Song and dance as pro-Russia rebels mark 'liberation' from Ukraine
Ukraine's largest rebel-controlled city on Saturday marked six months of "independence" from Kiev with Russian and separatist flags, a concert and even a ballet portraying their insurgency.
Up to 300 people attended the show put together by rebel authorities on the main square of the coal mining hub of Donetsk, where they were watched over by the statue of Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.
Performers sang folk songs glorifying the Donbass, the colloquial name for the eastern Lugansk and Donetsk regions where separatists have proclaimed "people's republics" they intend to merge into a Novorossiya, or New Russia.
"We've come to support Novorossiya. The militia protects our region and its children," said an eight-year-old girl as she flashed a V sign with her fingers to photographers.
But separatist red-and-blue banners -- almost identical to the Confederate Flag in the US Civil War -- were not the only ones at the square, where many also unfurled the red, white and blue tricolour of Russia.
The event marked the nearly half-year since a few dozen gunmen proclaimed independence after seizing the Donetsk regional government building on April 7.
They later confirmed their decision in a snap May 11 referendum that Kiev and the West immediately denounced, and Russia promised to "respect" but never fully recognised.
Rebel leaders later said they would like to join Russia, to a lukewarm reaction from Moscow.
"We are Russia, united Russia," rebel Donetsk governor Pavel Gubarev sang from the stage.
A boy performed a newly-composed song about "hero" rebel fighters who "protect like walls".
Patriotic music then gave way suddenly to images of the Nazi Third Reich.
A group of teenagers marched on stage, their black costumes and Hitler salutes portraying the "fascist" tag many locals and Russians have stamped on pro-European protesters who toppled a Kremlin-backed leader in Kiev in February.
They were encountered on stage by another group of young men in green camouflage -- a reference to guerrilla fighters and, possibly, the Russian troops who seized Ukraine's Crimea peninsula in March.
"Finally I feel free, liberated from the fascist regime," observed Yuriy Yashchenko, a 46-year-old football coach watching the stage bathed in October sun.
Just about 10 kilometres (six miles) away, non-stop battles raged for the control of Donetsk's airport. Ukrainian forces said they were still holding their positions, clinging on to the strategic transport hub that had remained their only foothold in the separatist city.
"We are here to show our support, to show we are together," said Snezhana Eller, as her niece Angelina drove a mini pedal car around with a camouflage head scarf and a plastic Kalashnikov rifle at her side.
"It's our country and our future," added Snezhana, who is part of a separatist battalion but showed up to the square wearing a miniskirt and high heels.
- 'Tired of running' -
Some people said they hoped independence would bring a better life. "We want hope," said Marina Budenovsky, a 66-year-old former cement factory worker.
"Ukraine gives me a pension of 1,000 hryvnias ($77, 62 euros). I cannot survive on that," she lamented.
"These concerts, they help us forget our problems," she sighed.
Budenovsky, like many others, attended the concert for a change of scenery after weeks of shelling in several districts of Donetsk -- some of which even hit the city centre despite a truce the rebels agreed with Kiev last month.
"We're tired of running and hiding," said Olga Dulzer, who came to the square with her small daughter. She said she missed the days when concerts where a regular feature of life in the once-bubbling city of nearly a million people.
"It's the first festive event we've had in six months," she said.
© 2014 AFP