ukraine cat mural
Armed pro-Russia separatists stand guard near the train station as shelling rocked the area, in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in eastern UkraineAFP

If you want an idea of the true human cost of the crisis in Ukraine, consider the tale of an 86-year-old woman who, for the purposes of this article, we will call Vira. Until recently she was living happily in Donetsk. Yet the tumult which has engulfed the city has forced her to flee, despite her love for her neighbourhood, her attachment to her home and her cat, and her age.

Most octogenarians simply want to relax and enjoy the autumn of their life. Yet Vira, who worked for years as a distinguished economist, needs to search for a new home as far from the Russian Federation as it is possible to get.

Vira was kind enough to grant an interview to IBTimes UK, but insisted her comments be published under a pseudonym - she was too frightened to give her own name. Speaking with a face scarred by sorrow, she told us that this is the second time she has been forced to flee her home, and abandon her life, due to the horrors of war. 

"When World War II started, I was 13," she said. "Then my family and I had to run from my hometown Pryluky. Now I am 86, I am an experienced economist, and I have to run from my hometown Donetsk."

To give us some context, she went way back to the creation of Donetsk. "Do you know how the city was founded? People, who came out of the army, out of prison and everybody else, who couldn't find a job, were sent here. It was a great rabble! And it has grown through several generations. Yet a great majority have not been covered by civilisation. I'm 86, I'm reading everything, I'm interested in everything, but this is rare, even among those with higher education."

According to Vira, this means most of the Donbass population don't truly understand concepts such as republics, and annexation. Nevertheless, all of them voted for creation of the Donetsk People's Republic.

"I didn't go to that referendum, but whom I asked – everybody did!" said Vira. "And everybody voted for the republic! Now they all are crying over spilt milk and don't understand why they did it. This activity gave a powerful card to play for our occupiers.

"It's amazing how quickly they created the new president, prime minister and administration without holding any elections. They even didn't start the second referendum about accession to Russia. In fact, they asked Putin on the second day after the first referendum, using the Crimean script. But Putin kept silent. And he is still silent now.

"I don't think Putin needs Donbass. We have 100,000 miners, but the coal in our region is too expensive, talking not only about money, but also about human lives. Putin doesn't need our coal (he even closed the mines in Rostov-na-Donu because of their unprofitability). So, where will he put 100 000 miners if he closes the mines?"

Turning from the immediate past to the future, Vira is adamant that "for the Donbass there is nothing worse than accession to Russia. Nevertheless everybody who voted for the republic wanted to live in Russian Donetsk. And what did they get?

"When our airport and other objects were fired on by occupiers, some regions had problems with water and electricity supply. All the Ukrainian channels here were deactivated two weeks ago. It is very hard, because now we don't have any information - apart from Russian lies. From time to time people face the absence of pensions and salaries. The Ukrainian government explained that money exists, but transfer cannot be done because the money will be intercepted and stolen.

"It is quiet in my part of the city; people even grow flowers and cut the grass. But nobody uses public transport, even though it works. You can hear shots from neighbouring areas. The ambulance refuses to go to those areas, when people are shooting. My friends and I have seen a succession of huge military cars.

Ghost town

"It is frightening to stay in such a city, and lonely too. Donetsk is characterised by solitude. One may look back and see no one, then look forward and again see no one. Not only for 10-15 metres, but as far as the eyes can see. There is no one, even police. In fact, you can say that the city is already occupied.

"The real disturbance came when the mayor of Donetsk left the city. Everyone in Donetsk worried a lot, and a lot of healthy people became ill through worry. There is not one person who likes the situation that has occurred."

Looking at this woman, it is easy to understand that she loves her city and doesn't want to leave it. Nevertheless, she doesn't have any option except escape, if she wants to live longer than several days or weeks. There is no guarantee that in the coming days the armed occupiers will not come to her house and take her hostage, as they have done to so many people in the east of Ukraine.

Most of those in the Donbass have already left the region to protect their families from the occupiers' grenades. Those who are not going to escape have no other place to live. Sometimes people even don't have any money for a one-way ticket.

Vira is one of the lucky ones, because, when she does eventually leave, her children are waiting for her. Many others are not so fortunate.

Valeriia Ketrysh is a journalism student at the National University of Kiev.