Posts Tagged 'east Ukraine conflict'

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.


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



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

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

dnipro memorial singers

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

Passengers: Wait! You left one behind!

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

Passenger: But his phone’s still here

Driver: the fuck I care

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

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

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

dnipro memorial





At last

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Natasha and Aleksandr Lazarenko (photo Perviy Krivorozhsky)

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

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

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

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

Ground minus one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zolote 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.


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

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

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

Even the tea has a name

“What kind of tea would you like?”

We’re here to talk about dead bodies. But this is a sushi bar, and the music is too loud, and there has got to be tea.

“How about Sencha? It’s Japanese.”

“Sencha,” Yuri says, “Is a village in Poltava region.”

We’re here to talk about bodies buried under the wrong names, or under no name at all. We haven’t met before, and I never know how to start these conversations. I don’t know how to be professional, and I’m uncomfortable talking to soldiers. Maybe neither of us quite know how to begin.

We talk about Poltava region instead. I tell him about the village there I know, lovely and overgrown and tumbledown, one of those Ukrainian villages where you’d think nothing ever happened, although in fact a whole battle front was wiped out there once.

“The village with a beautiful hill?” he asks. “With a cross on the top? I was born in that village. I put up that cross.”

He asks in amazement: Do you know that street…? Do you know this family..? I ask. The turtles in the river? The mushrooms in the forest? I tell him about my last visit there, in September. It was perfect autumn weather, the sky a deep dark blue, the sun with a clean sharp edge to its warmth. Golden leaves fluttered down over the small whitewashed house beneath the hill, where the commanders of the Red Army’s Southwest Front met on 19 September 1941, to decide whether to surrender, or whether to keep fighting the surrounding German forces.

Altogether, 600,000 men in the Southwest Front were killed or captured in August-September 1941. Soldiers were mown down like grass coming over that beautiful hill, or as they forded that river full of turtles. The reedy marshes by the river smelt of corpses for years afterwards. My friend’s grandmother, baba Lena, then a girl, helped bury the unidentified bodies in a grave for unknown soldiers at the top of the hill.

gorodishe kirponos

The plaque reads: In this house on 19 September 1941 the last meeting of the war council of the Southwest Front was held under the command of General-Lieutenant Kirponos

“It was me who persuaded the local council to mark the anniversary of that meeting,” says Yuri. “I told them, an important historical event happened right here, and no one does anything to remember it. There are all those soldiers buried on the hill, and no one even knows where, let alone what their names are. That’s why I put the cross up there.” He pauses. “That’s why I’m doing what I do now.”

Baba Lena, I think, perhaps didn’t much want to remember. I tried to ask her about the war years once; she went abruptly and comprehensively deaf.

This September for the anniversary, about fifteen children – all the pupils from the school which serves three villages – turned out in their best vyshivanky, fidgeting their way through speeches. “The two weeks the army held out here,” said some village councillor, “delayed the German advance and determined the fate of Moscow.” “The Soviet Union wasn’t militarily strong in 1941,” said someone in army uniform. “And there was a repeat of that situation in Ukraine today; now the enemy is different but the main thing is still to love our country and be ready to die for it.” “In 1941 General Kirponos had a choice,” said a local historian, “to surrender with his thousands of men like Vlasov, or to fight to the end and die. He  chose to fight and die. They all chose to fight and die because they were real soldiers. The Germans,” went on the historian, “wanted lebensraum, living room, to settle this land for themselves. But those men who died in 1941 were heroes fighting for their land, and now we’re in a different war but we still need to love our land and fight and be ready to die for it.”

gorodishe kirponos

The leaves fluttered down, the fifteen or so children fidgeted, and the old men in decrepit old suits turned to watch when a bicycle or a cart loaded with gigantic turnips passed on the potholed road. I wondered if the speechmakers saw the irony in what they were saying. This land which so many people died for, which they were urging the young to die for again, is being abandoned daily. The Germans wanted living space but here is space where no one wants to live. These few children left will leave as soon as they can, because there is no work here, no money, no future. The fields of rich black earth are disappearing back into nature at its most intransigent, its most beautiful.

I wonder if it was such beautiful weather, that September more than 70 years ago. There were ghosts here, but not the ghosts of 1941. This landscape in Poltava region, weeds and maize and sunflowers, abrupt hills topped with trenches and escarpments built for previous wars, is exactly the same as Luhansk and Donetsk regions in east Ukraine. It was on top of just such a hill that I saw searchers like Yuri in 2015 dig up an unnamed body, a collection of bones in anonymous, rotting camouflage.

“He crawled out of the sunflowers,” said the local man who’d brought us there at sunset, to show where a year before someone had buried this man without a name, before the dogs ate him. “The Ukrainian column came at around six in the evening. The shooting started over by those bushes, and then they turned and went back and the bombardment started from there, from the plantation… He crawled out of the sunflowers. And here under the sloe tree he died.”

When you’re about to die, when you’re running for your life across a hillside, do you have time to notice the sunflowers and the sloe tree? Do you think: What a day to die! Do you think: How cruel and heartless it is; do you think: Thank god this will still be here when I’m gone. Do you love it; do you hate it; do you see it at all; do you wonder if your enemy sees it the same way as you. Do you think: This is my land and I’m glad to die for it, to be a hero for the future of this dusty weed-blown piece of shit that’s supposed to be my land even though I’m actually from Novosibirsk; Grozny; Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk? Or maybe you’re from Luhansk region, Poltava region, maybe you were born in this village, and you think: What a fucking irony, I’m going to die here right on the doorstep of my home, I’m going to be shot and drown in the river I’ve swum in since childhood, and my family will never know what happened to me. I’ll lie there forever under the reeds or I’ll be dumped in a common grave on top of the hill and my family will never know I’m there and will spend the rest of their lives waiting for me to come home.


Here lie buried the soldiers of the Southwest Front who died in September 1941. Eternal glory and memory to the heroes

We’re in a sushi bar to talk about dead bodies, and I wonder how Yuri, a soldier in today’s war who searches for the dead without names, thinks about all this stuff. Our tea arrives. Sencha from Japan. There’s a Japanese film that has a ghost in it with no name. The ghost can’t enter any house, because who would invite in a person without a name? It waits endlessly outside the door, a black, half-formed presence, begging wordlessly to be allowed to enter. At last a girl who has had her name stolen from her feels sorry for it, and asks it in. Once over the threshold, its hunger is so vast that it swallows up everything there is inside.

I turn on the dictaphone. Yuri begins to speak, and the tea gets cold, undrunk.


1001 nights

A thousand and one nights. I never counted up how many years that is before – it’s two years, eight months and 22 days. It’s how long, to date, Ukrainian soldiers Sasha Lazarenko and Kolya Herasimenko have been prisoners in Donetsk.

1001 is a number I always associate with stories, and telling a different one every day to save your life. Ever since February 2015, when the Minsk II agreement supposed to end the East Ukraine war was signed, ever since I first met Lazarenko and Herasimenko’s families in summer 2015, the story to save Sasha and Kolya’s  lives has been the same.

Here it is: “Provide release and exchange of all hostages and illegally held persons, based on the principle of “all for all”.

Not much of a story, is it. It seems pretty straightforward and uninteresting. Who would have thought you could spin 1001 nights out of it. Who would have thought you could spin out of it dozens of meetings in Minsk of the humanitarian sub-group supposed to deal with humanitarian matters that fall under the agreement; hundreds of plane fares, bottles of mineral water, grudging disappointments at the rubbishness of Belorussian duty-free. One attempted hunger strike by relatives, dozens of protest banners and photographs, how many propaganda videos, how many children forgetting what their fathers look like.

So few letters, in 1001 nights. You could count the letters on one hand. The sleepless miserable hours: uncountable.

Such a short story – 19 words. And how many government representatives (recognised and unrecognised) spending 1001 nights failing to agree on what exactly ‘hostages’ means; what exactly ‘illegally held’ means; what exactly ‘all for all’ means. After the latest Minsk meeting, A has decided ‘all for all’ means ‘all confirmed for all confirmed.’ B has long insisted that ‘all’ does not include those who are ‘legally held’; A insists B’s ‘legal’ is ‘illegal’. A complains that B has split A’s ‘all’ into categories of very guilty/less guilty/a bit guilty. B complains that half of A’s ‘all’ are guilty of things  completely irrelevant to the current conflict. A complains that while its ‘all’ are neither ‘terrorists’ or ‘criminals’ but ‘ordinary people’, B’s ‘all’ ‘came to kill the people of Donbas’.

But what does ‘terrorist’ mean? What does ‘confirmed’ mean? What does ‘ordinary’ mean?

And at the core of it all: what does ‘war’ mean, and why is it never mentioned in those 19 words of point 6 of the Minsk II protocol, or in the 13 points, 796 words that make up the whole document?

Minsk II is a terrible story. No one can agree where it begins or ends, whether the middle should be at the beginning, what order the events come in, what is action and what is consequence. The main thing it’s about is never even mentioned.

And this story is the only thing the Lazarenkos, the Herasimenkos, the Pantyushenkos, the Kalyns, all those other ‘all-for-all’s and their families have got. A story that hasn’t changed in nearly three years, give or take some numbers of ‘all for all’. A story no one believes.

“At first we believed in Minsk. But then we saw the meetings were constantly derailed. We’re waiting for the next one, and the next one comes and nothing is resolved, and then again the next one, and that’s it: we lost faith.”

That’s Viktoria Pantyushenko. She’s small and determined and 25 years old. She’s been waiting more than 1001 nights for her husband Bohdan to come home. How many protest banners, how many talks with officials, how many Minsk meetings. How few letters.

There are the stories the prisoners tell in those few letters.

Bohdan writes to Viktoria: “If before I used to dream about something, like events that evolved, now everything comes down to a static picture: my release, I get off the bus, and you’re standing there and meet me, and then a freeze-frame.”   

Kolya Herasimenko writes his wife Natasha lists of food he’d like to get. “Here they don’t know what salt is… When I come back I’ll be ashamed to look pigs in the eye, since I’m eating their feed.”

He writes “If I live to that day that’s called exchange (‘obmen’), and not a trick (‘obman’)”.  He writes “They promised us ‘soon’, as usual, although for me personally the word ‘soon’ is missing from the dictionary.”


A letter to Nadiya from her husband Sasha Kalyn, imprisoned in Donetsk since september 2015  (photo by Emine Ziyatdinova)


Kyiv is the new

There is a room upstairs in Kyiv railway station; an enclosure, separated from the rest of the hall by plywood, canvas and camouflage netting. Not many people know it’s there; few passengers make it up to the second floor of the south terminal, and even fewer to this dim corner.

On a Sunday evening the station is heaving with passengers, taxi touts, suitcases, paper cups of coffee, advertising, announcements, mobiles and headphones, hellos and goodbyes. The station was recently used in an advert for Apple watches, just one of several western brands and musicians and celebrities who are ‘discovering’ Kyiv as a cool and cheap place to film videos and drink cocktails and admire street life. I seem to be hearing everywhere: ‘Kyiv is hot, Kyiv is trending, Kyiv is the new Berlin’ – not war-torn, not dangerous, not dull but vibrant, creative, attractive.

It’s all these things. Kyiv is on an up as it’s been on a down, a glut as it’s been through famine, a time of creation as there have been times of destruction. Kyiv is full of gorgeous people drinking coffee and getting their beards barbered, opening cafes and clubs and clothing boutiques, being productive and stylish and pleased that their capital city is cool, is hot enough for the railway station to feature in an advert for a watch that can store 40 million songs.

And yet – there’s this room, upstairs in the corner of the railway station. Even on a busy Sunday evening it’s such a quiet, dingy place. There are carrymats spread on the plastic seating, and old but clean blankets and pillows, free tea and biscuits, an ancient TV showing some obscure film about some mediaeval war, all blood and broadswords and brutality. The temporary walls are hung with the shoulder patches and flags of Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions, patterned with symbols and slogans, signed with the call signs (‘Badger’, ‘Tatar’, ‘Blond’) of men playing at being boys, probably half of them dead by now.

These station enclosures – run by volunteers, without state assistance – are the closest Ukraine has to VIP waiting rooms for participants in the ATO (anti-terrorist operation), the ongoing war in the east. This Sunday night there are two young women volunteers, and four or five or six men sitting or lying around. One young man is fast asleep stretched out in the corner, and the volunteers hover around him, putting a pillow and blanket in reach but not wanting to wake him up: “We’ve seen what the reaction can be to being woken unexpectedly.”

The group of soldiers’ mothers I’m here with all turn to look at him and Sveta says, “Yes, we’ve seen it too”; and at last one of the volunteers gingerly drops a blanket over his legs and tiptoes away smiling as he never stirs, and all the mums look at this sleeping boy and I suppose every one of them is seeing her own lost child lying there, and hoping someone somewhere is putting a blanket over him to keep him warm.

Another soldier offers an apple to Sveta’s daughter Vlada. “It’s from Maxim, it’s from your brother,” Sveta says coaxingly, when the little girl doesn’t want to take it. “It’s come from the ATO, from Maxim. Say thank you.” Vlada puts her hands behind her back. She doesn’t remember her brother Maxim, who went missing in action in the ATO in August 2014, when she was a baby.

On Lilya’s phone is a picture of another little girl: Lilya’s granddaughter Polina, born two months after her father went missing in action in February 2015. Lilya doesn’t see Polina much, not since her daughter-in-law decided Sasha must be dead and met another man and moved to another city; moved on.

“I can’t understand her,” says Lilya. “No, I can understand. But I can’t accept it.” She shows me a picture of Sasha, fair-haired and blue-eyed as his daughter, called up at 18, vanished before he was 20. “It’s because she isn’t his mother. None of them.” And them is the whole world, the government and the security services and the army and the capital city, the hipsters the passengers the daughters-in-law the 40 million songs, all of them who don’t care enough.

She looks at the sleeping soldier with the blanket over his legs, and speaks softly. “For them it’s just one out of a million. But for us, it’s the only one.”

And no one cares enough. The shoulder patches, Donbas Diva Maria Tornado UPA, all those battalions, all those call signs, look so dingy and mediaeval and sad. The flags look like something out of some forgotten museum already. And it’s all so fucking dreary, it’s right in the centre of Kyiv and it is so far away from trending vibrant hipster Kyiv-is-the-new-Berlin.

station ATO

War photography

Mira and Liza, 15 and 16 years old, with hair down to their waists and the whites of their eyes as clear as fine bone china. Eyes on the future; all their lives ahead of them. Mira and Liza from Krasnohorivka.

There used to be a disco. Three years ago there were cafes. There were places where you could just hang out with your friends. There was a park. Well there’s still a park, but it’s always empty in the evenings now. At night there’s just stars and shelling, shelling and stars. In the morning there’s still the park, you can go running – but the shelling starts again and all there is to do is to go home again, go back to bed, just go back to sleep.

We feel like it will last forever. But sooner or later it will end. It has to, because we believe it so much, we want it so much. It’s really sad. Three years ago we were just running around, thinking it would all be like this forever, it’d be like life, living – and instead it’s this picture, you’re running around and you get caught in shelling and you’re sitting in a basement and there’s no life.

mariinka media centre1

21.7.17 in Mariinka, Toma, 3 years old, Vanya, 14, Anya, 19, injured by shrapnel

Mira and Liza are in Kyiv, showing their photographs of their hometown on the frontline in the east to a city that wants to forget about the war. At first, when they were invited to join the Mariinka Media Centre photography project, they thought someone wanted them to be models, longhaired brighteyed posing in ruined buildings. Instead they took photos themselves of the ruins. Of each other’s faces, laughing. Now they dream of going to college to study photography and journalism. We know there are problems with our education, it keeps getting interrupted. But we’ll finish, we’ll graduate, we’ll get away.

mariinka media centre

Girls with dreams, Mariinka and Krasnohorivka

Today: one soldier killed, eight wounded in Krasnohorivka. Today Mira and Liza go home.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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