Fragile ceasefire a dark joke to many in east Ukraine

Béatrice Le Bohec

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - With heavily-armed men patrolling the streets, shootings in the dark of night and the echo of gunfire from the airport, life is far from normal in the east Ukraine city of Donetsk weeks after the signing of a ceasefire.

On a day like any other, huge trucks transporting armoured vehicles ply the streets, pro-Russian rebels tooled up with Kalashnikovs and ammunition browse supermarket aisles and vehicles are pulled up at checkpoints to be searched before entering town.

This is the new reality.

Though the ceasefire between pro-Russian separatists and the regular army came into force on February 15, traders in the city's central market are continuing to offer military uniforms in various shades of camel-brown camouflage to bottle green.

Precautionary measures in case of bombing also remain in place, with hotels handing customers explanatory notes on how to respond to any nearby "rockets, mines, projectiles and the sound of automatic-weapon fire".

Last Thursday unknown assailants shot dead a rebel officer and his two bodyguards as they drove on a city street, with the rebel's wife and son both in the car. Three days earlier, two people died in a shoot-out near a downtown restaurant that Ukraine media said involved Chechen mercenaries.

Signs across the city still point citizens to the nearest bomb shelters, while bus shelters and shop windows carry crosses of scotch tape stuck there to avoid passers-by being injured by flying glass in case of explosions.

- 'The war goes on' -

As night falls, Donetsk becomes a ghost town as if the curfew was still in place, its streets taken over by stray dogs, speeding cars and empty trolley-buses.

In the Kievski district on the road to the Donetsk airport, where locals are subjected to the daily sound of gunfire from skirmishes around the ruins of the site, talk of peace is a dark joke.

"It might be OK in the centre of Donetsk, but here we're still under fire! As soon as night falls they begin shooting," said Kievski resident Lyudmila Cherednik at the entrance to her conflict-scarred apartment block. For several months now, her hands shake at times due to the fear.

"Hollande, Merkel and Poroshenko (the leaders of France, Germany and Ukraine) need to be made aware that the war goes on," she added.

"I doubt we're heading towards peace, (Ukraine President Petro) Poroshenko doesn't want federalisation," said Victor, referring to demands for autonomy by the pro-Russian separatist rebels.

Asked for his surname, the 82-year-old with a blue cap standing at the balcony of his bombed-out apartment gave a wry smile: "Brezhnev", like the Cold War era Soviet leader.

- 'We breathe again' -

But there are signs that life is improving for most residents.

After months of confinement, children play on a slide in a city park on Pushkin boulevard and restaurants remain open later than previously, hinting at the return of a nightlife.

On a bench in the Kalininski neighbourhood, Alexei's gaze is fixed on his six-month-old daughter Sofia, sleeping in a pink pram.

"I couldn't take her out a month ago," said the 36-year-old engineer. "Today it's calmer, we breathe again."

Elsewhere in town on a grass-covered esplanade however, a separatist priest from the Vostok battalion is blessing a golden cross planted in memory of a family killed in an explosion last July.

As most try to forget the war, the crosses and plaques popping up are a reminder of the conflict that they hope has been left behind.