Before the war

People here are desperate for company. No one visits these rebel-held towns in east Ukraine anymore, except Russians who’ve come to fight. Friends and even relatives have stopped calling, because they are on the other side of the battle lines, or because they got lost for good in the middle of the battle.

My driver from Luhansk thawed from thinking I was at worst a spy, at best a liability, to inviting me home for lunch and telling me half his life story. His life these last six months, a chaos of family divisions and three jobs at once, none of them paid.

Six months ago he was driving a nice new van, delivering medications for patients on kidney dialysis throughout Luhansk region. Now he’s driving a beat-up Zhiguli, and unless they leave for Ukrainian-held territory the dialysis patients are going to die in two weeks time when the last medications run out.

My first driver, the day before when I asked him to pick me up, was extricating himself from a road accident with a drunk militant.

In former lives, just six months ago, these people had more or less-stable lives; were directors of companies; mine foremen, doctors. It is like the 1990s all over again, when the woman selling boxes of matches and single cigarettes on the street corner was a nuclear physicist in a just-former life.

Life before the war. Before the war, when no one realised how good life was.

“I can’t get used to saying it,” says Ira in Gorlivka, pouring out home-made wine at 9am to celebrate actually having a visitor. The breakfast pancakes are made with water; she can’t afford milk. She hasn’t been paid for her job as a kindergarten teacher since June; she spends her days calming children who run to hide whenever there is a bang or a crash. “We all learned that toast as children: ‘peace and understanding’, and it never meant anything to us before…”

Nikolay and Aleksey from the technical college in Gorlivka had modest, manageable enough dreams before the war: to move on to further study in Dnipropetrovsk or Kharkiv, to get a job. Now their dreams have dwindled to an imaginary country called ‘Novorossiya’ that they don’t really believe in anymore.

“There are no prospects here,” says Aleksey; no future in this place that’s harder and harder to get out of and where no one comes to visit.

Aleksey’s best friend and Nikolay’s cousin have both stopped calling; they might never come back again. They are in the Ukrainian army, fighting against ‘Novorossiya’.

“There’s a problem with the phone connection. He can’t call so often anymore,” says Nikolay about his cousin. “He’s got no choice.” There is a difficult pause. “We really hope that the ones in the Ukrainian army aren’t there by choice.”

The boys fall quiet. We listen to the missing calls, the silent phone lines, the absent visitors who once made toasts to peace, the voices of those who will never come home.

Define ‘sanity’

It says something about the state of things in east Ukraine, when the psychiatric hospital in Stakhanov feels like a small haven of sanity.

Conversations in east Ukraine

“So do you believe as well that it’s all terrorists here firing on their own towns and their own people?” 

“I don’t know who is firing. So long as I haven’t actually stood next to a Grad or a Howitzer and seen who has fired it in what direction, I try not to have an opinion on this anymore. Anyway all the fighters look the same, they all wear the same camouflage, they all speak the same language – how am I supposed to tell who is who?” 

“But they have different weapons. The Ukrainians have weapons the militants don’t have.” 

“But all the militants tell me the weapons they have are ones they took from the Ukrainians as trophies. So doesn’t that mean they must have the same weapons? (Because if not, all those weapons I’ve seen the militants carrying or driving around in convoys must have come from Russia, right?)” 

“The rocket that landed on the factory where I work was from a Smerch. The militants don’t have a Smerch.” 

“How do you know they haven’t got a Smerch?”

Do you know what a Smerch is?” 

“But how do you know they haven’t got a Smerch?”

But do you know what a Smerch is? I’m former military, I know.”

But that doesn’t answer my question- how do you know the militants haven’t got one?”

And our conversation ends here, as I stare out of one frost fern-patterned window of the bus, and my former-military fellow passenger, from a town that has endured two months of shelling from Smerch/Grad/Howitzer/I-don’t-know-what, stares out of the other.

We drive through the check points, separatist ones then Ukrainian ones, though to me the men at each look exactly the same; all snowy and freezing, far from home, fed up. I’m angry with myself for arguing when my argument is as empty as my fellow passenger’s; I really don’t want to argue, not anymore, and I never in my life wanted to know what a Smerch is, or a Grad or a Howitzer or any other military hardware which is just so much money and invention being used on both sides to kill people. It’s not true that I try not to have an opinion: this is my opinion.

So this is what a god of war looks like

Donbas is full of disgusting self-delusional shits pretending there is something glorious, heroic, clever, brave or otherwise laudable about creating a war and a criminal state. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of meeting a few of them. I haven’t met Igor Girkin, but I have met some of his disturbed, dedicated followers who fled with him from Slavyansk, and are now living a strange, paranoid, purgatorial existence in Donetsk, waiting for their ‘god of war’ to return and lead them home.

But batushka Girkin is in Russia, boasting to Russian media that he ‘pulled the trigger to start the war’.

Congratulations, Russian intelligence officer Girkin. You self-confessedly have the blood of over 4000 people on your hands, not to mention the misery of over a million displaced. Come back to east Ukraine! Spend the winter with no electricity, no water, no roof over your head. Visit the burgeoning graveyards where rooks perch on branches stiff and silvered with ice. Mourn all those who lie under the iron-hard ground now, because someone ordered you to start a war.

Driving in cars

One of these day I am going to write a frivolous article about personal transport tastes and driving habits in east Ukraine’s two fantasy ‘People’s republics’.

Declaring that everything is ‘for the people’ conveniently allows everyone with a gun to expropriate and pimp their ultimate ride. And to chop off the fingers of the poor honest guy who tried to prevent it. And to drive however the hell they want, deliberately running over stray dogs (“There are more of them than people these days”) or accidentally knocking down old grandfathers during shoot-outs (“He was in the wrong place”).

I’ve been ‘given lifts’ in a commandeered police car with shot out windows; a Toyota limousine with leather seats and customised Slavic neo-pagan numberplate (“I earned it”, said the former taxi driver turned battalion commander when I asked where he got such a very nice car from – he has since been seen riding a horse and offering rides on a tank to pretty Aryan-looking female journalists); in the Batman battalion’s spanking new white batmobile (yes, really) and, my favourite: this proletariat revolutionary pimped minivan.

DNR minivan

Journey in the dark

In Luhansk, the rows of tower blocks stand dark against an indigo sky awash with light – brilliant stars, a more brilliant moon. Usually it’s near-impossible to see starlight in a city. Here it glints off the broken trolleybus wires and tram rails, the many shattered windows. Not a single streetlight is working in this city anymore. Large areas still lack all electricity. Finding an open restaurant, an internet café powered by generator, feels like a small miracle.

The internet works, the heating doesn’t; the few people in the cafe are hunched in coats and hats. The man in charge stays open late for us – “I’ve got no electricity in my flat,” he says with a shrug when we thank him.

His mother is sitting in the flat in the dark, waiting for him to come home. His father was killed minutes before a ceasefire was declared, because he refused to leave the family house in Kommunarka, just outside Luhansk, now a flattened wreck. “He couldn’t wait five minutes for the ceasefire, just five minutes… The really stupid thing is, he’s a veteran from Afghanistan. Got through that whole war, and he was killed in his own home.”

Full moon, two nights later. There never was a ceasefire. Artillery fire from around Donetsk airport arcs upwards in orange streaks, four by four by four, that burst in mid-air like gigantic, monotonous fireworks. Beyond Makiivka, full of convoys of trucks and mounted guns, of jittery militants who count the cost of everything in Russian rubles, the highway north is almost deserted.

There are rumours everywhere of imminent attack, of this strange war that never stopped starting all over again, Russian invasion, Ukrainian advance… There is nothing happening on this highway tonight, just the ghosts of mortars in dents and holes, of tank treads in left-behind, humming song.

Moonlight turns the world silver and indigo and unreal. Off the highway, the country roads are just as dented and full of holes, although there was no battle here, just years and years of neglect. At checkpoints the bus driver turns off the headlights and we are plunged into silver indigo brightness, Ukrainian flag, separatist flag, the stripes of yellow tape the Ukrainian soldiers use to identify themselves all turned the same, silver, indigo.

I’ve done this journey several times now. Each time there is a looking glass moment of crossing from one territory to another; each time, I wonder if I will fall into a chasm between them. This time the moon turns it all utterly dreamlike. We will wake up from this dream soon, this country will wake up and ask itself: how could it happen? How could we do this to each other? Pull of the darkness.

The wrong picture

It’s zero degrees inside the flats, and people are cooking on bonfires outside – very close to the entrance to the basement, so they can drop everything and run inside for shelter.

“What do you mean, what do we need?” shouts one man cheerfully, in response to a question from the humanitarian aid workers I’m with. “We’ve got everything! Everything except gas. And water. And windows and doors…” I’m not sure if he’s really trying to be cheerful, or if this is how he expresses rage.

“We’re living like pigs,” says one of the women. Maybe she was house-proud once, maybe she kept her flat daintily spick and span. Maybe that flat there is hers, the one with destroyed shelves still heaped with dusty books and clothes, visible through the broken window where a forlorn lace curtain hangs… “Like pigs. We’re stuck on the frontline here, but we are people too, why doesn’t anyone remember that?”

“Don’t take pictures of our house, go to the school,” says Marina, a woman in her forties wearing a grubby white bobble hat. “I really wish someone would write an article about the school, it’s completely ruined. It’s not important to me anymore who ruined it, what’s important is the result. And I pity the children most. None of this is their fault.”

krasnohorivka toy

The sun is setting, gilding the rubble and picking out like diamonds the broken glass everywhere. It turns Marina’s face gold, lights her eyes for a second so that she’s beautiful, as if lit from within.

Sunset isn’t a time to linger admiring the light, it’s a signal for the daily shelling to intensify. We’re starting back towards the car when Marina emerges again from the ruined block of flats with a bag of home-made pirozhky – fried pasties. “For you! You must take them! You’ve been travelling all day.”

She thrusts them into our hands and won’t let us refuse, even though we all know she and her family have nothing; no jobs, no money, no windows, no water, no end to the nightmare…

I never take pictures of these people. I only take pictures of their ruined houses.  I’m not a photographer, and photographing their faces feels too much like intruding on their misfortune.

But that’s wrong. It’s the people who matter, not the devastation. I want to show you Marina in her grubby bobble hat, beautiful Marina caring about the children, feeding us pirozhky.



previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 287 other followers

%d bloggers like this: