Posts Tagged 'Donetsk'

Guardian angels

I met Oleg in April 2014 in Donetsk, east Ukraine, just before the war started. I worried. I couldn’t imagine how such a fabulously, flamboyantly queer person could survive if the militants manning home-made checkpoints, beating and locking people in basements and handing out ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ leaflets that read ‘We oppose the seizure of power by oligarchs, extremists, paedophiles and homosexuals!’ had their way in Donetsk (they did).

Oleg moved to Kyiv, where I bump into him pretty often. Sometimes his hair’s black, sometimes blond, sometimes green or purple. He’s always smiley and gorgeous and ambiguous. On Wednesday he got beaten up on his way home from a film screening before this weekend’s Kyiv Pride equality march.

The far-right groups who publicly encourage and lead such attacks also say they oppose the seizure of power by oligarchs, extremists, paedophiles and homosexuals. They claim to be fighting in east Ukraine against the Russian-backed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (‘We oppose the seizure of power by oligarchs, extremists, paedophiles and homosexuals!’) and even complain that their one-sided violent fight against LGBTQ in the rest of Ukraine is forcibly taking them away from this battle.

For example, the far-right National Corps is an organisation of self-appointed guardians of national security and morality – a bit like those self-appointed militants on checkpoints in Donetsk beating up people and giving out leaflets, really. A statement last year from National Corps about Kyiv Pride reads: ‘National Corps won’t permit disdain of the traditions of Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian family, or violation of their moral principles, just as our members didn’t allow Putin to impose his will upon Ukraine and enslave us.’

I am still wondering why all the National Corps members, and the brave guys who attacked two women and gentle, gorgeous Oleg in Kyiv on Wednesday, have not joined the Ukrainian army to fight the Putin-backed war in the east, which is, after all, ongoing.

More than 13,000 people have died so far in the war in the east. Around 4000 Ukrainians a year die in car accidents, 3,700 of TB, 8000 in alcohol related incidents.

Nobody in Ukraine has died because Oleg exists and is queer. Nobody ever got physically harmed as a result of the fact that someone else in Ukraine, or in the world, is L, or B, or G, or T, or Q.

What about National Corps’ ‘traditions of Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian family’? According to the Ministry for Social Policy, 10 percent of Ukrainian (heterosexual; same-sex is illegal) marriages end in divorce in their first year. In 2001, long before ‘gay propaganda’ was a thing in Ukraine, 17 percent of families were single-parent. In 2017, 70,000 children were orphans or removed from their parents’ guardianship (state statistics). A 2014 study found that 16 percent of women have experienced domestic violence.

Here’s a small story about prejudice. A friend just posted it on Facebook.

Sveta lives right on the breadline. She’s a single mother with two daughters; she lost her soldier son in the east Ukraine war (practically every mother I’ve met of sons missing or killed in the east Ukraine war is a single mother). Sveta went to pay her overdue utility bills, after being threatened with having her gas and electricity cut off. When she got to the cash desk she realised that somehow she’d left her rucksack open. The envelope with a large amount of money she really can’t afford to spend on bills, was gone.

When she got home to her flat she found the envelope and bills – which had her address on – stuck in the doorframe. All the money, every last note, was inside.

I went outside the building entrance and I’m sitting on the bench, feeling a bit dizzy. And then my neighbour Aunty Nina jumps out at me from the bushes. Why, she says, don’t you close the entrance to the building!!! I just had to kick out a couple of thieves standing outside your flat! Two teenagers, she says, can’t even tell what sex they were, one with green hair, one with purple …. Drug addicts, probably, screeches Aunty Nina.

That’s what they’re like, it turns out, guardian angels))))

And I’d thought….) they’re white and fluffy, with wings

rainbow arch kyivsm1

Kyiv, 2017


 

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In all truth

I take the bus that goes ‘In all Truth’, to visit a woman who recounts the lies she’s been told, and the lies she told herself, to explain why her son never came home to her from the war. Her road, Prospect Truth, heads out of her city eastwards, straight to Donetsk, to the line beyond which it’s all lies, beyond which her missing  son is somewhere, in limbo, neither dead nor alive.

prospekt pravdy

I take a bus to  Liberation Square, where women hold photographs of prisoners – their sons and husbands detained in Donetsk. The ones being held prisoner and the ones holding them prisoner are both descended from those who fought for that liberation the park commemorates. There are identical parks on the other side of that line further east, beyond which those men are somewhere, in limbo, neither sentenced nor acquitted.

Truth and Freedom. The first casualties of war. But in the two years since I met these women in Ukraine, this war’s stupid ironies never cease.

We’d all do it if we could

All the furore over Ukrainian officials’ e-declarations of conspicuous wealth reminds me of the following story:

Donetsk, Spring 2014. A local poor woman from an abjectly poor village, who supported the separatists demanding to split off from Ukraine, was railing against the corruption of Ukrainian officials, oligarchs making money off Maidan and war, ‘pig’ Poroshenko just as bad as Yanukovych who at least was a local boy, all of them disgusting liars robbing the country blind, etc. etc. etc…

At the time a documentary had just aired about the new prime minister Yatsenyuk, in which he’d claimed to live in a modest Kyiv flat with his family. I told the woman about it, expecting her to say it was all lies.

Instead she said “Well I think that’s disgusting, a leader of the country living in a little flat. He has a position to keep up! At least Yanukovych understood that!”

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.

Independence day

In Donetsk, Ukrainians stockpile supplies for the day the water is cut off, the food deliveries and humanitarian aid stops, the lights finally go out.

The woman who made these preserves picked the tomatoes and plums from her allotment where shells fly overhead from one side and from the other, day after day, night after night. A small rucksack stands next to her bed, packed with documents and cash, a pair of knickers and a toothbrush for the day she has to flee.

But she has no intention of fleeing, and her jars of hard-won preserves are not waiting for dark times ahead. “At 6pm on the day of victory, you are all invited here. We’ll open these jars and we’ll eat and drink it all, to celebrate the return of Ukraine.”

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


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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