"We Live One Day at a Time": Understanding Conflict in the Donbas. A Travelogue

April 2017
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Child with bullet. Photo: Alisa Sopova

Boy with dangerous "toys" (Nikishine in Donetsk region). Photo: Alisa Sopova

All spring Oleh’s girlfriend was trying to persuade him to leave. He wanted to stay. She said, because of the business. And because of pride, or duty, he thought. Not to mention the certainty that the town would be liberated within three days. Oleh was an activist. They both were. They had been involved in the local Maidan1, when work commitments allowed. When a list of “undesirables” or “enemies of the people” was posted in a public place, Oleh was a little insulted not to see his name there.

As the conflict intensifies, Oksana becomes frightened. She is in a constant state of stress because Oleh has been threatened. People have come to his shop, they know where he works, what they stand for: the unity of the people.

Oksana’s main concern is to take care of her child. To protect her from shelling. No place is definitively safe, she reasons, but there are places of heightened and lowered risk. She tells her child: A bad history is being created; it is trying to separate people into two groups; each considering themselves right, and others wrong, according to their own terms.

So the two of them go, leaving Oleh behind. He is doing repairs on the bathroom, investing in a Donbas future that he will not live out. Oksana hopes that after 20 days, one month, they will return. But the situation deteriorates. Oksana’s father and her brother go to Russia. There are some ideological differences between them.

The day after her departure, Oksana receives a phone call. Oleh is in prison. She starts writing to friends, journalists, activists, trying to create a scene. They have taken him into captivity: “We’re going to kill you.” They access his social media. Write notes in his name. Force him to write notes. They take him to be shot. Beat him. Rough him up. “We’re going to kill you.” They do it all with a bored look. 

And yet, by some accidental turnout of circumstances, Oleh reflects, he stayed alive. The separatists appeared to have little interest in his shop or his van. After they had released him, he spent one more day in town to finish business and warn friends, and set out to Kharkiv.

Perhaps he would have stayed in his hometown had there been some capacity for freedom of speech, he wonders.

Oleh has almost died once, he says. He is clearly still here for some reason. He is needed. Now, inspired by the “heavenly hundreds” who gave their lives on the Maidan, he forbids himself from fear.

Oleh loves Kharkiv. Indeed, often, he does not feel like an IDP. Kharkiv, Lviv, Kyiv – the whole of Ukraine is his home. He is a volunteer, now, and reasons that this to be a better way to serve his country than fighting. Ukraine needs a different sort of help, he thinks, not flag waving, but concrete steps to improvement.

***

Mariam is an artist. A loan parent with three children. She is from Donetsk, but was forced to leave, she says, when the shooting and bombing started. They hung on until the end of October.

The fighting started. The children were frightened. They would jump awake at night, as explosions reverberated across the city. Terrible noise. Terrible fear. The thunder of war. People walked the streets with machine guns. Tanks went by the windows. The children were frightened, and Mariam was frightened. She was frightened to send them to school; a school which was no longer Ukrainian, but of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”). She was frightened for herself, and for her children.

More than that, Mariam is for the unity of Ukraine. It seemed that enemies had appeared on the streets, she remembers, and because of this … well … she was just frightened … The war came, there were explosions, bombs, the children were afraid.

Her parents stayed, though. They do not want to leave, she says. They are of an older generation, and are more afraid of losing their amenities, and way of life, than their lives. They think differently to her. Mariam used to visit often, until the propusk system was introduced. She hasn’t been back for a long time, now. She has no way to be sure of getting there without a propusk, actually, and no more of returning.

Now they live in a village along the border of the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions. The area is safe, close to home, and dense with the displaced. Sometimes her former husband comes to stay. He comes and goes, Mariam recounts, but he doesn’t contribute financially, of course. She finds rural life basic – a stark contrast to Donetsk. There are no amenities. No indoor toilet, no running water, no heating, no bath, no shower, no fridge. Water must be fetched from a nearby stream, and drinking water from a pump 10 minutes away. Life is hard. Especially in the winter, when you feel constantly frozen. Mariam has already begun thinking about how to get firewood. Actually, she doesn’t know, quite, how they are going to get through.

The children are settling into school, but Mariam has ended up unemployed. She has resigned from her job in Donetsk, and is now looking for work. But there is none. She used to be well paid, and now she is out of work. Her ideal would be to find something that fitted her specialist training, but really she would welcome any work. She is living off benefits, she says, and humanitarian aid. Her voice indicates shame for the first, and gratitude for the second; they only survive thanks to the humanitarian organisations, to tell the truth.

The refrain “out of work” echoes, unwelcome, through our conversation.

And so Mariam keeps visiting the job center, but there is nothing. She nurtures aspirations of recommencing her painting, and tapping into an online market. She is saving up for a trip to Kharkiv, to get equipment: paint, canvas. God willing, she should be able to sell at the local market, or through her friends.

It is hard here – with no amenities and no job – but any return to Donetsk is unthinkable at the moment. Her oldest daughter has been accepted into a specialised school in Kharkiv. She will live in student housing there. Mariam is relieved. Maybe this will give her daughter the opportunity to settle in Kharkiv, and maybe move deeper into Ukraine. 

Mariam loves – loved – Donetsk city. She is very sorry, and hurt by what is going on there. It is hard, woeful, that they are bombing Donetsk. It was a beautiful town, economically developed, and suddenly … She doesn’t understand why all this had to happen. Both sides are bombing, and it is so painful. Every day you think about it, and you want to cry. There is nothing to be done. You just wait and wait for things to get better.

Her youngest daughter is tugging her sleeve. There is one bus back to their village from this town. And they do not want to miss it.

***

Northern Donetsk region. The government-controlled territory. An odd juxtaposition of hopelessness and endeavor. More tension.

Tension of a new sort. From April to July 2014, parts of this region were under separatist control. Slovyansk was proclaimed the first capital of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” In what became known as the “siege of Slovyansk,” government forces took the city. People felt relief. Or disappointment. Routine civilian life recommenced, with all the specificities of a recaptured town not far from the frontline zone. A trace of war, a trace of peace.

This experience has been formative in guiding people’s understanding of the war. Slovyansk residents fled the fighting to nearby Svyatohirsk, the sleepy resort town of the Holy Lavra Mountains Monastery. They were settled into working and abandoned summer camps in the forest by the local authorities (themselves working round the clock to keep up with the influx). Many returned after the fighting subsided. Others had nowhere left to return to. In summer 2015, Slovyansk town centre is largely untarnished. Elsewhere, buildings are pockmarked by bullets; scratched by shrapnel; gutted by artillery; burnt out by fire. The reclaimed city has been streaked with yellow and blue paint – the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

"Sotsialna stolova" (Social canteen) organized by local volunteers and Chezch NGO (Donetsk region). Photo given by the author

Areas of more intense fighting have since shifted, precipitating new waves of movement between towns. Slovyansk now hosts people displaced from Horlivka, Avdiivka, Debaltseve, and so on.

Closer to the frontline, a sense of urgency fuels volunteer operations. Until spring [2015], volunteer movement Slovianskoe Serdtse (Slavic Heart) and others were evacuating people from the conflict zone. Evacuating them even under fire. Through the checkpoints. Bombs falling. Under fire. When it was announced that the vehicle had reached the Ukrainian territory, people looked as though they might faint from happiness. Once an old lady lost consciousness fell to the floor. Some sort of happiness would arise in your head, after the anxiety of the experience. You were so worried … and then … People had taken as much as they could bear. 

Some people arrived in Svyatohirsk in the middle of the night in their dressing gowns and slippers. One woman was naked under a beautiful fur coat. She had grabbed it thinking that it was warm, and could perhaps be sold at a later date.

In general, evacuations have stopped by summer 2015, but people are still risking their lives to deliver aid in the “grey zone” along the so-called “line of demarcation.” Some of them deliver on both sides. Another group is working to restore schools in frontline villages in the government-controlled area (GCA). Sometimes, I am told, when there is heavy artillery, you have to stay underground until it subsides. Sometimes you end up spending a few days there. Actually, each time you embark on a journey, you cannot be sure that you will return – they say – but this is important work. I am invited to accompany one trip to Dzerzhinsk, a village on the GCA side near the frontline, and am dismayed not to be able to go. The next day I awake to the news that the village was severely shelled overnight.

In August, the founder of Kramatorsk SOS, a new NGO helping IDPs, convenes a summit of local and international organisations working in the Northern Donetsk region. His aim is to develop a collaborative and better-coordinated response to the humanitarian crisis. Participants gather to devise strategies to meet shelter, protection, coordination and livelihood needs. The summit is ambitious, the participants – dedicated. The aims and aspirations seem to parallel the workings of the UN humanitarian response cluster system.  

There are also volunteer groups supporting Ukrainian fighters. In one location, people are weaving camouflage nets. In moments of frustration, they throw darts at the faces of Russian President Putin and Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the “Prime Minister” of the self-proclaimed “DNR.” They need to replace the pictures, actually – you can barely make out the features now.

***

The situation in Sviatohirsk is particular. Administrative records show that the majority of IDPs are renting accommodation. Far more visible, however, are the hundreds still housed in the monastery and summer camps.

At one camp, a group is making a concerted effort to create a “commune.” In war, they say, people experience stress, social institutions are broken, and support is virtually non-existent. They see the commune as the only mechanism for forming new conventions and community rules. It is a form of peacemaking, in a way – before something is done, people have to agree; people have to hear each other. They are trying to instill a proactive attitude; a sense of responsibility for present circumstance and future plans. This effort is met with mixed measures of enthusiasm and suspicion. A piece of paper, documenting the group’s legal registration is presented during a residents’ meeting, amidst murmurs of discontent, intrigue, suspicion and outrage. Those on kitchen duty leave early to prepare dinner. The commune has built a borehole well, connected to the internet and drained the basements. They are making plans for a children’s room. They can offer some protection too, they say, from the sixth wave of mobilisation by the Ukrainian army that August.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere vacillates towards depression and inertia. Now that the fear of being killed or mutilated my munitions has gone, people find themselves preoccupied by new difficulties. The sense of empathy and communal understanding is becoming less strong. There are more disagreements. People bicker. Being here, you do not feel constantly that your life is in danger, but life is hard in a new way. Here there are very few opportunities for work. Even for the locals. There is restlessness. They have all lost the jobs they used to have at home, they say, through no fault of their own. Those who are able to find work elsewhere, I am told, have moved on already. Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhe, Kyiv – all across Ukraine. All individually, each as they found work.

At a picnic table in the forest, I hear the undercurrent to life in displacement:

Those who remain live with the constant fear that someone will make them leave the camp. Sooner or later they will have to go – but now they have nowhere to return to. It does happen, they say. They are grateful to be living there for now, but there is no certainty in tomorrow. You survive today – and thank God. Tomorrow you will think about tomorrow. What will be will be. Most people have been here for a year now.

With no work, and scant social benefits, it is hard to scrape by. Now those of working age are no longer eligible for the IDP benefit – except for the disabled, families with many children, or little ones under five. When parents are asked to contribute money to school life, they don’t know where to turn.

People have self-organised to bring some sort of orderly life to the camp. They have taken on duties – Vika is a volunteer supervisor, Vanya – the electrician, Katya and Ira run the kitchen, Alisa sorts the laundry – there is a list of each family’s responsibilities. Vanya was one of those who worked hard to prepare the camp for winter. Now he is working on the borehole project. They pay for utilities and live rent-free.

Food comes from the Holy Lavra Mountains Monastery. People tell of how Saint Mary appeared to the monks of the monastery, saying that whoever came there in need, should be provided for. The monks are true to this. In return, the IDPs help with odd jobs.

But people want to work. They do not want to be reliant on humanitarian aid. At the same time, I hear how they can’t wait for help from anyone. They are trying to do something themselves, with their own hands, their own strength. They have been painting this week, supported by an international aid organisation.

They do not live, but exist, they repeat. Things are not too bad, but this is existence, and not life. Survival and life. People are cut off from their passions, their pasts, what made them who they are. Everyone has somehow been equalised, brought to one level. Their situation is completely unclear. The state has no concern for them. They have no rights. Nothing. Nobody needs them – neither here, nor there. And they themselves do not understand why the war is needed. How it came about. No one can explain. Whose war it is anyway. It is certainly not theirs. They have done nothing and they are being used. Peaceful civilians are dying. When brother is fighting brother, all other commentary is in vain. It feels as though they have lost their minds. They do not want the war. No more do people in western Ukraine. Let it all end, so they can go home. Everyone just wants to go home. They are not guilty of anything. They are against war in all forms. They need peace. They need their homes. It is hard to feel at home in an unknown town.

Lots of Vanya’s friends have gone to Russia. They call him to them repeatedly. But he would rather stay closer to home. With the possibility of being there in two hours if ever he needs to. The war has thrown everyone apart.

One woman gets up repeatedly to cry a little. She is surprised to find herself doing this. But she just feels so sorry for the children. Not her own children – they are grown up – but for the children of the war.

But there will be jam with dinner. It is good to take pleasure in small things. A baby gurgles contentedly as we talk.

Disposal of volunteer aid. Kharkiv

***

That morning Pavel received his letter of conscription. Black ink on white paper redirecting the course of life.  He does not know what to do. Go to Russia? Go home? Fight? How can he bomb his friends, his motherland? He draws on a cigarette.

The decision is far from easy. Since his wife left for Moscow, Pavel is alone with his young son. His mother lives in central Ukraine, but he left the family home during early adolescence. He cannot return.

Pavel is one of the few with a job here. His shift at the local nightclub, the “klup”, he chuckles, derogatively, will begin soon, and he should set out.

Do I need a lift anywhere? I’ll be ok, thanks.

***

Alina was among those brought in waves on buses driven by volunteers. She couldn’t have left, otherwise. Her elderly mother-in-law – our babushka – is bedridden, poor-sighted and epileptic. She was left paralysed after a stroke.

When a neighbor told Alina that they were collecting names for an evacuation the next day, her household signed up immediately. Then they spent a sleepless night, undecided as to whether they would actually leave in the morning. They awake, and within half an hour their things are packed and they are on the bus. A neighbour helps carry out our babushka. Her brother stays. He will watch over their flat for them.

This was at the end of January 2015. They had been staying in the basement for a long time, then. Alina’s building was being shelled from both sides. They would have to leave our babushka in the house. The basement isn’t meant for people … there’s plumbing, everything drips, the ceiling is low. Alina’s husband would say – let’s go. They’d drop everything and run downstairs. Alina would worry – how could they leave our babushka behind? Just like that. That’s just the way it is. All the same you want to live. They just had to hope our babushka would not be hit.

By then, Alina felt her town was dying. People had to collect water from a pump well. In the winter, the containers would freeze, and crack, letting water trickle away on the walk home. There was no water for washing. Remnants of war and scattered debris were a constant reminder of risk. Alina and her husband had lost their jobs. Their factory – a huge local employer – was hit during the bombardment. At another factory there was a bomb shelter. People were basically living there. Neighbours became like blood relatives. They worked together to repair and rebuild between bombardments.

Just like that, Alina found herself in a situation, and could see no way out. No way out of all this. She was simply hysterical. There was no way out, and it was so frightening. She does not know by what miracle they stayed alive. And then they had the chance to leave. They arrived in a state of shock, but were received “normally”, and given food.

Now Alina – a cook by profession – is in charge of feeding the population of the summer camp. She has been offered paid work, but has turned it down: who else will feed the people? And besides, our babushka needs constant care. The resources are limited, but Alina takes joy in making the food taste as good as possible for people. What’s on the menu today? Potato.

There is a library in the camp and her husband and mother-in-law devour books. The latter with a mixture of guilt and pleasure – the doctor has warned that she will damage her eyes irreparably.

The trio will have to leave at the camp at the end of the summer. There is some complexity around funding, and the camp owners are, understandably, experiencing financial difficulty. Where will they go? Alina does not know. She is trying to coax her husband into thinking about it. But he cannot. For her part, Alina is physically here, but her soul is there. And her heart. She is still at home.

Her son has moved to Kyiv. She has a grandson there. She streams home videos from her mobile phone, and we watch baby Sasha smile, laugh, and learn to crawl. She has never seen him. One day, she dreams, she will.

***

In another town I meet a Baptist priest. He and his wife began working in this town before the outbreak of conflict, and do not consider themselves IDPs. They are communicative people they assure me, and ready to adapt to new circumstances. They could live anywhere, they say, whereas some people do not find it so easy to move and to adapt. Moreover, people leave under different circumstances. They were involved in the evacuation of one woman, actually. She had thrown herself over her child to protect him from an explosion. She was badly injured. They made sure that she got to Kharkiv.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka