Well, the last couple days of our trip has taken a considerable shift in gears.
Our first half of the trip was an opportunity to reflect on my ancestral roots in Ukraine. We landed in Kyiv and headed toward the peaceful Western part of the country. We touched on the land where my grandparents were born, and made connections with warm and loving family members. However, no matter where we went, you could see how the war in the East has touched the country. Whether in physical monuments, memorials, or in conversation with locals.
Now, we have moved onto the second phase of our trip, where our research is delving deeper into the current war occurring in Eastern Ukraine. And honestly, I am not sure how to begin synthesizing the experiences we have had these last couple of days. I am feeling overwhelmed. I have heard so many stories, positions, and have had so many experiences. There is no way I can possibly go into detail about every account that I have had with the people we have interviewed. This post isn’t going to be the most comprehensive nor the most proofread because we have had so many experiences since my last post. But I am going to try my best!
Our next phase began with a meeting with 3 veterans of the war the evening before our train to Sloviansk.
Dimitri met us outside of our hotel in Kyiv. When I first met him I was really taken aback. This is not what I was expecting from a veteran of war. For the first several minutes after meeting him, I wasn’t sure if he was just an advocate for veterans or if he had actually gone to war. I guess I was expecting someone who looked more… rough. And Dimitri honestly just looks like a friend we would have in Canada. He is young, he is well spoken, he was wearing a plaid, collared shirt under a Lacoste sweater.
As we walked to the restaurant where we would meet the rest of the “squad,” he told me about a project he is working on – a collection of contemporary Ukrainian soldiers stories from the east. So far they have them available online but only in Ukrainian. He is working on publishing it and hopefully one day translating it. You can find the website here, (and translate it poorly on the internet, but you’d get the idea!) which includes information about the organization Voice of War, and has the text online: http://voiceofwar.org/
He also shared with me a project he found interesting. It is a video of soldiers of the US Army reciting Ajax’s Theatre of War, which he found quite compelling: https://vimeo.com/218379866
At the restaurant, we met with Mykhailo aka Mischa, and (another!) Dmytro. Mischa is a big ol’ dude that actually did fit my expectation of a soldier, whereas Dmytro was physically more like Mischa. Both Dmitri and Dmytro were open, laughing, and seemed like just regular guys. Mischa had more of a shield up, and is a man of fewer words. He couldn’t stay for very long so we didn’t have a chance to chat with him very much, but the two Dima’s (the short name for Dmitri) assured us that Mischa has a lot to say. And what he has to say is extremely compelling. He is a soldier through and through, and understands how war functions. They said he is very smart, and they both had a lot of respect for him.
Dmitri and Dmytro were both 29 years old, and Mischa is 27. But they are all now considered war veterans of Ukraine. That was one of the most shocking things to me. These guys are literally our age and are veterans. But, at the same time, I suppose when my grandparents’ and so many others were thrust into war during WWII they were all pretty much that age, if not younger.
We talked to these guys for a long time, and I can’t possibly begin to write everything we chatted about. I will share a few of the things that have stuck out most for me.
Of the 3, only Mischa had previous military experience. Both Dimas were on Maidan during the Revolution of Dignity, and when they found out about the war they all volunteered themselves. When I asked why, they said it was a no brainer for them. Because it was their duty. And I couldn’t help but imagine some of my friends (including Patrick) back in Canada and what they would do in this situation. It terrifies me, but I bet Patrick would go fight. And there are others that I can think of as well. Meeting with these guys made it very real for me.
I asked them about their first day as a soldier and what they were feeling. Personality wise, of the two Dmitri was sensitive, romantic, considerate. And Dmytro was a bit more laid back, funny, and definitely a bit of a ladies man. So their answers to my question somewhat surprised me. Dmitri said that for him, it was an adventure. That he got their and he was jacked up and itching to fight, but had to spend the first 3 weeks digging trenches. Dmytro, on the other hand, said that he was “f**ing terrified.” He arrived right in the thick of things and landed in one of the first big confrontations. He was given a gun and told to go.
Dmitri was wounded in battle. He was hit by shelling and if medical aid hadn’t taken him by helicopter, he would have died. He described to us his experience. It’s fascinating listening to people recall these types of events. How someone can recall a horrific experience in such a factual way. He described how time slowed down, and remembers looking in his officer’s eyes. He could see the concern in them – his officer believed that he was going to die. He remembers trying to move his fingers. And he described the feeling of not being able to maintain consciousness, and that every time he fell out of consciousness, he thought he might not wake up again. He showed us the scars from the shelling on his neck, which also run down his shoulder and chest.
And then the medics arrived and drugged him up, and apparently then it was awesome and he was totally stoned and filmed himself on his GoPro and was asking for his Rocket Launcher which he had named after his current girlfriend, but accidentally said the name of his ex-girlfriend, and then the girlfriend watched the video and was pissed off. Which was a pretty hilarious story amidst this life threatening situation.
Later, I asked them if they had any loved ones who cared about them going to war, like a girlfriend or – and I couldn’t even list anyone else because they both burst into an exasperated groan. And they both exclaimed that that would be the hardest question of the night! They joked that they were going to write a book called “Він, Вона, Війна – ” Which translates to Him, her, and War. Which loses the hilarious alliteration in translation. They both expressed their various love stories during war. Dmitri’s story included a marriage and subsequent break up. Dmytro’s included various “dirty, dirty messages” from girls’ that saw him in media interviews, which apparently his on-again-off-again girlfriend wasn’t too fond of.
Somehow hearing these stories just illuminated their age. These are guys in their 20s trying to defend their country and have a romantic life.
It was an honour to spend time with these soldiers. I have a profound respect for them. There is so much more to be said, but I just don’t have the time to write it about these soldiers. Dmitri is starting several projects to raise awareness for veterans and soldiers in Ukraine, and I am hoping to be able to stay in touch with him to find a way to connect his book to Canada and potentially our play. These men, and so many other young soldiers (men and women), who are our age are in a way moving onto their next stage of life after their time in the war — while I feel like I’m just trying to get it together for my first stage of life!
The next day we took the train to Sloviansk. It was interesting because as we got further East in Ukraine, more soldiers in army fatigues would come on board.
We were met at the train station by our “fixer.” I am not going to share his name because he asked us to not share his photo or get him on video, as it could potentially get him into some trouble. So I’m just going to call him Pablo! He has substantial insight into the conflict. He has worked as a fixer for several journalists from around the world, and has gone into conflict zones and occupied territory more than once. He himself is an internally displaced person. A couple years before war broke out, he bought himself an apartment in Donetsk and finished the renovations in January 2014. Just a few months before fighting broke out. He still owns the apartment but lives in Kramatorsk, a city near Sloviansk. He doesn’t want to sell it his aparment because it is now only worth a fraction of what he bought it for.
Regardless, our fixer is this jolly, friendly guy who laughs at what might seem like the most inappropriate moment. He played us the radio recording for one journal he escorted into occupied territory. At one point, you hear an explosion and the journalist says, “OK I wanna get out of here.” And our fixer is laughing and thinks it is so funny!
We really lucked out finding him as he has been great insight into the conflict here. Not only is he able to share personal anecdotes, but he has been instrumental in providing us a window into what has occurred in and around this area. After dropping our things off at the hotel, we went to the sight of a major battle that was part of the siege of Sloviansk. A former hospital now completely destroyed.
The separatists had control of the hospital and its outbuildings, a strategic advantage on top of a hill, and the Ukrainians were at the bottom of the hill.
Walking around this area felt oddly familiar, I think because we have seen so much of that in film. The surreal part was knowing that this was not a film, and that this destruction wasn’t a vestige of WWII. It was caused only 3 years ago. Pablo continued to point out ways in which the damage was caused, either by tank blows, or air strikes, or bullet holes.
Afterward, we had an interview with a mother of 4 in their house just down the hill from this hospital. She had left with her children through a “corridor” – a temporary ceasefire between both sides to prevent civilian casualties. But her husband remained behind to take care of their chickens and rabbits (something I’ve noted is a reason a lot of people chose to stay behind). During the fighting he lived in the basement, and came out once and was speaking on the phone with his mother. Apparently, the insurgents can track mobile phones and his mother told him to get off the phone. He went to the basement and just moments later, a shell hit their home right where he was standing.
Olya, the mother of 4, was very open with her story. And her children were hilarious – they kept poking their heads in the room and the four year old girl brought in everyone of her stuffed animals and put them on Patrick, Pablo, and Matt.
At one point, one of her sons grabbed their hamster and showed me. Which was adorable! But then the next thing he pulled out was a giant bullet, probably from a machine gun. I guess the boys were outside playing and found it. Their mom took it away but they found it again (he proudly told me), then she took it away again and they found it again.
Olya told me that the police came by asking if they had found any weapons or items of war lately. They were scouring the area because they had found a box buried in the ground filled with 30 live grenades. They still had the shell, but the police told them that wasn’t what they were looking for and that they could keep it to use as an “ashtray.” Olya mentioned how distressing it is knowing that her children play in the streets, knowing that these things are around.
Olya mentioned that her children learn in Ukrainian at school, as opposed to Russian — which has been the case for the last years or so. This is difficult for her since she only speaks Russian, so she can’t help them with their school work. This made me think of a lecture I went to in Edmonton about “The Ukrainian Diasporas after Euromaidan.” One of the things the lecturer said was that he thought it would be a big mistake to eliminate Russian as an official language since so much of the population still speaks it. And it could be a very divisive thing for the country. A few people at the lecture protested since it is the language of the oppressor. But hearing this woman saying this made so much sense. She does identify as Ukrainian, but she only ever had the opportunity to learn Russian. If we were in Alberta and all of a sudden people told us we had to only speak French, I also don’t think we would be very happy.
Following our meeting with Olya and her kids, we drove around and tried to start conversations with some people in the area as well. Two old men stopped and talked with us. One had been around while the other went to his brother’s village not that far away. They both had lived through the second world war ; they were both born in the village ; and they have been life long friends. The one who stayed around during the fighting told us a story about a man who came out of his basement to check on his dog. And while he was out, he was hit by a shell and died. He pointed to the corner half a block away where it happened. Now his wife lives alone with their young child.
We asked the men how this war compared to their experience in the second world war. And I was surprised to hear them say that this war was worse. In WWII the fighting came for one day, maybe two and then they moved on (at least in their experience, I am sure it was different for others). But this war has lasted for years. And has no end in sight.
The next morning we visited the site where an military airplane was shot down by separatist forces. It is significant because this was very early in the conflict, and it would have been impossible for the separatists to have shot down the plane unless they received the technology from Russia. The monument that remains includes the rear wheels of the shot down aircraft.
We spent a significant portion of the day at a sanatorium in a picturesque village about 30 minutes outside of Slovyansk. It is nestled in a pretty pine tree forest. The sanatorium feels like a retreat – apparently Ukrainian boy scouts used to go there for retreats. However, as we spent more time there, the foreboding, eerie sense of purgatory and isolation settled in. There are no buses that come to the sanatorium, so residents need to get a bike to get to the nearest town. But there are no jobs in the town, only Sloviansk which is about 30 minutes away by car. There is no heat in the sanatorium, and many people expressed concern about the upcoming winter since the last one was so difficult. People need to buy personal heaters, but they break easily since they are not meant to be used as a central heating system. As well, they do not have hot water, and need to heat water and then clean themselves with a bucket.
We ended up talking to 5 or 6 people. But there were lots of people who didn’t want to do an interview. Their reasons would be because they had been there for 3 years already and had spoken to so many journalists. The cumulative sense of fatigue amongst residents grew as we spent more time there.
One woman, the mother of a disabled 13 year old who we met outside, said the only people who remain at the sanatorium are people who can’t get a job and therefore have nowhere else to go. No one wants to be there. She said that they are like “people sitting on their suitcases waiting for the train.”
Another woman provided us with a very comprehensive interview. She described that while they were still in their home, her mother-in-law was lying down. Her mother-in-law was blind. When a shell hit nearby it blew their windows in. Glass covered her and she had no idea what was happening – she thought the entire house had fallen on her.
Anna was a woman who came from a middle class, educated, socioeconomic background. She had a nicely groomed dog on a leash (rare in Ukraine!), but she had apparently taken 3 stray dogs who live on the sanatorium grounds to be sterilized because the year before there were 24 puppies. Adorable, but not good for the dogs. She had very intelligent things to say about the political situation, and had told me how much she wants to come to Canada, and was asking us about the system, which we couldn’t really give a lot of concrete answers to.
An older Babushka invited me into her home, a tiny, cement room. She was taking care of another resident’s developmentally disabled son while they went to go get him medicine. She spent so much of the interview describing her grandchildren, showing me their drawings on her cement walls. She herself was also physically disabled, and walked with a beautiful wooden cane with custom engravings that the people of the village had given her. She told me she didn’t want to leave her home because her father, who only had one hand, had built the house and left it to her. But she had already had two heart attacks. One day, when the shelling was bad, her son came and found her on the ground and he was terrified she as having another heart attack. They made her leave because they told her that she had already survived two heart attacks. They wouldn’t let her die from the war.
It seemed like, overwhelmingly, most of the people we spoke to just wanted to live their lives. But feel powerless within this political situation. Some people lean more toward to believing that the occupied territory belongs to the Ukrainians. Some lean more toward knowing that Russia have more jobs and could provide them with more opportunities. But not a single person wants this war. Everyone just wants it to be over so they can just live. They feel like their governments have forgotten them amidst the political turmoil. That the entire system is corrupt and that anyone in power is either after more money or more power.
And as I spent time here, I remembered how my own grandparents spent years in displaced peoples’ camps before their eventual emigration to Canada. At least for them, they knew that the war was over. For these people, the fighting continues. And the future remains incomprehensibly uncertain.
Following this we had a meeting with a woman named Tetyana. She is originally from Mariupol (a city on the front line), and used to work as a journalist. Now she works for the region’s governor as the spokesperson for civil army and military defence. She provided us with fascinating and comprehensive information about what the government is doing and the ways in which the region has been affected by the conflict.
The government has amended the school program to accommodate the influx of children fleeing occupied territory, and has also created an online schooling system for students in occupied territory. They can study online with an anonymous number, and do testing so that after they graduate, their education will be recognized and they can qualify to go to a Ukrainian University.
She told us about a grant program for business where the government awards start-up funds for IDPs (internally displaced people) so they can create a new business and diversity their region’s industry. It is a new program so not a lot of people have used it so far, but they are hoping to get the word out and more people will use it the next time around.
She told us some statistics about the internally displaced people, which is a very difficult number to calculate. Many people who remained in occupied territory come to Ukraine for a day trip, and register here as an IDP in order to still receive their pensions. Then they drive back to occupied territory. But some others have fled and have gone to live with families and never registered. So these numbers are not necessarily accurate, but it was the best approximations she could give us: There are 520,471 IDPs registered in the Donetsk region. 116,562 are able to work & 316,749 are pensioners.
Tetyana said that there are other countries who provide money and materials. But she said that the thing that they need most in their region was moral support. She passionately thanked us for coming and for not forgetting about them. That it was good for people in their region to see that people like us are coming and visiting so that they can feel normal.
Speaking with Tetyana was very touching. I was expecting to receive some sort of bureaucratic press line about the war in Eastern Ukraine. Instead, we received her personal passionate, heartfelt opinion on the war, with an official insight into how the government is working within the current circumstances.
Again, I am really only touching on the surface of what we have seen so far. Not a single person’s story is the same — sometimes they differ drastically. But there are through lines that seem to run through their experiences. Most significantly, that no one has asked for this war. Not a single person we have spoken to expressed that they wanted their circumstances to change drastically before the war. Everyone just wants to continue their lives in peace. And instead, they are victims of a larger power which they have no control over.
Matt, Patrick and I are all emotionally exhausted and keep falling asleep in our fixer’s car in between meetings. But I am grateful for this experience to visit my homeland, listen to these peoples’ stories. It is my hope to create something that can do these brave people justice.
Thank you for reading. Apologies for anything that didn’t make sense/spelling mistakes. My brain is fried! Our days are so full and I need to get some sleep tonight, so I can’t do a comprehensive clean up of this bad boy. Please forgive me! And see you next time.