"Le temps s'est arrêté. Les gens vivent comme dans un musée soviétique en plein air." Newsweek Poland

Donetsk, Ukraine

Septembre 2017

Copyright Kamila Stepien

FROM TIME TO TIME, MEN FALL ON THE FRONT, BUT PEOPLE ARE HUNGRY FOR ENTERTAINMENT, ART, LIVING TOGETHER EMOTIONS OTHER THAN FEAR. EVERY WEEKEND, THE POT OPERA IS FULL. An oval, grey mass of Stalinist, neoclassical building on the main street. Inside - an impressive, elegant space illuminated by sunlight looking through huge windows. The 16-year-old dancers form two groups. Slim bodies stretch gracefully under the watchful eye of a ballet teacher. When they finish the exercises, they spread slickly. Kristina, as if floating on the floor, comes close to me with an intriguing, vibrant eye. She started practicing ballet at the age of four and does not intend to give up. - Dancing is a life that gives you strength and makes you forget everything," she says. Despite her young age, she remembers how it was before the war began in 2014. Tightly filled shopping centers and cafes along the central boulevard of Pushkin, where the inhabitants of the city sat late. Today it is all like a bit less. But, contrary to everything, Donetsk, the capital of the pro-Russian separatists, is alive. People walk around the city, young women push trolleys with happy children. The streets are extremely clean and bathed in the sun. Boys on skateboards wander around Lenin Square, which is decorated with the flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and red flowers standing on guard like soldiers. Store shelves are bent by merchandise, but prices are close to those in Europe. Most of the products unavailable to the average consumer are waiting for sale after their expiry date. In addition to the opera, the city's amusement park is also a meeting place. It is here that people make their lives easier every day with sugar wool, and children play war with military colours. However, the most amazing place in the park is the stage, where older people from Donetsk meet to dance together with Russian music. Gray curls and festive makeup made especially for this occasion make the old ladies dance and lose themselves to the rhythm of jumping sounds, stumping their heels (in the picture - one of the stylish, danced grandmothers). On the other hand, not far away, the young people make a fool of the sun, the boys jump to the lake from the bridge. They do not know what will happen next. Will Donetsk be annexed by Russia? Or will he return to Ukraine, and how will he do it in the future? For the time being, however, they do not have to worry about it - they go to school, they see no reason why they should leave the city. At weekends, despite the police hours, frequent bombings, power cuts and the closure of businesses, residents of Donetsk go to the opera to admire the ballet spectacle. Enjoy the beauty and delicacy of classical dance. The culture that has always been important and accessible in Ukraine - various lessons of music or painting have been organised for free for children - has become even more important during the war. A ceasefire is officially in place, but shooting sometimes happens. Usually after sunset, when OSCE observers are already sleeping. From time to time, men fall corpse on the front, but people are hungry for entertainment and art, hungry for leaving home, hungry for sharing emotions other than fear. The opera had to close in July 2015, but restarted two months later. And since then, the audience has always been full. Even soldiers come and blend in with the colourful crowd. T almost a thousand people. "The Swan Lake" by Tchaikovsky. The dancers, among them Kristina, climb on their fingers and swim on an opera lake. If everything had been like it used to be, in a few years' time the ballet dancers would have been given a job. The artists from the Donbass Opera were employees of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture. In fact, they are still there, but they cannot collect their salaries in Donetsk, because the separatist region is also financially cut off from Ukraine. Transfers from Kiev do not reach thousands of teachers, doctors, pensioners or government officials. The only way to get a payout is to go through checkpoints, often close to the front line, where you can sometimes even hear a fire change. But you have to live for something, so people are in line on this cursed border - both in the blistering summer sun and in the crackling winter freeze. In total, it is exceeded every day by 10 thousand people. In the evening, just before the alarm, couples in love wake up on benches on Don Mak , which replaced McDonald. - This is all appearances," says Kristina. Donetsk is feeling the effects of the war. Although it is not as bad as in Lugansk, the second centre of separatists, where the authorities warn against the spread of infectious diseases due to the lack of running water and waste dumps lying everywhere. More than 10 000 dead, 20 000 injured, one and a half million displaced. How did this happen? The Russians have quietly deployed their intervention groups to help separatists, while the Americans have silently deployed hundreds of military advisors to train inexperienced Ukrainian troops. Krisitna invites to herself. She is lucky to live in a Kyiv district, almost in the city centre. But even so, she sometimes hears the sounds of detonation. The ruins of the airport are a few kilometres away. And there are holes in the roofs of buildings so large that people can pass through them. It's hard to believe that 20 minutes by car from here, in the opera, people admire Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Mozart. Only a dozen or so kilometres further is Spartak, a small town on the front line with a population of 4,000. I tell Kristina about a girl I met there at her age. The missiles fell on her house, so now she lives with her parents in a dark cellar. They have only two lamps. Her father, a man with eyes filled with kindness and fatigue, is a car mechanic. Unfortunately, there is no work; all his customers have run away. Now there are 45 people living in Spartak. They live without electricity, water or gas; they eat what they grow in the garden, or they get from the Red Cross or the insurgents (i.e. the separatists' armed forces). Oh, the fate of man! The squeal of Kristina's little rattles takes me out of my mind. We didn't realize that the sun had come a long time ago, fortunately her father would take me to the hotel. It is night, eleven o'clock in the evening, and it is still police time. Only some lost drunken creature wanders on the street. I still hear strings in my ears from the "Swan Lake", but they are interrupted by the characteristic staccato of a machine gun coming somewhere from a distance. Kamila Stepien