Ukraine jumps the shark

On the two days Arkady Babchenko was killed and then came back to life to announce his death was faked by Ukrainian security services (SBU) and police, there was an international forum on disinformation in Kyiv. Never let it be said the SBU lacks a sense of humour.

I described to some conference participants how it felt in 2014 in Crimea during annexation and in Donetsk when the war started, surrounded by disinformation. Absolutely everybody lied about absolutely everything, from corpses poisoning the water supply to the presence of Russian forces. The lies made no internal sense, let alone tallied with what people were actually seeing and hearing. It was, literally, like drowning in bullshit. There were no facts, no objectivity, no two sides, not when everybody was lying about everything. The final question for me, and one I still haven’t been able to answer, is how much people knew, and on what level they knew (or know) that they were lying to themselves. How much they knew they were being fooled; how much they were fooling themselves.

And here we are, 2018, fools drowning in bullshit.

If we’re being honest (an out-of-date commodity these days) the bewilderment and moralistic outcry over Babchenko’s fake death is not quite so much because it’s another lie, but because we were made to look stupid. No one likes to look stupid, and particularly people like journalists and spokespeople and politicians whose ego and livelihood depend on being taken seriously. I am sure MIA advisor Anton Herashchenko and SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak massively enjoyed making fools of the press in and on Ukraine, which, if we are being honest, can be insufferably self-important and self-righteous. I’m sure the SBU loved making fools of reporters who are always going on about how corrupt and useless the SBU are, to the extent of carrying out their own investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv two years ago. I’m sure they loved poking with a bullshit stick the CPJ and RSF who’ve come close to suggesting, on no actual hard evidence, that the Ukrainian state may be involved in Sheremet’s killing.

But Sheremet is dead, and no one is going to bring him back to life, and two years on the police and security services have named no suspects and made no arrests. A murder happened and was never solved. And now we have a murder that didn’t happen, so that it could be solved. We have an incompetent – or worse – SBU that lets murder happen and never catches culprits, and a SBU so damn clever that it fakes murder in order to catch culprits. We have accusations of Russian involvement in murder that is never proved, and we have (allegedly) proof of Russian involvement in a murder that didn’t happen.

My head hurts.

Those people justifying the Babchenko fake by citing other incidents of faked deaths of police officers to catch local criminals are being disingenuous. Local police officers or officials and criminals do not provoke a public statement from the prime minister blaming a neighbouring state, and from ambassadors and politicians around the world engaged in a major geopolitical conflict. The SBU didn’t just trick some pesky journalists with the laudable aim of saving lives. The stakes are so high: MH17. The war in east Ukraine. Crimea. Syria gas attacks. The Skripals. Literally, thousands of dead and injured, all drowned in lies.

If we’re being honest, none of us were objective over Babchenko’s killing when we thought he was dead. In retrospect, there were a number of peculiar anomalies. But if we (I) thought about them at all, we put them down to Ukraine’s frequently unprofessional and crass way of doing things (Herashchenko publishing that photo on facebook, anyone?) We believed it, because it was so very, very likely to be true, it confirmed every worst scenario we have already lived through and are going to go on living through.

No one likes admitting they’ve been fooled – or that they’ve fooled themselves. And of course we’re relieved and glad he is alive. My god, of course we are.

A civil activist called Server Mustafaev was arrested by Russian forces in Crimea almost two weeks ago, and charged with Islamic extremism. Server described himself as a citizen journalist, and was untiring in documenting other people’s arrests and detentions and disappearances before his own. The CPJ has said nothing about his case. No open letter like the one they’ve just written to President Poroshenko over Babchenko, no outrage. They wrote no open letter to Putin over the ‘extremism’ conviction of Crimean journalist Mykola Semena either. In Server’s case they’d argue, I’m sure, that he is not a journalist as he was not published in any mainstream media and mainly posted livestream videos and photos online. And if we’re being honest I can see the point; it’s pretty hard to define these days who a ‘journalist’ is. But when no ‘real journalist’ in mainstream media covers such obviously fake cases in Crimea, except Russian media which covers them all the time to show how special forces are winning the war against terrorism – what’s a person to do but pick up a camera, and court persecution with no protection?

Last week a civilian called Mikhail was killed by a bullet in the east Ukraine frontline town of Mariinka. He never really made it into Ukrainian, let alone international news. He was 35, disabled, and until recently lived with his mother (I say ‘until recently’ not because he’s recently no longer alive but because his mother died a week or so before he did. Before that a family grave in the cemetery got hit by a shell and blasted open). Not a very prepossessing subject for media attention, Mikhail. The head of the Mariinka civilian-military administration, as well as several townspeople, told me he was killed by a sniper’s exploding or expanding bullet, banned under International Humanitarian Law. I don’t know whether that’s true. A few days later a beautiful 15 year old girl with an extensive collection of lovely social media portraits was killed by a shell near Zalizne, not far from Mariinka. Unlike Mikhail the fatality appeared a lot in Ukrainian media and god forgive me I wondered initially whether it was true too, because she was so perfect for Ukrainian propaganda purposes. (It is true).

To be honest, I wrote that paragraph above about Server Mustafaev as a kind of trick, because I know you might read a piece about Babchenko. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m telling you about Mikhail and Darya. No outrageous life-is-stranger-than-fiction story here. No affronted dignity. No one paid 40,000 dollars to get rid of them. No one rushed to put up memorial plaques and then, feeling weirdly ashamed, had to take them down. They are actually nobodies in the information war and the actual war. The OSCE and UN will record their deaths, and probably they’ll get added to the case Ukraine is putting together to bring to the Hague against Russia. The other side will have added its own deaths to its own case. And there will be relatives even after four years of war who are unable to believe it, who with some deep and vital part of themselves are waiting and hoping to hear the news that it’s not true, that Darya is alive, Mikhail is alive, all the missing and the killed are alive. It was a trick, these last four years of war and horror and loss are all a fake. It was lies and we were fools right from the beginning.

And it’s true, it was, and we were.

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Decency and solace

Kushugum cemetery, Zaporizhia, where Ukraine buries its unknown soldiers from the east Ukraine war. I was last here in 2015 and early 2016, for a funeral and an exhumation. It was the saddest, most desolate, temporary-looking place; alongside the heaped recently-dug graves with identical wooden crosses were gaping pits for new bodies.

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Now it looks like this. Of all the graves here, four now have names on. One is Artyom Kalyberda, killed aged 24 in a military retreat from Russian forces at Ilovaisk in August 2014. He was identified by DNA match and after an exhumation the following year. His family believe he’s dead, and don’t believe he’s dead. Last time I saw his sister and his brother-in-law, they were still calling his phone, just in case, one day, he answers. Valera held his hand over Artyom’s  photograph and said it felt warm –  a sign that he’s alive.

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One of the other graves still has the same number, more than two years after it was exhumed for a repeat DNA test at the request of a missing soldier’s mother. They sawed off pieces for a repeat sample right there in the cemetery. Then the body was buried again, and Luda, who after two DNA matches is still waiting for her son to come home, collected some of the earth in a handkerchief, and we went in search of a priest who could ‘seal’ the grave after it had been disturbed.

At the church, one of those officious women who clean the floors and snuff out the votive candles in the candle holders said “Is it an Orthodox grave?” “I don’t know,” Luda said. “You must know,” the woman insisted. “Because the priest can only seal it if the person was Orthodox. Was he Orthodox?” “I don’t know,” Luda said, clutching that dirty handkerchief. And I shouted at that woman, Don’t you understand, no one knows who he is, it’s a grave for an unknown soldier who went to war for your country, only God knows who he is but I know this is a desperate woman who has just stood over the open zinc coffin of a man she cannot believe is her son, not this greyish dripping thing in a plastic bag that’s been dead for eighteen months, and she has come to your church for decency and comfort and you’re saying you can only offer a blessing if it is an Orthodox grave?

And then we went outside the church and we shook the earth from the handkerchief onto a frozen flowerbed, because we didn’t know what else to do.

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Kushugum cemetery is still the most desolate place in the world. I suppose the white gravel and granite look more official and orderly than the temporary mounds of earth and wooden crosses. But I think those were somehow better, because now it looks permanent, it looks like the fields of World War One white stone crosses, still unidentified after a century. This is a place; these are rows of numbers that should never become permanent.

There are an estimated 1000 unidentified dead from the east Ukraine war, and several thousand missing (military and civilian). There is still no systematic prisoner exchange, no system of exchanging DNA or other information across the line of contact, no coordinated search for remains. There will never be solace and decency, no seal, no end to the waiting.

Childhood

The night train from Mariupol to Kyiv is full of children travelling to stay with grandparents for the long summer holidays. In my compartment Artyom, five, had left Donetsk at 6 am that morning and crossed two ‘borders’ – that of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and that manned by Ukrainian soldiers and borderguards – and then had an hour or two paddling in the sea at Mariupol before getting the train at 6pm.

“Is this Ukraine?” Artyom asks, at every station stop. “Is this still Ukraine?” He’s been in Donetsk for a year, after his mother moved there to look after her ill parents. “Three years of Ukraine and a year over there and he’s forgotten his Ukrainian,” sighs his grandmother, who’s travelled to pick him up from a village in Volyn, in west Ukraine. She speaks to him in Ukrainian and he answers in Russian that gets more and more mixed up with Ukrainian as the hours rock and trundle by.

“What are you going to do over the holidays in the village?” asks a fellow passenger.

“Go fishing with his granddad,” says the grandmother.

“Get a tank and put it in front of the house and shoot at people, bang, bang, bang,” says Artyom.

Later the grandmother gives him some paper to draw on. He starts drawing tanks. “God in heaven,” she says. “Don’t they teach you anything else over there?”

child's pavement drawing, Donetsk

Schools and children are not a target

After four years, the sandbags in the school windows are just part of the landscape, like the nightly background shooting and shelling that sometimes – no one can predict when –  moves to the foreground. Still no one goes outside after 6 or 7 pm. There’s still no gas supply. There are two new hairdressers in Mariinka; since my last visit a year ago a bank and a cash machine have been reinstalled. Municipal workers are cutting the grass under the flowering chestnuts. One family I visited a year ago has had to move after their house, where we sat and ate birthday cake, was shelled in broad daylight. The family living past the last Ukrainian army outpost, in the no-man’s land between sides, still lives there; their children still make it to school most days.

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“Some parents say, ‘I feel safer when my children are at school than when they’re home.’ Because home is closer to the frontline. They say, ‘I’ve brought them to school where I know there’s a basement shelter and there’s first aid, and I can feel easier.’ There’s that saying; my home is my castle – here it’s the opposite…. It’s a lot of responsibility for us.”

Yana has worked at Mariinka’s school number 2 for over 20 years; she’s one of about half the staff who have stayed since 2014 to teach 150 children in a warzone that everyone, even a good part of Ukraine, has forgotten about.

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School number 2

Recently the war changed its official name; the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) is over, replaced by the United Forces Operation (OOS in Ukrainian). Under the OOS the whole of Mariinka, which straddles the frontline, will officially be in the restricted ‘red zone’. The regional governor recently visited to assure locals that this would not adversely affect them: ‘You’ll continue to live the same as you’re living now.’

“They’re shooting here the same as always. But people just hear that phrase: ‘the ATO is finished,’ and they think it’s all over, nothing’s happening here anymore. ‘The ATO is over’. They don’t understand that the OOS has started and nothing has changed,” said Yana.

Occasionally Yana gets to leave for a few days, when she and her colleagues are invited for training sessions held in towns far from the frontline, on resilience, psychological support and landmine safety, organised by international agencies.

“When we have 3-4 days training somewhere we live in a hotel and we can walk in town. For us it’s just wild that people are in the streets at 9 pm. For people who live permanently in Mariinka it’s just incredible that the lights are on, that people are walking in the streets at 10 at night.”

“I think you’re a hero,” I said to Yana.

“Oh no,” she said, with an embarrassed laugh. “I think I’m a coward. I’m afraid to change something in my life. People say, come on, abandon that Mariinka, go somewhere else, find work, start life all over again. And I can’t. I’m still young enough to start again but… You live here with hope. Maybe that’s wrong.”

Working schools in two frontline villages in east Ukraine, Sakhanka and Svitlodarsk, were shelled yesterday and today.

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Toys made by schoolchildren in Mariinka

Negligence

August 2014, Ukraine. It’s hard to know who to blame. A crappy local police station steeped in indolence and bad pay; a morgue that was built decades ago and hasn’t been re-equipped since and even when it was new was never built to deal with dozens and dozens of bodies brought in by a chaotic mess of army medics and police and volunteers after a disastrous military defeat in a war than no one even understands yet is a war. Where do you put all those bodies, in this stinking august heat? How do you begin to identify them when most of them are in pieces and your staff have never seen anything like this before, never been prepared for this, don’t have the equipment for this, and anyway half the staff are on holiday and the other half are being sick in corners or drinking to cope with it, and outside frantic relatives are trying to break in to find out what’s happened to their sons and husbands? What do you do with all the stuff? The piles of it, heaps, the cheap trainers, bullet-proof jackets bought by their mothers, t-shirts and camouflage trousers and the terrible little presents from little children in the pockets?

Because you don’t know what to do, because no one tells you and there’s no one to ask and it can’t really be your responsibility and it’s 38 degrees in the shade and oh god the smell you simply have to dispose of it somehow, somehow – you bury all that stuff, blood- and shit-stained and charred and reeking, in 36 sacks on the grounds of a fish farm. You promise the farmer to come back for it, probably you really mean it, you never intended to let it lie there, of course someone was going to come back, the army or police or forensics or the military prosecutor or whoever is responsible, as soon as it becomes clear who is responsible for these things in this war that’s still not called a war they’ll come back and sort out those uniforms and trainers and flak jackets and children’s toys and crosses on chains, because they all belong to someone, you do know that, all those things were taken off dead men and pieces of dead men, and their relatives are howling and trying to break down the doors to find out what happened to their loved ones.

 

Four years. It stinks, that patch of ground on the fish farm, and dogs keep coming and digging and dragging away god-knows-what little piece of rotting horror, and you keep calling the authorities, the local council, the police, the morgue, whoever it was who buried this stuff on your farm and promised to come back and never did, and no one answers the phone or they say it’s not their responsibility or they don’t know anything about it or they refer you to someone else who refers you to someone else – and you just want to get rid of it quietly and decently and so that no one thinks it’s your fault, but how do you do that, when no one will tell you how and there’s no one to ask and the war is still not called a war although it’s just changed its name from one acronym to another? Who’s going to help you excavate 36 sacks of clothes from men who died wearing them in the battle of Ilovaisk and who perhaps have never been identified? Who’s going to sort and identify them now, four years later? Who is responsible? Who is to blame?

f303fc7-ilovaisk-dnipro7Photo: Facebook Микола Колесник

Remembrance day

This coming Sunday is Remembrance Day, when Ukrainians remember the dead by bringing life to where they are buried. On this day, the cemetery is the busiest liveliest brightest place there is. People tidy the gravestones, cover them with plastic flowers, and leave offerings of sweets and Easter cake and coloured eggs. In the morning there’s usually a religious service. After that it’s time for drinking, eating and socialising with the living and the dead.

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Remembrance day in Zhytomir region, 2017

I think this tradition is a great example of a gift economy. People leave offerings on their own family graves – closest relatives first, then more distant ones. Then they give them to other people they know, in a complicated system of exchanges from one grave to another, until the gift comes back round to the giver. At the end of the day in some villages the sweets are all redistributed to the children to take home. In others, they’re collected and made into home-made vodka

According to the NGO DonbasSOS, forty-two cemeteries in the warzone of east Ukraine are out of bounds this year because they have been mined, or are too close to the frontline. That’s only on territory that is not controlled by Ukraine; there must be at least as many on the Ukraine-controlled side.

The cemeteries have names like ‘Ukrainian’; ‘Poltava’; ‘Kharkiv’ (Ukrainian towns to the north and west, under Ukrainian control). Like ‘in Lenin settlement’; ‘on Dzherzhinsky street’ (founder of the Soviet secret police the Cheka). Like ‘Chestnut’ and ‘White Rock.’ The people buried in these cemeteries will have relatives on both sides of the frontline. They’ll have died at the hands of the Tsarist police and of the Cheka; in World War II; in this war. Or they’ll have died peacefully in their beds, under the chestnut tree, only to be lying unquiet now, unvisited, mined to bring those special gifts of injury and death.

Pity is superfluous

Brexit thoughts: I’ve just come back from Warsaw, where I was attending a symposium on Ukraine at the College of Europe. It hit me at the airport of course, where I walked straight along the EU passport line while most other passengers off the plane from Ukraine shuffled along the winding ‘other passports’ queue. Soon I’ll be in that second line; ‘Take back control’ will have put me in line with the Ukrainians. (And if you think that sentence sounds offensive, I’m wondering if you voted for brexit).

The symposium was a truly European event where speakers switched effortlessly from Polish to French to Ukrainian to English to German – European in the best sense of the word: multilingual, tolerant, open-minded, interested, informed, outward-looking (and possibly just the tiniest bit smug). It was the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. We met at the college’s beautiful campus in a former royal palace, while Crimeans were busy being forced to inform their employers or the administrations of their children’s schools that they had done the required and voted in the Russian presidential elections. Corbyn was busy saying yes it is Russia’s fault that there was a chemical weapons attack on British soil but no, we still shouldn’t jump to conclusions. A few more soldiers were busy dying in east Ukraine, a few more civilians on the frontline were busy shivering with no water and electricity as the snow fell again. The Russian state was busy lying as usual. A pilot falsely accused by Russian propaganda of shooting down MH17 committed suicide. We sat and talked about things that scare me, and I felt a part of this conversation but also not a part, because soon my country is not going to belong to this group that is already in Europe or that wants to be. Soon my country will not have the backing of 27 allied member states next time Russia decides to attack. We’ll be in that other, shuffling and winding line.

After the symposium I went to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. On display were cherished personal possessions donated by people who survived those two months of 1944 when the Polish Home Army took on, and were destroyed by, the German occupying forces while the Soviets watched from the other side the Vistula. Among the children’s dresses and PoW identifying tags and family photos and home-made medics’ armbands stained with seventy-year-old blood, there are British army uniforms worn by Poles from the Home Army trained in Britain.

The Warsaw uprising is not a beautiful and tragic and stirring story of heroism and alliance; the uprising was probably declared too early by the Polish government in exile, and Britain and the other allies didn’t do much to help, they were too concerned about agreement with Stalin while the British press followed Soviet propaganda (George Orwell wrote at the time that the media and left-wing intellectuals “know no more about Poland than I do. All they know is that the Russians object to the [exiled Polish] London Government and have set up a rival organization, and so far as they are concerned that settles the matter […] Their attitude towards Russian foreign policy is not ‘Is this policy right or wrong?’ but ‘This is Russian policy: how can we make it appear right?’ And this attitude is defended, if at all, solely on grounds of power. The Russians are powerful in eastern Europe, we are not: therefore we must not oppose them. This involves the principle, of its nature alien to Socialism, that you must not protest against an evil which you cannot prevent.”)

But I felt so sad looking at those British uniforms, that had been preserved and treasured by their Polish owners and our allies, because they seemed to symbolise something that was good amid the horror of war, and which we are now wilfully losing. Now we are self-pityingly complaining about Poles and everyone else taking our jobs as we turn our backs on the peaceful alliance that is the EU, and Poles are turning their backs on democracy and rule of law that are the founding principles of the EU.

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British army uniforms donated to the museum by Poles from the Home Army

The photos of Warsaw in 1945 look like Aleppo 2018. I walked back through the city centre along streets of rebuilt 18th century housing, rebuilt palaces, rebuilt churches; newer built blocks of flats and monuments, even newer shiny skyscrapers. Coffee shops; tourists; the obligatory band in Peruvian ponchos playing Leonard Cohen on panpipes… Absolutely everything in Warsaw is new, or new pretending to be old, and in a way it’s incredibly encouraging because it’s taken seventy years to do this. Just seventy years; less than a person’s lifetime, to completely rebuild a city. Maybe it’ll take less than that time to rebuild Aleppo. But you’ve still lost something forever. Someone, someone, a thousand, a million.

When World War 2 ended – I learned this after visiting the museum –  the British were worried about the more than hundred thousand Poles who had come over as part of the Polish government in exile and Army in the West. There was concern they would take British jobs. At least they were not sent back to Soviet-controlled Poland, where Home Army members were executed or put into prison camps.

These days, Poles are among the most vociferously opposed in the EU to letting in Syrians or refugees from any other destroyed country that might resemble their own seventy years ago. Poland often justifies this refusal by saying it has already let in over a million Ukrainians (as workers, not as refugees from annexed Crimea or the warzone in east Ukraine). More than 50 percent of foreign students and 60 percent of foreign workers in Poland are from Ukraine. These are the people who should have a fast track at Warsaw airport, not me.

Yet at the same time Poland is waging a self-pitying memory war with Ukraine, over atrocities committed against Poles in World War 2 while Britain was providing Poles with training and army uniforms and signing agreements with Stalin to divide up their country. Brexit is a memory war about the control Britain supposedly had back then, under Churchill who signed that agreement.

History; memory; all of this: airports and passport queues, European colleges in rebuilt aristocrat’s palaces, museums and coffee and croissants and multi-lingual debates and nationalist marches and annexation and wars by proxy and refugees in tents and International Humanitarian Law and the EU and brexit, to have come out of the history of total devastation of World War 2. All this in just 70 years. So much was built and rebuilt and yet we all ended up being victims – of immigration, of Brussels technocrats, of historical massacres, of faceless international corporations, of NATO, of conspiracy theories. We got lost in pitying ourselves, and we forgot pity.

“But pity is superfluous wherever a sentence is pronounced by History” – Czeslaw Milosz.

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previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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