1001 nights

A thousand and one nights. I never counted up how many years that is before – it’s two years, eight months and 22 days. It’s how long, to date, Ukrainian soldiers Sasha Lazarenko and Kolya Herasimenko have been prisoners in Donetsk.

1001 is a number I always associate with stories, and telling a different one every day to save your life. Ever since February 2015, when the Minsk II agreement supposed to end the East Ukraine war was signed, ever since I first met Lazarenko and Herasimenko’s families in summer 2015, the story to save Sasha and Kolya’s  lives has been the same.

Here it is: “Provide release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held persons, based on the principle of “all for all”.

Not much of a story, is it. It seems pretty straightforward and uninteresting. Who would have thought you could spin 1001 nights out of it. Who would have thought you could spin out of it dozens of meetings in Minsk of the humanitarian sub-group supposed to deal with humanitarian matters that fall under the agreement; hundreds of plane fares, bottles of mineral water, grudging disappointments at the rubbishness of Belorussian duty-free. One attempted hunger strike by relatives, dozens of protest banners and photographs, how many propaganda videos, how many children forgetting what their fathers look like.

So few letters, in 1001 nights. You could count the letters on one hand. The sleepless miserable hours: uncountable.

Such a short story – 19 words. And how many government representatives (recognised and unrecognised) spending 1001 nights failing to agree on what exactly ‘hostages’ means; what exactly ‘illegally held’ means; what exactly ‘all for all’ means. After the latest Minsk meeting, A has decided ‘all for all’ means ‘all confirmed for all confirmed.’ B has long insisted that ‘all’ does not include those who are ‘legally held’; A insists B’s ‘legal’ is ‘illegal’. A complains that B has split A’s ‘all’ into categories of very guilty/less guilty/a bit guilty. B complains that half of A’s ‘all’ are guilty of things  completely irrelevant to the current conflict. A complains that while its ‘all’ are neither ‘terrorists’ or ‘criminals’ but ‘ordinary people’, B’s ‘all’ ‘came to kill the people of Donbas’.

But what does ‘terrorist’ mean? What does ‘confirmed’ mean? What does ‘ordinary’ mean?

And at the core of it all: what does ‘war’ mean, and why is it never mentioned in those 19 words of point 6 of the Minsk II protocol, or in the 13 points, 796 words that make up the whole document?

Minsk II is a terrible story. No one can agree where it begins or ends, whether the middle should be at the beginning, what order the events come in, what is action and what is consequence. The main thing it’s about is never even mentioned.

And this story is the only thing the Lazarenkos, the Herasimenkos, the Pantyushenkos, the Kalyns, all those other ‘all-for-all’s and their families have got. A story that hasn’t changed in nearly three years, give or take some numbers of ‘all for all’. A story no one believes.

“At first we believed in Minsk. But then we saw the meetings were constantly derailed. We’re waiting for the next one, and the next one comes and nothing is resolved, and then again the next one, and that’s it: we lost faith.”

That’s Viktoria Pantyushenko. She’s small and determined and 25 years old. She’s been waiting more than 1001 nights for her husband Bohdan to come home. How many protest banners, how many talks with officials, how many Minsk meetings. How few letters.

There are the stories the prisoners tell in those few letters.

Bohdan writes to Viktoria: “If before I used to dream about something, like events that evolved, now everything comes down to a static picture: my release, I get off the bus, and you’re standing there and meet me, and then a freeze-frame.”   

Kolya Herasimenko writes his wife Natasha lists of food he’d like to get. “Here they don’t know what salt is… When I come back I’ll be ashamed to look pigs in the eye, since I’m eating their feed.”

He writes “If I live to that day that’s called exchange (‘obmen’), and not a trick (‘obman’)”.  He writes “They promised us ‘soon’, as usual, although for me personally the word ‘soon’ is missing from the dictionary.”

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A letter to Nadiya from her husband Sasha Kalyn, imprisoned in Donetsk since september 2015  (photo by Emine Ziyatdinova)

 

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