On September 2, I left the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don via minibus heading northwest to the border of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and on into Donetsk. For my first few days there, I rented an inexpensive apartment in the heart of the city. Walking on a long tree-lined and cafe-filled pedestrian walkway, life seemed normal. But I would soon find that for the people living in Donetsk, it is anything but.
I passed a cafe where a former DPR leader and military commander, Alexander Zakharchenko, was assassinated by a remotely detonated bomb in August 2018. He was beloved, and as I stood there, two women stopped to pay respects and pray.
Days later, at a transit hub in Donetsk, I met with Alexey Karpushev, a resident of the northern city of Gorlovka, an area hard-hit by Ukrainian bombing, and whose outskirts continue to be shelled near-daily.
A long line of mostly students extended around the corner waiting for the next available minibus to Gorlovka. After an hour of waiting, the minibus arrived and we boarded for the bumpy ride north.
Alexey deposited me at a hotel, a rambling Soviet-era structure just off a pedestrian area that during the evenings becomes crowded with families, lovers and friends strolling, and children bicycling.
In the morning he took me to a central park where a chess tournament was taking place. For the next five hours, fourteen adults and eight children played chess. A hundred meters away, an old but functioning children's park with small amusement rides attracts more kids as the morning morphs into the afternoon.