while the ordinary shells fall with a whistling sound.

We start the day with a visit to the “Alley of Angels” (photo), which stands in the middle of a beautiful city park. This is the name given to the funerary monument erected in memory of the children killed by Ukrainian bombing since 2014. A hundred sixty names have already been inscribed on the marble. But the list of casualties now runs to more than 200. Dozens of bunches of flowers, toys, and photos of children pile up under the wrought-iron arch. It’s overwhelming.

On the way back, we pay a visit to our professional colleagues from OPLOT television and radio, the Donetsk state broadcaster, on the edge of the central square. Their building is regularly targeted by HIMARS. The last studios to be hit have not yet been repaired, but the refurbishing is swift, and the five TV and radio channels are broadcasting without interruption.

As soon as you leave Donetsk, you feel the proximity of the front

In the afternoon, we travel to the village of Yasynuvata, close to Avdiivka and therefore very close to the front line. The village, which is very exposed to Ukrainian shelling, is home to a school that has been converted into a reception centre for refugees from recently liberated villages. The road is torn up by shellfire and littered with the debris of collapsed bridges. On our left, two Ka–50 Alligator attack helicopters and an MI–8 helicopter are flying low over the ground as they return from the front. To our right, trenches and three rows of dragoons’ teeth, the equivalent of the Swiss Army’s Toblerone armoured barriers, so named after the Swiss chocolate because of their shape, form one of the lines of Russian defence. Military vehicles regularly drive along it.

Our vehicle is entirely anonymous. No convoy, no press badges, no bullet-proof waistcoats or helmets to attract the attention of Ukrainian surveillance drones. The GPS on our mobile phones has long since been deactivated. It's all about being as ordinary as possible. The road is getting worse and worse, and traffic is now almost non-existent. The driver, the guide, and Umar are perfectly impassive.

The headmistress of the school, a former maths teacher who is now the head of the reception centre, welcomes us. The liberation of Avdiivka and its neighbouring villages at the end of February brought the surviving inhabitants out of the cellars. They are housed here, in the classrooms, while waiting to return to their homes or find new ones. Some of the 160 people housed here have already been able to return to Avdiivka.

Today, it is the turn of Nina Timofeevna, 85 years old and full of verve, to return to her home. She lived in her cellar for two years, making fires on the street. “The Ukrainian soldiers didn’t help us at all,” she assures us, while the Russian army repaired her roof and the windows of her house so that she can return, flanked by two soldiers from the military police who carry her gear. “It’s not a war,” she says. “It’s a massacre of civilians. They want to destroy us.”

In the corridors, volunteers from the Orthodox Church are unpacking boxes of clothes, bottles of water, and food. In the other rooms, a couple with a beautiful blue-eyed cat, old people. A family with a four-year-old boy: They had their flat blown away by a rocket while trying to find food outside. The father was a factory worker and the mother an accountant at the Avdiivka coking plant. They miraculously escaped death and still can’t believe they survived.

Three million inhabitants will fight to the bitter end to defend their republic!

On the way back to Donetsk, the discussion turns to life during the war, and Yevgeny, our volunteer guide from Vladivostok, tells me that, in Mariupol in 2014, the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion (banned in Russia) opened a secret prison in a building at the airport, called the Bibliotheka, the Library, because the victims there were referred to as “books,” like the Nazis who called their victims “Stücke,” “pieces.”

According to eyewitness accounts, dozens of people were tortured and killed there during the eight years when the battalion's nationalists, tattooed with Nazi symbols, ruled Mariupol while the local police looked the other way. Investigations are under way to identify the victims, and visits to the premises have been suspended. The Russian press reported on these incidents, but Western media remained silent for fear of undermining the narrative of the ‘good’ Ukrainians and the ‘bad’ Russians.

My second conclusion now. At the beginning of April, Donbas celebrated the 10th anniversary of its uprising against the Kiev regime, which, in the spring of 2014, had declared a terrorizing war against it. Thousands of people — civilians, children, and fighters — have been killed. Donetsk has taken on the nickname of “City of Heroes.”

After so many sacrifices, the three million inhabitants of the oblast, the province, will fight to the bitter end to defend their republic, whatever the cost and whatever people in the West may think of them.

Participants of the so-called “peace conference on Ukraine”, which is being held in Switzerland, should read this report by a Swiss journalist!


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