Quixotic

Five years ago today Reshat Ametov was buried in Crimea. His body had been found near a village called Wild Strawberry and another called Russian. He’d been tortured over ten days before being killed. Now around the anniversary of his death his last Facebook post pops up in my time-line, ghost-fashion: Going on Monday to the Cabinet of Ministers to stand in protest. Have you got the guts???

And the video keeps showing up. Shot in central Simferopol on that Monday, 3rd March 2014, it shows Reshat standing alone in front of Russian soldiers in unmarked uniform guarding the Crimean Cabinet of Ministers. Passersby, journalists and camouflage-clad members of the ‘Crimean self-defence’ mill around; police sirens wail. For over an hour, Reshat Ametov just stands there. He doesn’t say or do anything. He hasn’t even got a protest sign. Then some of the men in camouflage take him to a black car and drive him away.

The people who saw him alive after that, who are clearly visible in the film, and the people who killed him, have not been charged. It’s as if they didn’t do anything, just as Reshat didn’t do anything.

Reshat’s brother Refat talked to me once about Don Quixote when he described Reshat. Honestly, he sounds a bit impossible in ordinary, peaceful times, always picking up on obscure laws and regulations and trying to get them implemented because he was so sure he had the right, and this was the way the world should be. And when the times stopped being ordinary and peaceful, he went and stood there by the cabmin “because he was convinced he had a right to. Why didn’t he have a right to be there? He’d always had that right,” Refat said. “You know Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It was something like that.”

I never knew Reshat. I feel Refat is a bit quixotic though, the way he’s doggedly trying to bring those people who killed his brother to justice, after five years of nothing happening to further the investigation in Russian-ruled Crimea. Five years of the myth of the Crimean Spring when never a drop of blood was shed as Crimea ‘returned’ to Russia.

I think about Reshat and Refat whenever I see photos of single pickets, which is the only way people in Crimea can still register their protest (Russian bans any kind of group meeting or demonstration that isn’t in support of the authorities, and has detained people for having unsanctioned football matches or carrying ‘unsanctioned flying devices’ – otherwise known as balloons). A single picket is where you stand alone somewhere holding a sign saying, for example, Crimean Tatars are not extremists. Such picketers have been detained and fined; it is now apparently a extremist offence to say that you’re not an extremist.

Reshat Ametov didn’t even do that of course, he didn’t even have a sign.

You can read Don Quixote as comedy, as tragedy, as social commentary, as metafiction and even fake news – in book 2, (fictional) Quixote sets forth on new adventures in order to debunk a fake (real work of fiction by a rival author) Quixote.

You can read in it the wonderful, awful ability of people to create their own reality in the face of violence, ridicule, disbelief, historical memory, international law, common sense and facts on the ground.

You could call ‘Crimean Spring’ quixotic, in that sense. The adherents of Crimea Spring are fortunate though: all local information channels and most facts on the ground in Crimea do everything to confirm their reality, even if the rest of the world doesn’t.

For quixotic people like the Ametovs it’s harder. These are people desperately trying to live in one reality when everything around tells them they are living in another. There are lots of them in Crimea. Mostly they stay at home, talking to their families and to a dwindling circle of acquaintances they can trust. They’ve turned their backs on any kind of public, civic life, because there is no place for this in Crimea anymore. Their reality, where there is international law, where there are alternative narratives, where there is justice for the disappeared and the murdered, and simply the possibility to stand in silent protest, gets smaller and smaller.

I remember what a Crimean Tatar told me in 2015, back when he still thought he could play a public, civic role in Crimea. “If I say what I think they’ll put me in prison or exile me,” he said. “So I’ve learned to control not just my words, but my thoughts.”

The dictionary tells me quixotic means extremely idealistic; unrealistic and impractical. That’s not exactly my definition here. Nor exactly the one I think Refat Ametov had in mind.

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Don Quixote and Sancho Panza on a Crimean Tatar gate in Stariy Krym, Crimea. (Cervantes metafictionally alleged that the story of Don Quixote was originally written by the Muslim author Cide Hamete Benengeli).

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Not about nostalgia

I rarely talk about Crimea with my Crimean (Crimean Tatar, mostly) friends who have moved away from there. Or rather, we talk a lot, about the political situation, recent events (often arrests and house searches), the people who are still there… but rarely about how we feel, in ourselves, about this place it’s so difficult for us to get to now.

It’s unusually warm and bright in Kyiv, but this time of year is hard – nothing growing yet, and won’t be for weeks. This used to be the time I’d jump on a train and go to Crimea, for snowdrops and crocuses up in the mountains. Soon there will be tissue-thin almond blossom on the slopes below the Crimean war panorama in Sevastopol. Downy pasque flowers all along the sunlit rims of the plateaux around Mangup Kalye, those sleepy purple flowers yawning straight into the clearest, wide-awake, scouring wind and light.

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Crimea isn’t where I’m from, or where I grew up. It doesn’t belong to me in any way, or I to it. It’s not home. I just miss it.

That’s one reason why we don’t talk about it, I suppose. All I do is miss it.

There’s not much cosy nostalgia in my missing Crimea. I can’t just jump on a train anymore but I have been back since 2014, through a difficult, arbitrary process of visas and permissions and buses and border crossings. I can (so far) still do it. Some of my Crimean friends can still, so far, go back too. It’s always under question now though, because without having changed their citizenship or gone off to fight for a foreign country and betrayed their own, they have nevertheless lost the right to freely go home. The right has been taken away. Now when they return from trips to Crimea our inevitable talk is about ‘How was it on the border? Any problems? Are your family ok?’ There isn’t much ‘What did you think, how did you feel about Crimea now?’ Most of them spend the time with their families and hardly stir out of doors; maybe one or two trips to the sea side, or the mountains.

Some friends won’t go back, out of principle and fear. Some already can’t go back, even though it’s part of their country, it’s where they grew up and it belongs to them and they to it in a way that’s much more than a passport or a birth certificate, that’s difficult to put into words.

Some who left long ago, or after annexation, I think have realised they never really want to go back. I sometimes wonder if there’s a feeling of guilt about that.

Lots of us leave behind the place where we were born or grew up. Maybe we miss it, or feel a bit nostalgic, or we feel guilt and relief and achievement at making the choice to leave. But many Crimeans have lost that choice. Without changing their citizenship or betraying their country or otherwise doing something that might be worthy of banishment, they have had the choice, and their home, taken away.

And for what? So that Crimea could become Russian. Ukraine did not take Crimea from the Russians in 1991, as supporters of Russian annexation say it did. Anyone in Russia who felt a nostalgia for Crimea, a longing to see snowdrops or the place where they were born, could easily go there. They didn’t need visas or permissions, or to worry about being arrested or banned on the border. They could speak Russian in Crimea, they could buy property if they wanted, they could go and live there. It wasn’t part of their country anymore, but then, their country didn’t exist anyway by 1991 – not the Soviet Union, not the Russian empire. Those were countries they could only feel nostalgia for, like the nostalgia for the Crimea of their childhood holidays.

Yet when I’ve been to Crimea since annexation, wondering “for what?”, people there have talked to me of their feelings about Crimea. How they feel at home now, the way they never did when it was part of Ukraine. How they feel they belong to Crimea, and it to them, as it never did before. It’s odd; the people who told me these feelings were generally strangers met on buses, on park benches.

These were not the only feelings people told me, but they were the public ones. Perhaps it’s easier to repeat in a public place to a stranger an accepted national narrative that chimes with and reinforces your happy feelings, than to voice to a friend an unspeakable loss that you somehow have to live with.

It’s five years since Russia officially began annexation: 20 February 2014 is written on the medals later distributed by the Russian government ‘for the return of Crimea’.

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Building bridges, burning bridges

I was in Kerch this summer, in the east of Crimea. That was before the college shooting; before Ukrainian ships were fired on and arrested in the Kerch straits, triggering (more) talk of (more) war and imposition of martial law in half of Ukraine. The biggest news in town then was the Kerch bridge, built by Russia across the Kerch straits in a 200 billion rouble Fuck You to international law, and a scandal about the disappearance of a chunk of budget money that had been allocated to rebuild the derelict steps up Mithridates hill.

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Kerch bridge fridge magnets for sale on Mithridates hill

I met two men, let’s call them Tolya and Ivan, who had worked on building the bridge, and earned themselves very nice wages thankyou. Tolya was absolutely opposed to Russian annexation; Ivan supported it.

Tolya’s world, and world view, had fallen apart in 2014. He couldn’t understand what was happening, how was it possible that Russia just came and took Crimea? What happened to justice, to fairness?

He had considered joining the Ukrainian army. He had considered emigrating, and even tried it for several months before concluding that life as a second class citizen in Europe was no solution.

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grafitti on Mithridates hill

In Tolya I could see bewilderment and an almost self-mocking despair – it had been nearly five years already since annexation; it’s hard to keep up the principles, the pure overwhelming emotions, over all that time. He mentioned the soldiers and tanks in the streets in 2014, coming back to them again and again in our conversations. They had clearly been like a hole torn in his entire view of the world – the possibility that war might come into his life, literally, here in Kerch where he’d had a successful business providing fun activities for tourists.

He talked a lot about his grandfather, an army man who had been arrested for ‘anti-soviet activity’ (for complaining about lack of rations and arms) and during world war 2 was put in charge of a unit of convicts – cannon fodder in the most literal sense.

And Tolya talked about the Kerch bridge. How well it was built (he had seen the process close up), its spectacular dimensions, what it had brought to isolated Kerch. “A bridge is always a good thing, isn’t it?” he said. “A bridge joins things together, rather than separating them. It connects people, trade, ideas.”  

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Tourists on Mithridates hill taking photos with a Kerch bridge background

Later Ivan took me out on a boat to see the bridge close up. Unlike Tolya, Ivan did not strike me as an introspective or romantic person. Everything in Russian Crimea was fantastic, including the bridge whose vital statistics he knew off by heart. Many people in Kerch mentioned the economic disaster that was the near-closure of the Kerch shipyard since 2014 when international shipping stopped; Vanya said cheerfully that it would soon be reopened and extended as a ‘strategic object’ – a military shipyard building warships.

In his late twenties, he wanted to be a commercial ship’s captain, travelling the world. I asked if he thought his Russian Crimean passport (not recognised by many countries issuing visas) might be a problem; he didn’t understand what I was talking about.  

He was one of the few Crimeans I met who apparently had no doubts at all about Russian annexation being a good thing. A practical, active young man who did not remember the Soviet Union, his life ahead of him. I asked him what concrete benefits Russian rule had brought him. I thought at the very least he’d mention the high wages he’d earned building that bridge that connects, that divides.

He didn’t. He said, “Peace. It’s important to be confident that behind you stands a great power that is ready to fight for you.”   

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Love and remembrance

“We all love Vanya,” says Vika, smiling across the table at the young man opposite. “All the women love to have him round for dinner. He’s our hope.”

Vanya seems nice enough, fair and twitchy, with thin skin stretched tight over his skull. Probably no more or less lovable than a thousand other young men who got caught up in the war between the government and Russian-backed ‘republics’ in east Ukraine. Vika and all the women love him not for his blue eyes and scattershot attention, for what he did or didn’t do in the war, for the prejudices and inherited responses and experiences and fantasies that make up his personality. They love him as we’d probably all want to be loved: simply because he’s alive.

No, not quite that. Because he was lost, and is found. Because he came back from the dead.

“Our Vanya’s unique,” Vika told me, when she suggested I meet him.

After 8 May 2016 when he was taken off a bus at a checkpoint of the unrecognised ‘DNR’ in east Ukraine, Vanya was one of the war’s many missing.

The ‘DNR’ security services said he was dead, when they put a gun muzzle to Vanya’s head. They called his mother and told her that. Then they stopped calling.

The Ukrainian security services told his mother to stop looking for him, or hoping for him to come home, because he was dead.

There is nothing unique in this story. Vanya’s mother didn’t believe it and kept hoping, and in that she was not unique either, she was the same as Vika, whose brother went missing at a checkpoint in 2014; as Yadviga and Svetlana, whose sons vanished at the battle of Ilovaisk; as Lilya whose son went missing in Debaltsevo in January 2015.

DNA matches, photographs of bodies, gunshots heard over a telephone connection – none of it is enough to make these women give up hope. Not when there are psychics to tell them their loved ones are alive, and social media messages with photos showing them alive. Not when there are conflicting lists of dead and missing and prisoners. Not when the DNA samples get mixed up, the body parts, the names; when police dump identifying clothing and belongings from the war dead in fields. Not when there are basements and building sites and brick factories and illegal coal mines where hostages and slave labourers could be imprisoned for years. Not when there is Vanya.

In early 2017 the Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko – captured in east Ukraine, sentenced in Russia then freed in an exchange – crossed the frontline to visit a ‘DNR’ prison. She shouted “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine) in a corridor. From a cell someone shouted back “Heroim Slava!” (Glory to the heroes).

It was like a magic password back to the land of the living.

“I’d written a letter to the ‘DNR’ security services, asking them to shoot me,” Vanya says, matter-of-factly. He’d been in so many different basements and cells by then. “I wasn’t right in the head any more. I couldn’t see any way out. I never got any parcels. All the others there got humanitarian aid parcels, except me. I never got any because I wasn’t there.”

And then, suddenly, he shouted two words and he was there. Savchenko published his name. He was added to the Ukrainian official list of prisoners held by the other side. In December last year he was exchanged for ‘DNR’ prisoners held by Ukraine, and came home to his mother.

There are many more details to Vanya’s story. Not all of them make sense. I could do the fact-checking, as much as is possible in Ukraine’s murky and brutal war where everyone lies about everything. But this is a story about love.

Vika wanted me to meet Vanya because he was found after being missing, alive after being dead – and that means they all can be found alive. Vika’s brother Sergey, Sveta’s son Maxim, Yadviga’s Andrey, Lilya’s Sasha. All the sons, all the brothers, the loved ones.

“Our Vanya’s unique,” said Vika. He tells the women he isn’t unique, there could be many more like him. He heard them, in neighbouring cells and dark basement rooms. Love never gives up, and neither does the desire to nurture hope.

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Waiting and war memorials. Kyiv, 2015

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.

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


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A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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