DONETSK: At first glance, this eastern Ukrainian city looks like a giant sleepy hollow.
Arriving here on Monday, we were greeted – aside from gunfire and distant artillery near the train station – by the city’s historical landmarks, resplendent in the well-planned streets and abundant greenery.
Many of the old buildings, such as the opera houses and ballet theatres, are well-maintained and juxtaposed with newer structures such as the many sports centres dedicated to football and hockey.
Monuments in memory of the city’s working class of the 19th and 20th centuries, its miners and metalworkers, dot the land.
It is a city lacking nothing, except for its most precious resource: people.
Hundreds of thousands of citizens who would have walked these city streets have fled since fighting erupted in the greater Donbass region more than three months ago.
Many shops that would have usually opened until midnight have closed down but there are a few still open for business.
It’s like we’re in a zombie apocalypse, our fixer Tymur Kolesnyk, 23, told us on one of our many road trips to the MH17 crash sites near Grabovo, less than 100km away.
“We have beautiful gardens but no people. It used to be so busy here but almost everyone has run away,” he added.
A civil war between the Ukrainian armed forces and the Novorossiya Confederation (of which the Donetsk People’s Republic is a member) rebels has seen more than a million people fleeing.
Some have fled to Ukrainian territories while many others have clogged up roads leading to the Russian border.
Those still here are local rebel soldiers and a handful of civilians trying to have some semblance of a normal life.
The rebels here are edgy, carefully checking vehicles that go through the region’s roads. For us to get to Grabovo, we have to pass through about seven checkpoints.
Tanks and armoured personnel carriers are a common sight on the roads, with soldiers waving rifles, warning us not to get too close.
On the way to the crash sites, the scenery changes markedly. In the rural country, roads are in pathetic conditions, with dilapidated Soviet-era housing all around.
We were told that these folk were economically marginalised, among the reasons that led them to support a rebellion against Ukraine that has seen more than a thousand killed so far.
One might think that the area around the crash sites would be free from these effects, given the order by the Ukrainian government for a 40km radius no-fire zone.
But it isn’t. Distant sounds of war – the screech of artillery shells and whoosh of rocket fire – are all too clear at Grabovo, even as the Malaysian three-man investigation team worked among the charred wreckage of MH17.
It is a vast open area in Grabovo, with thousands of hectares of wheat and sunflower fields, where the investigators must comb.
We can’t help but wonder what would happen if all the investigators had to pull out of Donetsk should the conflict escalate.
The clock is ticking.
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