Unruly rebel nightlife in east Ukraine

Unruly rebel nightlife in east Ukraine
A Pro-Russian separatist stands near the damaged war memorial at Savur-Mohyla, a hill east of the city of Donetsk.

DONETSK, Ukraine, - The icy avenues of Donetsk have been silent for hours - only the garish neon of the Banana Cafe sign cuts through the gloom, defying the curfew so that rebel fighters have somewhere to drink, smoke and fight.

The underground bar is open 24 hours a day and one of the few nightspots in this separatist bastion of eastern Ukraine, where no one is supposed to be on the roads between 11.00pm and 6.00am.

Two boys, barely in their twenties, guard the entrance. Dmitry from Sevastopol clutches his Kalashnikov while Nikolai, a Russian in a splendid grey hat and bulletproof vest, carries a high-tech sniper rifle.

Every customer gets the same question: "Are you carrying a weapon?" It's a new rule at the Banana Cafe. No more Kalashnikovs slung over shoulders or Makarov pistols tucked into belts - orders from the head of the rebel administration.

The dress code hasn't changed. The men are in military fatigues, the women in low-cut tops.

Four fighters are hunched over their beers at one table while another is holding court in front of a giant Che Guevara poster, US hip hop blaring out of the speakers.

Dmitry says they were given orders to secure the city's nightspots. "This seems to be the most problematic," he adds.

No one has been killed, but the combination of booze, firearms and the tensions of life on the frontline has led to several injuries, with the clientele pulling guns on each other once every couple of days, Dmitry says.

"When they're drunk, they get into arguments to see who's strongest, who's hardest."

A bloodbath

Around a dozen hotels, restaurants and clubs stay open in the evening in Donetsk, including three that go beyond the curfew.

In late October, a popular rebel hangout was suddenly shut down without explanation. There are rumours involving phrases like "glasses of alcohol", "shots fired" and "a bloodbath".

One employee still guards the entrance of the bizarre building with its large bay windows in the shape of flying saucers.

"We closed for security reasons," he says, irritated, adding that he does not recall any brawl. But there appear to be bullet holes in at least three windows behind him.

The constant presence of rebel soldiers at night creates a tense working environment for Donetsk's proprietors.

Igor, a civilian, recalls joking with a waitress that he would shoot the owner in the knees for calling last orders too early one night. The owner took him seriously and rushed his drink out to him.

Some establishments have managed to maintain their pre-war decorum, particularly the high-end joints, even though armed rebels in fatigues are just as welcome there.

One group of fighters turned out to be Francophiles, according to one city centre restaurant - showing up for the annual release of the "Beaujolais Nouveau" wine in late November.

The evening of foie gras, wine and French song reportedly passed without incident.

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