I get out of bed at 5 a.m., just as the curfew is being lifted in Donetsk, the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) in eastern Ukraine. It’s pitch dark outside and I feel privileged — really and truly privileged — to be able to afford to pay $25 for three extra hours of sleep and a significant risk reduction. My fellow travel companions crossing from rebel-controlled territory to government-controlled areas, I realise, had to leave their homes during curfew and spend half the night parked in the “neutral zone,” between DNR and government checkpoints, fully exposed to the dangers of nightly shooting and shelling. Backpack zipped-shut, I go downstairs and get into a taxi, which will drop me off at the last rebel-controlled checkpoint. From there, I’ll just walk through the “neutral zone” on the lookout for my “ferryman”.
“Ferrymen” take people from rebel-controlled areas to government controlled territory and back. As of 2015, Ukraine’s government established strict controls over crossing to and from rebel-controlled areas. The government of course has the right to control such movement, but the way the crossing system works results in tremendous difficulties for many civilians who already bear considerable hardships after the nearly three-year armed conflict.
On the border of the “neutral zone”, it can take hours to cross from separatist to government territory.
EXPAND On the border of the “neutral zone”, it can take hours to cross from separatist to government territory.
© 2016 Tanya Lokshina
According to Ukraine’s State Border Service, 26,000-32,000 people cross the line of contact daily. The UN estimates the overall population of separatist-controlled areas at 2.7 million, and many of these people travel to government-controlled areas on a regular basis. Some of the most frequent travelers have jobs or business deals on the other side of the line. Others go there to visit relatives, process ID and other documents, and even buy groceries, the prices on meat and produce being much higher in rebel-controlled areas. Many people who fled to other parts of Ukraine proper during the war travel to rebel-held territory to check on their homes, see their families and assess the prospects for return.
Yet there are only five crossing checkpoints —and one is minuscule and only for foot traffic — to accommodate the tens of thousands of daily travelers. This results in humongous queues, with people waiting for hours and sometimes overnight, to travel a distance that, technically speaking, is negligible.