French journalist’s Donetsk tour punctuated by Ukrainian artillery salvoes

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Laurent Brayard

In Novorossia Today, May 19, 2015 

Translated from French by Tom Winter

May 23, 2015

It’s just an hour since I got to Donetsk, but the artillery comes repeatedly. The echo of each incoming mortar round makes you think that there were two bomb-bursts: the shock wave of each incoming round smashes on the high rises of the town and fills the whole place with a sinister carillon. There are five of us stuffed into the car and we’re driving fast to the places hit by fighting during the large scale battles from before the truce. We five are a driver, with a big smile; Vyacheslav, keeping his camera handy; Svetlana, sound recorder; and Kristina, photographer.

Our first stop is the Museum of Archaeology and Paleontology of Donetsk, founded in 1924. This museum possesses rich, beautiful collections. The entire mining region assured that there would be inestimable paleontological treasures in the exhibits, even without the rich ancient history around the shores of the Black Sea and the banks of the Don, skimmed off and colonized by the ancient Greeks. 

For all that, the museum is partly in ruins. It has been bombarded three times, the privileged target of Ukrainians with their missiles. I observe the results, saddened by what I see, and ask, “Why?” Out in front there were kiosks, once used by sellers of incidentals, now mostly destroyed by the explosions. Straight across the street, the façades of big apartment buildings are swiss-cheesed from the impacts, the glass is all blown out, and the people are dead. 

We go in to the museum. The director [She’s still there! — tr.] welcomes us, modest and humble. We do the tour of the disaster. In the basement everything has been destroyed. The skeleton of a mammoth was kept there.  The ceiling is ripped open, various items of the collection lie about, scattered here and there. I know what it all means: my father, paleontologist and collector of long standing, brought me up from my childhood in the search for such treasures.

The director, in answering my questions, declared that she does not approve at all of the hatred for Ukrainians, and that their schools still teach Ukrainian, as shared property, but she cannot understand the virulence of those in the west. He magnanimity impresses me. We leave in silence.

In the street cats and dogs wander about, famished-looking. They were frightened of the bombardments, and either ran away or got abandoned. They come up, hungry and hoping for tenderness and some affection. There is a plate with bread crumbs on the floor of the lobby — apparently the employees are doing their best to save the animals, who are also victims of human folly.

We get back in the car and continue on. The streets are pretty empty; we travel towards the airport. I didn’t know it, but we were just 500 meters away.

It’s another Beirut: the buildings are holed with mortar blasts, and pocked with shrapnel. Rubble litters the ground; the electric lines are snapped. The spectacle is terrifying; the blasts are too close, you can feel them.

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There at the end of the street is the entryway to the airport bridge. They don’t let us film here: too dangerous, or take photos either (and attract the attention of snipers.) I start climbing the parapet anyway, with Kristina and Svetlana. There are two bunkers improvised at the top of the parapet. The bridge has been destroyed at the middle; it went over a railroad. The decor is cataclysmic. Off in the distance, we can see the airport, a vast ruin of twisted beams, blocks of concrete, and unidentifiable junk. The shooting continues. I notice ammunition boxes, pieces of metal, pieces of cars, ammunition debris, broken-up asphalt scattered around.

The impression this makes is indescribable. We are in sight of the Donetsk Airport, the most emblematic spot of the terrible conflicts of winter, 2014-15, along with the Debaltsevo encirclement. Hard to believe. 

Strange: my companions are worried whether I’m hungry! Here we are after two days travel, but I can’t feel hungry, even though there’s been nothing since morning, and here it is late afternoon. How could I think of my belly in such surroundings, punctuated by salvoes of artillery, and knowing there are are thousands here, who are just living on their hunger?

I turn down the invitation. I want to see it all, I want to carry on, I want to see the people, I want to talk to them. Svetlana and Kristina smile at me; I answer politely that at the depth of my being, my soul is not at the party. 

There was an instant of clear vision, spurred by the relative danger. I had to wonder whether the courage of those volunteers of the 1791 French Republic would be mine as well. I felt no fear, but instead, a calm and immense melancholy. In this devastated place, where so many people have fallen . . .

Surrounded by my hostesses, we go back. I said to them stupidly that back in France no one would believe me, that I was here. But immediately I come to the thought that actually this misplaced pride was insignificant, that after all, it’s all the same. Vyacheslav is down below waiting for us. 

Silence. 

I think, without being able to shake it off, what my pen put down in that first book of mine, La Fournaise, a story of the French soldiers in the Great War. In a few hours travel I could feel and recognize the bitter sensations of a battlefield after the fighting, and for all that, I was nothing, not even a combatant.

Coming back down, slowly toward the bombed-out and gutted buildings, I heard Kristina saying that there were still people living in the ruins. My arms swung loose as we carefully picked our footing toward the residential buildings.

The courage of these people rocked me, over and over. In far way France, just a few hours earlier, I had crossed a country at peace in the sweetness of springtime, toward these sunlit hours. I felt a deep disgust as the image of my country, drowsy, grumbly, full, and blind — overcame my spirit. Continuation in next article.

See the author’s photo gallery here. Scroll down.

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