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One year on: Life in Russian annexed eastern Ukraine

Russia is celebrating the first anniversary of the annexation of Ukraine's Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regionson September 30. The Kremlin is flaunting its land grab using entirely different language, referring to it as the "accession of new regions."

Russia has minted special anniversary coins to mark the occasion, and concerts and festivals will be on show in the occupied territories. All the while, Russia promises prosperity and stability.

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In reality, however, an estimated 1 million to 2 million people have fled the Russian-annexed regions of Ukraine this year alone.

DW spoke to residents in these regions to learn how their life has changed in the past year.

Residents of the self-proclaimed "People's Republics" in the Donbas region, which declared independence in 2014, have a different opinion of their "accession" to Russia than those territories of Ukraine that were annexed after Russia's 2022 invasion.

Many in the "People's Republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk, especially in the cities spared from the fighting, welcome the annexation, as it ended years of economic isolation and legal uncertainty that prevailed since 2014.

"The water supply has worked around the clock for nine years," Kateryna L., a nurse from Luhansk, tells DW proudly.

Her currently unemployed compatriot, Maryna K., is happy to see the post office again delivering items sent from outside the "Republic" after having to drive over Ukraine's border with Russia to pick up items from Russian online shops. Maryna K. also says the mobile phone network has improved.

The Russian currency, the ruble, has now replaced the Ukrainian hryvnia in Donetsk and Luhansk. Maryna, however, worries about the devaluation of the ruble and the resulting inflation.

"Gas has become 70% more expensive, and original replacement parts for foreign cars are no longer available," she complains.

Real estate prices, on the other hand, have risen sharply in Luhansk, says Anna S., a realtor.

"A two-bedroom apartment that was valued at $8,000 to $10,000 (€7,500 to €9,400) in the fall of 2021 can now sell for $25,000 to $30,000 (€23,600 to 28,300)," she tells DW.

Those living in Donetsk and Luhansk report that urban beautification projects were launched after the 2022 annexation. The main focus has been on Mariupol, which was devasted by the Russian army in the spring of 2022. According to UN estimates, 90% of Mariupol apartment buildings and 60% of single-family homes were damaged.

Mariupol residents interviewed by DW complain it is not as easy to get a replacement for a destroyed home as Russian propaganda claims.

"Papers issued by the Russian administration for damaged apartments do not allow for registering ownership for new buildings. Instead, they only provide something like a right to long-term free rent," says Larissa S., a former Mariupol law firm employee.

To acquire ownership of a new apartment, she says, you must prove that your old home is completely destroyed and that you own no other real estate in Ukraine or Russia.

Former teacher Svitlana T says there were 30 schools in her district before the war, whereas now there are only six.

"There are neither teachers nor pupils in our village," she tells DW. "There are only two families with schoolchildren. They wanted to attend distance learning classes offered by a Ukrainian school, but the Russian occupiers forced the children to attend a 'normal' school in a village 40 kilometers (25 miles) away."

She tried teaching online classes for a Ukrainian school until the spring of 2023, when Russian occupiers in the city began questioning unemployed educators about their sources of income and arrested one of her friends.

Teachers in occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions were very cautious about what they told DW. More and more of them are ready to teach the Russian school curriculum. Even though Ukrainian schools continue paying teachers to give online classes, these teachers can no longer buy anything in Ukrainian currency. Meanwhile, Ukrainian teachers who teach at "Russian" schools face up to three years in prison in Ukraine and a 15-year ban from teaching for collaborating with Russia.

"The new Russian textbooks begin spreading propaganda from the very first page, so I prefer being unemployed," says Svitlana T.

Residents DW spoke to say it is extremely tough to live in the annexed regions without a Russian passport, which is often the only way to access health care. Meanwhile, hospital directors appointed by Russia are regularly prosecuted by Ukraine for collaborating with the enemy.

Ukrainian passport holders cannot get a job or a pension. Without Russian citizenship, they also cannot register a car or real estate, cannot get a SIM card, and are not served in banks.

However, it is still possible to leave the occupied territories with a Ukrainian passport, even if this is difficult. Russian occupiers vigorously check and interrogate such individuals, says Serhij O., who owns a small bus company.

"Everyone is scrutinized, men are interrogated and strip-searched," he says.