Ilovaisk: He may be more used to military than electoral campaigns, but Ukraine`s top rebel chief has swapped the battlefield for kissing babies ahead of controversial elections in the separatist-held east.
With the self-proclaimed Donetsk People`s Republic planning to hold a vote on November 2, current self-declared prime minister Alexander Zakharchenko has been busy trying to convince people to elect him.
On one afternoon this week, the 38-year-old former mechanic and police college dropout embraced a Western campaign style, meeting old ladies and children and even bringing along a flock of foreign media.
His first stop symbolically was Ilovaisk - a town in Donetsk region that in late August became the scene of a catastrophic defeat for Ukrainian forces who found themselves surrounded by the separatists and, according to Kiev, heavily armed Russian regular troops.
The episode ended with the death of 108 Ukrainian army troops and an unidentified number of fighters from volunteer battalions. The loss of Ilovaisk is seen as one of the key moments forcing Kiev to strike a truce deal with the rebels on September 5.
"A town of heroes," Zakharchenko said as he moved along with an escort of about twenty insurgents and journalists. "Thanks to this town, we have defeated the enemy."
Born in Donetsk, pro-Moscow Zakharchenko replaced a Russian citizen as rebel leader in August and looks favourite to win any popular vote planned by his heavily-armed administration.
But the area he runs and hopes to keep ruling is scarred by six-months of fierce fighting that has cost the lives of some 3,400 people.
Rubble remaining from houses and a rusted carcass of a train are evidence of the vicious battles.
Meeting locals in a local kindergarten, Zakharchenko`s Kalashnikov-wielding party looked out of place surrounded by colourful murals and children`s games. One girl handed him a drawing. "I promise that there will be peace here," he thanked her.
Nearly one hundred Ukrainian volunteer fighters captured in the battle and now held prisoner -- despite an agreement from both sides to release all detainees -- will be forced to help in rebuilding the town, Zakharchenko proudly announced.
"We`re short of everything: labour, materials, money.... We have decided that the 98 prisoners from the Donbass battalion will be sent to rebuild the town. They destroyed it and they will rebuild it. And you (the journalists) can show how Ukraine is helping in the reconstruction."Elderly residents however expected more. "Our houses have no roof!" one woman yelled as Zakharchenko began to leave. "We will survive a month, then the snow will come and we`ll all die," said another.
"We will help you so that you can live normal lives," he responded. "Do you have vodka?" he asked, hinting at an alternative way of keeping warm.
"We make it ourselves," the woman responded with a grin.
"But it`s roofs we want," the first one pressed.
Continuing his quick tour of the town, Zakharchenko went to a local church where he posed for pictures with an Orthodox priest while holding an icon. The church was followed by a heating plant, then another school.
At the Ilovaisk hospital, he stopped to answer questions about electricity bills and new housing, telling residents to take them to the new mayor he had just appointed.
One woman broke through the circle of cameras and pleaded in tears: "My son disappeared 46 days ago! They came, they beat him and took him away! I asked everyone and nobody answered. They are from Ilovaisk. You are my last hope!"
"We`ll deal with this," Zakharchenko said. "You have information about these people?"
"Of course. It`s a woman who gave the order to arrest him. My son found her brother burning our hay," the woman replied.
Turning to his men, Zakharchenko gave a quiet arrest order, answered one final question, and rushed back inside his black SUV before driving off toward Donetsk.