Posts Tagged 'Luhansk'

Before the war

People here are desperate for company. No one visits these rebel-held towns in east Ukraine anymore, except Russians who’ve come to fight. Friends and even relatives have stopped calling, because they are on the other side of the battle lines, or because they got lost for good in the middle of the battle.

My driver from Luhansk thawed from thinking I was at worst a spy, at best a liability, to inviting me home for lunch and telling me half his life story. His life these last six months, a chaos of family divisions and three jobs at once, none of them paid.

Six months ago he was driving a nice new van, delivering medications for patients on kidney dialysis throughout Luhansk region. Now he’s driving a beat-up Zhiguli, and unless they leave for Ukrainian-held territory the dialysis patients are going to die in two weeks time when the last medications run out.

My first driver, the day before when I asked him to pick me up, was extricating himself from a road accident with a drunk militant.

In former lives, just six months ago, these people had more or less-stable lives; were directors of companies; mine foremen, doctors. It is like the 1990s all over again, when the woman selling boxes of matches and single cigarettes on the street corner was a nuclear physicist in a just-former life.

Life before the war. Before the war, when no one realised how good life was.

“I can’t get used to saying it,” says Ira in Gorlivka, pouring out home-made wine at 9am to celebrate actually having a visitor. The breakfast pancakes are made with water; she can’t afford milk. She hasn’t been paid for her job as a kindergarten teacher since June; she spends her days calming children who run to hide whenever there is a bang or a crash. “We all learned that toast as children: ‘peace and understanding’, and it never meant anything to us before…”

Nikolay and Aleksey from the technical college in Gorlivka had modest, manageable enough dreams before the war: to move on to further study in Dnipropetrovsk or Kharkiv, to get a job. Now their dreams have dwindled to an imaginary country called ‘Novorossiya’ that they don’t really believe in anymore.

“There are no prospects here,” says Aleksey; no future in this place that’s harder and harder to get out of and where no one comes to visit.

Aleksey’s best friend and Nikolay’s cousin have both stopped calling; they might never come back again. They are in the Ukrainian army, fighting against ‘Novorossiya’.

“There’s a problem with the phone connection. He can’t call so often anymore,” says Nikolay about his cousin. “He’s got no choice.” There is a difficult pause. “We really hope that the ones in the Ukrainian army aren’t there by choice.”

The boys fall quiet. We listen to the missing calls, the silent phone lines, the absent visitors who once made toasts to peace, the voices of those who will never come home.

Define ‘sanity’

It says something about the state of things in east Ukraine, when the psychiatric hospital in Stakhanov feels like a small haven of sanity.

Driving in cars

One of these day I am going to write a frivolous article about personal transport tastes and driving habits in east Ukraine’s two fantasy ‘People’s republics’.

Declaring that everything is ‘for the people’ conveniently allows everyone with a gun to expropriate and pimp their ultimate ride. And to chop off the fingers of the poor honest guy who tried to prevent it. And to drive however the hell they want, deliberately running over stray dogs (“There are more of them than people these days”) or accidentally knocking down old grandfathers during shoot-outs (“He was in the wrong place”).

I’ve been ‘given lifts’ in a commandeered police car with shot out windows; a Toyota limousine with leather seats and customised Slavic neo-pagan numberplate (“I earned it”, said the former taxi driver turned battalion commander when I asked where he got such a very nice car from – he has since been seen riding a horse and offering rides on a tank to pretty Aryan-looking female journalists); in the Batman battalion’s spanking new white batmobile (yes, really) and, my favourite: this proletariat revolutionary pimped minivan.

DNR minivan

Journey in the dark

In Luhansk, the rows of tower blocks stand dark against an indigo sky awash with light – brilliant stars, a more brilliant moon. Usually it’s near-impossible to see starlight in a city. Here it glints off the broken trolleybus wires and tram rails, the many shattered windows. Not a single streetlight is working in this city anymore. Large areas still lack all electricity. Finding an open restaurant, an internet café powered by generator, feels like a small miracle.

The internet works, the heating doesn’t; the few people in the cafe are hunched in coats and hats. The man in charge stays open late for us – “I’ve got no electricity in my flat,” he says with a shrug when we thank him.

His mother is sitting in the flat in the dark, waiting for him to come home. His father was killed minutes before a ceasefire was declared, because he refused to leave the family house in Kommunarka, just outside Luhansk, now a flattened wreck. “He couldn’t wait five minutes for the ceasefire, just five minutes… The really stupid thing is, he’s a veteran from Afghanistan. Got through that whole war, and he was killed in his own home.”

Full moon, two nights later. There never was a ceasefire. Artillery fire from around Donetsk airport arcs upwards in orange streaks, four by four by four, that burst in mid-air like gigantic, monotonous fireworks. Beyond Makiivka, full of convoys of trucks and mounted guns, of jittery militants who count the cost of everything in Russian rubles, the highway north is almost deserted.

There are rumours everywhere of imminent attack, of this strange war that never stopped starting all over again, Russian invasion, Ukrainian advance… There is nothing happening on this highway tonight, just the ghosts of mortars in dents and holes, of tank treads in left-behind, humming song.

Moonlight turns the world silver and indigo and unreal. Off the highway, the country roads are just as dented and full of holes, although there was no battle here, just years and years of neglect. At checkpoints the bus driver turns off the headlights and we are plunged into silver indigo brightness, Ukrainian flag, separatist flag, the stripes of yellow tape the Ukrainian soldiers use to identify themselves all turned the same, silver, indigo.

I’ve done this journey several times now. Each time there is a looking glass moment of crossing from one territory to another; each time, I wonder if I will fall into a chasm between them. This time the moon turns it all utterly dreamlike. We will wake up from this dream soon, this country will wake up and ask itself: how could it happen? How could we do this to each other? Pull of the darkness.

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