Archive for the 'war' Category

The politics of memory II (don’t mention the war)

Last week on 9 May millions of people in Russia and former Soviet states joined ‘immortal regiment’ marches, commemorating the Soviet victory in World War 2. With each year that the war gets further and further away, more and more people turn out on these marches. They march in identical crowds holding identical placards: the black and white faces of millions of people who killed or died or disappeared or got medals or were deported or deported others or made a black market fortune or lost everything or fell in love or were raped or told magnificent war stories or never, ever talked about the war.

They marched in Chechnya, without a mention of the Chechens deported in 1944, or a single picture of the thousands who died and disappeared in two more recent wars with Russian forces. They marched in Crimea, and dressed up their children in Red Army hats, and wore the same striped ribbons worn by modern fighters waging a senseless war against children of the same Red Army soldiers in mainland Ukraine. They repeated identical phrases about solidarity and patriotism and pride in their ancestors.

In Russian-annexed Crimea you’re actively encouraged to mention the war. But only if you remember it in the right way.

Today, 18 May, is the day the Soviet NKVD and Red Army deported the Crimean Tatars, the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Germans from Crimea in 1944, for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. There aren’t any marches in Crimea today to commemorate this event. Instead there are police cars and FSB (the successor to the NKVD/KGB), anonymous denunciations and warnings from the prosecutors office that any public action today may be considered an extremist or terrorist offence.

crimea terrorism monument

Crimean myth-making: 2016 site in Simferopol for a monument ‘for innocent victims of terrorism, and security and law enforcement agency staff who lost their lives in the line of  duty in the fight against terrorism’

One of the aspects of the deportation I still find hardest to grasp is the men and women from these ethnic groups who were fighting in the Red Army in 1944. At the same time as they were at last becoming victorious heroes, who will go on to become black-and-white faces in ‘immortal regiment’ marches, their families were deported as traitors – even they themselves were deported for treason, when the war was over and they were of no more use as soldiers.

The same authorities that needed them as heroes to win a war then, and still needs them now, also needed them and needs them still to be the villains, fifth columnists, extremists and terrorists.

I can imagine the deportation, I think, sort of and inadequately. But my imagination fails when it comes to a man from a Red Army regiment whose family disappears in Soviet-liberated Crimea while he fights all the way to Berlin. How did he feel? How could he bear it? How could he keep wearing that uniform and follow orders and be so obedient?

I tried to retell this story – one of several told to me in Crimea – in Dream Land; here’s the excerpt although I don’t think it’s a very succesful part of the book, because actually I simply can’t imagine it.

“Did you go up on Mangup-Kalye? What did you find?”

“A cemetery,” Safi said glumly. She didn’t really want to be reminded of those tombstones, mossy and tumbled on their cold carpet of flowers.

But Refat was interested. “I wonder who’s buried there. Let’s ask your Grandfather about it.”

…“My best friend once came looking for my grave there there,” grandpa said… “My friend Ayder came from the war to find us, but he was too late, and we had all gone.

“[Ayder] defended the Soviet Union against the Germans. Alongside him fought Russians and Chechens, Ukrainians and Uzbeks, Azeris and Armenians. It didn’t matter. They were all from the Soviet Union. They all wanted the same thing: to get the German fascists out of their country so they could return to their families; to stay alive.

“Ayder was in Azerbaijan with his unit when an Azeri officer, a Muslim like him, said he should go back to Crimea as fast as he could. He said he’d heard something about the Crimean Tatars, and he’d help Ayder get leave to go home before it was too late. But he didn’t say what it might be too late for.

“It was June 1944; Crimea had just been liberated from the Germans when Ayder arrived, met by the smell of roses. The flags welcoming the returning Red Army hung limp in the streets. Everywhere walls were shattered by bullets and bombs. From lamp posts dangled the stiff, dry bodies of collaborators.”

… “At his mother’s house in Akmesjit, the door was locked. Next door was empty too. There were no Tatar children playing in the yard. It was as if they had all stepped out for something, and if he waited they would come back. But he did wait, and no one came. Ayder was wearing his uniform, which made him look like any other soldier defending the Soviet Union, but the Russians and Ukrainians avoided his eye, and hurried away when he approached. All through the city was the same. The Tatar houses stood deserted; when he peered through the windows he could see the kind of mess people leave when they are in a hurry and expect to be back soon to tidy up.

“My friend thought perhaps the Tatars had fled the fighting and gone to the villages for refuge. So he came out here, to Adym-Chokrak. But here too, all he found was empty houses and silence, and up on Mangup-Kalye he found a cemetery. It wasn’t a Tatar cemetery, but there was nowhere else to look, nowhere else we could be. Ayder searched there for his family, for my grave, my mother’s grave, the graves of all the vanished Crimean Tatars.”

The silence of those narrow stone beds up on the hillside. Imagine the silence of a whole village emptied of people, the beds in the houses unslept in and stony cold. Safi wished more than ever that they’d never found the graveyard.

“But you weren’t buried there, Khartbaba,” she said.

“No. And it was our Karaim neighbour who told Ayder what had happened… Old Gulnara Tata tended the graveyard on Mangup, even though no one remembers who is buried there any more. She found my friend there, crying as he searched, and she told him, ‘They took all the Crimean Tatars away. Red Army soldiers, like you. Some people say they drowned them in the Caspian Sea, or took them to Siberia.’

… “Ayder had nothing but his army uniform and his soldier’s papers. He went back to his unit, and a few months later he was sent west to the Front. He was with the Red Army when it marched into Berlin.

…“He had always thought he was the same as all the other soldiers, wanting only to free their homeland and return to their families. But while he’d been struggling to stay alive, the Soviets had taken away his homeland and given it to the Russians,” grandpa said. “After the war, he too was exiled to Uzbekistan. He kept on searching, and in 1950 he found me and my mother. His own family vanished for ever. He never even found their graves.”

karaim cemetery

Karaim graves, Bakhchisaray, Crimea

Here is a first-hand account of a similar, even more shocking story. Note the tone – no blame, no anger, no analysis either from the narrator or from anyone within his narration (other than an Odessan Jew who wraps up his response in a metaphor about black smoke) –  just a kind of matter-of-fact numbness. It reads to me like the testimony of a person still, decades later, in total shock.

“They gave us shovels, and we dug holes in the ground, erecting the posts and enclosing the area with barbed wire. Thus we imprisoned ourselves, surrounded by barbed wire.”

In these stories I think you can read the whole human trauma of the Soviet Union, which taught its people to obey and admire the thing that destroyed them, and feel proud and patriotic to belong to a black-and-white story commemorated with millions of black-and-white faces, while the shades of grey and unbearable darkness are banished now as then by police cars and security services, prosecutors notices and anonymous denunciations and arrests.

crimea adym chokrak well

Well – all that is left of the Crimean Tatar village of Adym- Chokrak. After the inhabitants were deported in 1944 the village was bulldozed.

(On a side note, long ago when I started asking in Crimea about the Crimean Tatar deportation I was struck by the similarity between the Russian word for traitor (predatel’) and for legend or tale (predanie). I presume – a philologist can put me right – they come from the same root as peredat’, to give or pass on, but on the level of historical memory and myth-making in Crimea it still strikes me as very strangely and ironically apt.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A picture and a thousand words

So in one of those interesting social media juxtapositions, I’ve have these two posts by and about (two different) photographers popping up next to each other in my facebook timeline:
“A Russian photographer of a Russian state propaganda agency gets a World Press Photo for some “conflict between self-proclaimed republics and the official Ukrainian authorities” […] The “funny” thing is, this war (and it is a full-scale war) would have never happened without Russian propaganda (in other words, his employer). Moreover, the agency and the separatists are funded from the same pocket (in other words, Kremlin).”
“The series of pictures I have submitted do explain the fanaticism that has driven the largest war in Europe in a generation, the transformative effects of war on both the pro-government and separatist fighters, and the tragedy of the most vulnerable – those civilians trapped on both sides of demarcation zone – technically frontline. I document three groups’ experiences: those workers and other civilians living on the ‘cease-fire line’, collectively punished by Kiev, which has imposed a pitiless economic embargo, those fighters from Ukrainian battalions, a mix of moderate supporters of a Western leaning Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian nationalists, and the pro-Russian rebels, frustrated by Putin, who led them to believe in a bright future of close ties to the Russian world, but has not delivered what he promised.”
I’m not going to link, because I don’t know either of the photographers whose work is discussed and couldn’t begin to judge their merit or motivations. I’m just going to make a few remarks from the depths of my cynical soul.
These two posts about pictures are in fact all about words. Consider, for example, ‘Russian’, ‘pitiless’, ‘rebel’ and, indeed, ‘war’.
Neither Ukraine, Russia or any other country officially calls the east Ukraine conflict a war. You might say that’s a technicality when approaching 10,000 people have died in it and humanitarian photographers are busy documenting the fallout. But even from a humanitarian point of view it does really matter to – in just one example – the 700 plus detainees on both sides who because this is not a war, have no protection whatsoever as war prisoners.
Words really, really matter. I wish I could take ‘humanitarian’ pictures and feel good about myself and win a few awards. Hell, I wish I could feel good about writing stories to ‘give a human face’ or some such cliche. But this conflict has a history, semantic and visual and political and yes, humanitarian. Or should that be human.
Few photographers and writers are experts in neutrality. We don’t just throw our work out into the world like a naked babe. We clothe it in assumption, insinuation, association – because we’re just human too.
kyiv-war-memorial-may15-sm

While we’re on the subject of contextless war photos… (Preparation for 9 May WW2 commemorations, Kyiv 2015)

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.

The truth about war II

It used to be that with each fresh bout of violence in east Ukraine, with each shelled trolleybus or school or ambulance, every new batch of civilian casualties, each side would rush to blame the other.

Ths time, as fighting has flared up again, I am hearing people saying that it doesn’t matter who started firing first; which side kicked off the latest surge in artillery and tank barrages.

That was my own opinion more than two years ago, for reasons explained here. Now people are saying it for another reason. They are saying it is irrelevant to talk at all about two sides in this war, because there is only one side.

In pro-Ukrainian media and discourse, the warring side is Russia. In Russia, the warring side is Ukraine.

This I think is the first time in Ukraine (and largely in western media) there has been really no mention of another side to the deaths and heroics of the last week. Coverage is all of Avdiivka (on Ukraine controlled territory) and the damage done there by artillery  provided by Russia. You wouldn’t think from the reports that the Ukrainian army is actually firing at anything. Because Ukraine isn’t a side in this war. The only side is Russia, but Russia is also not literally there, not in terms of houses and people and pet dogs over in non-Ukraine controlled Donetsk and Makiivka where Ukrainian grad rockets are landing across the not-legally-there border into the non-existent republic of the ‘DNR’. I suppose it’s pretty hard to cause any damage when the only warring side isn’t officially there.

dnipro-war-collection

Ukrainian collection of war ‘souvenirs’, Dnipro 2015

Vice-versa, Russia media continues to cover the war as though it owned it, at the same time as insisting that the people fighting and dying are all from the one side, Ukraine; Ukrainian houses and people and pet dogs in Donetsk and Makiivka being shot at by their own Ukrainian army and soldiers based around Avdiivka. Those official Russian organisations of Russian veterans of the east Ukraine war represent only volunteers, of course; obviously nothing is crossing the miles of non-Ukraine controlled border between the non-recognised ‘DNR’/’LNR’ and Russia except humanitarian aid; ‘I hope they have enough ammunition’, said Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov last week of the ‘DNR’ army, in one of the more disgusting pieces of mendacity – and the bar is already sky-high – in this conflict’s vile lying history.

luhansk-roadside-shrapnel-display

‘LNR’ roadside collection of war ‘souvenirs’. Luhansk 2014

And if you read all the comments made by everyone, from the politicians to the soldiers to the media pundits to, even, the civilians getting killed, the really amazing thing is that this one-sided war is in fact not about either Ukraine or Russia. It is all about America and the new US president.

I used to think that war, stripped to the essentials, was a matter of A killing B before B kills A.

Then I came to understand that war is a matter of A (or B) killing C in order to made D believe that B (or A) is worse than A (or B).

This last week my understanding of war has evolved again. War is a matter of AB engaging in some jointly inaccurate, inefficient and wildy expensive game of heavy artillery for the purpose of trying to work out if and what D might be thinking (and, might D join A/B in some killing elsewhere, of E perhaps).

C meanwhile gets killed just because of being in the way. C is barely relevant anymore even for the purposes of war propaganda.

C is Diana from Makiivka, a born rescuer, who rescued a corgi when the streets were full of shelling and put a pink bow round its neck; despite her care the dog escaped on another night of shelling, came back pregnant and provided an unexpected windfall when Diana sold the pups over the internet, in the middle of a war.

C is Svetlana, a born warrior who nevertheless stayed at home while her gentle poet brother went and joined the ‘DNR’ militants and came home in a coffin; Svetlana hoards her ‘DNR’ flags in her flat in a frontline town like Avdiivka, dreaming of the day she can leave her husband and son and hospital job, and ride away to the wars.

C is baba Lyuba, who moved into a bomb shelter two years ago in Donetsk and is probably still there because it provided her with a new home, a family she’d never known; watching Russian TV together on a tiny screen underground, teaching her 5-year-old adopted son to hate Ukrainian fascists.

donetsk-bomb-shelter1

Home in a bomb shelter, Donetsk 2014

C is Dima, whose house in Donetsk is like a treasure chest, full of mosaic and woodcarving that his father began and he carried on, whose garage is home to a gleaming pale-blue 1950s Volga and a flutter of crooning fan-tailed pigeons; with every crash of artillery the mosaics tremble, those decades of loving work of father and son to create something beautiful are so very fragile.

donetsk-pigeons

Pigeons. Donetsk, 2015

(PS Both sides in East Ukraine collude in making coverage of this war one-sided. In particular it is now almost imposssible for non-Russian journalists to get to the ‘DNR’, as this article makes clear; while those who have been there have ended up on a Ukrainian list of so-called terrorist sympathisers. So this is not an attack on journalists.)


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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