Ukraine Donbas February 2019 Slovyansk, Kurakhove, Avdivka, Mariupol.
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In the forgotten trenches of Europe, war is grinding into its sixth year. I am in Kurakhove, east Ukraine. In the distance, I hear the sound of heavy artillery, a bit like a thunderstorm. It is five kilometers to the east of Maryinka, just outside the city limits of Donetsk. In 2014 boys and girls of the Ukrainian army died here fighting Russian backed separatists shifting the frontline a few kilometers.
Nearly everyday casualties are still made by senseless shooting at the frozen 450 km long demarcation line. Nearly 13000 died so far and 30000 were injured on the Ukrainian side. Amongst the separatists (some flown in from Transnistria) and on the Russian (special forces) side the number is a state secret. Ukraine has 1,5 million internal war refugees from the Donbas area and Crimea together. Some of them are my friends. They lost everything and had to completely rebuild their lives.
The area adjacent to the frontline lives in constant fear and is also economically disrupted. To make things worse crossing the demarcation line is a necessity for many e.g. old-age pensioners living on the separatist side. They need to collect their meager Ukrainian pension in persona requiring four days waiting to cross (that is without paying bribes). From the Ukrainian side, people daily go to their work in Donjetsk passing on foot through a special corridor left for this purpose, closely watched by both sides. Trainloads of coal pass the “border” from Donjetsk to Ukraine as there is a need for (cheap) coal and trade goes on while the shooting continues.
At the avtobus statia a driver is announcing the departure of his marshrutka to Donetsk. As if nothing happens.
The basin of the Don river comprises a strongly industrialized area where the Sovjet Union left a strong mark. Russians from all over the Soviet Union were moved here massively to work in the grand projects of Stalin. Heavy steel industry based on local coal mining, creating immense pollution. The smog colors the sky brownish and my eyes are constantly irritated.
It was always my intention to see Donbas, but my Ukrainian friends strongly disrecommended it. As a westerner it would be unsafe, anything could happen. I could even be abducted and held for ransom. Now I have landed her unexpectedly and on very short notice. A few days before this expedition I was invited by an experienced Dutch photojournalist to join him. As he had the help of a battle-hardened “fixer” it was a unique chance I had to take. My expectation was to be immersed in a grey depressing area with unfriendly even hostile inhabitants.
My friend was here when it all started 5 years ago: in Slovyansk 20 hours by train from Kyiv. A contingent of around 30 Russian special forces mobilized local separatists and mercenaries and took the center of town but was later pushed out by regular Ukrainian military forces. He tells me all the details about what happened and where. It is a surrealistic feeling.
Children play on the central square where the Christmas tree still stands and an artificial snow mountain has still not molten to the delight of the children. The war or the political situation is not a subject of conversation. Who knows who you are talking to and also who knows who is listening.
He points out where for the attentive observer remains of the roadblocks are still visible. “It was here the separatist shot a policeman and burned a car as a proof they were under attack. It was all a setup. The car is still there! The showed the number-plates which were mysteriously not burned. Here I shot a unique photo”. We stay in the same hotel as he did 4 years ago. “Look, in the backyard the black soldiers confiscated tanks and armored vehicles and one day I came home and the hotel was encircled by the Russian forces, searching inside for Ukrainian loyalists.” He stays in exactly the same room as then. Our fixer is a veteran and has accompanied many journalists. He points out some places he took them. Some of them died here.
In the center of Slovyansk he shot an award-winning photograph. On the picture below we are at exactly the same location.
Later we visit the railroad crossing where the decisive battle was fought that liberated Slovyansk. The road is still marked with the scars of mortar shells. It was near this spot an Italian war photographer lost his life.
His narrative and the impressions in the town give me a feeling of “Marques”, an expression from philosopher Derrida describing the invisible traces and spoken narrative, like fading steps in the sand reminding of past events and left alone to be newly interpreted, again and again, reiterated. The Marques are in a way orphans. The buildings remember what happened. I was not there at that time. It is over. But marques create a new reality, invisible traces…most traces are not even there anymore. But still, they are.
It is nearly 5 years ago now and on the surface life in this medium-sized Donbas town is just what can be expected anywhere in Ukraine. Kids go to school or play on the central square, sliding from a snow hill, the last remains of winter. Mothers do shopping in the omnipresent produkty (small always open shops) and larger shopping malls. I realize I clearly stand out as a westerner. They are used to this, the town was once flooded with journalists and still foreigners from e.g. OSCE is frequently present. The war seems far away, it is not but life goes on. Can you imagine living here? Actually, I can. It is just a matter of shutting off and concentrating on daily things. As all of us do in one way or another.
A spark of light: dance is big
To my delight, I have a chance to visit a ballroom dance competition held on Sunday. Dance is big in Ukraine and hundreds of competitors with accompanying entourage fill the main lecture hall of the Donbas university. Despite the worn-out facilities the atmosphere is exciting. For an afternoon all is forgotten and youth is showing their skills with invigorating enthusiasm. Great care is taken for appearance and the tension is tangible.
Colorful clothing and abundant heavy makeup. Music is everywhere as is action, concentration, preparation.
The event is perfectly organized by dance school Gratia. Leader Alexander Ovchinnikov, tells me: “Dance gives youth a purpose in life and takes away some of the stress of daily life.” The school is certainly an enterprise but also has an idealistic motive.
Suddenly behind the stage, I catch the eyes and the smile of a young girl in white. The explicit dress and her young body form a contrast she is herself not aware of.
Diana is 13 and dances solo by lack of a suitable partner. The local first language is Russian but my Ukrainian suffices to make contact. It is a long afternoon and she has to wait for a long time between sessions. So much energy was spent on just the right clothing and makeup which make her a bright star. She is from Kramatorsk, an industrial sister city just a few kilometers from Slovyansk.
Participating in two categories requires two outfits. Mama is omnipresent of course and later in the day, her father, running a textile company finds time to see his child in her last performance. Once Diana and I have made acquaintance we keep on having eye contact, the best way to communicate.
Her performance over she receives a diploma, it is not clear to me if she won a prize but she receives a memento and it is all about participating after all.
Avdivka, frontline town
The next day we drive south and the environment becomes grim. Our destination is Avdivka a little village literally on the frontline. I am impressed to be here, the name is symbolic of what is happening here. To reach the village we pass three checkpoints. Our military plated car passes easily, other cars are searched from top to bottom. The atmosphere is different from Slovyansk. The dark dreary muddy streets could be anywhere in Ukraine if you did not know better. The sky has a slight brownish tone due to air pollution.
With the difference that signs of warnings for mines block the end. The road continues and leads in less than 1 km to the frontline. People do their shopping too but the eyes tell a story. Any moment something can happen and they know. I am told near the frontline foreign phones can be detected by separatists resulting in a shooting.
I feel invisible, eyes avoid me and I am not talked to unless absolutely necessary. The faces speak to me: “what are you doing here?”
The wind carries the sound of heavy and small arms. We are forced to return as stray bullets can carry far. And kill. The road is blocked by signs indicating the presence of landmines. A memento on the ground makes this realization even more tangible (feature image). Somewhat further the old spire was shot of the church. In the meantime it has been restored, but the old one stands as a reminder of what can happen anytime again.
The last destination is to the south: Mariupol. It is dark already. The air is thick with smog limiting the view to the potholed road to just a few meters. Our fixer is irritated. The tension in the 4 x 4 Niva jeep is high, is this the right road? My friend is nervous as it is still possible to unwittingly drive into the separatist area. That is not a good idea with a car carrying emblems of the Azov regiment, a private backed army now partly integrated into the official Ukrainian forces. Our fixer is on the wanted list of the separatists. There are no cars at all and the road is half blocked with debris looking like roadblocks. Is Google Maps right or does it lead us completely the wrong way? Darkness surrounds us and we crawl the potholed road till to our relief the main road from Donetsk to Mariupol pops up. It was in former days the highway to the beach. Now we have to hurry to reach the checkpoint before 20.00 to be able to enter the city in time.
Largely due to the oligarch owner of the Azov steel plant, that dominates the city, the city is still Ukraine but only a few kilometers away to the east the frontline still moves up and down. The entrance to the Black Sea is now blocked by the Russians costing Ukraine millions if not billions. War takes its toll on lives as well as economic misery.
Many displaced have found a new base here though the more affluent left to the west of Ukraine and youth prefers to do the same if they have a chance. Like in the whole of the Donbas area the smog is affecting my breathing and causes eye irritation. The city is covered in a brownish fog causing a yellowish light.
Life expectancy must be considerably lowered by pollution, I am sure. Only 7 percent of the population works here but daily life goes up and down with the factory shifts. The steel plant and harbor loom in the distance of the once-popular beaches.
Mariupol is empty. Big boulevards remind of Tsarist and Soviet times. The wind is blowing fiercely, there are just a few cars and only a few pedestrians hurry to their destination.
Two families have set up a friendly hostel “Joy”. Like the dance school, it is a business but … have ideas and go out of their way to help their guests, who are often lonely and need support obtaining papers, housing, work. He explains: “We are not a social service, actually this kind of support does not exist here in Ukraine. However, we take pleasure in helping those who need support to get going. It is not just about renting a place to sleep.
Another initiative is Halabuda (shelter, tent). It is run by the charismatic manager….. who has his ducks in a row. Again the model is to provide courses (paid) that help people get going. How to set up a small business, how to get better in IT (about the only area where work is plentiful) and other useful subjects. However, for children of the military, the courses are free as are the camps that are organized where again useful subjects are discussed and visits to inspiring places are organized.
Life goes on in Mariupol too. There is a spirit to make things better, to improve life and to build a future however difficult this may be with the present state of the government, the dysfunctional legal system, and the paralyzing corruption.
The night train takes me back to Kyiv (15 hrs). On the station, sights point the way to bunkers, shelters to be used when something may happen.
The fishermen on the ice near Kurakhove are not disturbed by the distant artillery fire. Their main worry is to catch the small fish (silotki). And drink Samohon (homemade horilka, the Ukrainian word for wodka. It is freezing cold and they spend half a day for a small catch that is later sold on the central market for around 25 hryvna (less than 1 euro). Life goes on as if nothing happens or happened.
It is quiet on the eastern front and the attitude of the world is as it always seems to be in these cases when the attention has shifted elsewhere.
The silence is earsplitting.