Archive for the 'war' Category

Building bridges, burning bridges

I was in Kerch this summer, in the east of Crimea. That was before the college shooting; before Ukrainian ships were fired on and arrested in the Kerch straits, triggering (more) talk of (more) war and imposition of martial law in half of Ukraine. The biggest news in town then was the Kerch bridge, built by Russia across the Kerch straits in a 200 billion rouble Fuck You to international law, and a scandal about the disappearance of a chunk of budget money that had been allocated to rebuild the derelict steps up Mithridates hill.

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Kerch bridge fridge magnets for sale on Mithridates hill

I met two men, let’s call them Tolya and Ivan, who had worked on building the bridge, and earned themselves very nice wages thankyou. Tolya was absolutely opposed to Russian annexation; Ivan supported it.

Tolya’s world, and world view, had fallen apart in 2014. He couldn’t understand what was happening, how was it possible that Russia just came and took Crimea? What happened to justice, to fairness?

He had considered joining the Ukrainian army. He had considered emigrating, and even tried it for several months before concluding that life as a second class citizen in Europe was no solution.

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grafitti on Mithridates hill

In Tolya I could see bewilderment and an almost self-mocking despair – it had been nearly five years already since annexation; it’s hard to keep up the principles, the pure overwhelming emotions, over all that time. He mentioned the soldiers and tanks in the streets in 2014, coming back to them again and again in our conversations. They had clearly been like a hole torn in his entire view of the world – the possibility that war might come into his life, literally, here in Kerch where he’d had a successful business providing fun activities for tourists.

He talked a lot about his grandfather, an army man who had been arrested for ‘anti-soviet activity’ (for complaining about lack of rations and arms) and during world war 2 was put in charge of a unit of convicts – cannon fodder in the most literal sense.

And Tolya talked about the Kerch bridge. How well it was built (he had seen the process close up), its spectacular dimensions, what it had brought to isolated Kerch. “A bridge is always a good thing, isn’t it?” he said. “A bridge joins things together, rather than separating them. It connects people, trade, ideas.”  

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Tourists on Mithridates hill taking photos with a Kerch bridge background

Later Ivan took me out on a boat to see the bridge close up. Unlike Tolya, Ivan did not strike me as an introspective or romantic person. Everything in Russian Crimea was fantastic, including the bridge whose vital statistics he knew off by heart. Many people in Kerch mentioned the economic disaster that was the near-closure of the Kerch shipyard since 2014 when international shipping stopped; Vanya said cheerfully that it would soon be reopened and extended as a ‘strategic object’ – a military shipyard building warships.

In his late twenties, he wanted to be a commercial ship’s captain, travelling the world. I asked if he thought his Russian Crimean passport (not recognised by many countries issuing visas) might be a problem; he didn’t understand what I was talking about.  

He was one of the few Crimeans I met who apparently had no doubts at all about Russian annexation being a good thing. A practical, active young man who did not remember the Soviet Union, his life ahead of him. I asked him what concrete benefits Russian rule had brought him. I thought at the very least he’d mention the high wages he’d earned building that bridge that connects, that divides.

He didn’t. He said, “Peace. It’s important to be confident that behind you stands a great power that is ready to fight for you.”   

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Love and remembrance

“We all love Vanya,” says Vika, smiling across the table at the young man opposite. “All the women love to have him round for dinner. He’s our hope.”

Vanya seems nice enough, fair and twitchy, with thin skin stretched tight over his skull. Probably no more or less lovable than a thousand other young men who got caught up in the war between the government and Russian-backed ‘republics’ in east Ukraine. Vika and all the women love him not for his blue eyes and scattershot attention, for what he did or didn’t do in the war, for the prejudices and inherited responses and experiences and fantasies that make up his personality. They love him as we’d probably all want to be loved: simply because he’s alive.

No, not quite that. Because he was lost, and is found. Because he came back from the dead.

“Our Vanya’s unique,” Vika told me, when she suggested I meet him.

After 8 May 2016 when he was taken off a bus at a checkpoint of the unrecognised ‘DNR’ in east Ukraine, Vanya was one of the war’s many missing.

The ‘DNR’ security services said he was dead, when they put a gun muzzle to Vanya’s head. They called his mother and told her that. Then they stopped calling.

The Ukrainian security services told his mother to stop looking for him, or hoping for him to come home, because he was dead.

There is nothing unique in this story. Vanya’s mother didn’t believe it and kept hoping, and in that she was not unique either, she was the same as Vika, whose brother went missing at a checkpoint in 2014; as Yadviga and Svetlana, whose sons vanished at the battle of Ilovaisk; as Lilya whose son went missing in Debaltsevo in January 2015.

DNA matches, photographs of bodies, gunshots heard over a telephone connection – none of it is enough to make these women give up hope. Not when there are psychics to tell them their loved ones are alive, and social media messages with photos showing them alive. Not when there are conflicting lists of dead and missing and prisoners. Not when the DNA samples get mixed up, the body parts, the names; when police dump identifying clothing and belongings from the war dead in fields. Not when there are basements and building sites and brick factories and illegal coal mines where hostages and slave labourers could be imprisoned for years. Not when there is Vanya.

In early 2017 the Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko – captured in east Ukraine, sentenced in Russia then freed in an exchange – crossed the frontline to visit a ‘DNR’ prison. She shouted “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine) in a corridor. From a cell someone shouted back “Heroim Slava!” (Glory to the heroes).

It was like a magic password back to the land of the living.

“I’d written a letter to the ‘DNR’ security services, asking them to shoot me,” Vanya says, matter-of-factly. He’d been in so many different basements and cells by then. “I wasn’t right in the head any more. I couldn’t see any way out. I never got any parcels. All the others there got humanitarian aid parcels, except me. I never got any because I wasn’t there.”

And then, suddenly, he shouted two words and he was there. Savchenko published his name. He was added to the Ukrainian official list of prisoners held by the other side. In December last year he was exchanged for ‘DNR’ prisoners held by Ukraine, and came home to his mother.

There are many more details to Vanya’s story. Not all of them make sense. I could do the fact-checking, as much as is possible in Ukraine’s murky and brutal war where everyone lies about everything. But this is a story about love.

Vika wanted me to meet Vanya because he was found after being missing, alive after being dead – and that means they all can be found alive. Vika’s brother Sergey, Sveta’s son Maxim, Yadviga’s Andrey, Lilya’s Sasha. All the sons, all the brothers, the loved ones.

“Our Vanya’s unique,” said Vika. He tells the women he isn’t unique, there could be many more like him. He heard them, in neighbouring cells and dark basement rooms. Love never gives up, and neither does the desire to nurture hope.

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Waiting and war memorials. Kyiv, 2015

Decency and solace

Kushugum cemetery, Zaporizhia, where Ukraine buries its unknown soldiers from the east Ukraine war. I was last here in 2015 and early 2016, for a funeral and an exhumation. It was the saddest, most desolate, temporary-looking place; alongside the heaped recently-dug graves with identical wooden crosses were gaping pits for new bodies.

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Now it looks like this. Of all the graves here, four now have names on. One is Artyom Kalyberda, killed aged 24 in a military retreat from Russian forces at Ilovaisk in August 2014. He was identified by DNA match and after an exhumation the following year. His family believe he’s dead, and don’t believe he’s dead. Last time I saw his sister and his brother-in-law, they were still calling his phone, just in case, one day, he answers. Valera held his hand over Artyom’s  photograph and said it felt warm –  a sign that he’s alive.

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One of the other graves still has the same number, more than two years after it was exhumed for a repeat DNA test at the request of a missing soldier’s mother. They sawed off pieces for a repeat sample right there in the cemetery. Then the body was buried again, and Luda, who after two DNA matches is still waiting for her son to come home, collected some of the earth in a handkerchief, and we went in search of a priest who could ‘seal’ the grave after it had been disturbed.

At the church, one of those officious women who clean the floors and snuff out the votive candles in the candle holders said “Is it an Orthodox grave?” “I don’t know,” Luda said. “You must know,” the woman insisted. “Because the priest can only seal it if the person was Orthodox. Was he Orthodox?” “I don’t know,” Luda said, clutching that dirty handkerchief. And I shouted at that woman, Don’t you understand, no one knows who he is, it’s a grave for an unknown soldier who went to war for your country, only God knows who he is but I know this is a desperate woman who has just stood over the open zinc coffin of a man she cannot believe is her son, not this greyish dripping thing in a plastic bag that’s been dead for eighteen months, and she has come to your church for decency and comfort and you’re saying you can only offer a blessing if it is an Orthodox grave?

And then we went outside the church and we shook the earth from the handkerchief onto a frozen flowerbed, because we didn’t know what else to do.

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Kushugum cemetery is still the most desolate place in the world. I suppose the white gravel and granite look more official and orderly than the temporary mounds of earth and wooden crosses. But I think those were somehow better, because now it looks permanent, it looks like the fields of World War One white stone crosses, still unidentified after a century. This is a place; these are rows of numbers that should never become permanent.

There are an estimated 1000 unidentified dead from the east Ukraine war, and several thousand missing (military and civilian). There is still no systematic prisoner exchange, no system of exchanging DNA or other information across the line of contact, no coordinated search for remains. There will never be solace and decency, no seal, no end to the waiting.

Childhood

The night train from Mariupol to Kyiv is full of children travelling to stay with grandparents for the long summer holidays. In my compartment Artyom, five, had left Donetsk at 6 am that morning and crossed two ‘borders’ – that of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and that manned by Ukrainian soldiers and borderguards – and then had an hour or two paddling in the sea at Mariupol before getting the train at 6pm.

“Is this Ukraine?” Artyom asks, at every station stop. “Is this still Ukraine?” He’s been in Donetsk for a year, after his mother moved there to look after her ill parents. “Three years of Ukraine and a year over there and he’s forgotten his Ukrainian,” sighs his grandmother, who’s travelled to pick him up from a village in Volyn, in west Ukraine. She speaks to him in Ukrainian and he answers in Russian that gets more and more mixed up with Ukrainian as the hours rock and trundle by.

“What are you going to do over the holidays in the village?” asks a fellow passenger.

“Go fishing with his granddad,” says the grandmother.

“Get a tank and put it in front of the house and shoot at people, bang, bang, bang,” says Artyom.

Later the grandmother gives him some paper to draw on. He starts drawing tanks. “God in heaven,” she says. “Don’t they teach you anything else over there?”

child's pavement drawing, Donetsk

Schools and children are not a target

After four years, the sandbags in the school windows are just part of the landscape, like the nightly background shooting and shelling that sometimes – no one can predict when –  moves to the foreground. Still no one goes outside after 6 or 7 pm. There’s still no gas supply. There are two new hairdressers in Mariinka; since my last visit a year ago a bank and a cash machine have been reinstalled. Municipal workers are cutting the grass under the flowering chestnuts. One family I visited a year ago has had to move after their house, where we sat and ate birthday cake, was shelled in broad daylight. The family living past the last Ukrainian army outpost, in the no-man’s land between sides, still lives there; their children still make it to school most days.

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“Some parents say, ‘I feel safer when my children are at school than when they’re home.’ Because home is closer to the frontline. They say, ‘I’ve brought them to school where I know there’s a basement shelter and there’s first aid, and I can feel easier.’ There’s that saying; my home is my castle – here it’s the opposite…. It’s a lot of responsibility for us.”

Yana has worked at Mariinka’s school number 2 for over 20 years; she’s one of about half the staff who have stayed since 2014 to teach 150 children in a warzone that everyone, even a good part of Ukraine, has forgotten about.

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School number 2

Recently the war changed its official name; the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) is over, replaced by the United Forces Operation (OOS in Ukrainian). Under the OOS the whole of Mariinka, which straddles the frontline, will officially be in the restricted ‘red zone’. The regional governor recently visited to assure locals that this would not adversely affect them: ‘You’ll continue to live the same as you’re living now.’

“They’re shooting here the same as always. But people just hear that phrase: ‘the ATO is finished,’ and they think it’s all over, nothing’s happening here anymore. ‘The ATO is over’. They don’t understand that the OOS has started and nothing has changed,” said Yana.

Occasionally Yana gets to leave for a few days, when she and her colleagues are invited for training sessions held in towns far from the frontline, on resilience, psychological support and landmine safety, organised by international agencies.

“When we have 3-4 days training somewhere we live in a hotel and we can walk in town. For us it’s just wild that people are in the streets at 9 pm. For people who live permanently in Mariinka it’s just incredible that the lights are on, that people are walking in the streets at 10 at night.”

“I think you’re a hero,” I said to Yana.

“Oh no,” she said, with an embarrassed laugh. “I think I’m a coward. I’m afraid to change something in my life. People say, come on, abandon that Mariinka, go somewhere else, find work, start life all over again. And I can’t. I’m still young enough to start again but… You live here with hope. Maybe that’s wrong.”

Working schools in two frontline villages in east Ukraine, Sakhanka and Svitlodarsk, were shelled yesterday and today.

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Toys made by schoolchildren in Mariinka

Negligence

August 2014, Ukraine. It’s hard to know who to blame. A crappy local police station steeped in indolence and bad pay; a morgue that was built decades ago and hasn’t been re-equipped since and even when it was new was never built to deal with dozens and dozens of bodies brought in by a chaotic mess of army medics and police and volunteers after a disastrous military defeat in a war than no one even understands yet is a war. Where do you put all those bodies, in this stinking august heat? How do you begin to identify them when most of them are in pieces and your staff have never seen anything like this before, never been prepared for this, don’t have the equipment for this, and anyway half the staff are on holiday and the other half are being sick in corners or drinking to cope with it, and outside frantic relatives are trying to break in to find out what’s happened to their sons and husbands? What do you do with all the stuff? The piles of it, heaps, the cheap trainers, bullet-proof jackets bought by their mothers, t-shirts and camouflage trousers and the terrible little presents from little children in the pockets?

Because you don’t know what to do, because no one tells you and there’s no one to ask and it can’t really be your responsibility and it’s 38 degrees in the shade and oh god the smell you simply have to dispose of it somehow, somehow – you bury all that stuff, blood- and shit-stained and charred and reeking, in 36 sacks on the grounds of a fish farm. You promise the farmer to come back for it, probably you really mean it, you never intended to let it lie there, of course someone was going to come back, the army or police or forensics or the military prosecutor or whoever is responsible, as soon as it becomes clear who is responsible for these things in this war that’s still not called a war they’ll come back and sort out those uniforms and trainers and flak jackets and children’s toys and crosses on chains, because they all belong to someone, you do know that, all those things were taken off dead men and pieces of dead men, and their relatives are howling and trying to break down the doors to find out what happened to their loved ones.

 

Four years. It stinks, that patch of ground on the fish farm, and dogs keep coming and digging and dragging away god-knows-what little piece of rotting horror, and you keep calling the authorities, the local council, the police, the morgue, whoever it was who buried this stuff on your farm and promised to come back and never did, and no one answers the phone or they say it’s not their responsibility or they don’t know anything about it or they refer you to someone else who refers you to someone else – and you just want to get rid of it quietly and decently and so that no one thinks it’s your fault, but how do you do that, when no one will tell you how and there’s no one to ask and the war is still not called a war although it’s just changed its name from one acronym to another? Who’s going to help you excavate 36 sacks of clothes from men who died wearing them in the battle of Ilovaisk and who perhaps have never been identified? Who’s going to sort and identify them now, four years later? Who is responsible? Who is to blame?

f303fc7-ilovaisk-dnipro7Photo: Facebook Микола Колесник

Remembrance day

This coming Sunday is Remembrance Day, when Ukrainians remember the dead by bringing life to where they are buried. On this day, the cemetery is the busiest liveliest brightest place there is. People tidy the gravestones, cover them with plastic flowers, and leave offerings of sweets and Easter cake and coloured eggs. In the morning there’s usually a religious service. After that it’s time for drinking, eating and socialising with the living and the dead.

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Remembrance day in Zhytomir region, 2017

I think this tradition is a great example of a gift economy. People leave offerings on their own family graves – closest relatives first, then more distant ones. Then they give them to other people they know, in a complicated system of exchanges from one grave to another, until the gift comes back round to the giver. At the end of the day in some villages the sweets are all redistributed to the children to take home. In others, they’re collected and made into home-made vodka

According to the NGO DonbasSOS, forty-two cemeteries in the warzone of east Ukraine are out of bounds this year because they have been mined, or are too close to the frontline. That’s only on territory that is not controlled by Ukraine; there must be at least as many on the Ukraine-controlled side.

The cemeteries have names like ‘Ukrainian’; ‘Poltava’; ‘Kharkiv’ (Ukrainian towns to the north and west, under Ukrainian control). Like ‘in Lenin settlement’; ‘on Dzherzhinsky street’ (founder of the Soviet secret police the Cheka). Like ‘Chestnut’ and ‘White Rock.’ The people buried in these cemeteries will have relatives on both sides of the frontline. They’ll have died at the hands of the Tsarist police and of the Cheka; in World War II; in this war. Or they’ll have died peacefully in their beds, under the chestnut tree, only to be lying unquiet now, unvisited, mined to bring those special gifts of injury and death.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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