The theatre of war

At the Donetsk drama theatre, which put on a performance of wry, funny, subtle and humane Chekhov today, while outside the shells and the mortars fell.

Means of attack and defence…

Please do not bring means of attack of defence into the theatre

Please do not bring means of attack or defence into the theatre

Two sons of Donetsk

The shabby, creaking, rattling night train from Kyiv to Slavyansk is full of Ukrainian soldiers on leave, getting drunk. They roam the carriages until three a.m, maudlin and aggressive and teary-eyed and tired.

One of them is on his way home to Donetsk. He’s been with the Ukrainian special forces for two years, and based in East Ukraine for the last few months with the army, fighting militants from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic – the DNR. Now he’s on his way home to his family.

“My family is the only reason I’m fighting,” says Andriy – let’s call him that.

His family lives in Donetsk, which flies the DNR flag. Donetsk is full of his enemies: men he’s been fighting during the last few months. Men he grew up with. From Slavyansk he will get on a crowded, rattling bus and pass the checkpoints on the road to Donetsk, first the Ukrainian and then the DNR checkpoints although it is not always clear which is which when everyone speaks the same language and grew up in the same towns; pass them hopefully anonymously, because as a Ukrainian soldier going home to DNR-held Donetsk, he is a traitor to both sides.

“It’ll be ok,” he says slurrily. “They all know me; I have relatives everywhere.”

Next day in Donetsk, a militant from the DNR’s Vostok Battalion tells me he is local. Ostap – let’s call him that – thinks I am wondering if he is a Russian mercenary, because he adds: “I’m not just from Donetsk, I served for 20 years in the Ukrainian army.”

Ostap says he’s fighting against that army now because “the Ukrainian army is a crock of shit,” – and he and his fellow militants guffaw. Unlike Andriy, unarmed, out of uniform, and travelling in the cheapest platzkart railway carriage, Ostap is driving a shiny jeep full of weapons; along with the rifles he and all the others carry there’s a grenade, a knife and a pistol stuffed in the pocket of the door next to me.

Ostap says he knows personally some of the people he is fighting against. “Lots of them want to kill me, they say they want my head.” There is a pause. “But I’ve still got my head.”

Later he says, “It wasn’t an easy decision.” He was loyal to the Ukrainian army til February this year, when he was on Maidan and saw special forces officers get shot in the head. After that, when his commander said “Let’s go and kill the separatists in East Ukraine,” he said, “fuck you”, deserted, and joined the rebels.

His family is in Donetsk, his mother and wife and children. “If my dad knew what I was doing he’d kill me. Like Taras Bulba – you know that story?”

I do; it’s a famous Gogol story about the 18th century Cossack-Polish wars, and about a man with two sons.

Taras Bulba the Ukrainian Cossack took his two sons to war, and lost them both. He killed his traitor son Andriy, who fell in love with a Polish girl caught in a Cossack siege. When the siege was lost, Taras watched his loyal son Ostap be tortured and killed by the victorious Poles.

I wonder which son this militant I’ve called Ostap really identifies with. I wonder if the soldier on the train, the one I’ve called Andriy, knows this story. Andriy wouldn’t say what his father thinks about what his son is doing; whether his father would kill him, or would watch him die.

I tell Ostap the militant about Andriy the soldier coming home to Donetsk. “Oh, we know about them, there are lots of them,” says Ostap. “We hate them.”

It has gone very quiet in the jeep. Not far away, explosions boom. “Civil war,” says Andriy or Ostap. “This is civil war. And it is hell.”

Taras Bulba, 2014

Taras Bulba, 2014 style

The truth about King Arthur

“You know King Arthur was from Ukraine.”

“….”

“Yes, all the knights from the round table were Sarmatian, and Sarmatians are the ancestors of modern-day Ukrainians.”

“I know that’s one theory…”

“It isn’t just theory. It was in a Hollywood film.”

What skill have I most developed over my last eight months as a journalist? Not how to dodge bullets or marriage proposals from armed militants. Not how to balance two sides without being black-listed by either. Not how to actually make a living from journalism. No, the art I have perfected is how to nod politely while listening to complete and utter illogic.

King Arthur's knights: in Ukraine

King Arthur’s knights – Ukrainians, all

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The truth about war

The truth about war is not that the Ukrainian army shelled this school today or the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) shelled it; that the Ukrainian army shelled it because the DNR shelled Ukrainian positions from the school first, or that the DNR shelled it because the Ukrainians shelled the DNR because the DNR shelled the Ukrainians first and the school was stuck in the middle–

The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

 The photographs and videos and analyses of missile damage angles and sun shadows and nearby artillery positions and types of artillery with their stupid innocent names like ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’ don’t matter. The interviews with soldiers and militants and military experts and injured and bystanders don’t matter. All that matters is that the supporters of the DNR will believe one thing about what happened, and the supporters of Ukraine will believe another. ‘Both sides blamed the other’, that is the truth of war. 

 I always understood war, at its most basic level, if you take away all the stuff about religion or property or governance or liberation, to be a matter of A killing B before B kills A. Surely that is what war is. That is what weapons of war, the ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’, are made for. 

Now I see that war is something quite different. War is about A (or B) killing C in order to made D believe that B (or A) is more of a bloodthirsty vicious world-threatening [insert insult of choice] than A (or B). 

The truth about war is that the truth doesn’t matter. The truth is that everyone has their own version they want to believe and are made to believe. 

And the people who died – they’ve been made into weapons of war; they could be  ‘blossom’ perhaps. Or ‘mayflies’. Something helpless and short-lived, in the stupid euphemisms of military hardware.

The truth about those people who died today is that they had parents and children and lovers and friends; hopes and beliefs and prejudices and regrets. They had lives, and now they don’t. Does that matter, to anyone, anymore?

semenovka rubble

 

Grammar Nazis

Cultured conversation

Cultured conversation

A sign from a Lviv trolleybus window. Printed by the nationalist political party Svoboda, it is instructions in public transport etiquette: how to buy a ticket, ask the driver to stop and so on in polite, correct Ukrainian.

“This may be a case when the term ‘grammar Nazi’ isn’t exactly an exaggeration,” a non-Ukrainian friend commented when he saw it.

I saw this sign during a recent visit for the annual Lviv Publisher’s Forum. It made me think about the line between being proud of one’s language and heritage, and wanting to impose it on those from other heritages. Much of the Publisher’s Forum was about cultural exchange and translation, a celebration of how literature can bridge national divides. But this year, for the first time in 23 years, Russian publishers were not invited to attend.

Russian and Russian-language books, publishers and bookshops have dominated the Ukrainian literary market for two decades. But when does pride and protectionism become chauvinism and censorship? Does wanting to protect one’s own language, and encouraging people to speak it correctly and beautifully, make someone a ‘Nazi’?

Read the entire version of this post on ABBA

A letter from Slavyansk

slavyansk ya

From the sign at the entrance to the town of Славянск – Slavyansk.

This town was taken back by the Ukrainian army with its blue and yellow flag, from the  Donetsk People’s Republic – the ДНР. I don’t know who made the bullet holes: the ДНР or the Ukrainian army. I don’t know who left here the pink soft toy and the cemetery flowers for the dead of both sides.

Who am I – Кто Я? The whole conflict, the deep and awful and bloody identity crisis of East Ukraine is in this one letter from Slavyansk: Я, which means ‘I’.

slavyansk ya1

 

Journey

Three hours to travel what should be less than fifty kilometres, north of Donetsk. The main road is closed because of shelling; instead we drive along terrible roads through flat yellow and black fields; villages that no one ever usually drives through; mines and factories frozen by years of neglect, months of war. Autumn, already cold, everything dying. Smell of burning fields, leaves, houses.

“When we moved here from Russia, my father told me to say goodbye to hills,” my neighbour on the bus tells me as we look out at the giant, rose-coloured pyramids of slag heaps. “I remember that every time I see those heaps. Donbas hills”.

That was over forty years ago. Since then she married a local man, had children, put down roots. This is her landscape now; her land that she wanted to love and defend and improve when she voted for the DNR – the Donetsk People’s Republic – in May.

Now she and her husband are coming back from a two-day trip to transfer their pensions, unpaid for three months, out of DNR-held Makiivka to Ukraine-controlled Konstantinovka. The time they didn’t spend on the bus, they spent queuing at the post office, the bank, the local administration. “Forty years working, and for what?” she asks. For her to vote to live in a different country. For her to be secure in her old age. For her children to have better future.

One of her children upped sticks just before the war started, she tells me; sold his house and moved to Russia to try and make a new, successful life. Now he is on his way back to Makiivka, defeated yet again by too high prices, too little work, not being Russian enough.

She shows me photos on her phone, not of her children but of the flowers she grows in her garden. Dahlias, snapdragons, fat dewy roses. “When I get tired of human nature, I look at these and feel refreshed.”

It’s hard not to be tired of human nature, right now in Donbas. We stare out together at the strangely beautiful, defeated landscape. She points out to me a white heron fishing in a river. At a railway crossing, a man patiently waits with his cow. Destroyed electricity pylons are bowed over like weeping aliens, trailing wires through the acres of sodden sunflower stalks. The people on the bus look out at this land some of them took up arms to defend. They sigh and bow over like the pylons, waiting for this journey to be over.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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