The unavoidable night conversation, in the slow train Kiev – Kramatorsk, from one end of Ukraine to another, from the ‘European’ one to the renegade, ‘Russian’ one, confirmed in fact all the intricacies of a war. A shadowed war, which became boring, but never ceased.
Written and photographed by Zoran Marinović
A small cabin with four cots, arranged so that passengers, sitting on the lower beds, face to face, have no choice but to start a conversation. Pavel is a recruit. His father and mother are Russians. From Tomsk. And he is… Ukrainian. This is his land and he says he will give his last drop of blood for it, if need be. The last drop of whose blood? Russian or Ukrainian? Pavel is young man, shaved, motivated, with those blue, clear eyes in which the east reflects. And the plain. Green uniform, short Kalashnikov on his luggage, and the 72nd brigade emblem. And from tomorrow his first day on the frontline. Avdivka.
Maša is a student from Donbas. Exams at the Kiev University are finished. And while most go off on holidays to the Black Sea, she returns home. Home is now on the other side, in the new, unrecognized republic. People’s Republic of Donetsk. She is worried about her degree. The university program is completely the same, but one side only acknowledges the Kiev one, the other side only the Donetsk one. She avoids the word Prorussian separatists, which Pavel constantly repeats.
Jevgenij is an older gentleman. He speaks quietly. And keeps to the side. He would always distrustfully go quiet when a babushka would enter the cabin. He seemed more interested in what was before, then what will come. A Soviet. Ironworks. Coke. Tito here and there. He says, we were a giant. But then something went awry.
I also lay down my plan. The town of Avdivka is the goal. A town on the frontline, a place of constant reconciliation and breaking of the truce. Of testing. Provoking. A dozen kilometres from Donetsk. A strategically vital point, one Ukrainian soldiers want to keep at all costs. After the airport they lost in the last offensive, they don’t have the luxury of another defeat. But this war was made famous by fruitless victories and needless defeats.
Two days with the Ukrainian army, and then two days, in the same place… with the Prorussian separatists, DPR army, or armed forces. Depending on your position.
Pavel was at Maidan as a student. Maša was not. He was freezing for days and cursing Janukovič, the Russian whore, as he says. And then when the hated president returned to Mother Russia, instead of gaining the desired NATO bases and a rocket shield, they lost, without a bullet fired, Crimea, and then with too many bullets fired and more than ten thousand dead, they lost Donetsk and Lugansk.
Putin, the one who dug up the buried hatchet, could stand anything in his backyard except Tomahawks. Ukrainians were swept away with the song, forgetting the words, of their own, but also our ‘south Slav’ grandfathers… why go against Russia? Hey, why go against Russia?!
Maša says that Poroshenko, Zaharchenko, Strelkov, even the older Klichko… eat lunches in great halls, drink cognac, sign agreements and pacts, which they break by dessert time. Agitate. Constantly agitate. And we the cousins, brothers, neighbors, we kill each other. Burn each other’s houses. Jevgenij mentions gas, oil pipeline, steel, ruble. And Pavel nationalism, separatism, and military force. All this is today… Ukraine.
We mention the Balkans too, Yugoslavia, Krajina, all from the first person, but as the train goes further east, our fallout seems less and less comparable. In both places everything fell apart too easy, relatives against relatives, but now by some newer pattern. The Ukrainian story, from any angle, is certainly larger, more dangerous, and more global. I would even dare say… and nuclear.
Last stop. Kramatorsk. No further.
While the official Lada pushes on eastward, a pleasant baritone lists on the radio: broken treaty, antiterrorist action continues, 5 separatist soldiers killed. Ukrainian forces had no casualties. American diplomats condemn the violation of the truce.
On the horizon, after endless fields of sunflowers and wheat, lines of demolished houses. And then a line of checkpoints, bunkers, barbed wire and as we got closer, lines of tanks, minethrowers. An army. I look at Pavel. I can see he does not feel like talking anymore. A slight smile. Worried gaze.
Avdivka is the largest coke in Europe. Around a dozen ominous chimneys the town settled. Thirty thousand people, mostly working class families, on both sides, live here, actually survive here on the frontline.
Lieutenant Mironovič guides us through the trenches. It is peaceful. There can be nothing more sinister on the battlefield than silence. Smell of humidity. And gunpowder.
The war has working hours here. Truce lasts until 3 p.m., until the OSCE observers are on duty. After 3 they leave the field to their offices, to write reports. At 3:15, after the armored convoy passes the last checkpoint, someone will fire the first grenade, bullet, throw a bomb. Doesn’t matter who. Someone surely will. At dusk comes incessant gunfire which the dark settles down. Dawn is usually the most furious, until the armored convoy arrives tot eh first checkpoint.
Then everything calms down. Soldiers shave. Heat up canned meat. Light cigarettes. Sleep. Wash socks. And clean barrels. And so on until 3 p.m. Actually 3:15. We say goodbye to the lieutenant. She says that several days ago, just across, arrived cadets from the Moscow military academy. They have a habit of firing howitzers at their position. Field work.
We move on. Same place, we can almost see it form the trenches, but over 150 kilometers away.
A huge column, a dozen miles long, inches across the bridge. Regular, small people. Sitting. Waiting. Maša is there somewhere. NATO uniforms replaced those olive green ones. With a navy undershirt. And the faces became somewhat more grim. Quieter. Under a green star.
A memo from commander Basurin circles form hand to hand. Very slowly. We wait in the car and listen to the DPR radio. It says: Ukrainian army once again breached the ceasefire, 8 soldiers died. We had no casualties. A grenade killed two children. President Putin condemned the attack.
You, Croat. Where are you going? Ever since we passed the Ukrainian checkpoints, being a Croat is an aggravating circumstance. Serbs are a more welcome Slavic people here. You, Croat. What are you filming?! Those fascists? There.
The start of the Ukrainian war brought some fifty of our citizens, primarily looking for adventure, into the trenches around Donetsk. A stronger motive than ideology and defense of European values were dollars which the oligarchs handed out to the army in national fervor. But just like any fervor, it comes and goes, and dollars are better spent in buying coke, coal and steel, then on a dissipated nation, muddy trenches and long barrels. Which the politicians and businessmen so gladly relinquished to their people.
In any case, I did not meet ‘ours,’ nor ‘theirs,’ maybe a few more ‘wage warriors’ are killing for daily wages. Maybe, but the adventure has passed, Ukrainians are placing mercenary squads under military command and use only professional soldiers. Artillery man and sniper, two of the most wanted occupations. Along with footballers, toys still not given up on by oligarchs. Darijo Srna, whom everyone knows, I do not mention. Too bad. Luka Modrić opened up a lot of doors in the Third World. The Shakhtar stadium is demolished, the club has left. One day you are in the Champions League, and the next… the next you idle in some shelter.
A dozen kilometers from the center of Donetsk are the first houses of Avdivka. Filming is completely off limits here. You Croat, don’t film this. Not this. The position is there. Position here.
And people are distrustful. In fear. Afraid for tomorrow. Afraid for today after 3 p.m. when the observers leave. Until the first grenade comes down. Or a sniper bullet from a Frenchman, Argentinean, Croat. Until then, the army shaves. Heats canned meat. Smokes. Cleans barrels. Until the white convoy passes the last checkpoint. And then between two agreements, or promises, people are on their own. Sometimes us. Today them. And tomorrow someone else. And the grenade will be fired by someone. That’s certain.