DONETSK, Ukraine: In eastern Ukraine’s rebel-held city of Donetsk workers at a factory that used to supply heavy machines for local coalminer are busy spray painting armoured vehicles and fixing tank tracks.
The Corum Donetskgormash plant is a hive of activity, with the clang of tools ringing out above the incessant coming and going of trucks.
The property of Ukraine’s richest man, steel billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, it was taken over by the pro-Russian rebels last year and turned into a tank repair shop.
The separatists say the Soviet T-62 and T-64 tanks, armoured personnel carriers and self-propelled artillery stored in the plant are all “trophies” taken from Kiev government forces on the battlefield.
Some are so badly damaged they are stripped for spare parts.
“From two or three trophies that the Ukrainians leave us we can produce one working vehicle,” said Roman, the factory’s assistant manager, who declined to give his full name. The 40-year-old defected to the rebellion from his job as a military engineer.
Every day the factory turns out one or two vehicles, each of which requires between 10 and 20 days work.
The majority of them were captured from government troops when they beat a retreat from the town of Debaltseve after a months-long siege, which culminated with the rebels storming the transport hub on February 18, three days into a ceasefire.
Many still bear the stamp of the Ukrainian army or the blue and yellow colours of the national flag.
Since the army’s rout from Debaltseve, which lies about 55 kilometres northeast of Donetsk, the truce has largely held.
But despite the lull, and the rivals pulling back their artillery from most parts of the front line, neither side is relaxing its guard.
The abatement in violence is seen by both sides as an opportunity to resupply and reorganise.
Most of the around 600 employees of the Corum Donetskgormash plant were hired before the conflict began in April 2014.
They have only received about two months pay over the past eight months but they continue to turn up for work every day, according to 50-year-old Vladimir, the chief engineer.
Productivity levels are high, adds Roman.
Since August, when the separatists began capturing large quantities of army hardware after a successful counter-offensive in the southeast, the factory has repaired more than 150 vehicles, he says.
“We started with armoured vehicles, then we got troop transporters and tanks. We repair everything!”
Both Kiev and the West accuse Russia of supporting the rebellion with heavy weapons, training and thousands of regular troops, accusations Moscow denies.
The rebels claim their weapons either come from army stocks in areas they seized, or were taken in battle.
Roman denies receiving any Russian aid, even spare parts.
“The Ukrainian army is our biggest supplier,” he says with a smile, while hinting at the existence of other, secret tank repair sites in the region.
Apart from hammering out military vehicles the factory continues to run a commercial business, with orders for heavy machinery coming in from fellow rebel-held region of Lugansk, as well as Russia or Belarus.
The civilian orders help pay salaries and other overhead.
“Repairing Donetsk mines takes priority over military repairs, even if we don’t have as many orders as before,” Vladimir says, adding the factory hopes to soon receive aid from the rebel administration.
As soon as real peace comes to eastern Ukraine the factory will return to its day job, he says.
“When the war is over our military activity will only be remembered as a hobby.”