no more numbers

29 August 2014, Ilovaisk, east Ukraine: 366 dead, 429 wounded, 128 taken prisoner, 158 missing in action (Ukrainian military prosecutor’s office).

158 missing is just a number.

Andrey drove his mum mad by playing computer games late into the night in the one-room flat they shared. Igor was a miner, he went skiiing for the first time in the Carpathians just before the war, and took to it like a duck to water, said to his wife and daughters: why did I spend all my life underground and never knew there was this? Sasha loved camping and nature and taught all his fellow soldiers to dutifully bury their shits as they camped out at their check point last summer, before it all went wrong at Ilovaisk. Artyom could inhale one of his mum’s homemade cakes in one sitting. Herman made everyone laugh. Yura was born practically in a railway carriage travelling from Germany to Moscow. Yaroslav had a beautiful grin everyone remembered. Sergey was as proud and careful of his clothes as a girl.

Maxim’s mother sits at her computer, hoping against hope that her son will contact her again through social media: mumwe’reherewe’reallaliveall. In her cluttered inbox endless spam sits alongside messages from conmen promising to return her son alive if she will only send money.

Ruslan’s son is collecting money in his piggybank to pay the bad people to let his dad go free. His daughter came home from school crying because the other children said her dad was dead.

Igor’s wife wakes from dreams of joining a women’s volunteer army battalion where everyone welcomes her and there is work to be done and hope lies ahead – wakes to the same empty bed and the same hopeless question: what can I do? What if he comes home and asks why I didn’t I do more to find him?

Yura’s mother gets up every morning at 4am to pray; the stray cat she took in sits beside her purring. She thought it was a tom; when it turned out to be female Andrey’s mother advised her: keep it, because if a tom can become a female then for sure your Yura is coming home.

Andrey’s cat ran away a few months ago. In the empty flat Andrey’s mum dreams of aeroplanes, and of wrapping her belongings in a handkerchief and setting off, like the hedgehog in the fog, to wander far away from everything. But the hedgehog comes home in the end to its family, because it is in a children’s cartoon.

Come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home

5 percent terror, 95 percent boredom

There’s so little to do in Donetsk.

Many shops are closed. There’s nothing nice to eat, nowhere to go, nothing to look forward to. There’s hardly even the adrenalin rush of terror of shelling – everyone has got too used to it.

The poorly stocked supermarket (odds and ends from Ukraine, ‘Republican bread’ at 2.80 hryvnas/5.60 rubles a loaf according to the ‘DNR’ official exchange rate, ‘cheese products’ and ersatz coffee from Russia) has been nationalised. The prosthetics clinic has been nationalised. The pawn shop has been nationalised. Do you want flowers, do you want army boots? women call listlessly from their stalls at the market – nationalised, naturally – where everything is out of date or adulterated and no one much is buying because no one can afford to.

military goods and souvenirs in Donetsk market

military goods and souvenirs in Donetsk market

The fountains play on Pushkin Boulevard amid perfectly tidy beds of roses and mums pushing prams, young couples arm in arm, a grandpa walking with his grandson wearing matching Black Sea Fleet caps. Small armies of municipal workers weed, sweep up leaves, repaint railings and zebra crossings across quiet roads. Down by the river cyclists ride by in the closed world of their headphones and drunk militants pounce on babies to kiss.

Along the broad, deserted highway built to bring international guests from airport to stadium for the Euro 2012 football championship – just three unimaginable years ago – Ukrainian ‘Officers Corps’ jeeps whizz by on their murky quests to bring prisoners home. The road surface hums under the tyres with the dulling, soporific sound left behind by tank treads. The sound of Donetsk now.

Work for all! 'DNR' employment centre

Work for all! ‘DNR’ employment centre

Work for women up to 45 as massagists, no experience needed

Work for women up to 45 as massagists, no experience needed

Posters everywhere promise exam-free entry to higher education institutions (“Donetsk National University – recognised by the whole world, the best in the Republic’); work for all (those armies of militants and municipal workers…); worthy pensions; more nationalisation; rebirth, revival, renewal, regeneration; hero status in the ‘DNR’ army (‘Daddy, where were you when they destroyed our homeland?’).

Daddy, where were you?

Daddy, where were you?

No one makes plans, no one receives letters, no one understands the point of anything anymore. There’s nothing to talk about except the high, high prices – even the rage got old, the propaganda got repetitive, the dead too many to count.

War is horror, is death, is hatred and terror. And war is stultifying, horizon-reducing, nullifying, degrading and dreary boredom.

Independence day

In Donetsk, Ukrainians stockpile supplies for the day the water is cut off, the food deliveries and humanitarian aid stops, the lights finally go out.

The woman who made these preserves picked the tomatoes and plums from her allotment where shells fly overhead from one side and from the other, day after day, night after night. A small rucksack stands next to her bed, packed with documents and cash, a pair of knickers and a toothbrush for the day she has to flee.

But she has no intention of fleeing, and her jars of hard-won preserves are not waiting for dark times ahead. “At 6pm on the day of victory, you are all invited here. We’ll open these jars and we’ll eat and drink it all, to celebrate the return of Ukraine.”

War stories

There are so many stories in Donetsk I can’t tell, because this is war and someone is always going to be on the wrong side.

I’ve met two women here who support Ukraine with all their minds and hearts, who are just waiting and longing for the day when the nightmare that is the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ will be defeated.

These are well-known figures within their communities; if I include any details about their work and lives and backgrounds it will be obvious who they are to others in Donetsk. I want to tell their stories to all those who say “Donbas deserves what it got”, “All the patriots have left”, etc., etc. These women have reasons for staying in Donetsk that put people with armchair opinions to shame. These women have to make daily compromises to survive, to hold on to and protect the thing that makes them stay, because this is war.

This is war. If I publish an article telling their stories, however I change their names and surnames, someone in the ‘DNR’ will read it and know who they are, and know they are on the wrong side, and take away that vital thing that makes them stay.

child’s pavement drawing, Donetsk

There are the people I’ve met on the other side. The ones who were picked up on the streets after curfew and made to join the militants, or who volunteered to join the militants to earn money for their families. Who left the militants after days locked in a cellar, or an accidental shoot-out that killed a drunk bystander.

The woman whose son died fighting for the ‘DNR’ militants; she buried him far from home because the family house and graveyard have been destroyed by months of shelling. The woman whose son joined the militants to go missing in action a week later in July 2014, who will probably never know what happened to him or receive any compensation for his death or even a cheap medal on an orange and black striped ribbon.

(Rows of identical crosses in an overgrown village graveyard, for militants all killed on the same day in a fight unremembered, unrecorded anywhere in the ‘DNR’…)

I want to tell their stories because this is war and no one should think that war is simple. This is war. If I include details about these people’s work or lives and backgrounds it can be obvious who they are to the ‘DNR’ side whose secrets they betray, and to the Ukrainian side which they or their sons fought against, and which perhaps one day will return.

Hairbands in 'DNR' colours, Donetsk

Hairbands in ‘DNR’ colours, Donetsk

And then there are the people whose stories I just don’t know how to tell. Women who voted “yes” in the referendum to establish the ‘DNR’ last Spring, because they were afraid of fascists, or wanted to defend the Russian language which is their mother tongue. “We didn’t know what it would lead to.” “We thought it would be like in Crimea…”

Now these women and their families have no prospects, nothing to hope for, nothing to look forward to. There is no way back to Ukraine – too much has happened to be forgiven: “Ukraine is still a bit fascist, isn’t it? Ukraine is shelling us, its own people…” There is no way forward – not independence, not Russia, not peace or economic or social development now the monstrous genie that is the armed militia has been let out of the bottle: “We can’t fight against their guns…”

There is nothing especially dramatic or special about these women, just bitter mundane ironies: one has a daughter studying international passenger transport logistics in an unrecognised ‘republic’ with no airport, no railway station, surrounded by checkpoints; another has patients to whom she prescribes medicines she knows not Ukraine nor Russia nor the ‘DNR’ can or wants to provide…

These women are not patriotic enough for Ukraine, not separatist enough for the ‘DNR’, not Russian enough for Russia. They are just ordinary people who made a mistake, who regret and vacillate and fear, get swept along with the crowd and then washed up high and dry, who did not do enough to support or to oppose.

I don’t know how to tell their stories, because this is war. And war and war reporting has no place for those stuck in the middle, too weak to take a stand or properly choose a side, utterly disappointed by both sides, unwanted and unloved by both.

Donetsk regional museum

Donetsk regional museum

The road to Donetsk

One crowded train; one overcrowded overpriced bus to a checkpoint; waiting hours or very possibly days in 36 degree heat, no shelter, no toilets, 500th in line for another overpriced bus to the next checkpoint; a walk and wait for that unpredictable moment: will your pass be valid? Are you on the list? Back on the bus to the next checkpoint; another walk; yet another very overpriced bus carrying fifty people crammed in space for thirty; everyone hauling gigantic bags full of tomatoes, salo, vodka, clothes, shampoo, laptops, medicines, whole lives in battered suitcases and red and blue checked refugee bags; panic that the shooting is starting again; roads more battered than the suitcases; yet more checkpoints, passports, unpredictability, all the men off the bus, everyone aged between sixteen and forty off the bus and back on, climbing over the bags and boxes, shouting and swearing, joking, calling for calm, for patience, for tolerance, for all this to be over.

This is the journey from Kyiv to Donetsk. For millions, this is their lives now. Once upon a time, before the war, all it took to reach Donetsk from Kyiv was one night train, with clean sheets and tea in glasses in silver holders. War is hell, is death, is grief and destruction. And war is a massive, expensive, humiliating, stupid, unbearable, gigantically pointless inconvenience.

Wish you were here

Beach postcard from Dnipropetrovsk. Three teenage boys throwing each other in the Dnipro river; an old lady in a 1950s swimsuit talking to herself; two lobster-pink women in skimpy bikini bottoms lolling on towels not caring that their legs are short and plump. Games of volleyball; a young couple who can’t stop kissing, in fact they’re actually having sex in the water; a moustachioed man standing pretending to read a book, getting off on watching the kissing couple. Here is a young girl in a pink bikini, knowing how young and perfectly lovely she is, standing adjusting her straps, dusting off sand, crying out look at me. Here are two young soldiers in striped telnyashky standing and not looking, hugging each other, hugging and hugging, drunk as skunks. It’s all here: the towels and the inflatable rings and the suntan lotion and the beer, the sandcastles the sex the crappy novels, bikinis and beach balls, tattoos and sausages and brown skin, peeling skin. Here is floating in the water staring at the sky, here is swimming sedately wearing a floppy sunhat. Plastic bags full of empty bottles; blue and green and camouflage; hardly able to stand up. Bottletops and cigarette butts; the vulnerability of bare skin, of shaved heads, of happiness, of this young woman in the water who can’t swim, who jumps every time a trail of green water lily stem brushes her shivering flesh and stares about in self-conscious fear of being noticed; of not being noticed; fear of living in public; fear of dying alone. Day coming to an end, the light growing richer, golden, more precious. That child drawing up water through a sieve. That child kicking sand into the water for the water to bring back. This older brother teaching his younger brother to swim; this dad giving his daughter a piggy-back ride through the water. That grandpa walking slowly past who, somewhere deep inside, is still a skinny naked child kicking sand. All of it everlasting and for one moment only, blue and green and orange sieve red bucket yellow buoys, yellow boys, golden girls and boys… The strange man who keeps walking to the river edge to refill two white plastic bottles so he can keep washing and washing his socks. The old man who keeps picking at an ugly mortal boil on his belly. The river has that colour in its unruffled blue that is more gold than blue. All is satin, all is lucid, a swallow skims the water with the tip of a wing. Little piggyback girl screams for joy; the kissing couple have swapped sex for selfies. The drunk wallows and splashes and a fish splashes away in a series of panicked quicksilver leaps. Time for a cigarette, time to fill the plastic bottle again to wash those socks that will never be clean. Time for another beer, shake out the towels, time to go home; girls are winding up the yellow ribbons that mark the volleyball courts; old women are quietly talking through their lives and loves and deaths and disappointments; the soldiers have passed out under a bench. Time for pigeons to peck up the empty sunflower seed hulls. Time for sand to fill the great holes where adults remembering how to be children buried each other – fill them up, softly and silently, grain by grain by grain.

Who, if not me?

“I want no one to be lost, I want these sons to all come home to their waiting mothers,” says Lyubov who loves life, loves sunbathing, loves children, loves everything except this war. “These ones buried here in the graveyard, someone is waiting for them…” She lays her bunch of delphiniums on the grave between us. “They’re all our children. But between you and me, the children of rich families don’t fight. It’s the poor ones who are fighting.”

Lyubov, whose name means ‘love’, doesn’t own much: a ‘hero mother’ medal, some bits of old furniture in a flat stuffed full of memories and photographs of six children, one of whom never came home from the Ukrainian army fighting near Donetsk airport in January 2015.

Lyubov doesn’t even own this grave with its few delphiniums and its number instead of a name. It contains the body of someone’s son; she’ll never know if it’s hers or not. She doesn’t know if he was tall or short, whoever is lying here; was he fair or dark; married or single; good-natured or angry. But she can be relatively sure of one thing: like her lost son Zhenya, he was poor.

Before the war they were house decorators, foresters, miners, labourers. Alexander worked in a factory before he was mobilised, earning 1000 hryvnias a month (less than fifty dollars) ‘in an envelope’ – i.e. unofficially. Zhenya was a supermarket security guard. Yura was a contract soldier because everyone else in his town was, there was no other work.

I ask to see the rooms and possessions these men left behind, but many of them have no room of their own, and hardly any possessions. Yura lived with his parents and older brother in a cramped two-room flat. Alexander had just moved in with his new wife’s parents.

Instead their mothers and wives tell me about the birthmarks, the crooked little finger, the missing tooth, the crown of hair that grows anticlockwise. The dreams. Girls and cars; time to go fishing; a stable job and a family. Modest dreams.

They got their call-up papers and they went – with a shrug. “If not me, who?” they told their wives and mothers.

They’re the backbone of Ukraine, these people, in every small town and village, eking out a living from envelope to monthly envelope. They are not the Ukraine that leaders want to present to the West. That Ukraine is the more well-off and educated men who get out of being mobilised. Not just by having the means, but by having the will.

I don’t blame them; everyone is worth more than death in a trench and an unnamed grave. The ones with an education know that. They know they have something else to offer Ukraine: skills, experience, human capital, a promise and a future: more valuable than cannon fodder. Not these Sashas and Yuras and Zhenyas whose dreams and ambitions are so modest. Who can’t get decently paid work, and whose indecently paid work is still screwing them over.

The supermarket chain where Lyubov’s son Zhenya worked has not paid a penny of his salary since he was called up, despite the law which says wages should be paid for a year, reimbursed by the government. The family has not challenged it because Zhenya’s wife works there too, and she’s afraid of losing her job.

Sasha got his meagre forestry commission salary ‘in an envelope’ before he was called up. When he was mobilised, the forestry commission stopped paying. Sasha’s wife decided to make a fuss, and she got the salary eventually. Sasha, unlike Yura and Zhenya and Alexander, came back from the war. His old job had been filled by someone else who was not likely to make a fuss about a salary ‘in an envelope’.

Sasha spends much of his time drinking these days. Recently he smashed his mum’s elderly TV set, so she couldn’t watch patriotic news about the war anymore, and weep for other people’s sons.

If not me, who? They went because they had to. Each one with his birthmark and his crooked little finger and the crown of his head that his mother knows like she knows nothing else on earth and that nothing can ever replace, not ever, not ever –

They went because, in their heart of hearts, they know they are expendable.

previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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