Skip to main content

We want out of Ukraine: Donetsk protesters dig in at government building

By Nick Paton Walsh, CNN
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hundreds of protesters seize a government building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine
  • They declare "People's Republic of Donetsk," call for referendum to secede from Ukraine
  • Ukrainian military says it won't retake building yet, but acting President warns of prosecutions
  • Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov accuses Russia of stoking eastern Ukraine tensions

Donetsk, Ukraine (CNN) -- Masked men with metal rods and Molotov cocktails prowl the Russian flag-draped balcony, surveying the crowds below. Stacks of tires topped with ribbons of razor wire line a makeshift barricade around the main entrance.

Two days after smashing their way in, hundreds of protesters have transformed this government building in the industrial city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, into the self-declared "People's Republic of Donetsk."

From the clumsily erected bulwarks to the lack of a leader or concrete plan, the scenes are similar to the pro-European rallies in Kiev's Maidan Square in recent months, with one major difference: Many of these protesters say they want to join Russia and have called for a referendum on secession from Ukraine to be held by May 11.

The protesters who let us into the building are eager to show they are here entirely peacefully, but it is clear they are prepared for a fight. Doors have been locked and stairwells blocked at the top of the building to prevent the Ukrainian military from storming in from above. They've smashed the pavement outside the building to use as stones. A makeshift hospital and temporary cafe have been constructed, and locals are keeping the men and women inside stocked up on food and medical supplies.

Donetsk separatists remain defiant
Ukraine warns Russia: Don't invade
Brawl erupts in Ukrainian parliament

Some of the protesters inside the building are happy to see us; others seem ready to attack us with their bats at a moment's notice. Some are aggressively anti-American. One of the older men asks us why Americans are sticking their nose into Ukrainian affairs.

Russia warns of civil war if Ukraine uses force to quell eastern revolts

One man tells us that he's from the Eastern Front, a new local group, and that help is on the way. He says there are 6,000 members of his group who stand ready to "protect the fatherland." Others are hopeful that a vote to secede from Ukraine can be held sooner than protesters announced Monday.

When the power went out Monday night, many inside believed Ukraine's special forces were coming to retake the building. But the Ukrainian military is nowhere to be seen, and the mood of the protesters is growing ever more defiant.

Donetsk is the hometown of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose pro-Russian government was toppled in a popular revolt in February.

Nobody knows for sure what role, if any, Russia is playing in this latest bout of unrest in Ukraine. Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov blames "separatist groups coordinated by Russian special services" for the revolts in eastern Ukraine, which he said echoed events leading to the Russian annexation of Crimea three weeks ago.

Since then, Russia has amassed thousands of troops on its border with eastern Ukraine. And Russia's Foreign Ministry said reports that protesters are facing a crackdown by Ukrainian authorities are of particular concern.

"We are calling for the immediate cessation of any military preparations, which could lead to civil war," it said in a statement on its official website.

Protesters say that local complaints, not Moscow, are driving anti-government sentiments here in Donetsk. One man, who calls himself Andre, says that Ukraine's ongoing political crisis has hit his wages and that he can no longer afford to feed his family. He tells me that he has simply had enough.

Ukrainian officials say they won't storm the building for now. But the acting President says those who have seized buildings will be treated as "terrorists" and prosecuted with the full force of the law.

In the meantime, protesters say they will continue to fortify their makeshift fortress in Donetsk, and their tiny pocket of grievances and whims, despite its size, seems to now be on the front line of a massive struggle for the future of Ukraine.

U.S. Navy ship to arrive in Black Sea by Thursday

Ukraine to Russia: I'm not your child

CNN's Nick Thompson and CNN Wires contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 broke apart in the air after it was hit by a burst of "high-energy objects" from outside, a preliminary report by Dutch aviation investigators said Tuesday.
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
"There were many scenes that defied logic," writes OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw, who was one of the first international observers to arrive at the site.
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
On a country road in eastern Ukraine, a scene of bucolic tranquility was suddenly interrupted by the aftermath of carnage.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
In the city of Donetsk, the devastation wrought by weeks of fighting between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces is all too apparent.
updated 8:00 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
CNN's Diana Magnay reports from the front lines in the Ukrainian conflict.
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
A few miles south of the town of Starobeshevo in eastern Ukraine, a group of men in uniform is slumped under a tree.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
It's been building for months. And now, according to some, Russia has launched a "full-scale invasion" of Ukraine.
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
A shopkeeper's mutilated body, relatives' anguish, homes destroyed ... this is Donetsk.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
updated 9:51 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
Western leaders stepped up sanctions, but the Russian President shows no sign of backing down.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 4:37 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
ADVERTISEMENT