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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.

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Pity is superfluous

Brexit thoughts: I’ve just come back from Warsaw, where I was attending a symposium on Ukraine at the College of Europe. It hit me at the airport of course, where I walked straight along the EU passport line while most other passengers off the plane from Ukraine shuffled along the winding ‘other passports’ queue. Soon I’ll be in that second line; ‘Take back control’ will have put me in line with the Ukrainians. (And if you think that sentence sounds offensive, I’m wondering if you voted for brexit).

The symposium was a truly European event where speakers switched effortlessly from Polish to French to Ukrainian to English to German – European in the best sense of the word: multilingual, tolerant, open-minded, interested, informed, outward-looking (and possibly just the tiniest bit smug). It was the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. We met at the college’s beautiful campus in a former royal palace, while Crimeans were busy being forced to inform their employers or the administrations of their children’s schools that they had done the required and voted in the Russian presidential elections. Corbyn was busy saying yes it is Russia’s fault that there was a chemical weapons attack on British soil but no, we still shouldn’t jump to conclusions. A few more soldiers were busy dying in east Ukraine, a few more civilians on the frontline were busy shivering with no water and electricity as the snow fell again. The Russian state was busy lying as usual. A pilot falsely accused by Russian propaganda of shooting down MH17 committed suicide. We sat and talked about things that scare me, and I felt a part of this conversation but also not a part, because soon my country is not going to belong to this group that is already in Europe or that wants to be. Soon my country will not have the backing of 27 allied member states next time Russia decides to attack. We’ll be in that other, shuffling and winding line.

After the symposium I went to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. On display were cherished personal possessions donated by people who survived those two months of 1944 when the Polish Home Army took on, and were destroyed by, the German occupying forces while the Soviets watched from the other side the Vistula. Among the children’s dresses and PoW identifying tags and family photos and home-made medics’ armbands stained with seventy-year-old blood, there are British army uniforms worn by Poles from the Home Army trained in Britain.

The Warsaw uprising is not a beautiful and tragic and stirring story of heroism and alliance; the uprising was probably declared too early by the Polish government in exile, and Britain and the other allies didn’t do much to help, they were too concerned about agreement with Stalin while the British press followed Soviet propaganda (George Orwell wrote at the time that the media and left-wing intellectuals “know no more about Poland than I do. All they know is that the Russians object to the [exiled Polish] London Government and have set up a rival organization, and so far as they are concerned that settles the matter […] Their attitude towards Russian foreign policy is not ‘Is this policy right or wrong?’ but ‘This is Russian policy: how can we make it appear right?’ And this attitude is defended, if at all, solely on grounds of power. The Russians are powerful in eastern Europe, we are not: therefore we must not oppose them. This involves the principle, of its nature alien to Socialism, that you must not protest against an evil which you cannot prevent.”)

But I felt so sad looking at those British uniforms, that had been preserved and treasured by their Polish owners and our allies, because they seemed to symbolise something that was good amid the horror of war, and which we are now wilfully losing. Now we are self-pityingly complaining about Poles and everyone else taking our jobs as we turn our backs on the peaceful alliance that is the EU, and Poles are turning their backs on democracy and rule of law that are the founding principles of the EU.

warsaw museum uniforms

British army uniforms donated to the museum by Poles from the Home Army

The photos of Warsaw in 1945 look like Aleppo 2018. I walked back through the city centre along streets of rebuilt 18th century housing, rebuilt palaces, rebuilt churches; newer built blocks of flats and monuments, even newer shiny skyscrapers. Coffee shops; tourists; the obligatory band in Peruvian ponchos playing Leonard Cohen on panpipes… Absolutely everything in Warsaw is new, or new pretending to be old, and in a way it’s incredibly encouraging because it’s taken seventy years to do this. Just seventy years; less than a person’s lifetime, to completely rebuild a city. Maybe it’ll take less than that time to rebuild Aleppo. But you’ve still lost something forever. Someone, someone, a thousand, a million.

When World War 2 ended – I learned this after visiting the museum –  the British were worried about the more than hundred thousand Poles who had come over as part of the Polish government in exile and Army in the West. There was concern they would take British jobs. At least they were not sent back to Soviet-controlled Poland, where Home Army members were executed or put into prison camps.

These days, Poles are among the most vociferously opposed in the EU to letting in Syrians or refugees from any other destroyed country that might resemble their own seventy years ago. Poland often justifies this refusal by saying it has already let in over a million Ukrainians (as workers, not as refugees from annexed Crimea or the warzone in east Ukraine). More than 50 percent of foreign students and 60 percent of foreign workers in Poland are from Ukraine. These are the people who should have a fast track at Warsaw airport, not me.

Yet at the same time Poland is waging a self-pitying memory war with Ukraine, over atrocities committed against Poles in World War 2 while Britain was providing Poles with training and army uniforms and signing agreements with Stalin to divide up their country. Brexit is a memory war about the control Britain supposedly had back then, under Churchill who signed that agreement.

History; memory; all of this: airports and passport queues, European colleges in rebuilt aristocrat’s palaces, museums and coffee and croissants and multi-lingual debates and nationalist marches and annexation and wars by proxy and refugees in tents and International Humanitarian Law and the EU and brexit, to have come out of the history of total devastation of World War 2. All this in just 70 years. So much was built and rebuilt and yet we all ended up being victims – of immigration, of Brussels technocrats, of historical massacres, of faceless international corporations, of NATO, of conspiracy theories. We got lost in pitying ourselves, and we forgot pity.

“But pity is superfluous wherever a sentence is pronounced by History” – Czeslaw Milosz.

warsaw milosz

Decommunisation

In the village, decommunisation continues apace. The statue of Lenin has been cut down by local stonemasons. Yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags fly from houses. In the old cemetery there’s a new memorial to the Holodomor (the Soviet engineered famine of the 1930s). It says ‘We’ll always remember and we won’t allow you to forget’. There are many new memorials in the new cemetery too, to more recent deaths. Nina’s street, 1 May, is the latest to be renamed, after the village’s first fatality of the current war in the east – or at least the first to die while in service; two other veterans have died since they came home.

potiivka ATO graves

Graves for veterans of the war in east Ukraine

The village’s longest street, an earthen track running straight out into flat fields and marshland, doesn’t have to be renamed; it’s called Shevchenko, after the Ukrainian poet. Nina told me a childhood story about the very last house on this road:

“We went there for my father’s birthday, in secret. He was a communist. His birthday was on the 6th of January, and Orthodox Christmas was on 7th January, so all his life he was afraid to celebrate in case people thought we were celebrating Christmas. I remember going to my aunt’s house, which was the furthest house in the whole village, and my father took us such a roundabout route past the cemetery and through the fields so no one would see us. The house was one big room inside, with a stove and curtains to make room divisions. The main thing I remember is the music from the victrola.”

Nina, now nearly 70, left the village as a young woman to work in Kriviy Rih in the industrial east of Ukraine. When she arrived people called her a ‘Banderovka’, a vague half-joke, half-insult (it means a follower of the Ukrainian nationalist leader Bandera) that she didn’t even understand at the time. Everyone there spoke Russian, so she did too. She became head of a Trade Union and organised Soviet parades for 1 May.

Now that she has moved back to her native village, she speaks the local Ukrainian surzhik again and laughs a little at the loud new-found Ukrainian patriotism of her old friends from Kriviy Rih. “They’re a bit like children, always looking round to make sure you’ve noticed what they’re doing.”

Much of Nina’s life in the village is an uncovering or recreating of childhood memories – new memories laid over old ones, until it’s not clear what’s true now and what was true then, because so much of her childhood was based on secrets and evasions. “My grandmother died of hunger,” she told me this time, when I mentioned the new Holodomor memorial; she’d never told me that before. This time she also said “I suppose my parents were informers.”

Her communist-card carrying, ex-Red Army officer father was married to the village midwife, a surprisingly good post for the daughter of an enemy of the people: Nina’s grandfather, arrested and shot in 1938, about whom the whole family kept silent for years. The family was the first in the village to have a pram; as a child Nina remembers allowing the other village kids to take turns pushing her baby sister in it. Yes, I suppose it’s quite possible her parents were informers.

potiivka carts

As I walk along the long, long road that’s called Shevchenko I pass horse-drawn carts, their use and design scarcely altered since before communism arrived. The bundled-up drivers turn to stare at me. Old women in ancient, ageless felt valenky and headscarves ask me where I’m going, and – suspiciously – why I’m taking photographs. It’s hard to explain where I’m going, since when I finally reach it, the house at the very end is a ruin. All that’s beyond is acres and acres of bleak, flat, snowy country. A flock of bullfinches bounces on willow branches, rose-red breasts puffed out with the cold. They’re the smartest brightest thing in the world.

When I tell Nina about them later, she smiles over happy childhood memories of these birds in the yard of the family house. “You’re lucky you saw them before the khokhly [a pejorative name for Ukrainians] caught and ate them,” she said. “They don’t touch the blue tits of course. Because they’re yellow and blue.”

potiivka winter field

 

Women at war

How International Women’s Day in Ukraine has changed. My Facebook feed is full of photos of uniformed women from the Ukrainian armed forces – all young and pretty and generally nicknamed ‘Beauty’; statistics for reported rapes and deaths from domestic violence, and an OSCE seminar ‘in honour of International Women’s Day’ on the role of women in peacebuilding. Mothers and sisters of dead or missing soldiers sent me messages with poems and pictures of flowers. I’m not sure how much all of this is a step forward, to be honest.

Unity

Ukrainian Unity Day. In central Dnipro, by the new memorial to those killed in the east Ukraine war, a small group of mostly pensioners are singing cheerful Ukrainian folk songs under the blue and yellow national and red and black UPA (insurgent army) flags. The accordionist stops playing, blowing on cold fingers. “No, more!” shout some of the women in their bright traditional shawls. He starts up again, and they launch happily into a Soviet World War Two song about red partisans.

Heroes don’t die, the memorial says in English and French and German and Ukrainian. I’m searching the many glass panels, trying to work out where the local authorities had to hurriedly take down some names and faces, after ceremoniously opening the memorial without informing families who believe their sons or husbands to be missing, that they’d included them among the glassy rows of dead. I’m searching too for the name and face of a soldier whose funeral I went to in 2015. The missing aren’t there anymore, and he isn’t there either.

dnipro memorial singers

Later I take a bus travelling further east towards the frontline. At a military police checkpoint outside Pokrovsk (which everyone on the bus including the driver still calls Krasnoarmeisk, or red army) all the men are taken off the bus. It’s minus five and snowing. The men are searched right there by the side of the road – buttons undone, belts unbuckled. Finally they get back on, all except one boy of maybe twenty. The driver drives off.

Passengers: Wait! You left one behind!

Driver: the fuck I care if the cops found a problem with his documents

Passenger: But his phone’s still here

Driver: the fuck I care

He stops, and a passenger grabs the phone and runs back with it. The two men sitting behind me are muttering: how many other check points? Two, I think. Jesus…

On and on along dark snowy roads, through more than two checkpoints with soldiers muffled in capes and balaclavas. In every bus station toilet two or three semi-stray dogs are curled up in cardboard boxes. There are fairy lights in apartment windows. Bullet holes in the walls. The snowflakes fall and fall, perfectly shining tiny stars. The bus driver stops and gives a free ride to two men the same age as the one who was detained at the checkpoint, whose car has broken down.

Ukrainian unity. There’s the story of how Ukrainian independence was declared on 22 January 1917. You can read about it on the website of the Ukrainian Institute of Memory. There’s the story linking that through the red-and-black UPA flag to east Ukraine today, and all those glassy faces of the dead. And then there’s the faces that aren’t on the glass and the faces that had to be removed. The towns with their new old names, the Ukrainian folk songs and the Russian red army songs. The people who don’t care and who care. There’s this, which doesn’t pretend to be a story at all.

dnipro memorial

 

 

 

 

At last

The best news of the year comes right at the end. Ukraine and its separatist eastern regions yesterday exchanged around 350 hostages who had been held prisoner for up to three years because of the conflict.

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Natasha and Mykola Herasimenko on their way home (not my photo obviously, thanks to Perviy Krivorozhsky) 

Since 2015, I’ve got to know four families of Ukrainian soldiers held in Donetsk. I’ve written about them several times: Natasha Herasimenko, Natasha and Ludmila Lazarenko, Nadia Kalyn and Viktoria Pantyushenko. It’s a strange thing to come to know their stories so well when the central character is missing – just a face in a photograph which the wives and mothers carried with them everywhere they went: to the local administration, the regional administration, to Kyiv, to separatist-controlled Donetsk, to Paris. From 2015, the demonstrations the women organised and brought the photos to grew, from meetings in the local park that no one was interested in, to a flight to Paris last week to meet diplomats and politicians.

“I can’t not do it,” Luda Lazarenko told me, one of the times I met her in Kyiv outside the presidential administration or parliament, when as usual no one bothered to came out to speak to them. “At least I know I’m doing all I can to make sure they are not forgotten.”

From summer 2015 the women got regular phone calls from their men captive in Donetsk. In summer 2016 the phone calls stopped and it was only infrequent letters. It got harder to know what to talk or to write about, after so long. Sometimes there were videos on YouTube made by Russian and separatist propagandists, where relatives could catch a glimpse of  their captive husbands and sons answering loaded, disingenuous questions. But the photos stayed the same. In one vital relationship these families have been frozen for up to three years. Children have been growing up, grandparents dying, parents splitting up, mothers falling ill. But the photos stay the same.

“In a thousand days other people have children, work, travel, live,” Viktoria Pantyushenko said, last time I met her. “While you’re just hanging. You’re alive but you’re just existing, constantly waiting, just wanting each day to go quickly so that the release will come. Sometimes I appreciate that I’m free, I go to work, I have support, but at the same time everything is closed off, like prison. I just think about one thing: when will he be freed? How can I make it happen quicker?”

I can’t say how happy I am for these families who never gave up. These amazing, determined, courageous women, who kept going to meetings and knocking on doors and sending messages, nagging and insisting and standing out in the rain and hoping, hoping, hoping.

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Natasha and Aleksandr Lazarenko (photo Perviy Krivorozhsky)

Like the last really good news from Ukraine two months ago, of the release from politicised charges in Crimea of Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov, this latest exchange is bittersweet. Viktoria Pantyushenko’s husband Bohdan was not released yesterday. Last time I saw her, after the announcement that there would be an exchange before New Year, Viktoria said she believed Bohdan was second on the list for exchange, because he’d been in prison in Donetsk for the second-longest time. She was so bright with hope.

This is the biggest east Ukraine prisoner exchange, after 15 months of deadlock, but there are still confirmed prisoners on both sides and in Russia who have not been released. And then there are all the missing ones, whose relatives hope and believe they are also somewhere in captivity, waiting to be found.

And there is the question of afterwards. Ukraine has promised rehabilitation and financial support for families of conflict-related and political prisoners. To date, it has failed to provide either. Instead former hostages have found themselves denied medical care and under suspicion from the police and security services. Some of these released prisoners can’t go home, because their home is on the wrong side of the frontline. Like Chiygoz and Umerov, political prisoners from Crimea, who were exchanged by Russia and flown to Kyiv under very murky circumstances.

I saw Ilmi Umerov a few days ago; he said “in all the scenarios I ran though about what might happen, I never thought of this one; that I’d be exiled from Crimea.” As with Viktoria today, hard to grasp their feeling, for which disappointment is a completely inadequate word.

Ground minus one

“It’s dreary,” says Nadia from the House of Culture, when I ask her how Stanitsya Luhanska in east Ukraine has been changed by the war. “At night there are no lights in the buildings, because everyone has left. It’s dark in the streets at night and no one goes out.”

Nadia’s husband died when their block of flats was shelled in 2014, killing ten people. When I tell her my name she says “The head of the House of Culture was called Lilya. She was killed in 2014 as well.”

She shows us the empty auditorium, where rows of wooden seats face a stage piled with the flags of four hundred countries. The roof is damaged from shelling. When too many supposed residents are stranded in the town after failing to finish their ‘identification’ process, two hundred or five hundred people sleep overnight in these hard wooden seats, facing an empty stage piled with the flags of other, better countries they’ll never visit.

Stanitsya Luhanska is a ghost town. Officially there are ten thousand new residents here since 2014. Only a thousand of them actually live in Stanitsya Luhanska, together with nine thousand phantoms. That’s nine thousand fake Internally Displaced People (IDPs), the vast majority elderly people from over the line of contact in non-government controlled Luhansk, who must register and present themselves in person for ‘identification’ every three months to continue getting their pensions.

An average 9000 people daily cross the line of contact in Stanitsya Luhanska, over the pedestrian-only crossing of a broken bridge and barbed-wire fences and UNHCR tarpaulins and inadequate passport booths – infrastructure, says a Ukrainian border guard optimistically, for 5,500 people daily.

“Why can’t you improve the infrastructure?” I asked him. “Because it’s temporary,” he replied. “We hope.” He means he hopes the situation of half of Luhansk region being out of government control, and needing a border crossing, is temporary. Stanitsya Luhanska has been the only official crossing point between government controlled and non-government controlled Luhansk region since 2014.

A hundred kilometres away in Zolote there’s a ghost border-crossing. It doesn’t look temporary. It has neat rows of brand-new passport booths, a smart covered walkway for pedestrians, high painted fences, lanes for road traffic, and bored, friendly-ish Ukrainian border guards with handsome sniffer dogs. This new crossing point goes nowhere but two small settlements, Zolote 4 and Yekaterinivka, which are under Ukrainian control but lie beyond the Ukrainian crossing point and ground zero of the Ukrainian army frontline. A few hundred people live there in what must presumably be ground minus one, surrounded by landmines, with shells falling on their heads every night from the ground zero of both sides.

The opening of the Zolote crossing point has been unsuccesfully ‘under negotiation’ with non-government controlled Luhansk since spring 2016. “We dread the word ‘opening’. Every time they talk about it, the shelling gets worse,” says Alina, the head of Zolote 4 school. Most of the shelling is at night, and she and her 48 pupils and everyone else in Zolote has not slept for the past week; there has been discussion of opening the crossing among officials in faraway capitals. “For us,” Alina says, “the word ‘opening’ is like terror.”

zolote cemetery.sm

Zolote 4 coalmine – the reason for the settlement’s existence – closed before the war and is now occupied by the Ukrainian army. There are working mines of a different kind littering the fields and even the cemeteries round about. Life  is cheap in east Ukraine. Beyond the red danger signs around the cemeteries are freshly-dug graves, beautifully tidied graves, graves decorated with bright new plastic flowers. Life is cheap, but the dead still get looked after despite the unexploded gifts of war.

Zolote means ‘golden’. When the shelling and the shooting stops, Zolote 4 is the quietest place in the world. No cars coming through the border to nowhere. No cows or goats or children roaming the mined fields. No working industry. A solitary chicken clucks softly, peacefully. It’s strangely warm for December; the low winter sun lights this open, abused landscape a muted pinkish gold. It shines off the gravestones in the cemetery, and they flash and twinkle like sunlit windows, as if you could open them and climb through to a better, undiscovered country.

zolote landscape.sm


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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