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

Medals

“Our grandfather was a Red Army hero. He had all these medals, the Red Star for undaunted bravery and everything. And he was on leave at home in Crimea in May 1944. He was with my grandmother and one son, staying in Yevpatoria, while the other two children were somewhere else. My uncle, the son who was there, told us all this. There was this knock at the gate at five in the morning on 18th May. My grandfather didn’t like to hurry to do anything – it must be where I get it from. He shouted ‘Coming, coming!’ and he was getting up and putting on his clothes, and by that time they’d climbed over the gate, these soldiers, and were in the yard and knocking on the door. And it opened and there he was standing in his army uniform and all his medals. They didn’t know what to do. They’d been told there were only women and children in the house, and instead here was this decorated army officer. So they said he should go to the commandant. He went and explained he was on leave, and the commandant said he should go straight back to the front.

“Khartbaba went back home and said he was going to the front. And then – our uncle told us – there was this huge row and scandal with bitay [grandmother], it went on for about two hours, and the end of it was that they both got taken away into exile with the son, our uncle. The other two children were put in another railway wagon, and ended up in a completely different place. That’s a whole other story. My grandfather did find them again in Uzbekistan, they were living on a rubbish dump. He found them just in time, they were dying of hunger.”

This decorated Red Army hero had two grandsons, who came back home to live in Crimea fifty years after the whole family, along with all the Crimean Tatars, was deported to central Asia and Siberia by Soviet authorities for alleged collaboration with the occupying Nazis. One of those grandsons told me this story (which I’ve written down from memory). The other was killed in March 2014 for making a totally silent, solitary, peaceful protest against the Russian takeover of Crimea. This is his ‘Hero of Ukraine’ medal, awarded posthumously.

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This is a Second World War memorial in Koreiz, on the south Crimean coast, to local men who fough in the Red Army. Most of the names on it, repeating over and over, are Crimean Tatar.

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It was built on the initiative of a Crimean Tatar man with the same surname as one on the monument, after he returned in the 1990s to the town from which his family was exiled on 18 May 1944. Nearby, the family house is still standing; it belongs now to a Russian family.

The man had two sons. One of them showed me this memorial, and the historic mosque which was also rebuilt on his father’s initiative, and his father’s grave – he died in 2016, disillusioned with Russia that had awarded him a medal ‘For the return of Crimea’ in 2014, and then harassed and beaten and imprisoned his other son.

The other son has been in remand prison for more than two years, and is now on trial in Russia along with five other men charged with ‘attempting to overthrow the state’ and belonging to a ‘terrorist’ Muslim organisation. At a recent hearing one of the secret witnesses on whose evidence the entire prosecution is based, revealed his name. He said he had never met half the men on trial and had no evidence to think that the others, who he did know, were involved in the organisation. The trial continues.

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These are commemorative 10-rouble coins issued by Russia after what it calls the  ‘reunification’ of Crimea in 2014. They were given to me by two Russian women from Simferopol, the capital city of Crimea. They said, their voices chiming and interrupting and agreeing, ending each other’s sentences, repeating the same phrases:

“I’ve got nothing against Tatars, you can meet very good ones, I adore them, but we were scared on 18 May when they marked the deportation every year… If it hadn’t been for Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] the Tatars would have just destroyed us, it would have been the most terrible thing on the whole planet… They all came here [to Simferopol], it was awful, they said such strange things about Russia, it was such a stressful situation, all you’d need to do is light a match and it would all go up. Every year… On 18 May we couldn’t go out because they were coming and we were afraid because they were everywhere, it was terrible, every year, we were afraid even to go to school…  Not anymore. Now it’s all civilised. They have their monuments and sacred places where they are allowed to go, they can go to mosque; they [the authorities] are building them such a beautiful mosque now… They live very well, some of them live better than us. We’re tolerant to everyone, our marriages are all mixed, Russian and Ukrainian, we’re all mixed and how can you divide us now? … No one is violating their rights, it’s not true what they say. They have everything, they have cultural centres and schools, they get given more because they were deported and they’re to be pitied… It’s us who get nothing special. We can manage, it’s our home and we should help and accept everyone, that’s what we were taught.”

The ‘Crimean Marathon’ is a grassroots campaign in Crimea collecting 10 rouble coins like these the women gave me, by the bucketload, to support the (overwhelmingly) Crimean Tatar people imprisoned or fined since annexation for ‘unsanctioned meetings’, ‘inciting inter-ethnic hatred’, ‘resisting legitimate force by law enforcement,’ ‘extremism’, ‘questioning the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation’, etc, etc. The latest person likely to be in need of those 10 rouble coins has just been arrested at a memorial meeting for the 18th May deportation; a meeting that these two women would have approved of, no longer in the city centre (where they were held until 2014) but next to the mosque in an entirely Crimean Tatar suburb on the very edge of Simferopol. ‘Their monuments and sacred places where they are allowed to go’.

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This is a well in a wild, empty valley near Bakhchisaray in Crimea. It’s all that’s left of the Crimean Tatar village of Adym Chokrak (Many Springs), that was emptied of people on 18 May 1944, and later bulldozed. Because of the clean, cold water it’s now quite a popular place for wild camping for people who mostly have little awareness and less interest in its history.

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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


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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