Archive for October, 2014

The wrong picture

It’s zero degrees inside the flats, and people are cooking on bonfires outside – very close to the entrance to the basement, so they can drop everything and run inside for shelter.

“What do you mean, what do we need?” shouts one man cheerfully, in response to a question from the humanitarian aid workers I’m with. “We’ve got everything! Everything except gas. And water. And windows and doors…” I’m not sure if he’s really trying to be cheerful, or if this is how he expresses rage.

“We’re living like pigs,” says one of the women. Maybe she was house-proud once, maybe she kept her flat daintily spick and span. Maybe that flat there is hers, the one with destroyed shelves still heaped with dusty books and clothes, visible through the broken window where a forlorn lace curtain hangs… “Like pigs. We’re stuck on the frontline here, but we are people too, why doesn’t anyone remember that?”

“Don’t take pictures of our house, go to the school,” says Marina, a woman in her forties wearing a grubby white bobble hat. “I really wish someone would write an article about the school, it’s completely ruined. It’s not important to me anymore who ruined it, what’s important is the result. And I pity the children most. None of this is their fault.”

krasnohorivka toy

The sun is setting, gilding the rubble and picking out like diamonds the broken glass everywhere. It turns Marina’s face gold, lights her eyes for a second so that she’s beautiful, as if lit from within.

Sunset isn’t a time to linger admiring the light, it’s a signal for the daily shelling to intensify. We’re starting back towards the car when Marina emerges again from the ruined block of flats with a bag of home-made pirozhky – fried pasties. “For you! You must take them! You’ve been travelling all day.”

She thrusts them into our hands and won’t let us refuse, even though we all know she and her family have nothing; no jobs, no money, no windows, no water, no end to the nightmare…

I never take pictures of these people. I only take pictures of their ruined houses.  I’m not a photographer, and photographing their faces feels too much like intruding on their misfortune.

But that’s wrong. It’s the people who matter, not the devastation. I want to show you Marina in her grubby bobble hat, beautiful Marina caring about the children, feeding us pirozhky.



A silk purse out of a sow’s ear

One of many amazing quotes from  ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’  election guru Roman Lyagin, that didn’t make it into the final version of my story in Foreign Policy today:

 “We’re trying to become people of the world. I’m the first person in my family with a higher education. My grandfather was a cowherd, and I’m organising the elections for a republic.”


In the supermarket checkout queue are very two young men with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. One is buying beer. The other is with a smartly-dressed girl; their basket is full of groceries. He looks about twelve.

That’s all. They pay for their goods and they leave, and no one takes any notice, because this is life in Donetsk now.

I’ve seen and heard much, much worse things over these last few days in Donetsk. Tragic, stupid, brutal stories. This scene makes my blood run cold for its simple, accepted ordinariness.

The theatre of war

At the Donetsk drama theatre, which put on a performance of wry, funny, subtle and humane Chekhov today, while outside the shells and the mortars fell.

Means of attack and defence…

Please do not bring means of attack of defence into the theatre

Please do not bring means of attack or defence into the theatre

Two sons of Donetsk

The shabby, creaking, rattling night train from Kyiv to Slavyansk is full of Ukrainian soldiers on leave, getting drunk. They roam the carriages until three a.m, maudlin and aggressive and teary-eyed and tired.

One of them is on his way home to Donetsk. He’s been with the Ukrainian special forces for two years, and based in East Ukraine for the last few months with the army, fighting militants from the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic – the DNR. Now he’s on his way home to his family.

“My family is the only reason I’m fighting,” says Andriy – let’s call him that.

His family lives in Donetsk, which flies the DNR flag. Donetsk is full of his enemies: men he’s been fighting during the last few months. Men he grew up with. From Slavyansk he will get on a crowded, rattling bus and pass the checkpoints on the road to Donetsk, first the Ukrainian and then the DNR checkpoints although it is not always clear which is which when everyone speaks the same language and grew up in the same towns; pass them hopefully anonymously, because as a Ukrainian soldier going home to DNR-held Donetsk, he is a traitor to both sides.

“It’ll be ok,” he says slurrily. “They all know me; I have relatives everywhere.”

Next day in Donetsk, a militant from the DNR’s Vostok Battalion tells me he is local. Ostap – let’s call him that – thinks I am wondering if he is a Russian mercenary, because he adds: “I’m not just from Donetsk, I served for 20 years in the Ukrainian army.”

Ostap says he’s fighting against that army now because “the Ukrainian army is a crock of shit,” – and he and his fellow militants guffaw. Unlike Andriy, unarmed, out of uniform, and travelling in the cheapest platzkart railway carriage, Ostap is driving a shiny jeep full of weapons; along with the rifles he and all the others carry there’s a grenade, a knife and a pistol stuffed in the pocket of the door next to me.

Ostap says he knows personally some of the people he is fighting against. “Lots of them want to kill me, they say they want my head.” There is a pause. “But I’ve still got my head.”

Later he says, “It wasn’t an easy decision.” He was loyal to the Ukrainian army til February this year, when he was on Maidan and saw special forces officers get shot in the head. After that, when his commander said “Let’s go and kill the separatists in East Ukraine,” he said, “fuck you”, deserted, and joined the rebels.

His family is in Donetsk, his mother and wife and children. “If my dad knew what I was doing he’d kill me. Like Taras Bulba – you know that story?”

I do; it’s a famous Gogol story about the 18th century Cossack-Polish wars, and about a man with two sons.

Taras Bulba the Ukrainian Cossack took his two sons to war, and lost them both. He killed his traitor son Andriy, who fell in love with a Polish girl caught in a Cossack siege. When the siege was lost, Taras watched his loyal son Ostap be tortured and killed by the victorious Poles.

I wonder which son this militant I’ve called Ostap really identifies with. I wonder if the soldier on the train, the one I’ve called Andriy, knows this story. Andriy wouldn’t say what his father thinks about what his son is doing; whether his father would kill him, or would watch him die.

I tell Ostap the militant about Andriy the soldier coming home to Donetsk. “Oh, we know about them, there are lots of them,” says Ostap. “We hate them.”

It has gone very quiet in the jeep. Not far away, explosions boom. “Civil war,” says Andriy or Ostap. “This is civil war. And it is hell.”

Taras Bulba, 2014

Taras Bulba, 2014 style

The truth about King Arthur

“You know King Arthur was from Ukraine.”


“Yes, all the knights from the round table were Sarmatian, and Sarmatians are the ancestors of modern-day Ukrainians.”

“I know that’s one theory…”

“It isn’t just theory. It was in a Hollywood film.”

What skill have I most developed over my last eight months as a journalist? Not how to dodge bullets or marriage proposals from armed militants. Not how to balance two sides without being black-listed by either. Not how to actually make a living from journalism. No, the art I have perfected is how to nod politely while listening to complete and utter illogic.

King Arthur's knights: in Ukraine

King Arthur’s knights – Ukrainians, all








The truth about war

The truth about war is not that the Ukrainian army shelled this school today or the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) shelled it; that the Ukrainian army shelled it because the DNR shelled Ukrainian positions from the school first, or that the DNR shelled it because the Ukrainians shelled the DNR because the DNR shelled the Ukrainians first and the school was stuck in the middle–

The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

 The photographs and videos and analyses of missile damage angles and sun shadows and nearby artillery positions and types of artillery with their stupid innocent names like ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’ don’t matter. The interviews with soldiers and militants and military experts and injured and bystanders don’t matter. All that matters is that the supporters of the DNR will believe one thing about what happened, and the supporters of Ukraine will believe another. ‘Both sides blamed the other’, that is the truth of war. 

 I always understood war, at its most basic level, if you take away all the stuff about religion or property or governance or liberation, to be a matter of A killing B before B kills A. Surely that is what war is. That is what weapons of war, the ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’, are made for. 

Now I see that war is something quite different. War is about A (or B) killing C in order to made D believe that B (or A) is more of a bloodthirsty vicious world-threatening [insert insult of choice] than A (or B). 

The truth about war is that the truth doesn’t matter. The truth is that everyone has their own version they want to believe and are made to believe. 

And the people who died – they’ve been made into weapons of war; they could be  ‘blossom’ perhaps. Or ‘mayflies’. Something helpless and short-lived, in the stupid euphemisms of military hardware.

The truth about those people who died today is that they had parents and children and lovers and friends; hopes and beliefs and prejudices and regrets. They had lives, and now they don’t. Does that matter, to anyone, anymore?

semenovka rubble


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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