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In Donetsk, pro-Russian patrols keep order at night

His head shaven and his neck tattooed, Sergiy may be an unlikely law enforcer, but since war pushed the city of Donetsk to the brink of anarchy, he has helped keep the streets safe from crime.

“The police aren’t in a position to be everywhere and do everything,” said the 30-year-old, explaining why he set up a brigade of volunteers to patrol this city of one million residents.

The vigilantes, as self-proclaimed as the pro-Russian “Donetsk People’s Republic” that they serve, are mainly active at night, when the city is at its most vulnerable.

Moving around the dark streets they observe the situation, and prefer to leave it to the police to act.

“We’re not supposed to be in the frontline. We’re not going to fight tanks with bottle openers… We’re here merely to get information fast and to verify it,” said Sergiy, who declined to give his last name.

Even so, a recent night patrol with Ivan, one of Sergiy’s recruits, demonstrated that the members of the brigade can find themselves in tense situations.

“Base to all stations: Anything to report? Over,” Ivan said, speaking into his walkie-talkie as his vehicle moved slowly down a dark street.

The reply from the other patrols was negative, but Ivan soon had his hands full himself.

Having been called to a situation where a man was reported to have behaved in a threatening manner, he and his patrol jumped out of the vehicle and seized the suspect.

“Face against the wall!” Ivan yelled, brandishing a Colt revolver. “Put your damn face against the wall!”

The man, it turned out, was drunk, and when he agreed to walk home quietly, the patrol decided an arrest was unnecessary.

– Potentially dangerous work –

For Ivan and the other members of the brigade, this is exhausting and potentially dangerous work, but they do it because they consider it important.

The mood is tense in Donetsk, which has not been safe since a pro-Russian rebellion broke out in early April, triggering an “anti-terrorist” operation by the authorities in the capital Kiev.

The power vacuum has unleashed a wave of crime, and in Donetsk, where armed men of uncertain loyalties roam the streets at will, several shops have been pillaged, while others have been closed down as a precaution.

In this situation, the vigilante brigade — modelled on volunteer auxiliary units organised in Soviet times — has taken it upon itself to seek out possible trouble makers, whether drunkards, burglars or pro-Ukrainian fighters backing the regime in faraway Kiev.

The brigade claims to be working in close cooperation with the police of the young “People’s Republic”, and on Ivan’s night patrol everything suggested smooth coordination with the official security apparatus.

The patrols also rely on a network of residents who report suspicious situations via an app that turns their smartphones into walkie-talkies.

“Our group is made up of people who are interested in what’s going on in this city,” said Sergiy. “We’re simply concerned about the security of this city.”

But despite all their efforts, the city doesn’t feel much safer.

Every patrol takes place in streets that seem a little more deserted than the night before.

“People are afraid to go out,” said Ivan.