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in Ukraine, Donbass residents exhausted by conflict between army and separatists

Pro-Russian separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army since 2014 in this region where Donetsk is located. The separatist leader has just announced that he is ready to withdraw all of his troops from the front line.

In Donetsk, in the east of Ukraine, a rather strange, almost surreal atmosphere reigns: that of a city where, in the middle of the day, you can see children playing in parks and at the same time, distinctly hearing in the distance the sound of cannons, as is the case for example this March 10. Automatic weapons fire is exchanged in the airport area. “We hear the bombing, the war is here. It cannot be seen, but it is here”, says Donetsk resident Anna. She always refused to leave her city despite the dangers.

However, the conflict between the separatists and the Ukrainian army has been going on for six years now in the predominantly Russian-speaking Ukrainian region of Donbas. According to AFP, more than 13,000 people have been killed since 2014. The signing of the Minsk peace agreements in 2014 and 2015 put an end to the most violent fighting, but the planned ceasefire was never implemented, the clashes remain almost daily. Before a new summit in spring 2020 in Berlin on the issue of war in the Donbass, the president of the self-proclaimed separatist republic, supported by Russia, decided to take the lead. Denis Pouchiline announces that he is ready to withdraw his troops completely from the entire front line.

I would love to live in peace with Ukraine, if possible.Anna, resident of Donetskat franceinfo

“We want peace, but not at all costs”, Anna says again, in Donetsk. She says you never really get used to the war and like many, she hopes the fighting will end eventually. “We have a lot of people injured, many have lost loved ones, people have had their lives ruined. So it takes time to repair.”

We are talking about a frozen conflict, but there are regular victims because of ceasefire violations. The only real progress in terms of negotiations is the possible new exchange of prisoners currently in preparation. For the rest, three new troop withdrawals are in principle scheduled.

The head of the separatist Republic of Donetsk, Denis Pouchiline, offers squarely the total withdrawal of all his men, on the 460 kilometers which make up his front line. A risk-free strategy in reality, because Denis Pouchiline knows it and says it himself, Kiev is incapable of ensuring the same commitment. Because of the strong resistance, in Ukrainian nationalist circles in particular, but also of a large part of the population, who consider these military withdrawals as a form of capitulation.

“We are fighting for this in a planned manner, but Ukraine officially declares that it is not ready for this and is trying to prolong the withdrawal process”, Denis Pouchline told franceinfo. “We fire everyday, even if it's not artillery, but rather automatic weapon fire.”

If the distance between the armed forces was greater, if no one could see the other side, this could lead to the end of all shots.Denis Pouchiline, separatist leaderat franceinfo

Beyond the withdrawal of troops, the Minsk 2 agreements – which will be discussed in the spring in Berlin – provide for several measures. There are in fact two main stages to be crossed before hoping to lead to an initial pacification of the Donbass. First, the adoption by the Ukrainian Parliament of a special statute for this region, and then only the possible holding of free elections. Finally, imagining that these stages will be reached, it will then be necessary to make it possible for Ukraine to resume control of its easternmost border. But neither the separatist leaders nor the people of Donetsk are ready to accept such a prospect.

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