Posts Tagged 'war'

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

The road to Donetsk

One crowded train; one overcrowded overpriced bus to a checkpoint; waiting hours or very possibly days in 36 degree heat, no shelter, no toilets, 500th in line for another overpriced bus to the next checkpoint; a walk and wait for that unpredictable moment: will your pass be valid? Are you on the list? Back on the bus to the next checkpoint; another walk; yet another very overpriced bus carrying fifty people crammed in space for thirty; everyone hauling gigantic bags full of tomatoes, salo, vodka, clothes, shampoo, laptops, medicines, whole lives in battered suitcases and red and blue checked refugee bags; panic that the shooting is starting again; roads more battered than the suitcases; yet more checkpoints, passports, unpredictability, all the men off the bus, everyone aged between sixteen and forty off the bus and back on, climbing over the bags and boxes, shouting and swearing, joking, calling for calm, for patience, for tolerance, for all this to be over.

This is the journey from Kyiv to Donetsk. For millions, this is their lives now. Once upon a time, before the war, all it took to reach Donetsk from Kyiv was one night train, with clean sheets and tea in glasses in silver holders. War is hell, is death, is grief and destruction. And war is a massive, expensive, humiliating, stupid, unbearable, gigantically pointless inconvenience.

Who, if not me?

“I want no one to be lost, I want these sons to all come home to their waiting mothers,” says Lyubov who loves life, loves sunbathing, loves children, loves everything except this war. “These ones buried here in the graveyard, someone is waiting for them…” She lays her bunch of delphiniums on the grave between us. “They’re all our children. But between you and me, the children of rich families don’t fight. It’s the poor ones who are fighting.”

Lyubov, whose name means ‘love’, doesn’t own much: a ‘hero mother’ medal, some bits of old furniture in a flat stuffed full of memories and photographs of six children, one of whom never came home from the Ukrainian army fighting near Donetsk airport in January 2015.

Lyubov doesn’t even own this grave with its few delphiniums and its number instead of a name. It contains the body of someone’s son; she’ll never know if it’s hers or not. She doesn’t know if he was tall or short, whoever is lying here; was he fair or dark; married or single; good-natured or angry. But she can be relatively sure of one thing: like her lost son Zhenya, he was poor.

Before the war they were house decorators, foresters, miners, labourers. Alexander worked in a factory before he was mobilised, earning 1000 hryvnias a month (less than fifty dollars) ‘in an envelope’ – i.e. unofficially. Zhenya was a supermarket security guard. Yura was a contract soldier because everyone else in his town was, there was no other work.

I ask to see the rooms and possessions these men left behind, but many of them have no room of their own, and hardly any possessions. Yura lived with his parents and older brother in a cramped two-room flat. Alexander had just moved in with his new wife’s parents.

Instead their mothers and wives tell me about the birthmarks, the crooked little finger, the missing tooth, the crown of hair that grows anticlockwise. The dreams. Girls and cars; time to go fishing; a stable job and a family. Modest dreams.

They got their call-up papers and they went – with a shrug. “If not me, who?” they told their wives and mothers.

They’re the backbone of Ukraine, these people, in every small town and village, eking out a living from envelope to monthly envelope. They are not the Ukraine that leaders want to present to the West. That Ukraine is the more well-off and educated men who get out of being mobilised. Not just by having the means, but by having the will.

I don’t blame them; everyone is worth more than death in a trench and an unnamed grave. The ones with an education know that. They know they have something else to offer Ukraine: skills, experience, human capital, a promise and a future: more valuable than cannon fodder. Not these Sashas and Yuras and Zhenyas whose dreams and ambitions are so modest. Who can’t get decently paid work, and whose indecently paid work is still screwing them over.

The supermarket chain where Lyubov’s son Zhenya worked has not paid a penny of his salary since he was called up, despite the law which says wages should be paid for a year, reimbursed by the government. The family has not challenged it because Zhenya’s wife works there too, and she’s afraid of losing her job.

Sasha got his meagre forestry commission salary ‘in an envelope’ before he was called up. When he was mobilised, the forestry commission stopped paying. Sasha’s wife decided to make a fuss, and she got the salary eventually. Sasha, unlike Yura and Zhenya and Alexander, came back from the war. His old job had been filled by someone else who was not likely to make a fuss about a salary ‘in an envelope’.

Sasha spends much of his time drinking these days. Recently he smashed his mum’s elderly TV set, so she couldn’t watch patriotic news about the war anymore, and weep for other people’s sons.

If not me, who? They went because they had to. Each one with his birthmark and his crooked little finger and the crown of his head that his mother knows like she knows nothing else on earth and that nothing can ever replace, not ever, not ever –

They went because, in their heart of hearts, they know they are expendable.

The creature has a purpose

“I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass – the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it. I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along – to what? the Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.”

John Keats

Birds and wind and wild flowers. Sometimes I wish that’s all there was in the world.

Sometimes I could wish away this village of 2000 souls in Polissya, Ukraine, a village I’ve been coming to for years and know the squabbles and tragedies and mean gossip and jokes – I wish I could turn my back on it and be left with just this vast, tireless wind whirling up lapwings and larks; with storks steadfastly beating across it; hawks and buzzards prowling its currents.

Big weather, the kind you can’t ignore, sweeping away warmth and silences and hesitations and fears in its generous, unheeding, unstoppable way. Sweeping clouds, rainshowers, earth from newly ploughed fields and ash from burnt plains and woods.

Some of the ground, burnt on purpose by lazy farmers and foresters, is speckled over with the bright green of grass and the white of windflowers. Another place is still crackling smoking black from an unplanned forest fire last week, pushed on by the wind, that gobbled up trees and ant heaps and larks’ nests; the villagers rushed to dig trenches like a frontline in a war, to stop it before it reached houses and families and swept them away with everything else in its heedless way.

This ground will have been burnt over and over, in times of war and destruction. By the Cossacks, the Bolsheviks, the Soviet partisans, Vlasov’s turncoat army, the Germans… The grass and the flowers grow back, every time. The larks fly up, up, doing what they always do, flinging themselves through the wind at the sun. The lapwings perform their unerring death-defying aerobatics. This is their element, this is where they belong and what they were made to do. It’s hard not to believe they are enjoying it.

You can put human emotions on the birds: they must be revelling in this wind and their freedom and mastery within it – when really isn’t this just programmed survival instinct to attract a mate, really aren’t they leading a life of constant watchfulness and terror, death present in every moment –

Human constructs. The birds are in their element, doing what they were made to do. The creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it. The birds don’t have to think what their element is. Only us adaptable humans struggling with death and survival have to do that, have to try this and that, loving and hating, making and unmaking, ploughing fields and burning fields.

I suppose for some people, war is their element. Destruction is their element. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have so much war and destruction, I suppose. On some sort of level, war is supposed to be something like this heedless wind and that forest fire, sweeping away whatever rubbish is in its path, clearing the ground for new grass and wild windflowers to grow.

I think this is bullshit. This is why I wish, sometimes, there were only birds and wild flowers, wind and sunsets and maybe the odd hedgehog. This is why I could do without those 2000 people in the village, and the 159 call-up papers that arrived last week.

That’s 159 adaptable humans from one village, called up to go to war. Dads and alcoholics and hard workers and skivers, wife beaters and nurses and apples of their mother’s eye, grandchildren of Bolsheviks and grandchildren of Cossacks, gentle souls, foresters and farmers, lovers and loners, patriots, and probably someone else who would really like there to be nothing in the world except the wind and the birds, right now.

Forty days

I wrote this in July last year. Inbetween trips to Crimea and Donbas, I spent a week in this central Ukrainian village, watching the sun set and the moon rise, and pretending nothing else was happening.

Baba Lena died in December – peacefully, everyone says, on her bunk by the stove in the little white-painted khata, like a scene from Gogol’s Evenings near Dikanka, and a village beekeeper’s stories of a Ukraine that never was.   

Baba Lena, 95, who lived through four years of German occupation, gives her verdict on the conflict in East Ukraine’s Donbas: “That isn’t war, its hooliganism.” 

Mercenary, state-sponsored hooliganism, in which civilians are dying. 

Baba Lena’s village in Poltava region, like most villages in Ukraine, looks too remote, sleepy and idyllic (in a falling-down, rubbish-strewn sort of way) to have ever been near a war. These are the villages from Nikolai Gogol’s Dikanka tales, where little white houses nestle like sleeping doves under the hillside, hollyhocks and sunflowers tower over sagging wooden gates and kudriavy panichi – crooked gentlemen, or Morning Glories – twine up the frilly iron-capped gate posts. 

Gogol saw these places in better days of course, before the collective farms took over, the shy maidens got emancipated and the dashing black-eyed young Cossacks put on Red Army uniform, or had to leave for Donbas and Siberia. Before the collective farms collapsed and everyone left, except for grandmothers like Baba Lena. 

Appearances are so deceptive. Just a few kilometers beyond the village is a monument to a division of Soviet border guards, slaughtered here as they retreated east before the advancing German army in 1941. Their captain survived, joined the partisans and fought all the way back west again through Zhytomir and Vinnitsa and further.  He was made a general, lived after the war in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kyiv – and ended up being related to Baba Lena, when her son married his daughter. 

Baba Lena has never left this village in all her life. She doesn’t have too bad memories of the German occupation –or maybe she does, but she doesn’t talk about them. It was four years of some kind of stability, and like many people in east Ukraine now who have ended up participating in deadly state-sponsored hooliganism in the name of wanting a quiet life, she treasures stability above just about everything.

I suppose there were no Jews or gypsies in this village. The villagers had to work for the Germans during the day; in the evenings they could tend their own smallholdings. By 1945, families (women and children, mostly; the men were away fighting) had cows, pigs, chickens, or money from selling them. Four years is a long time. Maybe the German soldiers fell in love with local girls; thought about settling down. I don’t know about that. 

Then war swept through again, from east to west this time. The Soviets came back, and the collective farm took away all the livestock and money. Baba Lena has a medal from the Soviet Union though, for ‘valiant and selfless service’ during the war, awarded in 1946. That’s what she showed me, when I asked about her war years. 

Over eight hundred Red Army soldiers who died in this area between 1941 and 1945 are buried in a collective grave by the village school. The memorial stone has only eight names on it – I guess no one ever identified the rest. There is no monument to any civilians who died, though recently someone put up a new cross on the hill, to those ‘warriors who gave their lives for the peaceful present’. Even more recently – after the present got a good deal less peaceful – someone put up next to it the Ukrainian flag.  

You’d think World War Two – the Soviet ‘Great Patrotic War’ – was the only thing of note that ever happened here. But up on the grassy, windswept hill is the site of a much older castle or fortress, I don’t know exactly what since the Soviet-era notice helpfully says ‘architectural monument’ without further details. 

Also on the hill was the grand panichy dom, the house where a rich Polish family lived until the revolution, with their own bakery and church. The local grandmothers still talk about that, and the scandal when the Polish gentleman married a woman from the village. There’s nothing at all left of the grand house, but the cottage he built for his village wife is still standing, pretty and white and blue-shuttered, like a khata out of a Gogol tale where a black-eyed Cossack woos a shy young beauty under the lovely Ukrainian moon. 

Ukraine often makes me think of that supposedly ancient Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times. Baba Lena might seem to have led the least interesting life imaginable, here in this falling down village. Nearly everyone she talks about these days is dead – in wars and epidemics, in some kind of stupid, horrible village accident, or just of old age and disappointment. 

The collective farm is in ruins, and Baba Lena’s own plot is a weed-smothered expanse of potatoes and carrots and rotting melons that her grandchildren (who grew up in Kyiv, descendants of that Soviet general) inexpertly sowed but haven’t found time to come back and harvest. Ukrainians in cities still rely on their grandmothers in the villages to supply potatoes and carrots; their safety net when the gas is cut off, when the economy collapses yet again.  

This black, crumbly Ukrainian earth is as close to sacred as Baba Lena gets. Everyone died, everyone left, but worst of all, they let the land be overtaken by buryan – a wilderness of  weeds. 

Flowers blue and yellow, birds and small bright-eyed creatures flourish in the weeds and wilderness. The river shelters turtles and floats many-petalled water lilies; beneath a fine skein of mist its still, rose-flushed surface is illusorily brighter than the twilight sky. A crescent moon is setting over fields to the west, golden as a promise… It’s illusory too that interesting times feel a long way off, happening in another country, to someone else.



It just goes on and on, and I don’t know why I’m not immune, desensitised to the inevitable horror of it by now.

Why I still can’t believe that anyone could post on twitter a photograph of a dead Ukrainian soldier in Donetsk airport; not just of a dead soldier but, from his wallet, the ‘photo of the three daughters he’ll never see again’. Three daughters. Those are real people, those girls; not dead, not fighting a war, not anyone’s idea of an enemy. Is that tweet the last they will see of their father?

(I’m not putting a link to it, it’s too disgusting.)

Why I can’t believe anyone would parade Ukrainian soldiers captured at the airport to see a blood-filled trolleybus in Donetsk, eight dead people there, or thirteen, just now, they just died just now in a bomb/mortar/who knows what attack – and encourage survivors and witnesses to attack the PoWs.

I can’t believe it, even though I knew it would happen. I can’t believe that people want this war to continue, but they do, they must do, to behave like this. They want to forget that they are all the same, all flesh and blood, could all die like this, would never in a million years want their own children to become war propaganda.

You did it. No, you did it. No you did it so it would look like we did it. That argument, over the bodies of yet more nameless people with children they’ll never see again.

Back in Autumn, when it looked like Donetsk airport might fall to the (pro) Russians, a young Ukrainian ex-student fighting there (I forget where he was from, Kyiv maybe, somewhere a way away from Donetsk) told a journalist “We’ve got to keep fighting for it, we can’t give it up, too many have died for it already.”

An ex-miner from Makiivka near Donetsk, leading a division fighting at the airport on the other side, couldn’t explain why 70 percent of his division were from Russia. I asked him why his side needed Russians –  why weren’t locals fighting there? He said, “When I was on leave a month ago I went out in the evening in Makiivka. There were mountains of guys on the streets. I asked ‘Why aren’t you with the militants? Why aren’t you fighting?”

The miner, arm in a sling, cigarette dropping ash everywhere, looked at me in amazement. “They said ‘There are enough there already’. Can you imagine? And they are out drinking, with girls…”

He told me about his daughter living in Kyiv with her boyfriend. In Kyiv, where the government sends soldiers to Donetsk airport and the yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag flies everywhere. Isn’t Kyiv enemy country? “If anyone insults her there, I’ll come to Kyiv myself and tear them limb from limb,” he said.

I reckon his daughter and that Ukrainian student fighting at the airport on the other side would be about the same age. It would neaten my story if he was from Kyiv, but I can’t remember, and this isn’t a story.

 I don’t know if they’re dead by now, the ex-miner and the ex-student; their corpses on twitter. If they felt they had to die because no one else was stupid enough to, or because so many others had died there. At the time, I thought, what stupid reasons.

In Donetsk now, these are the reasons for this war. That’s why photos of dead soldiers and their daughters are posted online, that’s why the PoWs are paraded. So that there are more deaths for more deaths, and we all forget our humanity.

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.

So this is what a god of war looks like

Donbas is full of disgusting self-delusional shits pretending there is something glorious, heroic, clever, brave or otherwise laudable about creating a war and a criminal state. I’ve had the dubious pleasure of meeting a few of them. I haven’t met Igor Girkin, but I have met some of his disturbed, dedicated followers who fled with him from Slavyansk, and are now living a strange, paranoid, purgatorial existence in Donetsk, waiting for their ‘god of war’ to return and lead them home.

But batushka Girkin is in Russia, boasting to Russian media that he ‘pulled the trigger to start the war’.

Congratulations, Russian intelligence officer Girkin. You self-confessedly have the blood of over 4000 people on your hands, not to mention the misery of over a million displaced. Come back to east Ukraine! Spend the winter with no electricity, no water, no roof over your head. Visit the burgeoning graveyards where rooks perch on branches stiff and silvered with ice. Mourn all those who lie under the iron-hard ground now, because someone ordered you to start a war.

The truth about war

The truth about war is not that the Ukrainian army shelled this school today or the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) shelled it; that the Ukrainian army shelled it because the DNR shelled Ukrainian positions from the school first, or that the DNR shelled it because the Ukrainians shelled the DNR because the DNR shelled the Ukrainians first and the school was stuck in the middle–

The truth is that it doesn’t matter.

 The photographs and videos and analyses of missile damage angles and sun shadows and nearby artillery positions and types of artillery with their stupid innocent names like ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’ don’t matter. The interviews with soldiers and militants and military experts and injured and bystanders don’t matter. All that matters is that the supporters of the DNR will believe one thing about what happened, and the supporters of Ukraine will believe another. ‘Both sides blamed the other’, that is the truth of war. 

 I always understood war, at its most basic level, if you take away all the stuff about religion or property or governance or liberation, to be a matter of A killing B before B kills A. Surely that is what war is. That is what weapons of war, the ‘hail’ and ‘beech’ and ‘tulip’, are made for. 

Now I see that war is something quite different. War is about A (or B) killing C in order to made D believe that B (or A) is more of a bloodthirsty vicious world-threatening [insert insult of choice] than A (or B). 

The truth about war is that the truth doesn’t matter. The truth is that everyone has their own version they want to believe and are made to believe. 

And the people who died – they’ve been made into weapons of war; they could be  ‘blossom’ perhaps. Or ‘mayflies’. Something helpless and short-lived, in the stupid euphemisms of military hardware.

The truth about those people who died today is that they had parents and children and lovers and friends; hopes and beliefs and prejudices and regrets. They had lives, and now they don’t. Does that matter, to anyone, anymore?

semenovka rubble



Three hours to travel what should be less than fifty kilometres, north of Donetsk. The main road is closed because of shelling; instead we drive along terrible roads through flat yellow and black fields; villages that no one ever usually drives through; mines and factories frozen by years of neglect, months of war. Autumn, already cold, everything dying. Smell of burning fields, leaves, houses.

“When we moved here from Russia, my father told me to say goodbye to hills,” my neighbour on the bus tells me as we look out at the giant, rose-coloured pyramids of slag heaps. “I remember that every time I see those heaps. Donbas hills”.

That was over forty years ago. Since then she married a local man, had children, put down roots. This is her landscape now; her land that she wanted to love and defend and improve when she voted for the DNR – the Donetsk People’s Republic – in May.

Now she and her husband are coming back from a two-day trip to transfer their pensions, unpaid for three months, out of DNR-held Makiivka to Ukraine-controlled Konstantinovka. The time they didn’t spend on the bus, they spent queuing at the post office, the bank, the local administration. “Forty years working, and for what?” she asks. For her to vote to live in a different country. For her to be secure in her old age. For her children to have better future.

One of her children upped sticks just before the war started, she tells me; sold his house and moved to Russia to try and make a new, successful life. Now he is on his way back to Makiivka, defeated yet again by too high prices, too little work, not being Russian enough.

She shows me photos on her phone, not of her children but of the flowers she grows in her garden. Dahlias, snapdragons, fat dewy roses. “When I get tired of human nature, I look at these and feel refreshed.”

It’s hard not to be tired of human nature, right now in Donbas. We stare out together at the strangely beautiful, defeated landscape. She points out to me a white heron fishing in a river. At a railway crossing, a man patiently waits with his cow. Destroyed electricity pylons are bowed over like weeping aliens, trailing wires through the acres of sodden sunflower stalks. The people on the bus look out at this land some of them took up arms to defend. They sigh and bow over like the pylons, waiting for this journey to be over.

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