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Medals

“Our grandfather was a Red Army hero. He had all these medals, the Red Star for undaunted bravery and everything. And he was on leave at home in Crimea in May 1944. He was with my grandmother and one son, staying in Yevpatoria, while the other two children were somewhere else. My uncle, the son who was there, told us all this. There was this knock at the gate at five in the morning on 18th May. My grandfather didn’t like to hurry to do anything – it must be where I get it from. He shouted ‘Coming, coming!’ and he was getting up and putting on his clothes, and by that time they’d climbed over the gate, these soldiers, and were in the yard and knocking on the door. And it opened and there he was standing in his army uniform and all his medals. They didn’t know what to do. They’d been told there were only women and children in the house, and instead here was this decorated army officer. So they said he should go to the commandant. He went and explained he was on leave, and the commandant said he should go straight back to the front.

“Khartbaba went back home and said he was going to the front. And then – our uncle told us – there was this huge row and scandal with bitay [grandmother], it went on for about two hours, and the end of it was that they both got taken away into exile with the son, our uncle. The other two children were put in another railway wagon, and ended up in a completely different place. That’s a whole other story. My grandfather did find them again in Uzbekistan, they were living on a rubbish dump. He found them just in time, they were dying of hunger.”

This decorated Red Army hero had two grandsons, who came back home to live in Crimea fifty years after the whole family, along with all the Crimean Tatars, was deported to central Asia and Siberia by Soviet authorities for alleged collaboration with the occupying Nazis. One of those grandsons told me this story (which I’ve written down from memory). The other was killed in March 2014 for making a totally silent, solitary, peaceful protest against the Russian takeover of Crimea. This is his ‘Hero of Ukraine’ medal, awarded posthumously.

ametov medal1

 

This is a Second World War memorial in Koreiz, on the south Crimean coast, to local men who fough in the Red Army. Most of the names on it, repeating over and over, are Crimean Tatar.

crimea koreiz memorial

It was built on the initiative of a Crimean Tatar man with the same surname as one on the monument, after he returned in the 1990s to the town from which his family was exiled on 18 May 1944. Nearby, the family house is still standing; it belongs now to a Russian family.

The man had two sons. One of them showed me this memorial, and the historic mosque which was also rebuilt on his father’s initiative, and his father’s grave – he died in 2016, disillusioned with Russia that had awarded him a medal ‘For the return of Crimea’ in 2014, and then harassed and beaten and imprisoned his other son.

The other son has been in remand prison for more than two years, and is now on trial in Russia along with five other men charged with ‘attempting to overthrow the state’ and belonging to a ‘terrorist’ Muslim organisation. At a recent hearing one of the secret witnesses on whose evidence the entire prosecution is based, revealed his name. He said he had never met half the men on trial and had no evidence to think that the others, who he did know, were involved in the organisation. The trial continues.

crimea rubles

These are commemorative 10-rouble coins issued by Russia after what it calls the  ‘reunification’ of Crimea in 2014. They were given to me by two Russian women from Simferopol, the capital city of Crimea. They said, their voices chiming and interrupting and agreeing, ending each other’s sentences, repeating the same phrases:

“I’ve got nothing against Tatars, you can meet very good ones, I adore them, but we were scared on 18 May when they marked the deportation every year… If it hadn’t been for Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] the Tatars would have just destroyed us, it would have been the most terrible thing on the whole planet… They all came here [to Simferopol], it was awful, they said such strange things about Russia, it was such a stressful situation, all you’d need to do is light a match and it would all go up. Every year… On 18 May we couldn’t go out because they were coming and we were afraid because they were everywhere, it was terrible, every year, we were afraid even to go to school…  Not anymore. Now it’s all civilised. They have their monuments and sacred places where they are allowed to go, they can go to mosque; they [the authorities] are building them such a beautiful mosque now… They live very well, some of them live better than us. We’re tolerant to everyone, our marriages are all mixed, Russian and Ukrainian, we’re all mixed and how can you divide us now? … No one is violating their rights, it’s not true what they say. They have everything, they have cultural centres and schools, they get given more because they were deported and they’re to be pitied… It’s us who get nothing special. We can manage, it’s our home and we should help and accept everyone, that’s what we were taught.”

The ‘Crimean Marathon’ is a grassroots campaign in Crimea collecting 10 rouble coins like these the women gave me, by the bucketload, to support the (overwhelmingly) Crimean Tatar people imprisoned or fined since annexation for ‘unsanctioned meetings’, ‘inciting inter-ethnic hatred’, ‘resisting legitimate force by law enforcement,’ ‘extremism’, ‘questioning the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation’, etc, etc. The latest person likely to be in need of those 10 rouble coins has just been arrested at a memorial meeting for the 18th May deportation; a meeting that these two women would have approved of, no longer in the city centre (where they were held until 2014) but next to the mosque in an entirely Crimean Tatar suburb on the very edge of Simferopol. ‘Their monuments and sacred places where they are allowed to go’.

crimea adym chokrak well

This is a well in a wild, empty valley near Bakhchisaray in Crimea. It’s all that’s left of the Crimean Tatar village of Adym Chokrak (Many Springs), that was emptied of people on 18 May 1944, and later bulldozed. Because of the clean, cold water it’s now quite a popular place for wild camping for people who mostly have little awareness and less interest in its history.

adym chokrak valley

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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.

mariinka chestnuts.sm

“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.

mariinka school.sm

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.

mariinka knitting.sm

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.

potiivka napominalny

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.

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.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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