A year after Kiev protests, Ukraine vanishes in rebel east

 The symbols of Ukraine have been hidden somewhere in the school in the country`s war-torn east -- but the headmistress will not say exactly where. 

Donetsk: The symbols of Ukraine have been hidden somewhere in the school in the country`s war-torn east -- but the headmistress will not say exactly where. 

One year after the start of protests in Kiev that toppled a pro-Russian government and set in motion a chain of events that set off a bloody pro-Russian rebellion, at school Number 33 in insurgent-held Donetsk, all signs of Ukraine have been assiduously removed. 

"They have not been removed because we don`t respect Ukraine but because of what this government has done to the people here," said Tatyana Denisenko, the veteran school director. 

In late August, the school was partially destroyed by fierce shelling between government forces and fighters from the rebel, self-proclaimed Donetsk People`s Republic, one of two breakaway statelets in the east that have declared independence. 

"Since then, Ukraine has done nothing for us," Denisenko said caustically. 

The separatist authorities, on the other hand, have pledged to rebuild the school using materials brought in from Russia. 

Dressed immaculately in a leopard-print blouse, the former high school teacher insists that the children at the school will not be taught to hate Kiev.

"But our main direction now is Russia," she said, adding that she is waiting for recommendations from the rebel authorities on a new history curriculum. One year after the first demonstrations began on Kiev`s iconic Independence Square -- dividing the country between those who wanted closer ties with the West and those who looked to Russia -- there are few signs that Donetsk was ever a part of Ukraine.

From every official building flutters the black, blue and red flag of the self-declared republic, which began to emerge in April when pro-Russian crowds stormed government buildings around the region. 

Inside are propaganda posters hostile to Kiev and the European Union. 

Portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- the man Ukraine accuses of masterminding the brutal insurgency in the Russian-speaking east after he sent in troops to seize the Crimea peninsula in March -- can also be seen. 

The Ukrainian language, however, is nowhere to be heard. 

"It is difficult for me to speak of Ukraine as an enemy but the Ukrainian flag has become a fascist flag," said Valery Skorokhodov, who was elected a rebel lawmaker at a vote rejected by Kiev earlier this month. 

The burly 30-year-old, who carried his Makarov pistol with him wherever he goes, says he too went to the protests in Kiev to begin with.

"But outside forces then appropriated the movement," he said. 

Now, as seven months of bloody fighting that has killed over 4,300 people rumbles on, the industrial Donbass region in the east will never return to Ukraine, he claimed.

"That train has left," he added. Market stalls in Donetsk over the past few weeks have started doing a good trade in a new line of products: miniature flags, key chains and passport covers all in the colours of the Donetsk People`s Republic. 

One of the salesmen, ruddy-cheeked Andrei, said he makes everything at home and can charge a bit more for the sought-after items.

"It`s very popular," said the 21-year-old entrepreneur. 

Following popular demand, his latest line of products is now being stamped with the word "Russia", he said. 

At checkpoints, on the uniforms of rebels and on civilian cars, the colours of Russia are never far away.

Even as shelling continue to rumble on the edge of the city, Donetsk earlier this month opened its first Russian film festival, showing three films in two days.

"We have to show something to the people of Donbass," said Anatoly Teslya, the festival`s head. 

He swore that he does not get involved in politics but it has been over a year since he last showed a Ukrainian film in his cinema.

At the checkpoint of Uspenka, on a stretch of the Russian border under rebel control, the Ukrainian colours can still be seen painted on the guard posts.

Some 15 insurgent officials check passports quickly before sending cars on their way across the open frontier with their vast eastern neighbour. 

"Everything is about to change here, at least the colours," said Alexei, who has swapped his Ukrainian customs official uniform for rebel fatigues.

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