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

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***

Throughout the past weeks I have been trying to assess whether to travel to the NGCA – balancing the importance of speaking to people there with potential risk.

I float the idea tentatively with several IDPs, talking in the abstract, rather than from a personal perspective. Some would be insulted by my intention, and besides, I don't want to broadcast my plans. Some are enthusiastic, but the majority message is clear. Do. Not. Go.

Nikishino ruins (Donetsk region). Photo: Darya Kuznetsova 

In Svyatohirsk I stay with Svetlana, her mother, and her two children. Those that know her describe her as having “a heart of gold” – she has little, and gives much. She shakes her head and tuts. Good Lord, my dear, “ne nado, ne nado,” she says. This translates variously as "this is unnecessary" and "don't do that." I understand her implication to combine both: she sees my venture as futile, unsafe, and is warning – perhaps ordering, in the way a mother would a child – me away.

And yet, I travel to the territory no longer under the control of the Ukrainian government (NGCA).

Military presence increases significantly with proximity to the frontline, and the small towns seem to crawl with soldiers. BTRs rumble along, silhouetted against the sunset. The route we take into the NGCA follows a single road regulated by a six or seven Ukrainian- and “DNR”-held checkpoints. The surface of the road makes vibrations that remind me eerily of the sound of warplanes.

As we wait on the Ukrainian side, one woman with a basket stands at the side of the road with her back to one checkpoint. I can’t understand, quite, why she is standing there. Is she not being let through? Off the asphalt, she is unpleasantly close to a sign nailed onto a tree: “MINES”. Along the way, these letters are repeated on boards hammered into the ground and daubed onto concrete roadblocks.

We are tense – Andrei, who is driving seems to think unnecessarily so – but the journey passes without significant event.

*

We arrive in Donetsk towards evening and I meet my friend Katya for dinner. We run a quick errand – acting as postal service for an acquaintance who has been ordering smartphone accessories online – among them, a lavender scented teddy bear phone cover.

It is a balmy evening, and normal life moves to the jarring rhythm of an extraordinary new everyday reality. The sunset is offset by a dull thudding in the background. I ask my friend how far away she thinks the shelling is. She cocks her head. About 15km, she says. Probably by the airport. It’s okay.

In Kyivskii district, by the airport, the car jerks and drops as it trundles along cratered backstreets. Some stray dogs wander the streets, but – perhaps because it is raining – there are few people. Shrapnel grazes and shell craters tell the story of war on high-rise residential buildings. The ghosts of rooms are etched in scorch marks on the brick.

Across the city, the armed presence on the streets is significant; fresh produce is of poor quality, expensive and rare; the banks aren’t running; flash checkpoints emerge unexpectedly; at night shells boom, and small arms fire is audible in the street; the curfew informs residents to be home before 11pm.

And yet, not all of the cafes and bars are closed. A shell fell on the central boulevard last week, but the pedestrianised area is frequented by several people, strolling, sipping coffee and cocktails; the theatre advertises its summer show; there are hubs of volunteer activity; the botanical garden is in bloom; pensions are being paid; the buses are running, and I am assured – with some pride – that they never stopped.

Last week an international humanitarian organisation was expelled, but others are still active. We hear reports of deliveries being stopped at checkpoints on the other side. Later, I will read with deep concern that these organisations are being refused accreditation by the “DNR” authorities, and requested to halt activities. These activities include providing free, life-saving medical care.

The situation is, perhaps, a mosaic. 

There are so many factors that may combine so that an individual remains in an area of active conflict. For some, displacement is obstructed: for those who lack necessary documentation, are caring for an elderly or sick relative, are responsible for maintaining family property, or perceive themselves financially incapable of making the leap. For others, displacement is undesirable or irrelevant: for those who support the “DNR”, have comfortable employment, seek to avoid conscription into the Ukrainian army, do not wish to distance themselves from the graves of their loved ones, or feel attachment to their homes, their land. For yet others, displacement is a memory: they have returned.

To some degree, I am told, every person here has come to terms with the fact that they could die at any moment.

*

Liudmilla’s daughter died two years ago. A drugs overdose. Now she watches the war develop around her, as she endures life. Nothing frightens her anymore in this world. She is not afraid of anything. She needs to put a stop on this life. Why does she speak like that? Because – is it really possible to live through all this, and then to say otherwise?

Now she lives – endures life – without her family. She is not going anywhere. Maybe young people need to go somewhere, to build their life and their family. These political victories – no one wants them. You know – one man at work – a colleague said – let me lose my arms and legs, but let me stay here, in my motherland. People can get used to anything. Now, at least, it’s a bit quieter. Rockets fly above you, of course, but never mind. You get used to it. People aren’t afraid. They simply hope that, with time, something will change. With time, it will be enough, and they can stop. Stop all this nonsense. When people on high can’t agree, we all suffer. We are small people. Little pawns, as they say.

Liudmilla left Donetsk, in her time, to find work, and to give her daughter a good education. She needed to earn more to provide for her family. So she went. She worked hard. She got an education, developed a career, gave everything she could to her daughter, and then – it was all ruined in a moment. Just like that. Now she does not care for material things. She needs nothing. Before, she would carry on striving for the sake of others – her husband and daughter – and now … and now? They don’t need anything anymore, of course. They are not here. Liudmilla tried everything, and now she’s of an age. And people who are of an age, they have nothing to do in this life.

You see, at the same time as this war is going on, so too is another sort of war. Either it is alcohol, or drug addiction. And it can touch any one of us. You work to build a good family, to set your children on a good path. You give them a little space, and … Someone once phrased it in a way Liudmilla likes: we come through survival stronger than before; we must continue to strive. But now she has no one to strive for.

What is Donetsk, anyway? It is her city, her motherland, her life. It is the grave of her daughter, the grave of her father who came to work here as a miner, it is her grandmother and grandfather, her roots. She will go to the cemetery today, actually. To the grave. To speak to her child. Her good child.

*

Ilya’s mother died of a heart attack two days after the first plane bombed Donetsk. She was anxious all the time. The boys got left alone. As the oldest, Ilya sent his youngest brother to live with his stepfather – the boy’s father – in Kyiv. The boy was not scared, actually, but they were scared for him. Children shouldn’t live in a place that is under fire. Last autumn there was heavy shelling.

They don’t really speak now. His stepfather doesn’t want them to be in touch. There is a small divergence in views over the Donbas. And Ilya doesn’t really want to speak to him either, actually. The man did nothing when his mother died.  

His middle brother went to Russia – he is independent now – and has managed to find work as a chef. By all accounts he earns well, and has acquired lots of new possessions – “although not a wife” – and is renting a flat with two friends. Ilya supposes he wanted to change his life up a bit. It happens sometimes. He can earn good money, and life is calm, quiet. They chat online.

At one time, Ilya thought of moving to Russia too – he doesn’t like the direction, or ideology of Ukraine – but all the same sooner, or later, he would want to come home. Regardless of the bombs – this is his home. Once he went to visit a friend in Mariupol, and felt somehow uncomfortable. He breathed a sigh of relief when they returned. It’s the mentality – you build your house, and you live in it. You have your roots, and your property. He loves his land, his region. He loves Donetsk … Donetsk people … all together. It is hard to separate.

Last year Ilya got married. Artillery was booming around them. And they got married. It was a strange moment. Many of his friends did too. They got married, and now they’re planning for children. It’s strange. They got married in Donetsk – not in Ukraine – but the registry office was still working. Now you can’t get a marriage certificate – well you can, but it’s not recognised in Ukraine, since all of the Ukrainian authorities withdrew.

Ilya has a Master’s degree, but is currently working as a barman. Lots of businesses have closed, and there aren’t specialist jobs available. He earns well, actually. Better than before the war. He could theoretically work in the “state apparatus,” he reasons, but not for the moment. Many of his friends have joined the opolchenye (the separatists). Ilya, too, thought about it, but his wife held him back, in her way.

Others of his friends went to Kyiv. They are still in touch. They just don’t talk about politics. Their views don’t align any more. He would probably think the same way they do, if had left, he muses. Sometimes he does watch Ukrainian media online. It makes him laugh. But it hurts, actually, that his friends and relatives watch and believe it. Yesterday everyone was friends, more or less. People leave for their own reasons.

A lot has changed since last year – good change and bad change. It is worse that his mother is no longer here, and that there is war. It is better that he is with his wife and he loves her. Everything will be ok for them, he hopes. The shelling is mainly on the outskirts, not where they live. In those areas, people don’t care about sending their children to university, or buying a car … they just want to survive each new day. Things are hard for pensioners. Hard for the unemployed. And single mums.

There were moments when they did not know what to expect. Then it all stabilised. He saw that there was no particular threat and that he could live calmly further. He would have left, if he lived in a frontline zone, because life is dearer. And the lives of those close to you, who would also be unsafe, are all the more dear. Last week there was an explosion 300m from his house. But they weren’t home, thank God, so it was all fine.

Ilya’s phone rings – he answers it instantly, as everyone here now seems to do – Ilya has a friend to visit, and he doesn’t want to be too late to meet him. As we walk to the door, he says:  “More people need to come here, to see that people are not terrorists and there are not people being killed all over the place. The streets are not lined with masked men. Our fighters have nothing to hide.”

*

There are IDPs in the “DNR”, too, Irisa tells me. She is one. She moved last year. She had to. She had been supporting the separatists in Northern Donetsk. Cooking food for the lads, providing shelter. When the opolchenye retreated to Donetsk, Irisa’s family understood – the situation would become bad for them. They were forced to leave their own town.

She and her husband gathered their children and foster children in turn to explain. They told them: “The Ukrainian Nazis will come here, and it is essential to leave for Russia. Are you ready to that with us?” The children argued, saying, mummy, daddy, don’t leave us, please take us with you. “And what if we should have to go hungry?” – “Then we’ll go hungry with you!”

In Russia, they sowed cabbages and worked on construction sites. Locals would bring them potatoes and all the essentials. They lived well, Irisa says, until the landlord decided to sell the house. At that point, she became very concerned about the education of her foster children. Their residence permits ran out too. They moved back to the “DNR”.

As Irisa and I speak, Tanya looks on. Her sons joined the opolchenye. Not all of them are still with her. Her eyes are glazed, but she is resolute. The dog licks her feet. But the future will be bright, Irisa says.

*

Life before the war was completely ordinary for Timur and his family. He had the most ordinary life, not without difficulties, but really, the most ordinary. Just like for the majority of people in Donetsk. Just like any middle class family in any country. They had everything they needed – not luxury items, of course – but food, and clothes. He does not look back and romanticise peacetime, but he was happy with that ordinary life.

When his mother became sick, he was able to support her, and help her to keep her quality of life. For a long time, he couldn’t leave her. His wife Marisa would take their three little daughters on holiday, and he would stay with his mother. She needed someone to look after her. Someone she knew. She was afraid of being alone for too long.

Now things are not at all normal. Nothing is. Donetsk is under fire. Sometimes there is mortar shelling. At any time, any region of Donetsk might be hit. Where we are sitting at this moment, there has not been any shelling, as far as Timur knows. But it’s not because the region is so far off that nothing could reach it. This is just the way that things have turned out. He speaks calmly, and with measure about all things.

Timur does not live in such a fortunate region. Last week a shell flew over his apartment – about 10m away – and hit another building. He didn’t see it – he was asleep – but someone else filmed it. Fortunately no one was killed.

In the early days of war, Timur’s region was hit by shelling. Ten people were killed. He sent Marisa and the children to Ukraine. He says “Ukraine” for simplicity – somehow, he reflects, people have become accustomed to distinguishing between Ukraine and the “DNR” – but this is Ukraine too. Timur stayed to look after his mother. They moved to a quieter region, but within a month there were mortars and shells flying past the windows there. They never hit the house, but they did break a lot of windows. One family was killed when a shell hit a car. It was terrible. Timur went back home.

In winter, his mother passed away, and Timur was left completely alone. Because of this, and because the fighting, too, had been less intense since the first Minsk ceasefire, his family came back. The emotional cost of splitting a family hurt. And it was difficult for his family to get by on the pension of Marisa’s mother, who had traveled with them. They were met with empathy and understanding in Ukraine, and remember the experience of living away as positive. But they didn’t want to stay for long. They took themselves off the IDP register when they left, of course – they weren’t going to keep taking state benefits if they were living at home. Nothing like that.

Timur explains how other problems stem from the transport blockade, and isolation from Ukraine, which creates a deficit of goods, medicines and essentials. Prices have gone up across Ukraine, but disproportionately so in Donetsk. It’s not that you can’t manage – Timur’s family has what it needs – but it’s complex.

When Timur had a surgery – nothing dramatic, just a little thing – he had difficulty tracking down the very ordinary medicines he had been prescribed – nothing dramatic, but some difficulty. He knows that there are people with serious worries. People with diabetes, poorer people, people who need more expensive medicines, or medicines that just aren’t there. It’s a threatening environment. And there is a moral aspect to this issue too. 

But of course, Timur has got used to what’s going on. He values his home, his work, and knowing good doctors whom he trusts. People are good at adapting, he thinks. At first we can’t even imagine such situations, and then we normalise them. There are people among his close friends who suffer emotionally. There are difficult moments. Like when the shelling thunders in your ears. Or your office burns before your eyes. Moments such as these. But people can accept that any one of them may come under fire at any time.

The picture of war is not lovely. There are a lot of weapons in the city. But Timur respects the curfew, and things are okay. The children in his area play outside in the evening. Everything is normal. You can hear children’s voices.

But the sound of children’s voices over shellfire is chilling. It frightens Timur that he understands the danger, to which the children have become inured. His own daughters have adapted too. If they do become frightened, they run into the corridor. Even his two-year-old understands.

Timur and Marisa’s children have ended up in the most dolourous part of their whole lives. It disgusts him. They just want their children to have the childhood they had. To understand that they are not guilty in this.  

*

When we leave the NGCA, the line of cars waiting bumper to bumper at the first checkpoint is heartbreaking. On the other side of the road parties carrying children and the disabled are managed into line with priority access. Cars with homemade “baby on board-type signs,” but no visible infant, cause consternation. Movement is slow. There is some wrangling as cars vie for position. But mostly people are resigned to wait. We have heard that some sit it out all night on both sides of the “border.” Men smoke leaning on their car roofs.

On this day there are two open routes between the “DNR” and the GCA. The sun beats down. The air is thick with asphalt. There is no access to toilets, to water, to shade. There is talk that last week a woman was blown up relieving herself at the side of the road. People are fed up. Agitated.

When we get to the checkpoint town on the other side of the frontline, we spend an hour looking for medicine to send back to my colleague’s grandmother, who can’t access it at home. There is none here either. Instead we send Gillette razor blades for her brother.

***

I take the train back to Kyiv. I am reluctant to leave Eastern Ukraine. There is so much left to uncover. The passengers’ faces show the resignation, bitterness and sad exhaustion that I have come to associate with train journeys heading west. I guess that a significant proportion of the passengers are leaving the NGCA for a break. About half of the carriage is taken up by soldiers. It is getting dark and people are settling down for the night. A woman on the bottom bunk perpendicular to mine receives a phone call.

We hear her say:

My little birdie, my little birdie, everything will be ok. Hold on. Hold on. My little birdie. My little birdie.

She hangs up.

Donetsk is ablaze from all sides.

There is a scuffle for phones. Panicked conversations. I call Katya. Last week she was showing me pictures of her picnicking in the botanical gardens. Tonight, the shelling is intense. She has gone to sit in the corridor.

But perhaps little birdie was over-reacting.

The woman perpendicular puts her blanket over her head and shakes gently.

***

I prepare to leave Ukraine, and order a cappuccino from the back of a van in Podol on my way to the airport. The vendor has piercingly blue eyes. This is his third day in Kyiv, he tells me after a deep breath. He used to work in Crimea. But – another deep breath – he is clearly uncertain as to the level of discretion advisable in articulating this fact – he is actually from Donetsk. From Volnovakha. He moved back to his parents’ house there after the annexation. But the town is small. And opportunities are scarce. There is a sense of stagnation amongst the youth, who went to seek their fortune in Donetsk, and many of who now find themselves out of work and pushed back to the family home.

He is scared, he tells me, but determined to make things work in Kyiv. He declines payment for the cappuccino. I pay anyway, and wish him – with absolute sincerity – every success.

***

Looking for the right words to close this piece, my mind wanders back to the picnic table in Svyatohirsk:

“It is hard for the human brain to understand that civilians are being fired upon. We hung on until the very end. We didn't believe that it would go on for long. We didn't believe that something so serious could happen in our country. All the same we hope for something. We live one day at a time. There is no calm for the soul.”

As people pick a path through fields of immediate and future concerns, they fluctuate between looking forward with hope, and yearning to look back to belong. Human connections are mobile, yet their durability may be challenged by the conflict dynamic, which at once draws people together, and flings them apart.

  • 1.Demonstrations by proponents of European integration on Kyiv’s Independence Square (the Maidan) in November 2013 snowballed into a broad anti-government uprising, known as “Euromaidan”. In late February 2014, following the overthrow of then President Viktor Yanukovych’s government (dubbed a “revolution of dignity” by supporters, and a “‘fascist’ coup d’état” by opponents), violent clashes between Maidan and anti-Maidan activists in the east and southeast intensified.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka