Posts Tagged 'war'

War takes a holiday

A photographer friend who has covered the war in east Ukraine since it began wrote to me recently from Odessa, where she spent much of the summer: “What is strange: no one spoke about the war. Not even one person. I felt it was unfair. And I always felt there was ghost of war right behind me and no one saw it.”

Kyiv too is full of ghosts, and no one talking about them. Every now and then you look up from the new bars and cafes full of beautiful people enjoying themselves and see the ‘bomb shelter’ signs on the walls; ghosts from August 2014 when everyone was convinced Russia was about to openly invade and attack Kyiv. Every now and again you wonder why all the money being spent on new bars and cafes isn’t being spent on wheelchair access to them; you look for the ghosts of wounded soldiers and civilians who will never drink there. Every now and then a crash wakes you in the night or morning, and instead of assuming it’s fireworks or thunder you know it’s the sound of explosions. (Sometimes it is: there are different kinds of war).

read between the lines graffiti

Kyiv graffiti

But who wants to talk about it? The horror and dread got boring, the war drags on like a ghost that can’t grow up, can’t change, can’t die.

War is boring. It’s a tedious corny song that has no chorus and no end. It’s boring listening to identical stories of horrific atrocity and violence from the sufferers of both sides, perfected by two or by twenty years of repetition and  propaganda. It’s boring hearing the same appeals from the same mothers and wives still asking someone, anyone, to help find their missing or release their captive loved ones. It’s boring being lectured that you can’t go to a march for gay rights or a religious procession or a music festival because ‘don’t you know there’s a war on’. It’s boring feeling guilty for having a good time, it’s boring being asked for money to help wounded soldiers, it’s boring trying to care about the daily casualty figures.

No one wants to know anymore. Those editors in the UK or the US write ‘this feels like we’ve covered it before’. Fair enough, they’re a long way away. But in Ukraine itself no one is interested. ‘It feels like we’ve covered this before’. Who wants to hear yet again about the suffering of those people stuck in the limbo of ‘grey zones’ in east Ukraine, being shelled? Who wants to hear again about Sasha or Kolya still in prison in Donetsk when they’ve been in prison in Donetsk for over a year and nothing has changed – what more is there to say?

Wives and mothers of imprisoned soldiers demonstrating in Kyiv

It’s boring being in that prison, stuck with the same faces you’ve seen for over a year, stuck with the same guards who might or might not treat you decently. It even gets boring to go through the unbearable hope and disappointment every time you’re allowed to make a phone call to a relative and ask ‘What’s new?”

It’s boring outside being shelled; that gut-deep terror that this next one might actually kill you gets so boring that you don’t even bother going down to the cellar to hide anymore. It’s boring trying to sort out the paperwork to get a measly pension from one side or the other. It’s boring waiting hours in line to cross de facto borders, and even more boring talking about it.

It’s bewilderingly boring working out how to talk at all about a war that isn’t a war, an invasion that isn’t an insurgency that isn’t civil that isn’t military, about one country that is at the same time two or three. It’s boring knowing that whatever you say or write, you’ll be accused of being biased, unpatriotic, a Russian spy, a Ukrainian fascist.

Other people’s grief is boring. Your own grief is boring.

The war whines along quietly in the background, a dull song no one wants to listen to but that you can’t get out of your head. Like the ‘bomb shelter’ signs still there beside the fashionable graffiti and the café names and the people getting on with life, hanging out, enjoying sleepy summer August.

And then someone decides it was boring being boring, and makes up a story about ‘terrorist attacks’, ‘saboteurs’, ‘armed incursions’, and we go from indifference to panic in zero seconds.

Nothing happens in August except holidays. We took a holiday from the war, those of us who could. But the war didn’t take a holiday.

Cemetery for unknown soldiers from the east Ukraine war

Voting in

I sent off my postal vote for the UK’s EU referendum before I left for three weeks working and travelling in the post-Soviet southern caucasus.

Here lots of people ask about Brexit. We’ve been asked if there are any ‘pure-blooded’ French or English people left. I’ve been told that Europe is completely swamped by Muslims, and requested that next time London not vote for a Muslim mayor. We’ve changed currencies, had problems on borders because one country was not happy that I had stamps in my passport from its neighbour. At one birthday party we drank a toast to the soldiers who are dying in a squalid and vicious little war with the neighbouring country, and the soldiers on leave asked me if I wanted to stay in the EU. “What for? You should vote out and then you can join us here in the southern Caucasus!!! Gales of laughter.

The EU feels a long way from here, although Europe does not – everyone has relatives living in France or Britain or Germany; most are living on the money sent back from wealthy, secure Europe by these relatives. Most of them lost grandfathers and uncles ‘defeating fascism’ in the European battlefields of World War 2.

Most of these countries are at war now or have recently been at war with their neighbours or with breakaway parts of their own countries. Everyone hates someone else for their religion or ethnicity or supposed historical claim to a piece of land. After decades of war and atrocity and corruption and economic instability, many of these countries have more diaspora living in other countries – recent or historical immigrants –  than they have populations at home. And yet their first question about Europe is about ‘pure-blood’ and the ravening hordes of immigrants.

So I’m not in the UK or even the EU for today’s vote, and maybe what I’m writing sounds irrelevant and far away. For me, it is neither far away nor irrelevant. I don’t want my country to turn into this.

Thicker than water

It’s time for collecting birch sap in the woods round the village. Pulled from deep underground the sap runs quick under the trees’ skin, just a little thicker than water, a touch sweeter, a bit more green, a bit more gold. Tastes like nothing; like things growing. Like every year.

Eight-year-old Styopka has a big sloshing bottle of sap he’s collected, hung from the bicycle handlebars. As we walk along the village main street he shows me the plinth where Lenin was standing last time I was here. “Dad cut him down, before he left. Got his saw and sliced him right off.”

Like many men here Styopka’s dad Tolik is a monumental mason, trained in the granite quarries nearby that turned out Soviet monuments and war memorials and gravestones. For the last few years he’s joined the thousands of Ukrainians working in Moscow, where he can earn enough to keep his three children back home fed and clothed, buy crocuses and lilies for the garden and a wrought iron gate of great pretension with lions on the gateposts. His wife divorced him a couple of years ago but he still stays with her and the children when he comes back, in the house with the fancy gate (both gate and divorce a great topic of village gossip).

When he’s back he teaches Styopka how to collect birch sap, where to pick mushrooms: things Tolik’s great grandfather would have known, and that Tolik learned when he was Styopka’s age, when Lenin was up on the classroom wall and great-grandpa was the one no one talked about.

Tolik is as patriotically Ukrainian as can be. He teaches Styopka things he never learned himself when he was Styopka’s age: that great-grandfather, arrested in 1937, was a machine gunner in a local resistance movement that fought against the Soviet collectivisation of their lands. The family has relatives in Russia – who in Ukraine hasn’t? – but they don’t really speak anymore; blood is thicker than water but politics are thicker than blood. In Moscow Tolik lives with other ostarbeiters, speaking village Ukrainian, earning money carving memorials for dead Russians.

“Dad’s going to look for work in Poland,” Styopka tells me. I assume it’s for political reasons – and it turns out it is, in a way. “His boss in Moscow said that because of the crisis, people have even stopped dying.”

People haven’t stopped dying in Ukraine. The plan is to replace Lenin with a monument to the ‘Heavenly Hundred’ who died on Maidan. The village cemetery has just extended into a new patch of earth levelled ready for the next deaths from illness and alcoholism and old age and war. There might not be enough well-paid work for Tolik but the monuments get bigger and fancier every year; great slabs of the local granite with portraits engraved on the front and pictures on the back of a dream car, a favourite birch grove, a machine gun.

Last time I was here, over 200 call-up papers had just been delivered to local men, Styopka’s mother Natasha told me. I thought she’d be worried about Tolik going to fight in the ATO (Anti-Terrorism Operation: Kyiv’s official name for the war). “It doesn’t matter to me,” she said. “Firstly, Tolik’s in Moscow. Secondly, he’s not registered anywhere. And thirdly, we’re divorced.”

This time, I noticed billboards in the neighbouring town centre showing the faces of three local men who’ve died in east Ukraine. Heroes Never Die. Next to them there’s a billboard for ‘Paris boutique’ selling cheap perfume, and another advertising swimwear.

heroes never die

The village has two returned war heroes from the east, brothers. Sasha drinks most of the time, and cries in his sleep. He came back to find his job had been taken by someone else; after three attempts he gave up trying to get the papers confirming he’s an ‘ATOshnik’ (one of those strange new words that’s entered the language, it means a participant in the ATO, entitled to benefits). His brother Serhiy is in the ‘spetsnaz’ – special forces – who stood for months on Maidan in Kyiv fighting protesters, until they killed the Heavenly Hundred – and got killed themselves, some of them. When Serhiy’s division came back from Maidan local people gave them funeral wreaths, and spat at them. Serhiy went straight from that to become an ATOshnik fighting ‘separatists’ in east Ukraine. Heroes Never Die.

I wonder what pictures those brothers would have on the back of their gravestones, when the time comes for them to go down into the ground. Hope that time doesn’t come soon. They can’t afford to die; both have small children, younger than Styopka.

All the village children are collecting plastic bottle tops to make prosthetics for wounded Ukrainian soldiers. I wonder what kind of prosthetic you could make for Sasha’s wounds. Styopka has collected 120 tops so far. Another boy in his class collected 600! Have I got any bottle tops? Have I got any English coins? Styopka collects coins too. All children like collecting things; I remember how satisfying it is, like building a world that’s only yours.

Now Styopka’s collecting facts about England. “Are there lots of castles?” Yes, I tell him, some are ruined, some are like museums, some are still lived in… “Is there a lot of traffic in London?” I tell him about double decker buses, and how if you sit at the front of the top deck it looks like you’re going to crash when you go round corners.  “Are there horses on the streets?” I tell him about mounted police. “Are there carriages?” No, I say; well, every now and again, when the queen is going somewhere…

London sounds like a fairytale. In the next village to this one, children still go to school every day by horse and cart. When I first tried birch sap, it was like a fairytale. Horses and carts too. The tale of the great-grandfather, which changes a little every time I hear it. He was arrested in 1937 and the family never found out what had happened to him until the 1990s. His children looking up at the windows of the prison in the neighbouring town for years afterwards, wondering if he was still in there, never knowing he’d been shot three days after his arrest.

Now he’s in a romantic Ukrainian novel about that local resistance movement, a predecessor of the Heavenly Hundred and the ATOshniky. Heroes Never Die. I guess no one will ever know where he’s buried, under what uncut stone for a gravemarker, birch trees for a shelter. Birch roots pulling up the sap each year from under the ground where he lies.

For now, the ATO is like a fairytale for Styopka; something you can fix by collecting bottle tops, like his dad can fix history by chopping down a statue of Lenin with his stone cutting tools.

For just for a week each year the sap runs quick under the birch trees’ skin, a little thicker than water. Tastes like nothing, like things growing. Like every year.

Living memory II

In August 2014 I wrote this piece about Slavyansk museum in east Ukraine, where staff were collecting artefacts from the three months the town lived under pro-Russian/separatist/rebel/insurgent/take-your-pick rule before being retaken by the Ukrainian army.

With director Lilya Zander I discussed the difficulties of making any coherent historical narrative out of recent events, and the problematic labelling of objects when opinion is so freshly, painfully divided and words are weapons more effective than bullets. And I asked her what the exhibition would be called.

Over a year later, I visited the completed, untitled exhibition. The museum has got round the problem of narrative by scarcely offering any narrative at all, and the problem of labelling by providing consistently inconsistent labelling. This is a war exhibition which never mentions the word ‘war’; an ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ exhibition which calls the object of the operation ‘fighters’ or ‘separatists’ more often than ‘terrorists’, an exhibition of occupation and liberation which lines up the most deadly weapons on the side of the ‘liberators’ and calls the dead simply ‘victims of armed conflict’.

“Where are the pictures of civilian casualties?” one of the museum staff said, when I told her about the article I wrote.

There were no such images in the exhibition. “Has the museum collected such pictures?” I asked.

“Oh yes. We can’t show them. No one knows how many died, they say around 120 but no one knows, no one wants to admit it. And no one will ever get any compensation.”

I tried to ask her whose decision it had been not to show pictures of casualties, and if the exhibition had divided the staff. “Are you asking me my opinion of what happened?” she said sharply. “My opinion is that they had no right to bomb us.”

slavyansk museum hall

An elderly woman was visiting the exhibition with her grandson. “This is what they shot with,” she said to him, as they wandered from left (covering the Ukrainian army’s period of retaking the city) to right (about the other side, and the time leading up to that) and back again. “This is what they wore.” “These are the leaflets they printed.” “This is what they ate.” It was a weirdly pointless and neutral commentary. I asked where she was from – Lisichansk, on Ukraine controlled territory of Luhansk, near the line that increasingly separates one reality from another.

“What do you think of the exhibition?”

“I always visit the museum first in every town I visit. It’s important to know history,” she said.

Her grandson took pictures of the dummy dressed in ‘separatist’ uniform, practically identical to the dummy in Ukrainian army uniform in the opposite corner. “Pray god all this never happens again,” said the woman, the only comment with any emotion or opinion in it I heard her make.

‘Badges and chevrons of the Ukrainian armed forces and volunteer divisions’

‘badges and chevrons of seperatist formations’

I tried to imagine what a visitor from the future, or from another country, uninformed about these events, would learn from the exhibition. I had to conclude they would learn pretty much nothing.

Some unnumbered and unnamed people held a referendum for confused anti-European reasons which their own leaflets do not make at all clear; there is some mention of fascists; they built barricades with portraits of Lenin and Orthodox icons and Russian flags; they used Russian army medical supplies and soviet-era rifles, and produced militant recruitment fliers copied from the posters of Hollywood action flicks. On the opposite side the Ukrainian army and unexplained ‘volunteer brigades’, eating American army rations and firing gigantic Soviet ‘hurricane’ rockets, lost in some unexplained way a helicopter, lost named men, gave out bread and soup and produced anti-propaganda propaganda leaflets. Someone put up a small monument somewhere, to unnumbered and unnamed civilian casualties ‘of armed conflict’.

I don’t mean all this as a criticism of the exhibition, exactly. History is written by the victors, but in Slavyansk museum I sense that no one is sure who the victors are, only who are the losers. No information, no certainty, scarcely any judgement. Just objects.

When I asked the director last year what the exhibition could be called, she said, “Trophies from an incomprehensible war.”

'In memory of the peaceful citizens of Slavyansk, Nikolaevka and Slavyansk region who died during the period of armed conflict April-July 2014

‘In memory of the peaceful citizens of Slavyansk, Nikolaevka and Slavyansk region who died during the period of armed conflict April-July 2014’

 

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.

no more numbers

29 August 2014, Ilovaisk, east Ukraine: 366 dead, 429 wounded, 128 taken prisoner, 158 missing in action (Ukrainian military prosecutor’s office).

158 missing is just a number.

Andrey drove his mum mad by playing computer games late into the night in the one-room flat they shared. Igor was a miner, he went skiiing for the first time in the Carpathians just before the war, and took to it like a duck to water, said to his wife and daughters: why did I spend all my life underground and never knew there was this? Sasha loved camping and nature and taught all his fellow soldiers to dutifully bury their shits as they camped out at their check point last summer, before it all went wrong at Ilovaisk. Artyom could inhale one of his mum’s homemade cakes in one sitting. Herman made everyone laugh. Yura was born practically in a railway carriage travelling from Germany to Moscow. Yaroslav had a beautiful grin everyone remembered. Sergey was as proud and careful of his clothes as a girl.

Maxim’s mother sits at her computer, hoping against hope that her son will contact her again through social media: mumwe’reherewe’reallaliveall. In her cluttered inbox endless spam sits alongside messages from conmen promising to return her son alive if she will only send money.

Ruslan’s son is collecting money in his piggybank to pay the bad people to let his dad go free. His daughter came home from school crying because the other children said her dad was dead.

Igor’s wife wakes from dreams of joining a women’s volunteer army battalion where everyone welcomes her and there is work to be done and hope lies ahead – wakes to the same empty bed and the same hopeless question: what can I do? What if he comes home and asks why I didn’t I do more to find him?

Yura’s mother gets up every morning at 4am to pray; the stray cat she took in sits beside her purring. She thought it was a tom; when it turned out to be female Andrey’s mother advised her: keep it, because if a tom can become a female then for sure your Yura is coming home.

Andrey’s cat ran away a few months ago. In the empty flat Andrey’s mum dreams of aeroplanes, and of wrapping her belongings in a handkerchief and setting off, like the hedgehog in the fog, to wander far away from everything. But the hedgehog comes home in the end to its family, because it is in a children’s cartoon.

Come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home, come home

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.


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland


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