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Donetsk Separatists’ Desperate Draft Campaign Empties Streets of Men

Men under 65 are spending their days in hiding, leaving wives and sisters to take over their jobs

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An aggressive draft campaign by the Russian-backed separatists who control parts of eastern Ukraine has emptied the area’s streets of military-age men, with many in hiding to avoid being sent to the frontline.

In a sign of how desperate pro-Russia authorities are to bolster the ranks of fighters, in late March they announced that the upper age limit of the draft had been raised from 55 to 65 in Donetsk, local media reported. And on Saturday authorities announced a mobilisation in the region of Kherson, which was largely captured by Russia after the war began.

Men who do not want to become cannon fodder in a war they do not support, against a country – Ukraine – that most of them still consider their own, are spending their days in hiding. Locals joke that they now live in a town of Amazons, run by women.

Husbands, sons and brothers live in basements or locked indoors. They cannot stay in their own homes because registration is by address. Instead they stay at the homes of friends or relatives where no military-age men are listed as residents.

Some come out at night, when the patrols rounding up unwilling recruits pause or are less frequent. “When I walk my dog at 11pm I could see the silhouettes of men smoking behind the curtains, with a window open,” said one resident reached by phone, who like most in Donetsk did not want to be quoted by name.

By day their jobs have been taken over by wives, sisters or female friends, or have simply gone unfilled. It is almost impossible to get a car repaired because most of the city’s mechanics are men who would be covered by the draft, locals said.

“It usually takes 45 minute to fix a problem with my tyres, and I just grab a coffee nearby,” said one woman. “But last time I was asked to drop my car and leave it over the weekend so that they could bring a guy to fix it at night.”

Electronics shops in the market that used to be staffed by men are now run by female relatives, who put the usual owners on the line to handle any questions. “You discuss all the technical details with him and then she will just give you what you wanted and take your money,” said one man who escaped the draft because of a medical condition and a foreign passport.

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The self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the so-called separatist region backed and recognised by Russia, announced its draft on 19 February, a few days before the invasion of the rest of Ukraine. Exemptions have to be signed off by senior government officials, who themselves are one of the few groups to be spared the draft.

The order went out extremely early to try to prevent the men affected from fleeing, and those caught included some visitors from the Ukrainian-controlled part of the country.

“My son went back to our home village to check on his grandmother two days before the draft was announced. Now he is stuck in the DNR and I am very worried,” said one man in western Ukraine, trying to gather money to fund an escape. “He is in hiding, and hasn’t left the house for two months now. There are ways to smuggle him out, but only to Russia and it is very expensive and risky.”

In interviews with residents of the region, the Guardian heard of only two men granted leave to stay in their jobs. One was an anaesthesiologist, allowed to stay at his post when other doctors were ordered to join the military because he was one of just two experts left in the city. The other was a driver trained in using complicated construction equipment.

Bribes work but the cost of draft-dodging is $800, an exorbitant amount for most people in an already poor area with an economy now crippled by the war.

Men pushing the top end of the draft age group have grown beards in an attempt to look older, although the raising of the upper limit to 65 means grey hair alone offers little protection.

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In a further sign of desperation, city authorities have twice tried to lure men out of hiding by claiming the draft was finishing. Documents purporting to be government leaks about a new policy were shared on Telegram channels, but then men who came out of hiding because of them were seized and drafted.

Locals now say they will not believe any more news of the draft being cancelled. “Two times the authorities have tried to fool us by posting info that draft is over. So the next morning men started going out and they were all taken,” said another resident. “Now everyone learned the lesson so if they will announce that draft is over no one will believe them.”

More articles by Emma Graham Harrison.