Archive for the 'Ukraine' Category

War photography

Mira and Liza, 15 and 16 years old, with hair down to their waists and the whites of their eyes as clear as fine bone china. Eyes on the future; all their lives ahead of them. Mira and Liza from Krasnohorivka.

There used to be a disco. Three years ago there were cafes. There were places where you could just hang out with your friends. There was a park. Well there’s still a park, but it’s always empty in the evenings now. At night there’s just stars and shelling, shelling and stars. In the morning there’s still the park, you can go running – but the shelling starts again and all there is to do is to go home again, go back to bed, just go back to sleep.

We feel like it will last forever. But sooner or later it will end. It has to, because we believe it so much, we want it so much. It’s really sad. Three years ago we were just running around, thinking it would all be like this forever, it’d be like life, living – and instead it’s this picture, you’re running around and you get caught in shelling and you’re sitting in a basement and there’s no life.

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21.7.17 in Mariinka, Toma, 3 years old, Vanya, 14, Anya, 19, injured by shrapnel

Mira and Liza are in Kyiv, showing their photographs of their hometown on the frontline in the east to a city that wants to forget about the war. At first, when they were invited to join the Mariinka Media Centre photography project, they thought someone wanted them to be models, longhaired brighteyed posing in ruined buildings. Instead they took photos themselves of the ruins. Of each other’s faces, laughing. Now they dream of going to college to study photography and journalism. We know there are problems with our education, it keeps getting interrupted. But we’ll finish, we’ll graduate, we’ll get away.

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Girls with dreams, Mariinka and Krasnohorivka

Today: one soldier killed, eight wounded in Krasnohorivka. Today Mira and Liza go home.

 

In all truth

I take the bus that goes ‘In all Truth’, to visit a woman who recounts the lies she’s been told, and the lies she told herself, to explain why her son never came home to her from the war. Her road, Prospect Truth, heads out of her city eastwards, straight to Donetsk, to the line beyond which it’s all lies, beyond which her missing  son is somewhere, in limbo, neither dead nor alive.

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I take a bus to  Liberation Square, where women hold photographs of prisoners – their sons and husbands detained in Donetsk. The ones being held prisoner and the ones holding them prisoner are both descended from those who fought for that liberation the park commemorates. There are identical parks on the other side of that line further east, beyond which those men are somewhere, in limbo, neither sentenced nor acquitted.

Truth and Freedom. The first casualties of war. But in the two years since I met these women in Ukraine, this war’s stupid ironies never cease.

Such a long way from thinking about people

And tonight, 25-26 May, is three years since Andrey Yudenko died in Feodosia, Crimea. Andrey was a son, a brother, a one-time sportsman, a gentle, home-loving soul – and a drug user. He died because Russia stopped the substitution therapy programme he was on when it annexed Crimea.  Andrey died five days after he received his last dose of methadone.

One of the many things his mother Olga told me, which never made it into this story I wrote, was:

 “I’ve never been abroad, but I’ve heard that in Europe more attention is paid to the unprotected sectors of society. Here, they’re just the things you throw out. We’re such a long way from thinking about people.”

Europe is far from perfect in social protection, just as substitution therapy is far from the ideal answer to drug-related harm. But Olga’s son Andrey was a person, not a thing to be thoughtlessly thrown out along with Crimea’s substitution therapy programme in 2014.

feodosia yudenko grave

Here is another, longer piece explaining Russia’s ideological opposition to methadone, and telling the stories of the Crimea programme’s fatalities, and its survivors like Ruslan.

I asked Ruslan why he’d agreed to meet me in Crimea, where any positive mention of substitution therapy is pretty much considered ‘extremist’ – as he had already discovered to his cost.

One of his answers is in the text; the other was “It’s good to talk to people from a lighter world.” Crimea is indeed a very dark place now for Ruslan.

 

 

 

 

Fifth columnists and neo-Nazis

Astounding article here from ‘Crimean Pravda [Truth]’ newspaper – a gigantic rant about neo-Nazis and fifth columnists infiltrating Russian Crimea through the perfidious back-door of intellectual tolerance. The topic of all this bile is an announcement on the website of Simferopol’s Vernadsy University department of Crimean Tatar and Eastern literature, of an event celebrating the Crimean Tatar writer Cengiz Dağcı.

I’ve never read Dağcı –his books are only available in Turkish, as is any biographical information about him. I know many Crimean Tatars highly praise his books (all set in pre-war Crimea, as far as I know); they also say he spent much of WW2 in German prison camps before finally ending up in England where he spent the rest of his life. In the USSR his books were banned as by a Nazi collaborator – which this article also contends he was. I can’t comment on that, but would be really interested and grateful if anyone who knows the facts about Dağcı’s life could do so.

All I can say for sure is that Dağcı was a man who wrote some books in Turkish, never got to see his native Crimea again, and died in 2011 in England.

This article, about one planned event about one man at one faculty of one university, starts with a list of Russian military units (Black Sea Fleet, Novorossiysk Airborne Assault Division, Kamyshin and Ulan-Ude separate assault and assault brigades, 4th Air Force and Air Defense Army of the Southern Military District, 2500 paratroopers and 600 units of military equipment) apparently currently engaged in training exercises in Crimea to tackle “an increased terrorist threat” but also, the writer thinks, to offer a “polite warning to misinformed ‘partners’”, like foreign media writing nasty things about Crimea, such as about the arrest and disappearance of Crimean Tatars.

“There is not, nor will there be any license to trade in Russian slaves, as in the good old days, and building a ‘worldwide Caliphate’ is banned – so of course if that’s oppression…” jokes the author. But “It’s time to worry not about ‘oppression’ of anyone in Crimea, but about excessive tolerance to Nazi criminals.” The faculty of Crimean Tatars and Eastern literature is “inherently vicious” and a hotbed of “Ukrainophiles and Mejlisovtsi” – the latter a word I’ve only just come across referring to people from the Crimean Tatar governing body the Mejlis (which has been banned by Russia) and clearly parallel to ‘Banderovtsi’, those supposed followers of Stepan Bandera and would-be massacrers of innocent Russians in Crimea.

In short, Russian soldiers without insignia “prevented a brutal massacre on the peninsula three years ago and since then have reliably protected Russian Crimea from the encroachments of the external enemy and his stupid accomplices, neo-Nazis. At the same time, on the homefront among the young generation, Crimeans are being offered to perpetuate the memory of Nazi criminals, thus educating future collaborators.”

I can’t believe I’ve just spent time translating this crap. The trouble is, you hear the same rants from people on the streets in Simferopol. This is the atmosphere ‘Ukrainophiles’ and ‘Mejlisovtsi’ have to live with in Crimea, every day. I would not like to be in the shoes of the staff of the department of Crimean Tatar and Eastern Literature right now.

Unsanctioned meetings

I recently joined a local historian for a guided tour of central Simferopol, in Crimea. She was a woman in her 50s who told me – it was almost the first thing she said to me – that “Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] is a strong leader, and we adore him.” The tour, with six or seven middle-aged local women in tow, started by the statue of Generalissimo Suvorov – who fought the Turks in Crimea for Catherine the Great – apparently still “looking towards Karasubazar and Kaffa, for Turkish enemies” of the Russian empire. “But now Crimea is in safe hands again, and there’s no need to keep watch anymore.”

I was really puzzled why, when she stopped to tell us about a church, a former palace, Crimea’s first cinema, the former Ukrainian central bank building (which still has a fancy sign outside saying that’s what it is), the guide would herd us into an unobtrusive huddle on the other side of the road, or even round the corner, so we often couldn’t actually see the building in question. She seemed ill-at-ease.

I finally realised she was worried that we might be mistaken for an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ – a punishable offence in Russia – like the group of teenagers in Crimea who gathered this week for a football match, and were reported to the police. Recently ten people were arrested for five days for holding an ‘unsanctioned meeting’ after they spontaneously came to stand outside their neighbour’s house when it was being searched by Russian security services.

“Russia is watching us very closely, to make sure we have no illegal groupings here,” the guide told me after the tour was over. She’d refused to let me pay for the tour, she was just delighted to show her beloved hometown to a foreigner, so I invited her for tea. She took me to a Crimean Tatar café.

She told me she and her neighbours had used to be so afraid each 18 May, when Crimean Tatars had held big, peaceful meetings in the centre of Simferopol to mark the deportation of their nation as wartime ‘traitors’ in 1944 – the atmosphere, she said, was like a tinderbox just waiting to catch light.

She was glad that these meetings are banned now. “Now it’s all civilised, they have their monuments and sacred places where they’re allowed to [meet].”

Over Crimean Tatar sweets, she talked about how the Crimean Tatars had collaborated with the Germans during the war.

I mentioned General Vlasov.

“Mass collaboration was only observed among the Crimean Tatars,” she said. “And the Ukrainians.”

She was a nice woman in many ways, and genuinely knew a lot about Simferopol’s history, and Simferopol’s hearsay. She had a Tatar surname, and told me she was proud of it.

She made me feel sad.

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2016 ‘Russia Day’ mural, Sevastopol, Crimea

 

The validity of other people’s dreams

This winter my friends’ children in England have been obsessed with a game called Magic: The Gathering, in which (to put it briefly) a group of wizards travel from plane to plane within a multiverse, fighting battles. Each plane has its own rules, founding myths, vocabulary and attributes; the longer you play the more planes there are and the more rule cards you collect, which you can spend happy hours categorising and putting in order in a box, as though the world and its many planes or countries can fit in a box where each country’s set of rules adheres to its own logic and makes sense within the overarching scheme of things.

I thought about this game again this week when Russian president Putin formally recognised the passports and internal documents of the self-declared ‘people’s republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine (‘DNR/LNR’). In terms of Magic this I suppose would be the equivalent of a new plane which has split off from another and been hovering in a state of semi-being suddenly getting an unallocated place in the box, founding myths, inhabitants, borders and all, its undeclared war (because of course every plane in Magic involves war) now ready to be fought by multiversally-recognised rules.

People in the ‘DNR/LNR’ can now be born, get married, and die. They have documents which state that they exist and they are ‘from here’, with which they can then travel somewhere else. Thus does a state dream itself into existence.

I’ve already thought that travelling across Europe overland feels a bit like shuffling through Magic planes which have been rearranged by several consecutive hands. Prague to Kyiv: passing though tidy, homogenously Czech towns that were once home to Sudeten Germans; through pretty Slovak towns renovated with EU money, that were Czechoslovak not so long ago; through snowy icicled towns where stray dogs run by the railway tracks, that used to be Polish but where now a Ukrainian flag flies from a brick factory chimney. You think, really aren’t all countries just someone else’s dream; planes of existence running to someone’s invented set of rules?

I saw the new Russian flags atop brick factory chimneys in Crimea in March 2014, or raised on army bases the day after the Ukrainian flag was lowered and Ukrainian soldiers who’d been there for more than 20 years were forced humiliatingly to leave, or to switch allegiance to Russia. Russia now claims Crimea is an inviolable part of itself and is sentencing anyone who says otherwise for ‘separatism’. It’s invented a whole new set of cards and shoved them unceremoniously into the box, to replace those that were placed there in 1991 (a plane called Ukraine), and 1954 (a plane called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic), and 1917 (Crimean People’s Republic, Taurida Socialist Republic, etc.), and 1783 (Russian Empire) and 1441 (Crimean Khanate)…

I’ve seen the ‘DNR’ flags atop everything in Donetsk in east Ukraine, a new invention based on a flag of a revolutionary republic in the 1920s that never happened. I’ve seen the five or six or seven different flags of battalions and Cossack communities flying at armed separatist checkpoints in small towns in neighbouring Luhansk region. My home is my castle. My checkpoint is my republic. My gun is my country.

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‘DNR’ founding myths – display from the (largely destroyed by shelling) regional museum in central Donetsk, 2015

A country, it turns out, is an act of will. And an act of violence.

I once saw in some WW2 museum examples of the currencies the Nazis introduced in each of the European countries they occupied. It was one of the first things they did. How weird, I thought. How bureaucratic and pointless when there’s a war going on.

Now I understand the point. I’ve seen it made in Crimea and East Ukraine, in non-recognised Transnistria and Abkhazia. Change the trappings – the flag and the time zone, the currency, the passports, the stamps, the acronyms, the uniforms – and you force the idea, the impression of a country.

It starts in the everyday transactions everyone has to carry out to survive, and it ends up inside their heads.

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Balloon with the Abkhazia flag in a souvenir shop, Sukhumi. The unrecognised ‘Republic of Abkhazia’ backed by Russia split from Georgia in 1990s in a vicious war

How do the makers of Magic invent new fantasy planes? They start, I guess, with a geographical or physical or metaphysical framework, a story (this side attacked that side, this side has this power, that side has that power) and a set of indexed rules and trappings which allow broadswords/telepathy/immortality/dragons (or whatever) to exist.

When you impose your fantasy plane by force, you can’t create and impose geographical/racial/moral/metaphysical boundaries out of force of imagination alone. So you fight for your borders and impose your definitions through the trappings, and the trappings become the definition and the border.

And then in your country’s schools and through its media you start teaching those moral and historical and physical boundaries or differences you’ve invented, and repress any alternative versions, until they become self-fulfilling prophecies. You create a nation of people who are different from everyone else, who can be born and get married and die only within the rules of that country – and any other you can persuade or force to recognise it.

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Central square, Tiraspol, Transnistria

There is no one in separatist-controlled Donetsk today to give a newborn baby a Ukrainian birth certificate. That baby born in Donetsk and given a ‘DNR’ birth certificate does not exist as far as any country is concerned – apart, now, from Russia.

How will this baby think of itself when it grows old enough to think? As a ‘De-eN-eRovets’? A second-class Russian? A would-be Ukrainian? Will it believe the ‘DNR’ story, the founding myth, that it fought heroically (with a bit of Russian help) against Ukrainian fascists and the CIA, for the inviolable right to watch American films in cinemas dubbed into Russian? Will it know what ‘home’ and ‘country’ and ‘nationality’ are?

I talked to a nationalist Ukrainian historian not long ago, who told me that after Greater Poland collapsed,  in 1772 the Austro-Hungarian empire conducted a census of its new land of Galicia (now West Ukraine), and found that 90 percent of its inhabitants could not say what nationality they were. They said they were ‘local’ or ‘from here’ (a few called themselves Rusyns, which my historian said traced back to the kingdoms of Kievan Rus, geographically centred in today’s Kyiv, from which what is now Russia traces its history).

In 1930s Volyn, heartland of Ukrainian nationalism, the same question to most inhabitants got the same answer: ‘from here’. “Russia called them Polonised Russians, Poland called them Russified Poles,” said the historian. “The nationalists set out to educate them that they weren’t just ‘from here’, they were Ukrainians.”

What’s wrong with the answer ‘from here’? It’s beautifully practical and realistic; it implies a sense of ownership, of belonging, of home.

And yet what ownership did these people have over the ‘here’ where they lived, if for example their birth certificates and passports called them Polish or Russian; if they were forced to speak Russian or Polish instead of the language ‘from here’?

In fact the languages of the west Ukrainian Carpathian valleys, uniquely ‘from here’, are a glorious mixture of Ukrainian with Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Polish, Russian. Some villages have been part of four different countries or states in the last 100 years. They even had their own independent Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, which has to be the shortest-lived dream of a state in history – it lasted all of one day, between 15–16 March 1939.

Lots of people managed to die for that dream, even in one day.

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War memorial in Tiraspol to those who died fighting for the unrecognised ‘Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic’ or Transnistra, 1990-1992

Magic is a multi-player game. In clubs all over the world players get together to hop from plane to plane, collecting artefacts and skills and fighting wars. (My friends tell me most players are teenage boys or middle-aged men; it strikes me that the game would appeal to people who want to find order, and would like to fit the world and all its planes and countries and peoples and emotions neatly in sections in a box). I like the way these players leave their backgrounds behind when they get together to play. They’ve become ‘from here’ – from this multiverse world of Magic: the Gathering. Obviously the game relies on people agreeing beforehand to the rules of each plane and of the overarching scheme of things. Otherwise the whole fantasy world comes crashing down.

It is terrifying to realise that the actual world we live in relies equally on this mutual acceptance of rules, which can come crashing down so very easily. When that happens ‘From here’ is not an answer, because it turns out that some people are more from here than others. Suddenly a flag, a passport, an official stamp is the thing you’re fighting for, and what makes you exist. You scrabble around for the cards that tell you what story you’re believing in this week, what you’re worth, where you can travel next, and some fucker has taken them out of the box and shoved in a whole new set.

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A box of Magic cards

Fortunes of war

It was in July 2015, during a meeting in the town of Kriviy Rih with relatives of Ukrainian soldiers missing in the east Ukraine war, that I met Luda Lazarenko and Natasha Herasimenko.

The two women were a bit apologetic. They realised they were fortunate because – after an initial three hellish months of silence – they knew where their son and husband were: held by separatists inside the former SBU (Ukrainian security services) building in Donetsk. They got to speak to Sasha and Kolya quite regularly on the phone. The two mobilised soldiers were on a confirmed list of prisoners for exchange, unlike the missing ones who figure in numerous competing lists, neither dead nor alive, reduced to a million rumours and the incomprehensibly cruel percentages of a DNA match.

I didn’t write about Luda and Natasha then. I assumed, as they did, that Sasha and Kolya would be released soon.

It’s now 9 February 2017; two years ago to the day that Sasha and Kolya were captured. The two women I first met 19 months ago thought they were fortunate, because the men were on a confirmed list for exchange; they thought they were lucky because they knew where they were, and got to talk to them on the phone.

But a list is just a list, not a guarantee or even a promise. In Summer 2016 Sasha and Kolya, and all the other prisoners in the former SBU building, stopped calling. They’ve been moved to a remand prison in Donetsk, to be tried for something like ‘crimes against humanity’, or ‘attacking innocent civilians in Donbas’. Because they are not, by law,  prisoners of war, with the protections that entails, not when no one officially calls this thing they were sent away to fight in a war.

Every time I meet Natasha and Luda, there is something more important going on. Even when they come to Kyiv to protest outside the presidential administration, somehow the reason they’re there is not quite important enough. Their cause gets hijacked by alleged ‘provocateurs’ and ‘Russian agents’. It gets hijacked by that high-profile former prisoner Nadia Savchenko and her political ambitions, and by journalists out to smear her. Their lives got hijacked by the Minsk accords, which are supposed to release all prisoners while ending the war that cost them their liberty, but which have become a huge intractable geopolitical bargaining chip, as Sasha and Kolya and Natasha and Luda are tiny, individually insignificant bargaining chips.

After one of those protests broke up in August 2016, and all the journalists left, Luda and Natasha started a hunger strike. Two mothers and two wives stood by the railings outside the presidential administration with handwritten ‘hunger strike’ notices pinned to their chests. Next to them on the railings hung their handbags, shiny and square and completely inappropriate for street protest.

Wives and mothers of imprisoned soldiers demonstrating in Kyiv

They made me think of Reshat Ametov, the Crimean Tatar who began a one-man protest against Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. The picture on his facebook page, still there two years after he was abducted and killed, shows him sitting in a public square with just such a handwritten ‘hunger strike’ notice. It’s from an earlier one-man protest, his brother told me. He was always protesting. “Don Quixote tilted at windmills. It was something like that.”

Crimea and ‘provocation’ and ‘Ukrainian agents’ made Russian president Putin say last August, just around the time of the women’s protest, that there was no point in holding Normandy Four meetings to resolve the Ukraine conflict. That’s the Normandy Four of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany who agreed the Minsk accords. Who supposedly hold the key to unlocking the doors so that Sasha and Kolya and all the other prisoners, on both sides, can go home to their families. That important man Putin decided “There’s no point.”

Luda and Natasha went back to Kriviy Rih. The two mothers, in their fifties, found it too hard physically to starve. “So it was just us two wives, and there was no point,” Natasha said. A bit apologetic, like when I first met her. Tilting at windmills without even a Sancho Panza to remark on it. Defeated again by not being important enough.

I feel a bit apologetic myself, banging on about these people. Like them, I know there are worse tragedies. I know their stories are just two far from the worst of a hundred thousand awful stories from this war. They’re not even the worst prisoner stories.

What about this one: last year Ukraine quietly released several men it had been holding in relation to the conflict – and torturing – in secret prisons. This was after an international scandal raised by the UN and human rights organisations.

These secret, unacknowledged detainees were never officially charged with anything, although some of them fought for separatist militias or organised so-called ‘referendums’ on founding the separatist ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’ Luda and Natasha and other relatives of separatist-held prisoners were angry and confused – why had Ukraine just released them, when they could have been exchanged for their own prisoners?

But, these people were never on the separatists’ list of people to exchange. The ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ might have used them, but it didn’t want them back. Nobody wants them; not Ukraine, not the separatists, not Russia – not even, in one man’s case, his wife, who apparently turned him in to the Ukrainian security services in the first place. If Sasha and Kolya are not by law prisoners of war, these people are not by law ‘separatists’, ‘terrorists’, ‘Russian saboteurs’, pardoned or released prisoners, or even – since at least one has had his passport confiscated – presumably, Ukrainians.

Oh the fortunes of war.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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