The rebels are searching for a bear.
“It should be down that road,” Marina says, pointing to a narrow strip of asphalt littered with tree branches and spent shells.
Our car turns slowly past a bombed out red brick building at a factory some 40 minutes east of Donetsk, Ukraine, capital of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. I sit snug in the backseat, sandwiched between two soldiers from the separatist army and the daughter of a senior commander. She drinks gin and juice from a can; the rest of us look on, sober. Marina, a peroxide blond in camo, rides shotgun. Among these hardened men she serves as both caretaker and conscious, a supply runner and perhaps, at times, a comfort wife. (When we first met, back in April, she asked if I wanted to join her “harem.” To this day, I don’t know if she was joking).
The car slows. We open our doors in front of a faded teal cage. “It’s him!” the commander’s daughter yells. “Styopa!”
And there he is: the bear, big, brown and hungry.
Styopa once belonged to the owner of the factory, an animal lover who fled when the rebels took up residence in his yard—they were a beast too far. So now the insurgents do what they can to keep their adopted “pet” alive. In between bloody battles, they feed Styopa loaves of bread and liters of kefir, a pungent fermented milk popular throughout the former Soviet Union.
“Goodbye my joy,” Marina whispers as we leave. Styopa raises his paw to the cage.
Welcome to Eastern Ukraine, home to the world’s newest breakaway statelets, where nothing is as it seems. Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, says the worst of the war is over, but many fighters on both sides of the line fear that it has just begun. Officially, there is no war; Kiev calls it an “anti-terrorist operation” and Moscow maintains that it’s not involved at all. Poroshenko promises to keep Ukraine whole, but separatist leaders insist on achieving a measure of independence. The region has become a twisted manifestation of René Magritte’s infamous (non-)pipe. Reality and its representation are estranged; what you see claims to be something else. Is that a Russian soldier? No, it’s a volunteer warrior on vacation! Is that shelling? No, it’s a ceasefire!
Battles continue to rage in several cities
On paper, the separatist forces, which now call themselves the Army of Novorossiya, and Ukrainian government troops should have stopped fighting weeks ago. There should be an 18-mile buffer zone in place, and the two sides should be working towards a political agreement. But in reality, battles continue to rage in several cities, and the body count, already more than 3,500 since violence broke out in late April, continues to rise.
The region hangs in a strange limbo, hoping for peace but preparing for more war. Many who fled during the summer’s heaviest fighting began trickling back to now blighted cities after the ceasefire was announced on September 5. The fledgling and largely unequipped separatist governments struggle to restore a semblance of life to their territories. A normal day has turned into a constant series of collisions between the quotidian and the tragic. Donetsk residents carrying flower-print shopping bags pass by signs pointing to the nearest shelter, spray-painted in red or white on sidewalks and walls. At the Ramada hotel, correspondents scarf down spaghetti carbonara next to gun-toting fighters. A handful of stalls sell meat under blue and yellow awnings at the central market in the shadow of a rebel flag flying from the central pavilion. A small sign advertising a “Ping-Pong club” hangs from a tree downtown, but if you call the number listed an automated voice will tell you that the “subscriber is not available.”