by Agence France-Presse.
Passengers on a bus from Donetsk to Rostov in Russia, wait while their belongings are searched by border guards at the Uspenka border post separating Ukraine and Russia Sept. 26, 2014. © AFP see video from AFP News Agency
USPENKA, Ukraine – Ukraine’s president may have ordered the closure of his nation’s border with Russia but, when asked about it, the rebel commander of this crossing point just smiles and points to the snaking queue of cars traversing the international line.
“As you can see, it is very much open,” the border post commander at Uspenka who identifies himself by his nickname “Arshi” says.
Uspenka is just a speck on the map in eastern Ukraine, but hundreds of vehicles had motored there Friday to travel along a country road from the rebel-held Donetsk region to Russia, and in the other direction.
In the view of all those interviewed there by AFP, that border post — and even the border itself — were bound to disappear soon.
“Oh, the border is supposed to be closed, is it? I wasn’t aware,” Archi comments archly.
“What Kiev says or decides is of no interest to me. This is no longer Ukraine here. Soon, when we are united with Russia, we won’t even have this outpost here, or it’ll be hardly anything at all, just a little checkpoint.”
People queue up to cross from Ukraine to Russia at the Uspenka border post, held by pro-Russian separatists, on September 26, 2014. (AFP Photo/John Macdougall)
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the temporary closure of the 2,000-kilometre (1,200-mile) border Thursday in a bid to halt the flow of weapons from Ukraine’s former Soviet master to pro-Russian separatists.
But by the time of the signing of the ceasefire for eastern Ukraine, on September 20, the rebels already controlled a 260-kilometre stretch of the border.
Uspenka fell under their control on August 24. “They lasted less than 24 hours,” Archi says, referring to Kiev’s troops. “Then most of them surrendered, gave up their weapons, their tanks, everything.”
He points to the detritus of Uspenska’s short-lived battle — shattered signs, a bombed-out hanger roof, cratered walls.
Since then, it is the rebels — epaulettes adorned with the orange-and-black-striped ribbons of the Russian military’s Order of St. George — who check the passports and raise the barriers.
A man pushing goods in a baby carriage crosses the border from Russia to Ukraine at the Uspenka border post, on September 26, 2014. (AFP Photo/John Macdougall)
The black, red and blue of the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic flies atop a radio antenna. A sign once bedecked in the yellow of the Ukrainian national flag has been repainted blue.
And the vehicle search is thorough. Under the hood, in the boot, beneath the cushions, and inside bags — the rebel border guards are looking to keep order.
“We’re hunting for weapons, drugs or contraband — just like in any other country,” the officer says. “Only, we don’t have the official stamp — yet.”
Daria Penska awaits her turn to cross, passport in hand.
“We spent the past three months in Sochi (in Russia), but university classes start again next week in Donetsk,” the 18-year-old redhead says.
A pro-Russian separatist border guard searches a car on September 26, 2014 on its way from Ukraine to Russia at the Uspenka border post, held by separatists from the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk. (AFP Photo/John Macdougall)
“I think things have calmed down enough for us to be able to go home. I know there is still shooting in Donetsk close to the airport, but we don’t live in that neighbourhood, so it should be okay.”
Like Daria, many of those crossing into Ukraine had fled the fighting and were now attempting a return home.
To go in the other direction, a “valid Ukrainian passport” will suffice. “Most of them are going to see family or do shopping. They can only bring back 10 litres of petrol, which is much cheaper than on the other side of the border,” says Archi.
“The border, closed? Of course not!” Valentin Khokhlov, 62, says from the wheel of his white Chinese-made minivan.
He is not put off by a two-hour wait to cross into Russia, where he is headed to the closest city, Taganrog, to buy petrol, medicines for his wife and other goods.
Pro-Russian separatist border guards let a bus crossing from Ukraine to Russia at the Uspenka border post, on September 26, 2014. (AFP Photo/John Macdougall)
“It’s not closer than Donetsk, but it’s safer. We hope this border control post will disappear soon!” he says. People in the car behind his nod in agreement.
Buses in both directions get to skip the queue, but their passengers receive the same scrutiny from the guards, lining up as their bags are laid out for inspection.
“The Russians on the other side help us a lot,” Archi says. “They already check the cars and stamp passports, so it’s simpler for us.”
“My men here are almost all Don Cossacks,” he says, referring to Cossacks from southern Russia known for their history of military service.
“And the Cossacks — for them, this border never even existed at all.”