Chapter II - Alisa Diary -
The first time I’ve been near Butovka mine when I was 12 years old. It was a bright spring day, and I had an adventurous plan to skip my dancing class and go to the airport to watch planes. I knew how to take a trolleybus towards the airport, but I didn’t realize that trolleybuses with different numbers ended up at different places. This is how I accidentally found myself in Butovka – a coal mine in the suburb of Donetsk, a few kilometers away from the airport. Confused, I went out of the trolleybus, and it left. Next one arrived almost an hour later. I waited for it sunbathing in the grass and watching coal trains passing by. That day I was late home and lied to my mom that I fell asleep in the trolleybus on the way back and missed my stop. She will never know the truth unless she reads this story.
The second time I’ve been near Butovka mine couple weeks ago. This time there was no accident: I had to wear body armor and helmet and cross several checkpoints to get there. Just like Donetsk airport, Butovka is not a final trolleybus stop anymore but a frontline position held by Ukrainian army in its war against Russia-backed separatist who now control my native city of Donetsk. The place didn’t look like a mine anymore: rather it was a Stalingrad decoration to a WW2 movie. Reactive artillery – the main weapon of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine – has torn into pieces and turned inside out its buildings and thick metal structures.
The railway near which I sunbathed many years ago used to mark a line between the territory controlled by Ukrainians and the no man’s land. A few months ago Ukrainians dug tranches under it and advanced a bit farther. The separatist forces did the same on their side. As a result, the distance between the enemies’ positions is currently no longer than 50 meters, close enough for the soldiers to yell offensive words to the other side and hear curses back.
This tendency is not unique for the Butovka position. Frontlines all along the 400 kilometers long demarcation line in the Eastern Ukraine are slowly moving towards each other, and the distance between the sides has gradually shrunk from the average of ten kilometers to only two, in some places reaching a minimum of 40-50 meters. This, strategically pretty senseless, movement is one of the very few activities available for the two well-equipped and ready-to-fight armies on the both sides.
The war between governmental forces of Ukraine and the militia of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic started in spring 2014 when the separatists in Donetsk, supported and provided with weapons by Russia, proclaimed independence. Its active phase was suspended in February 2015 by second Minsk Agreement which succeeded to set a ceasefire and temporarily freeze the conflict but failed to resolve it. Since then, both sides, still mutually hostile and distrustful, keep ready-to-act armies along the established frontlines, but these armies are completely paralyzed: the one who makes a move will break the agreement and lose politically. The war has turned into a static tranche confrontation.
However, over the three years of this strange neither-war-nor-peace both sides have developed their little ways to keep fighting without angering the international community. The most obvious of them – night fighting. While during the day the observation of ceasefire is being monitored by OSCE mission, in the evening its members drive back to their hotels and bases. This is when prohibited reactive artillery, tanks and mortars come into play. Usually fire exchange lasts for few hours and results in the average of one to two casualties per day. However, the waste majority of shells land in the fields without harming anyone. These battles that don’t have a clear purpose or strategy are rather a way for the both armies to let the steam off than real fight. Even at the frontline positions fighters are freely walking around without body armors or other protection.
Alexander is a commander of the Ukrainian army unit positioned in the ruins of the village of Peski, once one of the most active parts of the frontline. Now it’s often quiet, and fighters spend most of their time watching the enemy positions towards Donetsk skyline on the horizon and sustaining their own living. “On average, we spend one hour per day fighting, the rest is swallowed by household activities: cutting wood, cooking, doing laundry, – Alexander says. – When no much is happening, routine takes over. Before we used to sleep in the tranches under rain, and we didn’t care. But when you are not under constant fire, it turns out that you want to be warm and have a nice dinner”.
While the frontlines don’t move and units stay in the same places for months, the tranches are becoming more and more homely. Every position now has its pets – cats and dogs – and often even bird feeders made out of bullet cases. The walls are decorated with children drawings and good luck charms abundantly supplied by volunteers from the peaceful cities. The teapot is always on fire: in Slavic tradition, drinking tea is a classic way to not only get warm in winter, but also to spend time and get over boredom.
In this situation, slowly expanding tranches towards the enemy is nearly the only way to maintain a sense of participating in real war. Stuff sergeant Alexander Veremchuk is in charge of the frontline position near the village of Luganskoye. A part of the so-called Svetlodarsk Arc, it used to be a key point during the battle of Debaltsevo in January-February 2015. Since then, nothing significant has happened here. Following the trend, his stuff is also digging tranches into the field that used to be buffer zone. However, Alexander is skeptic about the format the conflict has taken. “I don’t know why this war is not over yet, – he says. – There is some shooting every night, but it has no strategic sense. I don’t understand what is going on and why”.
In the meantime, just a kilometer away locals from the town of Svetlodarsk are enjoying winter fishing on top of the frozen lake. Over a dozen men are sitting on the ice all over the place watching their rods. One of them, Sergey, says that there was some shelling in the morning, but it didn’t interrupt his routine. “First there were two shells flying from here to here, then another one going back”, – he tells showing trajectories with his hands. If one of the shells hits the lake, the ice will break and the fishermen will sink – not to mention the deadly effects of shrapnel. But they prefer to not think about it: like all the people living around the frontlines, they are too tired of being afraid. “Of course I don’t like the shelling, but I like fishing on this lake. If I keep waiting for the end of the war, I will probably never have an opportunity to fish”, – says Sergey.
Sergey is one of approximately 650 thousand people living in the so-called gray zone – territories close to or between the frontlines. They have seen a lot since 2014: nearly everyone can show you traces of shrapnel in their bedroom and tell a story about weeks of living in the basement or falling in the mud on the way to work when shelling suddenly started. But all these stories are in the past tense. Since the intensity of fighting has significantly decreased and army units moved out of the towns to the fields, the inconvenience of living by the frontline is diminished to hearing shelling in the night and suffering other, less obvious, consequences – such as land mines, logistical problems and the lack of access to services. The hardest situation is in the 88 villages of limited access situated between the frontlines. Only locals are allowed in there, and these locals are the real hostages of this strange war.
One of such places is Opytnoye – a government-controlled suburban village next to the separatist capital of Donetsk. Before the war it was home to nearly 800 hundred people and an experimental plant selection station. Now there are 42 inhabitants left, mostly elderly people living in the ruins of their own houses. Opytnoye is situated right by Donetsk ring road which is so heavily mined that even army cannot use it. The only lifeway currently connecting the village with the outer world is a dirt road through the mined field. It’s available to use in summer when it’s dry and in winter when it freezes: spring thaw or rain turns it into impassable mud.
There is no electricity, water supplies or gas in the village: all the infrastructure has been destroyed during the intense fighting of 2014-2015 and never repaired. People heat their dwellings by cutting wood and burning it in the makeshift stoves, but it’s tricky: trees are full of munitions stuck inside of them which sometimes explode when put in fire. Ambulance, police or firefighters won’t go to Opytnoye, not to mention grocery supplies. A loaf of bread is a real delicacy in this place where people have to live off humanitarian aid delivered by NGOs (when the road is unusable for transport, volunteers carry supplies by feet or use sleighs in winter). Another source of food for the local people is growing their own vegetables, which people do despite their gardens being mutilated by shell holes and often mined. According to the recent UN report published in December, Eastern Ukraine has become one of the most mine-contaminated places on the planet, and Opytnoye is the right spot to make sure of it. Because of landmines, access to the local cemetery is also difficult, and several of the locals who died or were killed during the war have been buried in the shell holes.
Now it’s mostly quiet here, and shells haven’t arrived to the residential area for quite a while. But no support or recovery action is being undertaken. Officially there is no one responsible for this village and its inhabitants: local authorities are absent since 2014. In order to receive pension or do any paperwork people have to walk several kilometers to the next town of Avdeyevka. Landmines and snipers are not the only dangers on their way: people are reportedly being attacked by the wild boars that have uncontrollably bred during the war. The only car officially allowed to drive on this road is a yellow minivan of Rodion Lebedev, a native of Opytnoye who works for a humanitarian NGO. This minivan, often stuck in the mud or snow, has become a single way out for those who are not able to make the way by feet.
Rodion together with his family of five lives in the summer kitchen: his beautiful big house is uninhabitable after being hit 28 times over the course of war. Still, he is not in the worst position: his neighbor Alexander lives in the bathroom – the only room left of his house. Walking around the remains of the village, Rodion tells the stories of his neighbors: this one was wounded, that one – killed. This one left in the beginning of the war and left the key from the house asking to check it and water the flowers, but there is nothing to check anymore – the house is destroyed.
Unlike other sufferers of the war, people of Opytnoye cannot register damages of their houses which would give them at least a vague hope for compensation. The official reason is that members of the state commission are unable to reach the place to inspect the damages. Unofficially it’s no secret that state gave up on villages like Opytnoye which are heavily damaged and hard to reach. People are not encouraged to stay in such places, and officials usually avoid mentioning them.
“They simply gave up on us, – says Rodion. – Authorities pretend that we don’t exist, and there is no single attempt to support local people. When I mentioned to the governor that we should restore some kind of local authorities, so that Opytnoye at least exists legally, he yelled at me”.
While Opytnoye exemplifies the worst-case scenario, other towns and villages of the gray zone, just a bit farther from the frontlines, present a surrealistic illusion of peaceful life in the middle of war. People here got used to the sound of shelling, to crossing checkpoints every day and to military uniforms on the streets. They also lost hope that the situation will change, and therefore continued living their normal lives in a new reality. The school of Luganskoye village is less than a kilometer away from the nearest military position. In 2015 it used to be a military position itself and got a couple direct hits, but since then it was renovated and reopened for its intended purpose. Nothing inside reminds of the closeness of the frontline: the air smells fresh bakery from the canteen; announcement on the wall advertises an amateur concert; children stare at their smartphones. After classes a yellow school bus picks up students from the neighboring villages and takes them home – through the checkpoints, along the mined roadsides.
The signs of war in such places are hard to notice at first glance: it takes to look under the surface of normality to see all the horror hidden beneath. In Svetlodarsk, a folk festival is being celebrated despite the war. A beautiful local actress in national dress is singing carols. Her husband, a rescuer, has been evacuating civilians during the battle of Debaltsevo. He turned completely gray in one week. Teenagers walk along the main street and carry a speaker playing R’n’B. They can tell by the sound of shelling when it’s time to leave the computer game, even at the most exciting moment, and run to the shelter. Many of them suffer from asthma because they spent too much time in damp basements. When I drive towards the frontline positions to visit them as a journalist, I avoid looking at road signs indicating “Donetsk 30” and sometimes even “Donetsk 15”. They remind me that in 20 minutes I could be at home, drinking tea with my parents. But instead, between me and my parents there is a frontline.
What unites all of us is that we are hostages of this weird war, frozen and active, obvious and invisible at the same time, killing us not as much with bombs as slowly from within. The war that has become an ugly political compromise which seems to satisfy everyone expect those stuck in the middle of it. Lyubov, a family nurse from Luganskoye, accepts patients in a poky building that used to be an infectious disease department: the large well-equipped hospital has been destroyed to the ruins. She shared with me a feeling that everyone in Eastern Ukraine expressed in one way or another, a bitterness and vexation that I feel myself. “These were not us, common people, but politicians who started this war, – she said. – And it won’t end until they reconfigure their spheres of influence. Until then we are stuck in this standstill, without any decision being taken”.