Before the war

People here are desperate for company. No one visits these rebel-held towns in east Ukraine anymore, except Russians who’ve come to fight. Friends and even relatives have stopped calling, because they are on the other side of the battle lines, or because they got lost for good in the middle of the battle.

My driver from Luhansk thawed from thinking I was at worst a spy, at best a liability, to inviting me home for lunch and telling me half his life story. His life these last six months, a chaos of family divisions and three jobs at once, none of them paid.

Six months ago he was driving a nice new van, delivering medications for patients on kidney dialysis throughout Luhansk region. Now he’s driving a beat-up Zhiguli, and unless they leave for Ukrainian-held territory the dialysis patients are going to die in two weeks time when the last medications run out.

My first driver, the day before when I asked him to pick me up, was extricating himself from a road accident with a drunk militant.

In former lives, just six months ago, these people had more or less-stable lives; were directors of companies; mine foremen, doctors. It is like the 1990s all over again, when the woman selling boxes of matches and single cigarettes on the street corner was a nuclear physicist in a just-former life.

Life before the war. Before the war, when no one realised how good life was.

“I can’t get used to saying it,” says Ira in Gorlivka, pouring out home-made wine at 9am to celebrate actually having a visitor. The breakfast pancakes are made with water; she can’t afford milk. She hasn’t been paid for her job as a kindergarten teacher since June; she spends her days calming children who run to hide whenever there is a bang or a crash. “We all learned that toast as children: ‘peace and understanding’, and it never meant anything to us before…”

Nikolay and Aleksey from the technical college in Gorlivka had modest, manageable enough dreams before the war: to move on to further study in Dnipropetrovsk or Kharkiv, to get a job. Now their dreams have dwindled to an imaginary country called ‘Novorossiya’ that they don’t really believe in anymore.

“There are no prospects here,” says Aleksey; no future in this place that’s harder and harder to get out of and where no one comes to visit.

Aleksey’s best friend and Nikolay’s cousin have both stopped calling; they might never come back again. They are in the Ukrainian army, fighting against ‘Novorossiya’.

“There’s a problem with the phone connection. He can’t call so often anymore,” says Nikolay about his cousin. “He’s got no choice.” There is a difficult pause. “We really hope that the ones in the Ukrainian army aren’t there by choice.”

The boys fall quiet. We listen to the missing calls, the silent phone lines, the absent visitors who once made toasts to peace, the voices of those who will never come home.

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