Posts Tagged 'Donbas'

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.

             

Conversations in east Ukraine

“So do you believe as well that it’s all terrorists here firing on their own towns and their own people?” 

“I don’t know who is firing. So long as I haven’t actually stood next to a Grad or a Howitzer and seen who has fired it in what direction, I try not to have an opinion on this anymore. Anyway all the fighters look the same, they all wear the same camouflage, they all speak the same language – how am I supposed to tell who is who?” 

“But they have different weapons. The Ukrainians have weapons the militants don’t have.” 

“But all the militants tell me the weapons they have are ones they took from the Ukrainians as trophies. So doesn’t that mean they must have the same weapons? (Because if not, all those weapons I’ve seen the militants carrying or driving around in convoys must have come from Russia, right?)” 

“The rocket that landed on the factory where I work was from a Smerch. The militants don’t have a Smerch.” 

“How do you know they haven’t got a Smerch?”

Do you know what a Smerch is?” 

“But how do you know they haven’t got a Smerch?”

But do you know what a Smerch is? I’m former military, I know.”

But that doesn’t answer my question- how do you know the militants haven’t got one?”

And our conversation ends here, as I stare out of one frost fern-patterned window of the bus, and my former-military fellow passenger, from a town that has endured two months of shelling from Smerch/Grad/Howitzer/I-don’t-know-what, stares out of the other.

We drive through the check points, separatist ones then Ukrainian ones, though to me the men at each look exactly the same; all snowy and freezing, far from home, fed up. I’m angry with myself for arguing when my argument is as empty as my fellow passenger’s; I really don’t want to argue, not anymore, and I never in my life wanted to know what a Smerch is, or a Grad or a Howitzer or any other military hardware which is just so much money and invention being used on both sides to kill people. It’s not true that I try not to have an opinion: this is my opinion.


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