Posts Tagged 'east Ukraine war'

Ukraine jumps the shark

On the two days Arkady Babchenko was killed and then came back to life to announce his death was faked by Ukrainian security services (SBU) and police, there was an international forum on disinformation in Kyiv. Never let it be said the SBU lacks a sense of humour.

I described to some conference participants how it felt in 2014 in Crimea during annexation and in Donetsk when the war started, surrounded by disinformation. Absolutely everybody lied about absolutely everything, from corpses poisoning the water supply to the presence of Russian forces. The lies made no internal sense, let alone tallied with what people were actually seeing and hearing. It was, literally, like drowning in bullshit. There were no facts, no objectivity, no two sides, not when everybody was lying about everything. The final question for me, and one I still haven’t been able to answer, is how much people knew, and on what level they knew (or know) that they were lying to themselves. How much they knew they were being fooled; how much they were fooling themselves.

And here we are, 2018, fools drowning in bullshit.

If we’re being honest (an out-of-date commodity these days) the bewilderment and moralistic outcry over Babchenko’s fake death is not quite so much because it’s another lie, but because we were made to look stupid. No one likes to look stupid, and particularly people like journalists and spokespeople and politicians whose ego and livelihood depend on being taken seriously. I am sure MIA advisor Anton Herashchenko and SBU head Vasyl Hrytsak massively enjoyed making fools of the press in and on Ukraine, which, if we are being honest, can be insufferably self-important and self-righteous. I’m sure the SBU loved making fools of reporters who are always going on about how corrupt and useless the SBU are, to the extent of carrying out their own investigation into the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv two years ago. I’m sure they loved poking with a bullshit stick the CPJ and RSF who’ve come close to suggesting, on no actual hard evidence, that the Ukrainian state may be involved in Sheremet’s killing.

But Sheremet is dead, and no one is going to bring him back to life, and two years on the police and security services have named no suspects and made no arrests. A murder happened and was never solved. And now we have a murder that didn’t happen, so that it could be solved. We have an incompetent – or worse – SBU that lets murder happen and never catches culprits, and a SBU so damn clever that it fakes murder in order to catch culprits. We have accusations of Russian involvement in murder that is never proved, and we have (allegedly) proof of Russian involvement in a murder that didn’t happen.

My head hurts.

Those people justifying the Babchenko fake by citing other incidents of faked deaths of police officers to catch local criminals are being disingenuous. Local police officers or officials and criminals do not provoke a public statement from the prime minister blaming a neighbouring state, and from ambassadors and politicians around the world engaged in a major geopolitical conflict. The SBU didn’t just trick some pesky journalists with the laudable aim of saving lives. The stakes are so high: MH17. The war in east Ukraine. Crimea. Syria gas attacks. The Skripals. Literally, thousands of dead and injured, all drowned in lies.

If we’re being honest, none of us were objective over Babchenko’s killing when we thought he was dead. In retrospect, there were a number of peculiar anomalies. But if we (I) thought about them at all, we put them down to Ukraine’s frequently unprofessional and crass way of doing things (Herashchenko publishing that photo on facebook, anyone?) We believed it, because it was so very, very likely to be true, it confirmed every worst scenario we have already lived through and are going to go on living through.

No one likes admitting they’ve been fooled – or that they’ve fooled themselves. And of course we’re relieved and glad he is alive. My god, of course we are.

A civil activist called Server Mustafaev was arrested by Russian forces in Crimea almost two weeks ago, and charged with Islamic extremism. Server described himself as a citizen journalist, and was untiring in documenting other people’s arrests and detentions and disappearances before his own. The CPJ has said nothing about his case. No open letter like the one they’ve just written to President Poroshenko over Babchenko, no outrage. They wrote no open letter to Putin over the ‘extremism’ conviction of Crimean journalist Mykola Semena either. In Server’s case they’d argue, I’m sure, that he is not a journalist as he was not published in any mainstream media and mainly posted livestream videos and photos online. And if we’re being honest I can see the point; it’s pretty hard to define these days who a ‘journalist’ is. But when no ‘real journalist’ in mainstream media covers such obviously fake cases in Crimea, except Russian media which covers them all the time to show how special forces are winning the war against terrorism – what’s a person to do but pick up a camera, and court persecution with no protection?

Last week a civilian called Mikhail was killed by a bullet in the east Ukraine frontline town of Mariinka. He never really made it into Ukrainian, let alone international news. He was 35, disabled, and until recently lived with his mother (I say ‘until recently’ not because he’s recently no longer alive but because his mother died a week or so before he did. Before that a family grave in the cemetery got hit by a shell and blasted open). Not a very prepossessing subject for media attention, Mikhail. The head of the Mariinka civilian-military administration, as well as several townspeople, told me he was killed by a sniper’s exploding or expanding bullet, banned under International Humanitarian Law. I don’t know whether that’s true. A few days later a beautiful 15 year old girl with an extensive collection of lovely social media portraits was killed by a shell near Zalizne, not far from Mariinka. Unlike Mikhail the fatality appeared a lot in Ukrainian media and god forgive me I wondered initially whether it was true too, because she was so perfect for Ukrainian propaganda purposes. (It is true).

To be honest, I wrote that paragraph above about Server Mustafaev as a kind of trick, because I know you might read a piece about Babchenko. To be honest, I’m not sure why I’m telling you about Mikhail and Darya. No outrageous life-is-stranger-than-fiction story here. No affronted dignity. No one paid 40,000 dollars to get rid of them. No one rushed to put up memorial plaques and then, feeling weirdly ashamed, had to take them down. They are actually nobodies in the information war and the actual war. The OSCE and UN will record their deaths, and probably they’ll get added to the case Ukraine is putting together to bring to the Hague against Russia. The other side will have added its own deaths to its own case. And there will be relatives even after four years of war who are unable to believe it, who with some deep and vital part of themselves are waiting and hoping to hear the news that it’s not true, that Darya is alive, Mikhail is alive, all the missing and the killed are alive. It was a trick, these last four years of war and horror and loss are all a fake. It was lies and we were fools right from the beginning.

And it’s true, it was, and we were.

Advertisements

Decency and solace

Kushugum cemetery, Zaporizhia, where Ukraine buries its unknown soldiers from the east Ukraine war. I was last here in 2015 and early 2016, for a funeral and an exhumation. It was the saddest, most desolate, temporary-looking place; alongside the heaped recently-dug graves with identical wooden crosses were gaping pits for new bodies.

kushugum.22.5.18.sm

Now it looks like this. Of all the graves here, four now have names on. One is Artyom Kalyberda, killed aged 24 in a military retreat from Russian forces at Ilovaisk in August 2014. He was identified by DNA match and after an exhumation the following year. His family believe he’s dead, and don’t believe he’s dead. Last time I saw his sister and his brother-in-law, they were still calling his phone, just in case, one day, he answers. Valera held his hand over Artyom’s  photograph and said it felt warm –  a sign that he’s alive.

kushugum.kalyberda.22.5.18

One of the other graves still has the same number, more than two years after it was exhumed for a repeat DNA test at the request of a missing soldier’s mother. They sawed off pieces for a repeat sample right there in the cemetery. Then the body was buried again, and Luda, who after two DNA matches is still waiting for her son to come home, collected some of the earth in a handkerchief, and we went in search of a priest who could ‘seal’ the grave after it had been disturbed.

At the church, one of those officious women who clean the floors and snuff out the votive candles in the candle holders said “Is it an Orthodox grave?” “I don’t know,” Luda said. “You must know,” the woman insisted. “Because the priest can only seal it if the person was Orthodox. Was he Orthodox?” “I don’t know,” Luda said, clutching that dirty handkerchief. And I shouted at that woman, Don’t you understand, no one knows who he is, it’s a grave for an unknown soldier who went to war for your country, only God knows who he is but I know this is a desperate woman who has just stood over the open zinc coffin of a man she cannot believe is her son, not this greyish dripping thing in a plastic bag that’s been dead for eighteen months, and she has come to your church for decency and comfort and you’re saying you can only offer a blessing if it is an Orthodox grave?

And then we went outside the church and we shook the earth from the handkerchief onto a frozen flowerbed, because we didn’t know what else to do.

kushugum.29.2.16.sm

Kushugum cemetery is still the most desolate place in the world. I suppose the white gravel and granite look more official and orderly than the temporary mounds of earth and wooden crosses. But I think those were somehow better, because now it looks permanent, it looks like the fields of World War One white stone crosses, still unidentified after a century. This is a place; these are rows of numbers that should never become permanent.

There are an estimated 1000 unidentified dead from the east Ukraine war, and several thousand missing (military and civilian). There is still no systematic prisoner exchange, no system of exchanging DNA or other information across the line of contact, no coordinated search for remains. There will never be solace and decency, no seal, no end to the waiting.

Childhood

The night train from Mariupol to Kyiv is full of children travelling to stay with grandparents for the long summer holidays. In my compartment Artyom, five, had left Donetsk at 6 am that morning and crossed two ‘borders’ – that of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and that manned by Ukrainian soldiers and borderguards – and then had an hour or two paddling in the sea at Mariupol before getting the train at 6pm.

“Is this Ukraine?” Artyom asks, at every station stop. “Is this still Ukraine?” He’s been in Donetsk for a year, after his mother moved there to look after her ill parents. “Three years of Ukraine and a year over there and he’s forgotten his Ukrainian,” sighs his grandmother, who’s travelled to pick him up from a village in Volyn, in west Ukraine. She speaks to him in Ukrainian and he answers in Russian that gets more and more mixed up with Ukrainian as the hours rock and trundle by.

“What are you going to do over the holidays in the village?” asks a fellow passenger.

“Go fishing with his granddad,” says the grandmother.

“Get a tank and put it in front of the house and shoot at people, bang, bang, bang,” says Artyom.

Later the grandmother gives him some paper to draw on. He starts drawing tanks. “God in heaven,” she says. “Don’t they teach you anything else over there?”

child's pavement drawing, Donetsk

Schools and children are not a target

After four years, the sandbags in the school windows are just part of the landscape, like the nightly background shooting and shelling that sometimes – no one can predict when –  moves to the foreground. Still no one goes outside after 6 or 7 pm. There’s still no gas supply. There are two new hairdressers in Mariinka; since my last visit a year ago a bank and a cash machine have been reinstalled. Municipal workers are cutting the grass under the flowering chestnuts. One family I visited a year ago has had to move after their house, where we sat and ate birthday cake, was shelled in broad daylight. The family living past the last Ukrainian army outpost, in the no-man’s land between sides, still lives there; their children still make it to school most days.

mariinka chestnuts.sm

“Some parents say, ‘I feel safer when my children are at school than when they’re home.’ Because home is closer to the frontline. They say, ‘I’ve brought them to school where I know there’s a basement shelter and there’s first aid, and I can feel easier.’ There’s that saying; my home is my castle – here it’s the opposite…. It’s a lot of responsibility for us.”

Yana has worked at Mariinka’s school number 2 for over 20 years; she’s one of about half the staff who have stayed since 2014 to teach 150 children in a warzone that everyone, even a good part of Ukraine, has forgotten about.

mariinka school.sm

School number 2

Recently the war changed its official name; the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) is over, replaced by the United Forces Operation (OOS in Ukrainian). Under the OOS the whole of Mariinka, which straddles the frontline, will officially be in the restricted ‘red zone’. The regional governor recently visited to assure locals that this would not adversely affect them: ‘You’ll continue to live the same as you’re living now.’

“They’re shooting here the same as always. But people just hear that phrase: ‘the ATO is finished,’ and they think it’s all over, nothing’s happening here anymore. ‘The ATO is over’. They don’t understand that the OOS has started and nothing has changed,” said Yana.

Occasionally Yana gets to leave for a few days, when she and her colleagues are invited for training sessions held in towns far from the frontline, on resilience, psychological support and landmine safety, organised by international agencies.

“When we have 3-4 days training somewhere we live in a hotel and we can walk in town. For us it’s just wild that people are in the streets at 9 pm. For people who live permanently in Mariinka it’s just incredible that the lights are on, that people are walking in the streets at 10 at night.”

“I think you’re a hero,” I said to Yana.

“Oh no,” she said, with an embarrassed laugh. “I think I’m a coward. I’m afraid to change something in my life. People say, come on, abandon that Mariinka, go somewhere else, find work, start life all over again. And I can’t. I’m still young enough to start again but… You live here with hope. Maybe that’s wrong.”

Working schools in two frontline villages in east Ukraine, Sakhanka and Svitlodarsk, were shelled yesterday and today.

mariinka knitting.sm

Toys made by schoolchildren in Mariinka


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: