As officials in Ukraine’s capital prepared to parade tanks and soldiers Sunday to mark the anniversary of independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union, pro-Russia separatists who control this eastern city have their own plan to rival Kiev’s attempts to drum up support for its war against them.
On Saturday afternoon, trailers transporting burned-out armored personnel carriers, crushed tanks and other bits and pieces of destroyed military equipment arrived in Donetsk’s central Lenin Square. Cranes lifted and unloaded the blackened vehicles and placed them under the watchful gaze of the former communist leader’s statue.
The separatists say they have either destroyed or captured the equipment from the Ukrainian military, making each piece evidence of the bloody efforts by the government to reassert control over eastern Ukraine, said Denis Pushilin, a leader of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic.
By sunset Saturday, about a dozen pieces of battle-scarred military equipment were in the square, ready for a grand unveiling, to be followed by a parade of Ukrainian prisoners of war: men and women taken by the separatists in what they say is a fight against “fascists” from Kiev, the insurgents’ press service said.
“If Poroshenko wanted a parade, he’ll get his parade here,” said Roman, 34, referring to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. A construction worker who had come to watch the process with his wife and two young sons, Roman declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal for his support of the insurgents.
“I don’t see any chance for turning back now, we have to win this war,” Roman said. “There’s no other way.”
In Kiev, the event celebrating 23 years of independence is to include a military parade in the city’s center for the first time since 2009, with about 1,500 troops marching and a display of tanks and weapons.
Ukraine’s military has been battling pro-Russia fighters since spring, when Kiev started its campaign to retake eastern cities seized by separatists in April.
The conflict has claimed more than 2,000 lives, mostly civilians, according to a United Nations report released this month. Many of those deaths were caused by heavy shelling and mortar fire, which has demolished apartments and houses across this industrial heartland.
About 300,000 people have fled, about a third of whom have become internally displaced.
In Donetsk on Saturday, mortar fire ripped open the side of an apartment building less than a mile from Lenin Square, killing three people.
The Ukrainian military in recent weeks has retaken much of the insurgent-held territory, tightening its grip around Donetsk, the headquarters of the self-styled separatist government. Encircling the city would cut off the fighters’ weapon supplies, which Kiev and the United States say are coming from nearby Russia.
As the death toll mounts, more than half of Donetsk’s 1 million population has departed.
Before the war, Donetsk’s central streets and boulevards were crowded with the stylishly dressed middle class people, who shopped in Western brand-name stores and sipped cappuccinos in cafes. Today, the majority of those businesses are closed in preparation for what many fear will be the deadliest battle in this unprecedented conflict in Ukraine’s otherwise peaceful — though politically charged — post-Soviet history.
Donetsk’s streets and walkways are nearly empty of pedestrians and cars, and even in the middle of the day the city can seem like a ghost town. Those who remain say they either have nowhere to go, or are too sick or old to leave. Others, like Roman and his wife, Olga, say they are staying to support the separatists’ cause.
“Of course our guys are affected by so many people leaving the city,” Roman said. “If more people would stay, it would help us beat Kiev. But I understand why so many are leaving.”
The distant sound of heavy artillery shelling can be heard in central Donetsk at midday. On Saturday, a mortar shell smashed into the side of the arena in Donetsk, home of the city’s Shakhtar professional soccer team. Another shell hit a history museum, destroying its most prized possession: a piece of mammoth tusk .
The timing of the separatists’ parade of military victory on the same day as Ukraine’s Independence Day celebration was not lost on Olga, Roman’s wife. The national holiday has been somewhat muted over the years, with many Ukrainians viewing it more as a day off to work in their gardens.
But this year, it somehow feels different on both sides of the conflict.
“A year ago I never would have thought it would be possible for Ukrainians to be killing each other,” Olga said. “But there is no looking back. How can we ever be joined again with them, if they are now calling us terrorists and separatists?”
Ayres is a special correspondent.