What frightens us

Manchester is where as a little kid my mum took me to ballet matinees and for two magic hours my World was princesses in sparkly chiffon skirts. Manchester is where as a teenager I went for Life: shopping, bright lights, music and dancing. I wasn’t there in 1996 when the IRA bombed the Arndale Centre, but I remember it happening. My generation grew up with IRA terrorism. But I don’t remember ever being really afraid of it. We were more terrified of dying, slowly and agonizingly, in a nuclear holocaust.

I told a friend this morning about the 1996 bombing – the biggest bomb exploded in the UK since WW2. When I told her that the IRA called the police 90 minutes beforehand to warn them, she looked at me in disbelief. This was twenty years ago. In just twenty years, it  has become inconceivable that someone would warn the police before they committed an act of terror. Because of the warning, no one died, although 200 were injured.

My teenage fears about dying in a nuclear holocaust feel so old-fashioned and quaint now, even though there are nuclear weapons in the world now as then, just as there was terrorism then as now. Then we were scared of men in suits pressing The Button. Now –

Now I am thinking not just of Manchester, but of the little kids and the teenagers in Aleppo, Baghdad, Kabul, in so many cities, who can no longer go shopping, dreaming, dancing under the bright lights. I am thinking: how could it become inconceivable to us that a bomber would warn the police beforehand. How could it become conceivable to someone who was once a kid, once a teenager, that they should kill not only themselves with a bomb but also ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred boys and girls out dreaming, dancing – living.

donetsk man united ticket

I usually tell people in other countries I’m from Manchester, and they usually respond with “Manchester United!” This ticket was given to me by a young man living in an underground bomb shelter in Donetsk in 2014. When I said I was from Manchester, he ran outside to his nearby house to fetch it. It’s for a Man United match in Donetsk’s Donbass Arena in 2013 – before the war in East Ukraine, back when people in Donetsk could party all night and dance and go to international football matches.
I don’t know where that man is now. It’s one of the saddest, more touching presents I’ve been given.

 

 

 

 

The politics of memory II (don’t mention the war)

Last week on 9 May millions of people in Russia and former Soviet states joined ‘immortal regiment’ marches, commemorating the Soviet victory in World War 2. With each year that the war gets further and further away, more and more people turn out on these marches. They march in identical crowds holding identical placards: the black and white faces of millions of people who killed or died or disappeared or got medals or were deported or deported others or made a black market fortune or lost everything or fell in love or were raped or told magnificent war stories or never, ever talked about the war.

They marched in Chechnya, without a mention of the Chechens deported in 1944, or a single picture of the thousands who died and disappeared in two more recent wars with Russian forces. They marched in Crimea, and dressed up their children in Red Army hats, and wore the same striped ribbons worn by modern fighters waging a senseless war against children of the same Red Army soldiers in mainland Ukraine. They repeated identical phrases about solidarity and patriotism and pride in their ancestors.

In Russian-annexed Crimea you’re actively encouraged to mention the war. But only if you remember it in the right way.

Today, 18 May, is the day the Soviet NKVD and Red Army deported the Crimean Tatars, the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Germans from Crimea in 1944, for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. There aren’t any marches in Crimea today to commemorate this event. Instead there are police cars and FSB (the successor to the NKVD/KGB), anonymous denunciations and warnings from the prosecutors office that any public action today may be considered an extremist or terrorist offence.

crimea terrorism monument

Crimean myth-making: 2016 site in Simferopol for a monument ‘for innocent victims of terrorism, and security and law enforcement agency staff who lost their lives in the line of  duty in the fight against terrorism’

One of the aspects of the deportation I still find hardest to grasp is the men and women from these ethnic groups who were fighting in the Red Army in 1944. At the same time as they were at last becoming victorious heroes, who will go on to become black-and-white faces in ‘immortal regiment’ marches, their families were deported as traitors – even they themselves were deported for treason, when the war was over and they were of no more use as soldiers.

The same authorities that needed them as heroes to win a war then, and still needs them now, also needed them and needs them still to be the villains, fifth columnists, extremists and terrorists.

I can imagine the deportation, I think, sort of and inadequately. But my imagination fails when it comes to a man from a Red Army regiment whose family disappears in Soviet-liberated Crimea while he fights all the way to Berlin. How did he feel? How could he bear it? How could he keep wearing that uniform and follow orders and be so obedient?

I tried to retell this story – one of several told to me in Crimea – in Dream Land; here’s the excerpt although I don’t think it’s a very succesful part of the book, because actually I simply can’t imagine it.

“Did you go up on Mangup-Kalye? What did you find?”

“A cemetery,” Safi said glumly. She didn’t really want to be reminded of those tombstones, mossy and tumbled on their cold carpet of flowers.

But Refat was interested. “I wonder who’s buried there. Let’s ask your Grandfather about it.”

…“My best friend once came looking for my grave there there,” grandpa said… “My friend Ayder came from the war to find us, but he was too late, and we had all gone.

“[Ayder] defended the Soviet Union against the Germans. Alongside him fought Russians and Chechens, Ukrainians and Uzbeks, Azeris and Armenians. It didn’t matter. They were all from the Soviet Union. They all wanted the same thing: to get the German fascists out of their country so they could return to their families; to stay alive.

“Ayder was in Azerbaijan with his unit when an Azeri officer, a Muslim like him, said he should go back to Crimea as fast as he could. He said he’d heard something about the Crimean Tatars, and he’d help Ayder get leave to go home before it was too late. But he didn’t say what it might be too late for.

“It was June 1944; Crimea had just been liberated from the Germans when Ayder arrived, met by the smell of roses. The flags welcoming the returning Red Army hung limp in the streets. Everywhere walls were shattered by bullets and bombs. From lamp posts dangled the stiff, dry bodies of collaborators.”

… “At his mother’s house in Akmesjit, the door was locked. Next door was empty too. There were no Tatar children playing in the yard. It was as if they had all stepped out for something, and if he waited they would come back. But he did wait, and no one came. Ayder was wearing his uniform, which made him look like any other soldier defending the Soviet Union, but the Russians and Ukrainians avoided his eye, and hurried away when he approached. All through the city was the same. The Tatar houses stood deserted; when he peered through the windows he could see the kind of mess people leave when they are in a hurry and expect to be back soon to tidy up.

“My friend thought perhaps the Tatars had fled the fighting and gone to the villages for refuge. So he came out here, to Adym-Chokrak. But here too, all he found was empty houses and silence, and up on Mangup-Kalye he found a cemetery. It wasn’t a Tatar cemetery, but there was nowhere else to look, nowhere else we could be. Ayder searched there for his family, for my grave, my mother’s grave, the graves of all the vanished Crimean Tatars.”

The silence of those narrow stone beds up on the hillside. Imagine the silence of a whole village emptied of people, the beds in the houses unslept in and stony cold. Safi wished more than ever that they’d never found the graveyard.

“But you weren’t buried there, Khartbaba,” she said.

“No. And it was our Karaim neighbour who told Ayder what had happened… Old Gulnara Tata tended the graveyard on Mangup, even though no one remembers who is buried there any more. She found my friend there, crying as he searched, and she told him, ‘They took all the Crimean Tatars away. Red Army soldiers, like you. Some people say they drowned them in the Caspian Sea, or took them to Siberia.’

… “Ayder had nothing but his army uniform and his soldier’s papers. He went back to his unit, and a few months later he was sent west to the Front. He was with the Red Army when it marched into Berlin.

…“He had always thought he was the same as all the other soldiers, wanting only to free their homeland and return to their families. But while he’d been struggling to stay alive, the Soviets had taken away his homeland and given it to the Russians,” grandpa said. “After the war, he too was exiled to Uzbekistan. He kept on searching, and in 1950 he found me and my mother. His own family vanished for ever. He never even found their graves.”

karaim cemetery

Karaim graves, Bakhchisaray, Crimea

Here is a first-hand account of a similar, even more shocking story. Note the tone – no blame, no anger, no analysis either from the narrator or from anyone within his narration (other than an Odessan Jew who wraps up his response in a metaphor about black smoke) –  just a kind of matter-of-fact numbness. It reads to me like the testimony of a person still, decades later, in total shock.

“They gave us shovels, and we dug holes in the ground, erecting the posts and enclosing the area with barbed wire. Thus we imprisoned ourselves, surrounded by barbed wire.”

In these stories I think you can read the whole human trauma of the Soviet Union, which taught its people to obey and admire the thing that destroyed them, and feel proud and patriotic to belong to a black-and-white story commemorated with millions of black-and-white faces, while the shades of grey and unbearable darkness are banished now as then by police cars and security services, prosecutors notices and anonymous denunciations and arrests.

crimea adym chokrak well

Well – all that is left of the Crimean Tatar village of Adym- Chokrak. After the inhabitants were deported in 1944 the village was bulldozed.

(On a side note, long ago when I started asking in Crimea about the Crimean Tatar deportation I was struck by the similarity between the Russian word for traitor (predatel’) and for legend or tale (predanie). I presume – a philologist can put me right – they come from the same root as peredat’, to give or pass on, but on the level of historical memory and myth-making in Crimea it still strikes me as very strangely and ironically apt.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fifth columnists and neo-Nazis

Astounding article here from ‘Crimean Pravda [Truth]’ newspaper – a gigantic rant about neo-Nazis and fifth columnists infiltrating Russian Crimea through the perfidious back-door of intellectual tolerance. The topic of all this bile is an announcement on the website of Simferopol’s Vernadsy University department of Crimean Tatar and Eastern literature, of an event celebrating the Crimean Tatar writer Cengiz Dağcı.

I’ve never read Dağcı –his books are only available in Turkish, as is any biographical information about him. I know many Crimean Tatars highly praise his books (all set in pre-war Crimea, as far as I know); they also say he spent much of WW2 in German prison camps before finally ending up in England where he spent the rest of his life. In the USSR his books were banned as by a Nazi collaborator – which this article also contends he was. I can’t comment on that, but would be really interested and grateful if anyone who knows the facts about Dağcı’s life could do so.

All I can say for sure is that Dağcı was a man who wrote some books in Turkish, never got to see his native Crimea again, and died in 2011 in England.

This article, about one planned event about one man at one faculty of one university, starts with a list of Russian military units (Black Sea Fleet, Novorossiysk Airborne Assault Division, Kamyshin and Ulan-Ude separate assault and assault brigades, 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army of the Southern Military District, 2500 paratroopers and 600 units of military equipment) apparently currently engaged in training exercises in Crimea to tackle “an increased terrorist threat” but also, the writer thinks, to offer a “polite warning to misinformed ‘partners’”, like foreign media writing nasty things about Crimea, such as about the arrest and disappearance of Crimean Tatars.

“There is not, nor will there be any license to trade in Russian slaves, as in the good old days, and building a ‘worldwide Caliphate’ is banned – so of course if that’s oppression…” jokes the author. But “It’s time to worry not about ‘oppression’ of anyone in Crimea, but about excessive tolerance to Nazi criminals.” The faculty of Crimean Tatars and Eastern literature is “inherently vicious” and a hotbed of “Ukrainophiles and Mejlisovtsi” – the latter a word I’ve only just come across referring to people from the Crimean Tatar governing body the Mejlis (which has been banned by Russia) and clearly parallel to ‘Banderovtsi’, those supposed followers of Stepan Bandera and would-be massacrers of innocent Russians in Crimea.

In short, Russian soldiers without insignia “prevented a brutal massacre on the peninsula three years ago and since then have reliably protected Russian Crimea from the encroachments of the external enemy and his stupid accomplices, neo-Nazis. At the same time, on the homefront among the young generation, Crimeans are being offered to perpetuate the memory of Nazi criminals, thus educating future collaborators.”

I can’t believe I’ve just spent time translating this crap. The trouble is, you hear the same rants from people on the streets in Simferopol. This is the atmosphere ‘Ukrainophiles’ and ‘Mejlisovtsi’ have to live with in Crimea, every day. I would not like to be in the shoes of the staff of the department of Crimean Tatar and Eastern Literature right now.

Unsanctioned meetings

I recently joined a local historian for a guided tour of central Simferopol, in Crimea. She was a woman in her 50s who told me – it was almost the first thing she said to me – that “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] is a strong leader, and we adore him.” The tour, with six or seven middle-aged local women in tow, started by the statue of Generalissimo Suvorov – who fought the Turks in Crimea for Catherine the Great – apparently still “looking towards Karasubazar and Kaffa, for Turkish enemies” of the Russian empire. “But now Crimea is in safe hands again, and there’s no need to keep watch anymore.”

I was really puzzled why, when she stopped to tell us about a church, a former palace, Crimea’s first cinema, the former Ukrainian central bank building (which still has a fancy sign outside saying that’s what it is), the guide would herd us into an unobtrusive huddle on the other side of the road, or even round the corner, so we often couldn’t actually see the building in question. She seemed ill-at-ease.

I finally realised she was worried that we might be mistaken for an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ – a punishable offence in Russia – like the group of teenagers in Crimea who gathered this week for a football match, and were reported to the police. Recently ten people were arrested for five days for holding an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ after they spontaneously came to stand outside their neighbour’s house when it was being searched by Russian security services.

“Russia is watching us very closely, to make sure we have no illegal groupings here,” the guide told me after the tour was over. She’d refused to let me pay for the tour, she was just delighted to show her beloved hometown to a foreigner, so I invited her for tea. She took me to a Crimean Tatar café.

She told me she and her neighbours had used to be so afraid each 18 May, when Crimean Tatars had held big, peaceful meetings in the centre of Simferopol to mark the deportation of their nation as wartime ‘traitors’ in 1944 – the atmosphere, she said, was like a tinderbox just waiting to catch light.

She was glad that these meetings are banned now. “Now it’s all civilised, they have their monuments and sacred places where they’re allowed to [meet].”

Over Crimean Tatar sweets, she talked about how the Crimean Tatars had collaborated with the Germans during the war.

I mentioned General Vlasov.

“Mass collaboration was only observed among the Crimean Tatars,” she said. “And the Ukrainians.”

She was a nice woman in many ways, and genuinely knew a lot about Simferopol’s history, and Simferopol’s hearsay. She had a Tatar surname, and told me she was proud of it.

She made me feel sad.

sevastopol mural

2016 ‘Russia Day’ mural, Sevastopol, Crimea

 

The validity of other people’s dreams

This winter my friends’ children in England have been obsessed with a game called Magic: The Gathering, in which (to put it briefly) a group of wizards travel from plane to plane within a multiverse, fighting battles. Each plane has its own rules, founding myths, vocabulary and attributes; the longer you play the more planes there are and the more rule cards you collect, which you can spend happy hours categorising and putting in order in a box, as though the world and its many planes or countries can fit in a box where each country’s set of rules adheres to its own logic and makes sense within the overarching scheme of things.

I thought about this game again this week when Russian president Putin formally recognised the passports and internal documents of the self-declared ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine (‘DNR/LNR’). In terms of Magic this I suppose would be the equivalent of a new plane which has split off from another and been hovering in a state of semi-being suddenly getting an unallocated place in the box, founding myths, inhabitants, borders and all, its undeclared war (because of course every plane in Magic involves war) now ready to be fought by multiversally-recognised rules.

People in the ‘DNR/LNR’ can now be born, get married, and die. They have documents which state that they exist and they are ‘from here’, with which they can then travel somewhere else. Thus does a state dream itself into existence.

I’ve already thought that travelling across Europe overland feels a bit like shuffling through Magic planes which have been rearranged by several consecutive hands. Prague to Kyiv: passing though tidy, homogenously Czech towns that were once home to Sudeten Germans; through pretty Slovak towns renovated with EU money, that were Czechoslovak not so long ago; through snowy icicled towns where stray dogs run by the railway tracks, that used to be Polish but where now a Ukrainian flag flies from a brick factory chimney. You think, really aren’t all countries just someone else’s dream; planes of existence running to someone’s invented set of rules?

I saw the new Russian flags atop brick factory chimneys in Crimea in March 2014, or raised on army bases the day after the Ukrainian flag was lowered and Ukrainian soldiers who’d been there for more than 20 years were forced humiliatingly to leave, or to switch allegiance to Russia. Russia now claims Crimea is an inviolable part of itself and is sentencing anyone who says otherwise for ‘separatism’. It’s invented a whole new set of cards and shoved them unceremoniously into the box, to replace those that were placed there in 1991 (a plane called Ukraine), and 1954 (a plane called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), and 1917 (Crimean People’s Republic, Taurida Socialist Republic, etc.), and 1783 (Russian Empire) and 1441 (Crimean Khanate)…

I’ve seen the ‘DNR’ flags atop everything in Donetsk in east Ukraine, a new invention based on a flag of a revolutionary republic in the 1920s that never happened. I’ve seen the five or six or seven different flags of battalions and Cossack communities flying at armed separatist checkpoints in small towns in neighbouring Luhansk region. My home is my castle. My checkpoint is my republic. My gun is my country.

donetsk-museum1

‘DNR’ founding myths – display from the (largely destroyed by shelling) regional museum in central Donetsk, 2015

A country, it turns out, is an act of will. And an act of violence.

I once saw in some WW2 museum examples of the currencies the Nazis introduced in each of the European countries they occupied. It was one of the first things they did. How weird, I thought. How bureaucratic and pointless when there’s a war going on.

Now I understand the point. I’ve seen it made in Crimea and East Ukraine, in non-recognised Transnistria and Abkhazia. Change the trappings – the flag and the time zone, the currency, the passports, the stamps, the acronyms, the uniforms – and you force the idea, the impression of a country.

It starts in the everyday transactions everyone has to carry out to survive, and it ends up inside their heads.

abkhazia-balloons

Balloon with the Abkhazia flag in a souvenir shop, Sukhumi. The unrecognised ‘Republic of Abkhazia’ backed by Russia split from Georgia in 1990s in a vicious war

How do the makers of Magic invent new fantasy planes? They start, I guess, with a geographical or physical or metaphysical framework, a story (this side attacked that side, this side has this power, that side has that power) and a set of indexed rules and trappings which allow broadswords/telepathy/immortality/dragons (or whatever) to exist.

When you impose your fantasy plane by force, you can’t create and impose geographical/racial/moral/metaphysical boundaries out of force of imagination alone. So you fight for your borders and impose your definitions through the trappings, and the trappings become the definition and the border.

And then in your country’s schools and through its media you start teaching those moral and historical and physical boundaries or differences you’ve invented, and repress any alternative versions, until they become self-fulfilling prophecies. You create a nation of people who are different from everyone else, who can be born and get married and die only within the rules of that country – and any other you can persuade or force to recognise it.

pmr-church-and-state

Central square, Tiraspol, Transnistria

There is no one in separatist-controlled Donetsk today to give a newborn baby a Ukrainian birth certificate. That baby born in Donetsk and given a ‘DNR’ birth certificate does not exist as far as any country is concerned – apart, now, from Russia.

How will this baby think of itself when it grows old enough to think? As a ‘De-eN-eRovets’? A second-class Russian? A would-be Ukrainian? Will it believe the ‘DNR’ story, the founding myth, that it fought heroically (with a bit of Russian help) against Ukrainian fascists and the CIA, for the inviolable right to watch American films in cinemas dubbed into Russian? Will it know what ‘home’ and ‘country’ and ‘nationality’ are?

I talked to a nationalist Ukrainian historian not long ago, who told me that after Greater Poland collapsed,  in 1772 the Austro-Hungarian empire conducted a census of its new land of Galicia (now West Ukraine), and found that 90 percent of its inhabitants could not say what nationality they were. They said they were ‘local’ or ‘from here’ (a few called themselves Rusyns, which my historian said traced back to the kingdoms of Kievan Rus, geographically centred in today’s Kyiv, from which what is now Russia traces its history).

In 1930s Volyn, heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, the same question to most inhabitants got the same answer: ‘from here’. “Russia called them Polonised Russians, Poland called them Russified Poles,” said the historian. “The nationalists set out to educate them that they weren’t just ‘from here’, they were Ukrainians.”

What’s wrong with the answer ‘from here’? It’s beautifully practical and realistic; it implies a sense of ownership, of belonging, of home.

And yet what ownership did these people have over the ‘here’ where they lived, if for example their birth certificates and passports called them Polish or Russian; if they were forced to speak Russian or Polish instead of the language ‘from here’?

In fact the languages of the west Ukrainian Carpathian valleys, uniquely ‘from here’, are a glorious mixture of Ukrainian with Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Russian. Some villages have been part of four different countries or states in the last 100 years. They even had their own independent Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, which has to be the shortest-lived dream of a state in history – it lasted all of one day, between 15–16 March 1939.

Lots of people managed to die for that dream, even in one day.

pmr-war-memorial

War memorial in Tiraspol to those who died fighting for the unrecognised ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ or Transnistra, 1990-1992

Magic is a multi-player game. In clubs all over the world players get together to hop from plane to plane, collecting artefacts and skills and fighting wars. (My friends tell me most players are teenage boys or middle-aged men; it strikes me that the game would appeal to people who want to find order, and would like to fit the world and all its planes and countries and peoples and emotions neatly in sections in a box). I like the way these players leave their backgrounds behind when they get together to play. They’ve become ‘from here’ – from this multiverse world of Magic: the Gathering. Obviously the game relies on people agreeing beforehand to the rules of each plane and of the overarching scheme of things. Otherwise the whole fantasy world comes crashing down.

It is terrifying to realise that the actual world we live in relies equally on this mutual acceptance of rules, which can come crashing down so very easily. When that happens ‘From here’ is not an answer, because it turns out that some people are more from here than others. Suddenly a flag, a passport, an official stamp is the thing you’re fighting for, and what makes you exist. You scrabble around for the cards that tell you what story you’re believing in this week, what you’re worth, where you can travel next, and some fucker has taken them out of the box and shoved in a whole new set.

magic-card-box

A box of Magic cards

A picture and a thousand words

So in one of those interesting social media juxtapositions, I’ve have these two posts by and about (two different) photographers popping up next to each other in my facebook timeline:
“A Russian photographer of a Russian state propaganda agency gets a World Press Photo for some “conflict between self-proclaimed republics and the official Ukrainian authorities” […] The “funny” thing is, this war (and it is a full-scale war) would have never happened without Russian propaganda (in other words, his employer). Moreover, the agency and the separatists are funded from the same pocket (in other words, Kremlin).”
“The series of pictures I have submitted do explain the fanaticism that has driven the largest war in Europe in a generation, the transformative effects of war on both the pro-government and separatist fighters, and the tragedy of the most vulnerable – those civilians trapped on both sides of demarcation zone – technically frontline. I document three groups’ experiences: those workers and other civilians living on the ‘cease-fire line’, collectively punished by Kiev, which has imposed a pitiless economic embargo, those fighters from Ukrainian battalions, a mix of moderate supporters of a Western leaning Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian nationalists, and the pro-Russian rebels, frustrated by Putin, who led them to believe in a bright future of close ties to the Russian world, but has not delivered what he promised.”
I’m not going to link, because I don’t know either of the photographers whose work is discussed and couldn’t begin to judge their merit or motivations. I’m just going to make a few remarks from the depths of my cynical soul.
These two posts about pictures are in fact all about words. Consider, for example, ‘Russian’, ‘pitiless’, ‘rebel’ and, indeed, ‘war’.
Neither Ukraine, Russia or any other country officially calls the east Ukraine conflict a war. You might say that’s a technicality when approaching 10,000 people have died in it and humanitarian photographers are busy documenting the fallout. But even from a humanitarian point of view it does really matter to – in just one example – the 700 plus detainees on both sides who because this is not a war, have no protection whatsoever as war prisoners.
Words really, really matter. I wish I could take ‘humanitarian’ pictures and feel good about myself and win a few awards. Hell, I wish I could feel good about writing stories to ‘give a human face’ or some such cliche. But this conflict has a history, semantic and visual and political and yes, humanitarian. Or should that be human.
Few photographers and writers are experts in neutrality. We don’t just throw our work out into the world like a naked babe. We clothe it in assumption, insinuation, association – because we’re just human too.
kyiv-war-memorial-may15-sm

While we’re on the subject of contextless war photos… (Preparation for 9 May WW2 commemorations, Kyiv 2015)

Fortunes of war

It was in July 2015, during a meeting in the town of Kriviy Rih with relatives of Ukrainian soldiers missing in the east Ukraine war, that I met Luda Lazarenko and Natasha Herasimenko.

The two women were a bit apologetic. They realised they were fortunate because – after an initial three hellish months of silence – they knew where their son and husband were: held by separatists inside the former SBU (Ukrainian security services) building in Donetsk. They got to speak to Sasha and Kolya quite regularly on the phone. The two mobilised soldiers were on a confirmed list of prisoners for exchange, unlike the missing ones who figure in numerous competing lists, neither dead nor alive, reduced to a million rumours and the incomprehensibly cruel percentages of a DNA match.

I didn’t write about Luda and Natasha then. I assumed, as they did, that Sasha and Kolya would be released soon.

It’s now 9 February 2017; two years ago to the day that Sasha and Kolya were captured. The two women I first met 19 months ago thought they were fortunate, because the men were on a confirmed list for exchange; they thought they were lucky because they knew where they were, and got to talk to them on the phone.

But a list is just a list, not a guarantee or even a promise. In Summer 2016 Sasha and Kolya, and all the other prisoners in the former SBU building, stopped calling. They’ve been moved to a remand prison in Donetsk, to be tried for something like ‘crimes against humanity’, or ‘attacking innocent civilians in Donbas’. Because they are not, by law,  prisoners of war, with the protections that entails, not when no one officially calls this thing they were sent away to fight in a war.

Every time I meet Natasha and Luda, there is something more important going on. Even when they come to Kyiv to protest outside the presidential administration, somehow the reason they’re there is not quite important enough. Their cause gets hijacked by alleged ‘provocateurs’ and ‘Russian agents’. It gets hijacked by that high-profile former prisoner Nadia Savchenko and her political ambitions, and by journalists out to smear her. Their lives got hijacked by the Minsk accords, which are supposed to release all prisoners while ending the war that cost them their liberty, but which have become a huge intractable geopolitical bargaining chip, as Sasha and Kolya and Natasha and Luda are tiny, individually insignificant bargaining chips.

After one of those protests broke up in August 2016, and all the journalists left, Luda and Natasha started a hunger strike. Two mothers and two wives stood by the railings outside the presidential administration with handwritten ‘hunger strike’ notices pinned to their chests. Next to them on the railings hung their handbags, shiny and square and completely inappropriate for street protest.

Wives and mothers of imprisoned soldiers demonstrating in Kyiv

They made me think of Reshat Ametov, the Crimean Tatar who began a one-man protest against Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The picture on his facebook page, still there two years after he was abducted and killed, shows him sitting in a public square with just such a handwritten ‘hunger strike’ notice. It’s from an earlier one-man protest, his brother told me. He was always protesting. “Don Quixote tilted at windmills. It was something like that.”

Crimea and ‘provocation’ and ‘Ukrainian agents’ made Russian president Putin say last August, just around the time of the women’s protest, that there was no point in holding Normandy Four meetings to resolve the Ukraine conflict. That’s the Normandy Four of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany who agreed the Minsk accords. Who supposedly hold the key to unlocking the doors so that Sasha and Kolya and all the other prisoners, on both sides, can go home to their families. That important man Putin decided “There’s no point.”

Luda and Natasha went back to Kriviy Rih. The two mothers, in their fifties, found it too hard physically to starve. “So it was just us two wives, and there was no point,” Natasha said. A bit apologetic, like when I first met her. Tilting at windmills without even a Sancho Panza to remark on it. Defeated again by not being important enough.

I feel a bit apologetic myself, banging on about these people. Like them, I know there are worse tragedies. I know their stories are just two far from the worst of a hundred thousand awful stories from this war. They’re not even the worst prisoner stories.

What about this one: last year Ukraine quietly released several men it had been holding in relation to the conflict – and torturing – in secret prisons. This was after an international scandal raised by the UN and human rights organisations.

These secret, unacknowledged detainees were never officially charged with anything, although some of them fought for separatist militias or organised so-called ‘referendums’ on founding the separatist ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’ Luda and Natasha and other relatives of separatist-held prisoners were angry and confused – why had Ukraine just released them, when they could have been exchanged for their own prisoners?

But, these people were never on the separatists’ list of people to exchange. The ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ might have used them, but it didn’t want them back. Nobody wants them; not Ukraine, not the separatists, not Russia – not even, in one man’s case, his wife, who apparently turned him in to the Ukrainian security services in the first place. If Sasha and Kolya are not by law prisoners of war, these people are not by law ‘separatists’, ‘terrorists’, ‘Russian saboteurs’, pardoned or released prisoners, or even – since at least one has had his passport confiscated – presumably, Ukrainians.

Oh the fortunes of war.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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