Khutor and Nika move briskly on the sidewalk, but not fast enough to draw attention. They have tried to memorize the “wrong streets” — the ones where they know the pro-Russian rebels who seized this city now regularly stand guard in camouflage, AK-47s poised. But sometimes the two of them get it wrong. Like now.
A muscular dirty-blond bearing a studied look of intimidation and an arm patch with the banner of the so-called New Russia clutches his weapon firmly as they pass. Khutor, 42, and Nika, 33, lower their heads. They cease talking. In a place where even a trip to the supermarket has become a ritual of stress, the couple tighten their grips on their bags of groceries, as if pointing them out. See? Just ran out for some milk and bread. Thanks now. Got to go.
In this metropolis that had a prewar population of almost a million, but where the city center now feels like an Orwellian ghost town of propaganda posters and armed patrols, perhaps no one feels more alone than those who still harbor pro-Ukrainian sentiments. Since the separatists took total control here, human rights and Ukrainian activists say, an untold number of loyalists have been extorted, abducted, tortured and, allegedly, executed. Many have left in search of sanctuaries farther west. But a small number of them — like Khutor and Nika — are riding out the storm.
And they want the others — the ones who, like them, are perhaps too afraid to speak up publicly — to know they are not as alone as they might think. Three blocks later, the couple feel brave enough to take a short detour and point out a piece of Khutor’s handiwork on the wall of an old apartment building. He spray-painted it weeks ago, he said, before he was detained and tortured. It was meant to be a message to the others.