Spring 2014. In the wake of Maidan’s pro-European revolution in Kiev, Russia annexes Crimea and “anti-Maidan” protests erupt in industrial strongholds in southern and eastern Ukraine. Very quickly, the Ukrainian interim government had to face an armed separatist insurgency, appearing popular, but secretly supported by neighboring Russia.
Several towns in Donbass, around the mining metropolises of Donetsk and Luhansk, fall under the control of pro-Russian militias. Among them, Slaviansk, where the Russian media worked against what the latter calls a "fascist coup" in Kiev, locals and Russian paramilitaries are making this small impoverished industrial town the first armed separatist bastion.
The People's Republic of Donetsk was unilaterally proclaimed on April 7, 2014. Then the guns began to speak. The separatists organize their nascent micro-state in Donetsk, while Slaviansk and its 120,000 inhabitants are quickly surrounded by the Ukrainian army. In an atmosphere of fear and confrontation, barricades were raised and trenches were dug on the outskirts of the city. Shells are starting to fall, money is running out in banks and food is scarce in stores.
The war in Donbass has only just begun. Workers and taxi drivers improvise militiamen, Kalashnikovs in hand. But in the former Ukrainian secret service building, in the heart of the city, a headquarters is improvised, boiling, disturbing, secret. It is controlled by Igor Girkine, alias Strelkov, a former Russian military intelligence officer. Around these very discreet men, the Commander "Chief" and his eight soldiers take turns to ensure guard and control any vehicle venturing into the surroundings.
On May 11, a referendum held under the threat of arms will ratify the creation of the Donetsk People's Republic. Slaviansk has since been taken over by the Ukrainian army, but the Donbass has fallen into war. In four years, along a front line of some 400 kilometers, the war claimed 10,300 lives, including 2,800 civilians. And the fighting continues. (By Stéphane Siohan)