Posts Tagged 'Donbas'

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

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.”

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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.

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Ground zero

This is a system designed for the utmost inefficiency, humiliation, degradation and graft.

“What have we turned into?” cries a woman who worked all her life as a telecoms engineer, brought up children and sent them to study in the same profession, so she could have a decent, honest peaceful old age on the pension she earned over 44 years labour. “It’s just dirt everywhere! I can’t look at it, these awful handcarts and trolleys, these ubogiy detky, wretched children who stink of beer and can’t get a proper job, look at you just to see how much money they can make out of you, and they just say ‘takoye polozhenye, that’s just how it is’. Why must we live like this? My son says I should stop coming. But it’s my money! How did we come to this?”

This is travelling, aged 76, by bus from Luhansk in east Ukraine on artillery-battered roads through endless sandbagged bunkered checkpoints, disembarking at a falling-down footbridge where for 50 Russian rubles one of those wretched children will carry your chequered refugee bag and trolley, and for 300 rubles will carry you, your ailing heart and arthritic knees and boiling blood pressure, on an old bus seat strapped to a luggage trolley up the broken steps and down the steps and wheel you along as humiliatingly as a sack of potatoes, or else it’s a kilometre on foot and for more rubles or hryvnas maybe you can jump the queues and maybe you can’t, herded between rusty tangles of barbed wire, queues you can’t pay to jump for vile squat toilets that your old bones won’t let you squat to, the anxious wait when you find out if your name has mysteriously disappeared from the Ukrainian list of border passes, a cup of tea provided by the Red Cross in a shipping container with not enough seats, waiting and hoping not to be trampled in the sudden geriatric stampede (“Here comes the marathon,” says a borderguard ironically) when your herd of pensioners is finally allowed through the last makeshift checkpoint and passport check, and you’re in Free Ukraine.

stanitse luhansk border.sm

And what welcomes you? Ukrainian flags, ruined houses, a bullet-riddled bus station full of stray dogs and rubbish and angry people selling grubby fruit and pork salo, refugee tents from the Red Cross or UNHCR or some church or other, four portaloos from USAID but they’re not even portaloos, they’re blue plastic boxes over a stinking hole in the ground. More sordid wretches waiting for your money to take you to the State Pension Fund and the bank, and then it’s more queues and paying to maybe get in a shorter queue so that just maybe you will make it today through the process of ‘identification.’

stanitse luhansk salo.sm

This is a system designed to prove you’re an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) who has moved to live here from non-Ukraine controlled Luhansk, and are thus entitled to a Ukrainian pension. Although of course everyone knows you’re not an IDP, you paid to be registered as one here in Ukraine-controlled Stanitsya Luhanska but you don’t live here because you can’t afford to and no one wants you and there’s no house or room for you to live in. All ‘identification’ does is force you and thousands of others every three months to pay to get to the bridge and pay to cross it and pay to jump this queue and that queue and probably pay again to spend the night somewhere because there still isn’t time to do all of this in one day.

All of this to get a Ukrainian pension worth less than 100 dollars that is yours, that you worked honestly your whole life for, and of course you are also getting a pension on the other side of the bridge from the non-recognised ‘Lugansk People’s Republic’ which is less than 100 dollars too, and you’ve already spent half of one pension getting to this side to claim the other pension, and you’ll spend the other half on medications for your cataracts and your boiling blood pressure, that are cheaper to buy on this side than that side but there’s the worry that someone at a checkpoint on this side or that side will confiscate them, and you’ll have to pay yet again to keep them. You spend what’s left of this or that pension on the journey back home through a non-declared war zone, to the house you don’t officially inhabit, in a non-recognised state, over a border which doesn’t officially exist, that you’ve crossed to prove you are something you and the whole world and its dog knows you’re not, so you can get a pension you can’t live on, which you are already getting, which you earned in a country called the USSR that doesn’t exist anymore and yet is reborn right here in the queues and the pointless bureacracy and the graft and the schemes to jump queues; and the collapse of the USSR which you thought you’d lived through and left behind is also reborn right here in the scraping to survive, the utter humiliation, crawling over each other, shoving each other out of the way, exploiting and being exploiting, cheating and lying and being lied to.

How did you come to this? This is your decent, honest, peaceful old age.

stanitse luhansk toilets.sm

Hope (Day of the Disappeared)

Somewhere in the territory of the former Russian Empire, in the conquered lands of the Mongol Tatars, the plains and mountains once traversed by the Scythians, there is a labour camp. Perhaps it is mining gold, or mining coal, or uranium. It might be making bricks from clay out of the ground. It’s north of Arkhangelsk, it’s south of Grozny. West of Kyzyl, east of Lugansk. It’s as hidden and as well-known as the gulag.

The inmates here work all day digging things out of the ground. Heavy things; useful, valuable, prized. It’s hard work. The fences around are very high, or perhaps there are just untraversable mountains and steppe, forest and tundra on all sides, and it’s impossible to see a way over, through, beyond.

It’s East of the sun, in the land where the moon lives.

Here they all are, the missing ones, the ones we dream about. They are labouring here for things out of the ground, for gold or for bricks, unable to escape or just reach a phone or get out one single message. They have no money for a stamp, they forgot the number. But alive, oh, alive, all alive-o.

It’s hell on earth, this camp, fed by war’s inexhaustible deliveries of forced labour. And it holds heaven, if we could only find it. We can’t bear to think of our loved ones there, and we can’t bear not to. It’s beautiful torture, it’s hideous comfort to know they are there under duress. They’d come home if they could. It’s torture but it is believable, it is possible, it is probable as long as profitable to use unnamed unpaid unfree workers to dig things out of the ground. It can exist and they can be there.

David has been there since Abkhazia, 1992. Revan has been there since 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh. Igor has been there since 2014, Donbas.

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Names of some of the missing from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

We carried a corpse of a soldier from the other side, literally carried it about for weeks, to exchange for our living son David. We buried it in the end, thinking, as we dug the grave, about David being forced to dig in that camp somewhere. Maybe no one wants it anymore; maybe we have to exchange something else. One day if we still remember where it is we’ll show our son that grave; what we did to get him back.

I never married, because it was my brother Revan who had to marry first and had to give me away at my wedding, and the dowry all went on a ransom for my brother who has still not been ransomed. Then it became too late for the wedding, but it’ll never be too late for Revan to come home.

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Brothers and sisters: from before the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

We keep calling the number that once had an accented voice on the other end giving us a message from our dad Igor. It never answers. We check the social media account that once sent us information about the camp, and a photograph of Igor held there. The account is never active anymore. The messages were never enough to understand where that labour camp is. Whatever we do to find him, it’s never enough.

Tell us the camp is real, and our missing ones are all there. We paid for it, we wrote down the messages, we offered the exchange. We’ll always believe it.

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Looking for the missing: outside the Ukrainian presidential administration, 2015

Somewhere in the territory of the former Russian Empire there is a labour camp, where the inmates work digging things up out of the ground. Sometimes they dig up the bones of people no one will ever know the names of, and dream faces onto them.

They are all there, the missing ones, the ones we dream about. It’s hell on earth, and, if we could only find it, holds our heaven.

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Living memory

Talking with friends about the new documentary about maidan ‘Winter on Fire’: “I don’t want to see it,” said one. “I don’t want to be reminded. It’s still too close.”

I wonder when these things will cease to be too close. Yesterday I was searching online for articles about Donetsk in April-May 2014. I wasn’t expecting, when I found and read these short, dry news accounts, to be almost physically plunged back into that atmosphere of dread and confusion and incipient terror that was in Donetsk then, before the war had started, when you simply literally could not believe what was happening or where it would lead to.

I’ve just come back from East Ukraine where I was interviewing local humanitarian aid workers recalling how it was a year or almost two years ago, before the war got old and ordinary and turned into the dull horror of everyday hardship and loss. How did we get used to this? They ask. And yet it’s getting harder and harder to remember that less than two years ago Ukraine was a very young country that had never seen war.

In some ways, in some places in east Ukraine it seems to have changed nothing. Those roads almost impassable because of potholes – they aren’t holes from shelling, they’re holes unfilled in years of neglect. That factory that’s a ruin – it didn’t get bombed, it just closed down in the 1990s and was looted for scrap metal. That village that has no healthcare facilities whatsoever and where people are living without hot water – they never had these two things, not in living memory.

And yet it’s changed everything. The language you use. The TV station you watch. The documents you show, and the ones you hide. The people you talk to and the people you can talk to no more; the things that can be said and that cannot be said. The home you lost; the loved ones you’ll never see again.

I talked to a family – grandmother, mother and daughter – who fled non-Ukraine controlled territory (the unthinkable language you use these days that’s become ordinary…) for Severodonetsk, where they are living on humanitarian handouts because there’s the pretty pigtailed toddler to look after and no work to be had, not in a small town whose population has increased by a half in the last two years. “What do you hope for, what do you wait for?” I asked them. “For a miracle. For peace. For us to be able to go home…”

Back in the town they fled in 2014 they didn’t have work either, because there wasn’t really any work to be had; the granny was on her pension and the mine couldn’t employ everyone, and there was nothing else to do but a bit of desultory trading on the market. Now the mine has been flooded, and no one is ever going to rebuild it. They live in Severonetsk in a wierd displaced bubble, surrounded by all their neighbours and aquaintances from back home who are all now in the same position: “Almost the whole town is here.”

“Do you know anyone who’s managed to settle down here and get work and rebuild a new life?” I ask; they shake their heads. They don’t know how long the handouts will continue. “When they stop paying them, then we’ll go somewhere else… The best thing would be to go home and then we wouldn’t need anything.”

“But there’s nothing really for you to go back to either,” I say, feeling cruel.

The little girl has finished her lollypop; she starts jumping up and down, her pigtails bouncing: “Give me another! Another! Another!” She doesn’t remember home; she’s hardly known a Ukraine without war.

5 percent terror, 95 percent boredom

There’s so little to do in Donetsk.

Many shops are closed. There’s nothing nice to eat, nowhere to go, nothing to look forward to. There’s hardly even the adrenalin rush of terror of shelling – everyone has got too used to it.

The poorly stocked supermarket (odds and ends from Ukraine, ‘Republican bread’ at 2.80 hryvnas/5.60 rubles a loaf according to the ‘DNR’ official exchange rate, ‘cheese products’ and ersatz coffee from Russia) has been nationalised. The prosthetics clinic has been nationalised. The pawn shop has been nationalised. Do you want flowers, do you want army boots? women call listlessly from their stalls at the market – nationalised, naturally – where everything is out of date or adulterated and no one much is buying because no one can afford to.

military goods and souvenirs in Donetsk market

military goods and souvenirs in Donetsk market

The fountains play on Pushkin Boulevard amid perfectly tidy beds of roses and mums pushing prams, young couples arm in arm, a grandpa walking with his grandson wearing matching Black Sea Fleet caps. Small armies of municipal workers weed, sweep up leaves, repaint railings and zebra crossings across quiet roads. Down by the river cyclists ride by in the closed world of their headphones and drunk militants pounce on babies to kiss.

Along the broad, deserted highway built to bring international guests from airport to stadium for the Euro 2012 football championship – just three unimaginable years ago – Ukrainian ‘Officers Corps’ jeeps whizz by on their murky quests to bring prisoners home. The road surface hums under the tyres with the dulling, soporific sound left behind by tank treads. The sound of Donetsk now.

Work for all! 'DNR' employment centre

Work for all! ‘DNR’ employment centre

Work for women up to 45 as massagists, no experience needed

Work for women up to 45 as massagists, no experience needed

Posters everywhere promise exam-free entry to higher education institutions (“Donetsk National University – recognised by the whole world, the best in the Republic’); work for all (those armies of militants and municipal workers…); worthy pensions; more nationalisation; rebirth, revival, renewal, regeneration; hero status in the ‘DNR’ army (‘Daddy, where were you when they destroyed our homeland?’).

Daddy, where were you?

Daddy, where were you?

No one makes plans, no one receives letters, no one understands the point of anything anymore. There’s nothing to talk about except the high, high prices – even the rage got old, the propaganda got repetitive, the dead too many to count.

War is horror, is death, is hatred and terror. And war is stultifying, horizon-reducing, nullifying, degrading and dreary boredom.

War stories

There are so many stories in Donetsk I can’t tell, because this is war and someone is always going to be on the wrong side.

I’ve met two women here who support Ukraine with all their minds and hearts, who are just waiting and longing for the day when the nightmare that is the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ will be defeated.

These are well-known figures within their communities; if I include any details about their work and lives and backgrounds it will be obvious who they are to others in Donetsk. I want to tell their stories to all those who say “Donbas deserves what it got”, “All the patriots have left”, etc., etc. These women have reasons for staying in Donetsk that put people with armchair opinions to shame. These women have to make daily compromises to survive, to hold on to and protect the thing that makes them stay, because this is war.

This is war. If I publish an article telling their stories, however I change their names and surnames, someone in the ‘DNR’ will read it and know who they are, and know they are on the wrong side, and take away that vital thing that makes them stay.

child’s pavement drawing, Donetsk

There are the people I’ve met on the other side. The ones who were picked up on the streets after curfew and made to join the militants, or who volunteered to join the militants to earn money for their families. Who left the militants after days locked in a cellar, or an accidental shoot-out that killed a drunk bystander.

The woman whose son died fighting for the ‘DNR’ militants; she buried him far from home because the family house and graveyard have been destroyed by months of shelling. The woman whose son joined the militants to go missing in action a week later in July 2014, who will probably never know what happened to him or receive any compensation for his death or even a cheap medal on an orange and black striped ribbon.

(Rows of identical crosses in an overgrown village graveyard, for militants all killed on the same day in a fight unremembered, unrecorded anywhere in the ‘DNR’…)

I want to tell their stories because this is war and no one should think that war is simple. This is war. If I include details about these people’s work or lives and backgrounds it can be obvious who they are to the ‘DNR’ side whose secrets they betray, and to the Ukrainian side which they or their sons fought against, and which perhaps one day will return.

Hairbands in 'DNR' colours, Donetsk

Hairbands in ‘DNR’ colours, Donetsk

And then there are the people whose stories I just don’t know how to tell. Women who voted “yes” in the referendum to establish the ‘DNR’ last Spring, because they were afraid of fascists, or wanted to defend the Russian language which is their mother tongue. “We didn’t know what it would lead to.” “We thought it would be like in Crimea…”

Now these women and their families have no prospects, nothing to hope for, nothing to look forward to. There is no way back to Ukraine – too much has happened to be forgiven: “Ukraine is still a bit fascist, isn’t it? Ukraine is shelling us, its own people…” There is no way forward – not independence, not Russia, not peace or economic or social development now the monstrous genie that is the armed militia has been let out of the bottle: “We can’t fight against their guns…”

There is nothing especially dramatic or special about these women, just bitter mundane ironies: one has a daughter studying international passenger transport logistics in an unrecognised ‘republic’ with no airport, no railway station, surrounded by checkpoints; another has patients to whom she prescribes medicines she knows not Ukraine nor Russia nor the ‘DNR’ can or wants to provide…

These women are not patriotic enough for Ukraine, not separatist enough for the ‘DNR’, not Russian enough for Russia. They are just ordinary people who made a mistake, who regret and vacillate and fear, get swept along with the crowd and then washed up high and dry, who did not do enough to support or to oppose.

I don’t know how to tell their stories, because this is war. And war and war reporting has no place for those stuck in the middle, too weak to take a stand or properly choose a side, utterly disappointed by both sides, unwanted and unloved by both.

Donetsk regional museum

Donetsk regional museum

The road to Donetsk

One crowded train; one overcrowded overpriced bus to a checkpoint; waiting hours or very possibly days in 36 degree heat, no shelter, no toilets, 500th in line for another overpriced bus to the next checkpoint; a walk and wait for that unpredictable moment: will your pass be valid? Are you on the list? Back on the bus to the next checkpoint; another walk; yet another very overpriced bus carrying fifty people crammed in space for thirty; everyone hauling gigantic bags full of tomatoes, salo, vodka, clothes, shampoo, laptops, medicines, whole lives in battered suitcases and red and blue checked refugee bags; panic that the shooting is starting again; roads more battered than the suitcases; yet more checkpoints, passports, unpredictability, all the men off the bus, everyone aged between sixteen and forty off the bus and back on, climbing over the bags and boxes, shouting and swearing, joking, calling for calm, for patience, for tolerance, for all this to be over.

This is the journey from Kyiv to Donetsk. For millions, this is their lives now. Once upon a time, before the war, all it took to reach Donetsk from Kyiv was one night train, with clean sheets and tea in glasses in silver holders. War is hell, is death, is grief and destruction. And war is a massive, expensive, humiliating, stupid, unbearable, gigantically pointless inconvenience.

As if one war wasn’t enough

The East Ukrainian ‘republics’  bizarre and brutal ‘war on drugs’. My latest for Foreign Policy.

Forty days

I wrote this in July last year. Inbetween trips to Crimea and Donbas, I spent a week in this central Ukrainian village, watching the sun set and the moon rise, and pretending nothing else was happening.

Baba Lena died in December – peacefully, everyone says, on her bunk by the stove in the little white-painted khata, like a scene from Gogol’s Evenings near Dikanka, and a village beekeeper’s stories of a Ukraine that never was.   

Baba Lena, 95, who lived through four years of German occupation, gives her verdict on the conflict in East Ukraine’s Donbas: “That isn’t war, its hooliganism.” 

Mercenary, state-sponsored hooliganism, in which civilians are dying. 

Baba Lena’s village in Poltava region, like most villages in Ukraine, looks too remote, sleepy and idyllic (in a falling-down, rubbish-strewn sort of way) to have ever been near a war. These are the villages from Nikolai Gogol’s Dikanka tales, where little white houses nestle like sleeping doves under the hillside, hollyhocks and sunflowers tower over sagging wooden gates and kudriavy panichi – crooked gentlemen, or Morning Glories – twine up the frilly iron-capped gate posts. 

Gogol saw these places in better days of course, before the collective farms took over, the shy maidens got emancipated and the dashing black-eyed young Cossacks put on Red Army uniform, or had to leave for Donbas and Siberia. Before the collective farms collapsed and everyone left, except for grandmothers like Baba Lena. 

Appearances are so deceptive. Just a few kilometers beyond the village is a monument to a division of Soviet border guards, slaughtered here as they retreated east before the advancing German army in 1941. Their captain survived, joined the partisans and fought all the way back west again through Zhytomir and Vinnitsa and further.  He was made a general, lived after the war in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kyiv – and ended up being related to Baba Lena, when her son married his daughter. 

Baba Lena has never left this village in all her life. She doesn’t have too bad memories of the German occupation –or maybe she does, but she doesn’t talk about them. It was four years of some kind of stability, and like many people in east Ukraine now who have ended up participating in deadly state-sponsored hooliganism in the name of wanting a quiet life, she treasures stability above just about everything.

I suppose there were no Jews or gypsies in this village. The villagers had to work for the Germans during the day; in the evenings they could tend their own smallholdings. By 1945, families (women and children, mostly; the men were away fighting) had cows, pigs, chickens, or money from selling them. Four years is a long time. Maybe the German soldiers fell in love with local girls; thought about settling down. I don’t know about that. 

Then war swept through again, from east to west this time. The Soviets came back, and the collective farm took away all the livestock and money. Baba Lena has a medal from the Soviet Union though, for ‘valiant and selfless service’ during the war, awarded in 1946. That’s what she showed me, when I asked about her war years. 

Over eight hundred Red Army soldiers who died in this area between 1941 and 1945 are buried in a collective grave by the village school. The memorial stone has only eight names on it – I guess no one ever identified the rest. There is no monument to any civilians who died, though recently someone put up a new cross on the hill, to those ‘warriors who gave their lives for the peaceful present’. Even more recently – after the present got a good deal less peaceful – someone put up next to it the Ukrainian flag.  

You’d think World War Two – the Soviet ‘Great Patrotic War’ – was the only thing of note that ever happened here. But up on the grassy, windswept hill is the site of a much older castle or fortress, I don’t know exactly what since the Soviet-era notice helpfully says ‘architectural monument’ without further details. 

Also on the hill was the grand panichy dom, the house where a rich Polish family lived until the revolution, with their own bakery and church. The local grandmothers still talk about that, and the scandal when the Polish gentleman married a woman from the village. There’s nothing at all left of the grand house, but the cottage he built for his village wife is still standing, pretty and white and blue-shuttered, like a khata out of a Gogol tale where a black-eyed Cossack woos a shy young beauty under the lovely Ukrainian moon. 

Ukraine often makes me think of that supposedly ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. Baba Lena might seem to have led the least interesting life imaginable, here in this falling down village. Nearly everyone she talks about these days is dead – in wars and epidemics, in some kind of stupid, horrible village accident, or just of old age and disappointment. 

The collective farm is in ruins, and Baba Lena’s own plot is a weed-smothered expanse of potatoes and carrots and rotting melons that her grandchildren (who grew up in Kyiv, descendants of that Soviet general) inexpertly sowed but haven’t found time to come back and harvest. Ukrainians in cities still rely on their grandmothers in the villages to supply potatoes and carrots; their safety net when the gas is cut off, when the economy collapses yet again.  

This black, crumbly Ukrainian earth is as close to sacred as Baba Lena gets. Everyone died, everyone left, but worst of all, they let the land be overtaken by buryan – a wilderness of  weeds. 

Flowers blue and yellow, birds and small bright-eyed creatures flourish in the weeds and wilderness. The river shelters turtles and floats many-petalled water lilies; beneath a fine skein of mist its still, rose-flushed surface is illusorily brighter than the twilight sky. A crescent moon is setting over fields to the west, golden as a promise… It’s illusory too that interesting times feel a long way off, happening in another country, to someone else.

             


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A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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