Archive for the 'war' Category

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.
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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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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