CW: violence, war, threats against children, sexual abuse and rape
Also be forewarned: this is my longest blog post yet!
Our time in Eastern Ukraine has illuminated how the conflict has pervaded the lives of Eastern Ukrainians in ways I had never imagined. The last two days have been emotionally exhausting but enlightening.
Antoshka Baby Orphanage
On day 3 of our time with the fixer, we visited the Antoshka Baby Orphanage in Kramatorsk, a neighbouring city only 15km from Slovyansk. We met with Dr. Ludmilla, the deputy to the head doctor at the orphanage. The orphanage is home to over 150 orphans under 4 years old, with a special “sick kids’” unit, including children living with HIV/AIDs and children with various physical and developmental disabilities.
She told us the story of what occurred during the early days of the war, when Kramatorsk was taken by the separatist insurgents. The orphanage lay in the middle of the crossfire of mortars aiming toward the Kramatorsk airport. Bullets and shells would consistently fly over the orphanage.
They created hand painted signs which they hung all around the orphanage walls reading read “SOS. Do not shoot the children,” in hopes it would prevent the insurgents from taking the orphanage as a base. The caretakers wanted to evacuate the children to Kharkiv, a city 3 hours away, but the process was complicated since there are so many children, and dozens living with special needs. Negotiations began with the insurgents. Initially they refused because to them, Kharkiv is Ukraine, and they wanted to move the children to Donetsk within occupied territory. Negotiations continued and eventually both sides agreed to create a corridor for the children to be evacuated to Kharkiv.
Dr. Ludmilla said it was a terrifying experience for both the caretakers and the children. The sounds of shells and explosions would trigger the children and there were many sleepless nights. Although most of the children are quite young, there are a few who are still be set off by the sound of fireworks. But Kramatorsk has now banned fireworks so that is no longer a problem.
They took us on a tour of the orphanage which had some great facilities – not what I was expecting from an orphanage in Eastern Ukraine. However, it was still an affecting experience. I’ve never visited an orphanage, let alone one near a war zone, let alone one with so many sick children. I’ve never seen a child with such substantial deformities. We asked if any of the children were orphaned by the war, and they said it was hard to say as they don’t know the history of a lot of the children. They were able to say that one of their newest baby’s mother had just died, and her father is in prison.
The orphanage also has a program where Internally Displaced People can leave their children in their facility for up to 6 months while they get settled and on their feet. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult that would be for the parents, particularly under such stressful and uncertain circumstances.
I had never considered how the fighting would affect something like an orphanage. To me, it shows the pervasiveness and disruption at all levels of society, which are at the whim of greater powers. Especially something as harmless and vulnerable as an orphanage.
Our fixer, “Pablo,” had tried to set us up with ATO Press Cards before our arrival. But since we are not technically journalists or whatever………….. he wasn’t able to. It was unprecedented! I guess they haven’t had a lot of artists coming to Eastern Ukraine to research. He said he was sent to the Minister of this and the Minister of that until he finally got sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kyiv …. Who had no idea what to do. But it’s all good! It was a precautionary thing anyway and not having them only meant we couldn’t take photos of military objects or personnel.
We had originally hired Pablo for only 3 days, but on day 2 I had inquired about the possibility of going to Avdiivka for a 4th day. The process would be a bit more complicated, as Avdiivka is only 8 km from Donetsk and is considered the Ukrainian front line. There are 5 check points on the way to Avdiivka and at any one, they could turn us away if they wanted to. But he suggested we go to the military ATO Office to tell them our plans. He was unable to get a hold of them for awhile but after our visit to the orphanage, he got a phone call to say that we could come inquire.
The woman who we’d be speaking to spoke English, so he prepped me on what to say at the office. Nothing of which was a lie, but it was just a bit of an odd scenario since we weren’t press. And they might not understand why we would want to go to Avdiivka. The ATO woman came out in her military fatigues and I explained our project, and that we just wanted to go to talk to some locals and see some of the destruction as research for our project. She said that technically we can go, but it all depended on the soldiers at each of the check points.
However, Pablo thought it was good to check in just in case at a check point they called the ATO office. It would look suspicious if we hadn’t told them we were going, and he thought it would be safer to be totally transparent. But there was still a 50/50 chance we would not even get to the city.
On this note, I just want to sing the praises of Pablo. He was super professional but also a fun guy to hang out with! And he provided a lot of insightful things to say about the war and on people we would speak to. He organized a comprehensive and wide range of interviews and experiences that provided us with a varied perspective on things.
We all trusted Pablo. I initially had reservations about seeking out any place where active fighting was occurring. But as we explored further and deeper, I began to feel like it was important to visit an area with more recent conflict. So when I inquired with Pablo about the possibility of going to Avdiivka, I trusted his judgement. He said that he wasn’t going to lie and said that every day after 3pm you could hear the booms and the whistles, but that we would be safe. Avdiivka is not even considered a “gray” zone because it is still under Ukrainian control. So we agreed to visit there on our last day. But we could not take any noticeable pictures or video because we did not have press cards, and did not want to raise any suspicion with the military personnel. BUT more on this later.
IDP’s in Bakhmut
Following the visit at the ATO office, we made our way to Bakhmut, a town 45km outside of Slovyansk. Here is a hostel that houses more Internally Displaced People. This centre is different from the one we visited previously. The sanatorium was more isolated and nestled in a pine tree forest. The hostel in Bakhmut is in an urban area. Everyone here appears to live in much closer quarters.
To access the apartments, you go up a flight of stairs. There is door on both the right and left side. Inside the door is a small foyer with a communal kitchen, and 8 doors leading to individual apartments. The apartments are a single room approximately 8×12 feet shared by one family unit. In the basement there is a shared washroom with communal showers.
The hostel houses both IDPs who stop by for a few nights on their way elsewhere, and those who have been there for over 3 years. We spoke to a number of people here. One of the things that I have noticed is that most IDPs at both the sanatorium and the hostel are women. And of the women, most of them are pensioners. Not all, but most. I feel that is the case because it is easier for men to get work, and either the men are out working during the day when we visit the centres, or men have an easier time becoming self-sufficient by getting a job and affording an apartment. So ultimately, I wonder if it is women (mostly older women) who are left in the more vulnerable positions as refugees in this conflict.
When I brought this up with Pablo, he agreed with me. He said that if he stayed in Donetsk, he could get a job no problem. But he left, and even then it was not difficult for him to find work under his circumstances. But he didn’t think it would be as easy for women to do the same.
The first woman we spoke to was a 57-year-old grandmother. Her account was very emotional, and she had to hold back tears several times. She described how in their village, they heard on the news that it was safe in their area. So she went with her then 5-year-old granddaughter to the store. But when the shelling started. Her account was translated literally. But the literal translation was very disturbing. I believe that her granddaughter had a panic attack on the ground during the shelling. But the literal translation described her falling on the grass and rolling around back and forth. To me, this was a visceral description of a 5-year-old’s experience of a fight or flight impulse. The impulse of death.
Her granddaughter, Sascha, is a dark haired, dark eyed 8-year-old who kept popping her head in and out of the communal kitchen where we conducted the interview. She was excited by the camera and these strange guests who were here in the hostel. At one point, she popped in with a stuffed elephant for her grandmother.
The way the woman described her granddaughter’s behaviour at the school she attends seems like she is suffering from PTSD. She has conflicts with a lot of children at school, and can’t seem to fit in. She is changing schools soon.
Her grandmother described the hostel as a better place to live than where they were in occupied territory, but it is not safe. There are people that are not mentally stable, there are drug dealers and drug users, and the other day there were people apparently running around with knives. (But to be honest, I wasn’t sure she was the most reliable narrator as there were other people who said it was fine. But perhaps that was compared to their former situation).
As part of the interview, she also described an event that occured while they were still living in occupied territory. She found a young woman who had been raped by Ukrainian soldiers, and dumped on the side of the road. She used the woman’s cell phone to call her family.
This is the first of a few accounts people have shared with me that do not paint either side as the liberators or the saviours. The more I hear, the more it becomes evident that war attracts ugliness and the worst in individuals. I was disgusted to hear this, and disgusted to hear later about Ukrainian soldiers looting homes and apartments. I am certain that these actions have been repeated on both side. However, I believe that situations such as this are complex and convoluted. And evil and good exists in the individuals on both sides of war, and should not reflect the overall ideology.
Following our interview, the woman insisted on taking us to other apartments to help us find other people to talk to. She took us across to hall to the other foyer with the other 8 apartments and subsequently knocked on all 8 doors. For our next interview, the woman stayed and listened the entire time, holding the stuffed elephant.
The next woman we spoke to, Yelena, at first seemed hostile. She did not want to speak on camera, but kept saying things to our translator despite her resistance. She eventually agreed to chat with me not on camera. And her interview ended up being one of the most comprehensive and heartbreaking. She was only 37 years old, and reflected the same fatigue that so many others at the sanatorium had. She was sick of reporters coming to them, looking at them like “animals in a zoo,” and then leaving, only to remember their interactions as “a bad dream.”
I was getting the sense that she was angry with us, and resentful of our presence. I was sensitive to that, and tried not to push her and was ready to end it at any time. But she kept talking and talking, and eventually I couldn’t end it. Yelena told us about some of the horrific things that occurred in her village. She described headless bodies on the side of the street and the dogs that picked at them. She said she was sick and tired of remembering, and just wanted to forget. She described the help that they receive from countries like Italy and France and Canada, and that they send food and clothes. But what she really needs is an apartment. All she wants in her own home. Instead she must live with the cockroaches. She worries for her 15-year-old daughter and how she will find a husband; how can she date when she is living in this place?
When she finally concluded, she pulled me aside and quietly thanked me, and wished me health, and peace and told me never to fight with my people. She also wished that “my lover would come and lift me into his arms.” To which Patrick approached and lifted me with his arms (but dropped the camera…… it’s OK! The camera did not break and it was a welcome moment of comedy and break in tension). We hugged, and she held me so closely.
The 57-year-old grandmother then took me to the next floor to a congregation of women hanging out in another foyer. I spoke to a woman from the Luhansk region who lived with no heat, electricity, or access to food and water for 8 months. The DPR soldiers provided them with food and water to keep them alive, and they cooked over a fire. Regardless, she felt that the Luhansk area is rightfully Ukrainian territory. Another woman invited me into her home, where her 9-year-old son greeted me with a “Hello, my name is Tymor!” in a thick Russian accent. He watched TV as she told me about how they lived in the cellar for over a week during the heavy shelling. She couldn’t go into detail about how that was for her and her children because it was too painful for her. She now lives in a single room with her husband, her 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. She has transformed the small space into a relatively pleasant and functional area, although the close quarters can often cause fights with her two pre-teens. They moved there from a 3-bedroom detached home.
I went outside to find Patrick covered in children who are residents in the hostel. I think there was a lot of excitement about us being there. We have been giving children a Canadian coin as a small gift, which seems to be an exciting thing for people – adults have asked us for a coin as a souvenir of our visit! The children were very excited, and just before we drove away, other children ran up to our car, tapping on our windows, and asking if they could have a coin too. We (thankfully) had just enough for everyone.
National Movement of Yarosh
That evening we had a meeting with an independent Ukrainian group called the National Movement of Yarosh. They are considered a part of the “right-sector,” which is a group of Ukrainian nationalists. As they explained it, their ideology is to expel Russian oppression from Ukraine.
Entering their office felt like entering a town hall meeting. We have mostly been meeting with one or two people at a time. But there were at least 10 of them in the room, and they were all super folksy people, not the “intense soldiers” I was expecting. They spoke Ukrainian rather than Russian, so I was able to understand and communicate with them a little — at least to explain our project and about my Ukrainian roots.
There is criticism of their group as “extremists,” which they addressed and said that Russian propaganda has skewed peoples’ perspective of what their group does. They explained that for them, they do not want to fight. It is not their choice. All they want is an independent Ukraine, and for them they must protect their country from Russian aggression. I personally don’t have a lot of perspective on their organization within the context of the rest of the country, so I am interested to hear what other people have to say about their group. But it was an interesting experience hearing what they had to say.
Hilariously, when Patrick showed them his “ПТН ХЛО” aka “Putin D**khead” phone case, they literally gave him a standing ovation and, like, 4 men went over to shake his hand.
They told me about members of their group who have been taken hostage and are being tortured. And they explained that members of their group receive extra brutal torture because of their Ukrainian patriotism. They asked if I could appeal to the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada to help their soldiers… I said I would do what I can, but I think they lauded me as a greater liaison to the Canadian diaspora than I am. But if anyone has any ideas let me know!
Our final day with our fixer was spent going to Avdiivka. Avdiivka is considered the Ukrainian front line. It is a suburb of Donetsk, only 8 km out of the city. So, to put it into perspective, it is like the Sherwood Park of Edmonton.
In early 2017, Avdiivka was making international headlines as the deadliest fighting broke out in Eastern Ukraine in some time. The fighting left several civilians killed and wounded, destroyed homes, and left those remaining in the town without food, water, heat or electricity in frigid -22 degree temperatures.
The fighting has now quieted, but remains an active combat zone as Donetsk is perceived as the rebel base and stronghold.
As I previously mentioned, there are 5 check points en route to Avdiivka that could turn us away at any point. We came armed with our friendly Canadian passports and harmless good intentions, hoping this was not all for naught! Amazingly, at every check point, they just waved us through. Pablo would tell them we were Canadians just wanting to check it out. I think when they looked in the car and saw who they were dealing with (me in the front seat, Patrick & Matt in the back), they weren’t too threatened. Only once did someone ask to open the trunk but even then, it seemed he was doing it with every vehicle.
However, it was interesting to go through each check point. There are about 5 or 6 pretty serious looking Ukrainian soldiers at each one, each prominently carrying a gun on their chest. Once I saw them thoroughly searching a Lada they had stopped. Pablo explained that they are controlling who is coming in and out of the regions, and making sure that people are not transferring guns or weapons of any kind. Nope! Not for us. We were just carrying bags of chocolate gifted to me by my Ukrainian family!
As we drew closer to Avdiivka and saw signs for Donetsk, the active conflict was becoming more and more real. We drove by a few trenches that had been dug, and what appeared to be an outpost for Ukrainian soldiers in the middle of an open field (I couldn’t take a picture because Pablo had concerns that it was a military object).
The sign welcoming you to the town says Авдіівка: Це Україна – Avdiivka: This is Ukraine, with a giant Ukrainian flag waving at the final checkpoint. Once again, I unfortunately couldn’t snap any pictures.
Evidence of active conflict becomes immediately evident as you drive into the town, even on the outskirts. Damage on buildings, bullet holes, broken windows. And yet, as you drive to the town centre of new Avdiivka, it is bustling at lunch time with people going to the market, stores, buying flowers. However, the military presence in Avdiivka is very prominent. There are many soldiers and military vehicles in and amongst the daily crowds.
Pablo took us to the closest he felt comfortable to the front. The next closest would be taking us to Old Avdiivka just a little bit further. However, to go here we would almost certainly need ATO press cards, and he didn’t want us to get hassled. As well, he says that he only likes to go there with a bullet proof vest and a helmet. Which we didn’t have. And I didn’t think I wanted to go somewhere where those items are recommended… so we just stuck to new Avdiivka.
We went to a cluster of apartment buildings which overlook a field. And just a few kilometers beyond that field is Donetsk. These apartments have experienced a good amount of destruction since they are located close to the front line. The destruction was obvious. Entire sections of some buildings were blown out. Windows were missing, building facades were destroyed. And yet, people are living in and amongst these buildings.
We spoke to some residents in the area. Two older women, Ludmilla and Anna, live in one of the apartment buildings. While they left during the heavy fighting, they have now chosen to come back and live in their apartments. When they’re gone, they still have to pay for utilities in Avdiivka, in addition to rent at the sanatorium they had gone to. As well, the sanatorium has no heat or hot water, and at least their apartment in Avdiika has that. They described that people don’t really reside on the 3, 4, or 5th floors anymore as those were the ones that were hit the hardest during the fighting. The fifth floor roof is blown out, and you can see the sky through it. Relief agencies have helped Ludmilla replace some of her windows, but there are still more that need repairing.
She described that she has children in Donetsk, and before the war she could take a free bus to see them because she is a pensioner. Now, she has to pay upwards of $1000 hryvnias (about $40CDN) if she wanted to go to Donetsk. I asked when she thought the war would be over. Her response: that she is now 77 years old, and she doesn’t think she will live to see the end.
We later saw an older man working on a small plot of land, preparing a garden. We later learned he would be planting garlic. The sheds behind his garden are ridden with bullet holes. His name is Nikolai, and as we began our conversation with him when his wife, Valentina, came back from the store. She had been purchasing medicine for him because in 2014 during heavy shelling, Nikolai had a heart attack. They both became very emotional remembering this.
Valentina and Nikolai have been married for 57 years. They described hiding in the basement of their apartment building during heavy fighting. They pointed to the field across from their apartment, which they described used to be filled with sunflowers and wheat. Now, it is filled with over 1000 landmines. They said they have a larger garden on the other side of the field, but they can’t go to it now because it is far too dangerous.
They told the story of one of their neighbours who also had a garden across the field, and who loved dogs. There was a group of wild dogs that he used to feed over there. There was one day where he was worried about the dogs, and he wanted to go feed them. They begged him not to go but he went anyway. He didn’t come back and in two days, his wife went looking for him. She saw a jaw bone on the ground and went to pick it up, which set off a landmine. She was seriously injured, but not fatally, and survived. They believe that jaw bone belonged to her husband.
Many people have described the “boom” as a familiar sound. And as we spoke with Nikolai and Ludmilla, a mortar went off in the distance. I’ve never heard something like that in real life. For them, it is now just a part of regular life. Neither Nikolai of Valentina really flinched at it.
There were a couple of dogs hanging around them. I asked if they were theirs. Turns out they are the dogs people who abandoned them when they fled Avdiivka. They now take care of them, and Valentina pulled out some bones she had purchased in town for them and the dogs feasted. She said that the “booms” frighten the dogs, and they will either hide in their sheds, or in the school behind the sheds. One of the dogs was very friendly, but had some mange on his face. The other was quite fearful and would only come to Valentina.
I am not sure why, but apparently, it’s an unwritten rule that the fighting will really only start after 3. I wonder if it because that is when OSCE officers leave (the international organization which moderates the “ceasefire,”) or if it is because those are sort of “working hours” for the soldiers. We grabbed some lunch around 2pm, and there were a couple of soldiers. They finished up around 2:45, and when we went outside, it seemed like more soldiers were on the streets.
The last woman we spoke to was very interesting. She was very soft spoken and gentle, and she described how she misses the culture that Donetsk provided. Donetsk is a major urban centre, and has the opera house, theatre, art galleries, and university. She has friends in Donetsk, and while they are still in touch it is not easy to get together.
As we spoke more with her, her anti-Ukrainian sentiments became more apparent. She mentioned that the fighting in Avdiivka is not like what they show on Ukrainian news. Pablo confirmed this, that locals know that when the news cameras arrive to get out of the streets. It seems like both sides put on a bit of a show for the cameras.
But she spoke more about how she thinks the international community has abandoned them. How the world believes that it is only Russia’s provocation causing all of this, but that she thinks Ukraine has more to do with it than anyone knows. She thinks that this war is not going to end anytime soon because someone somewhere is making a lot of money from it. She didn’t want to elaborate on this, as she didn’t want to incriminate herself. But she went on to accuse Ukrainian soldiers of looting houses, and maintained that they can’t be trusted.
After our interview, I asked Pablo his thoughts on the conversation. And he said that yes, it has been an issue with soldiers looting homes. He has a friend who works as a nurse, and there were some Ukrainian soldiers that came in for treatment. She saw that their vehicle was filled with exercise equipment like new treadmills, stationary bikes, etc. She told them that what they were doing wasn’t good, and they chucked and said it was their “military compensation.”
He also said that while the woman’s Pro-Russian opinion may be shared by others in the area, it is only an opinion. And that Avdiivka is basically Donetsk, since it is only 8km away. They receive the “DPR” news, radio, television, newspapers in Avdiika. They have friends in the “DPR” that they keep in contact with. So it is almost inevitable there will be a certain amount of influence as a result of the propaganda.
I thought of the different things people have told us about how insidious the propaganda is. It is not like the propaganda of the Soviet Union which was overt and ideological. This propaganda is pervasive and embedded in society. One of the soldiers, Dima, who we met with described it as “the twist.” It is a subtle “twisting” of information to create an enemy where there might not be one. Paul Niland, who we met with in Kyiv at the beginning of our trip, described a contemporary of his, an intelligent businessperson, who has fallen victim to what he believes to be Russian propaganda.
And the more I read into, learn about, and experience the conflict, the more complex it becomes. I understand how someone could identify as Ukrainian. But if it is your house that is hit and destroyed by a Ukrainian shell in the crossfire, that it might be understandable that the politics hovering over the situation become less important. Or if it is your village that has been absorbed into occupied territory, and your Ukrainian government cuts off your pension, and the “DPR” officers bringing you food and water, how your allegiances might be swayed.
Most of the people affected by this war are just regular people. Not presidents or prime ministers or governors.
It is the civilians who are the ones who suffer at the hands of the higher powers. And from the people I have spoken to, the feelings of helplessness, fatigue, disempowerment prevail. The desperate desire to just go back to normal. Some might not care if it is Ukrainian or Russian or “DPR” who are victorious, as long as they can have their lives back.
We have asked everyone we spoke to how they think this is going to end. Some people prefer not to mention. Some have felt like it is never going to end, referencing places like Israel and Pakistan. But no one believes this is going to end for the better. Which leaves a sense of doom over those whose lives are rooted here in Eastern Ukraine. Who have no choice in the matters which affect their lives. And have no choice but to stay where they are because there is nowhere else for them to go.
Before our trip, I was looking for ways to connect with locals. The woman who set us up with our fixer was Lana Niland (partner of Paul Niland who we met with in Kyiv, as I mentioned). She is one of the editors of Kyiv’s What’s On – an English language lifestyle and entertainment magazine.
She said to me, “May your project open the eyes of those who prefer to keep them closed.”
Many people we spoke to expressed gratitude that we haven’t forgotten about them. They wanted to share their stories so that people in Canada will hear them and know what is happening here in Eastern Ukraine. And while I can’t possibly share every story in a Facebook post, or blog post, or even in our production, I now feel compelled to act, to mobilize, to do something, to “open the eyes of those who prefer to keep them closed.” I can’t imagine how we can possibly do the people who bravely shared their stories justice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.
Despite this mammoth post, I am able to share just the tip of the iceberg of what we have experienced. And we have experienced only the tip of the iceberg of everything that has occurred, is occurring, and will occur here in Ukraine.
As we parted ways, Valentina also told me to never fight with my people. She wished me and my people health, luck and peace. She repeated it over and over.
And I wished her the same.
The trip now winds down as we head back to Kyiv. The last two days we have had in Slovyansk have been spent recuperating from the last week (which has been exhausting). We go back to Kyiv tonight on the night train and have two days tying up loose ends before coming back to Canada. And then this journey will have come to an end… and a new journey begins.
Until next time, my friends.