Dancing with death in small-town Donetsk

“Between fear and sense of duty, he still protects.”

In Vineyard of the Saker-German, March 9, 2016

Translated from German by Tom Winter March 21, 2016

Saker-German: Mark has allowed us to re-post his latest report. He has lived more than a year there, and has made a documentary film Ukrainian Agony — the Silent War. He continues to report from Donetsk on his website.

The little off-white bundle hops as if yanked this side and that, and makes every attempt to give his voice a threatening tone, but his yapping is too squeaky: the effect is like a cartoon for kids.  The little dog understands his duty well: he’s going to protect this house and this yard — but there appears in his eyes a sense of pure nervousness. As the camera points his way, he retreats into the house, without letting up on the warning barks.

The yard is a field of rubble, the house, no more than a ruin. The little terrier is protecting dead stone, in a double sense: The artillery explosions have left their mark, and you just can’t live here any more. Actually. Yet there are still more than 30 families living here. Most are too old to go, but that’s not the only thing. The people here simply have no desire to leave.

… where there really is nothing more to ‘protect’

“Here” — we are in the northwest edge of Donetsk, just a few minutes walk from Peski. There are tons of Ukrainian heavy artillery. “Here” — the direct contact line for both sides, right next door to the skeleton of the airport. “Here” — the end of the world, as you’d think to look at it. The forward village of Donetsk is called “the Gladsome Settlement,” “Весёлый Посёлок”.

We are here to draw up material for our next film, “Frontline City,” about the situation in the Donbass. We want to show how people live here — people we practically belong to, since we live here in Donetsk for the filming and the photographic work. All normal, just like everyone else. What we find out in the Joyful Settlement is everyday stuff for us, but certainly not for the TV-watching and newspaper-reading public of the western mass media. Our first film bore the subtitle: “The Silent War.”

“There is not one house that hasn’t been hit. 80% of the houses are uninhabitable and ready for demolition.”

Nothing has changed. Since the farce of Minsk II, the artillery is not one bit quieter and the silence of the media is all the louder. This war may not find any place in the living rooms and minds of Western civilization, whose governments continue to support the long since ruined regime in Kiev with russophobic drumbeating, and especially with money. Money that largely ends up on offshore accounts of Kievan rulers and the yet acting Ukrainian oligarchs — still unrestricted in their actions —  or is placed precisely in this war against their own people. The people that Kiev absurdly keeps without wages, pensions, or food, but delivers grenades – yet they claim that it belongs to Ukraine. Or is it only about the real estate?

“Complete commercial blockade. The only thing Kiev delivers are troops and grenades.”

Our flak jackets lie comfortably in the trunk. We have not put them on. We’ve been here too long to go around uncomfortable with all the weight. We turn to the “Merry Village” and make our discoveries, expected, yet still shocking. At a field with a picturesque pond, we stop and I try without any success to speak some commentary. As we stumble through the dreck of late winter along a dirt road, by the houses, a vehicle stops. The driver rolls down the window, says a friendly greeting and adds:

“I just wanted to tell you, there could be mines here. Have a nice day.” Well, good to know.

The woman who lives here in one of the destroyed homes is named Vita. She doesn’t go in the house any more. She “lives” in a sort of lean-to next to it. It used to be a stable, and it’s covered by a blue tarp with holes in it. It flutters in the wind over the charred support beams. “I just live here anyway,” she says. Only part of the house she uses is the cellar, when the shelling threatens nearby.

If pictures could talk: last night’s bombardment

On the Bread Tour

- Advertisement -

A white car stops. Two men get out and we ask them what they’re up to. “Bread distribution” they answer. The two men are retirees from the neighborhood who regularly get bread from the relief center and share it out among the remaining inhabitants of the village who can’t make it to the city. They make this bread tour several times a week. As unpaid volunteers. They themselves live within sight of the Ukrainian positions at the edge of Peski. We join them for a part of the tour, and have them tell us how life is here. They and their families draw a picture for us of the situation, that puts a deep contrast between the joie de vivre and the stark horror.

Hardships in hanging up the wash to dry

We continue on foot. The quiet of the day up to now is shattered by an explosion. Artillery. For a moment I regret that the flakjackets are still back in the trunk of the car. But the people here that we’re talking with don’t have flakjackets either. Again, after the explosion, quiet. “Sometimes you can’t even hang up the laundry,” exclaimed an old woman. The blast from a nearby shell scattered the wash around the yard. More than once, she tells us.

“I’m old, but not injured. Still, the war makes life tough. Even hanging the laundry,” she says. 

I want to know whether Minsk II has made any difference. She doesn’t know what “Minsk II” means. Without telephone, television, and newspapers they do not know what is going on [Same as here in the US! –tr]. All she knows is that she is bombarded – why, is a complete mystery. Two men from the militia walk past us. She points to them and says: “But the guys protect me. And they always give a friendly greeting.

We ask where her family is.

“My children are in Kiev, but I would not go there. The apartment is too small, so there wouldn’t be room for all of us,” she replies. Her pragmatism beyond politics and ideologies is disarming.

War has found a pet spot here, and won’t move on

The quarter we’re moving around in has been under attack since the beginning of the conflict. The front runs past here, and has for the last two years. The “Gladsome Settlement” is now just a shadow. There isn’t one house that hasn’t been hit. 80% of the houses are uninhabitable and ready for demolition.  Only for spots with some special significance has the war not taken hold. Though this raises the question for us whether amidst the destruction of land and life there is any difference between worthwhile and less worthwhile spots. Sometimes it just makes us cringe.

The dead in this cemetery are already dead. You can’t kill them over again. (At the Donetsk Iversk Monastery)

The Iversk Nunnery (Донецкий Иверский монастырь) and its cemetery are such a spot. Once the Sisters were evacuated in 2014, this spot got the heaviest pounding in the extensive Ukrainian bombardments during the fighting over the Donetsk Airport, January 2015. You’d look at it and think: The dead there are already dead. You can’t kill them over again. But it sure looks like they were trying.”

“I’ve known you, since you were little.”
“You’ve gotten pretty, Miss. I’ve known you since you were little,” he said.
The “bread tour” stops in front of another demolished house on the street. An old man stands in front of it and takes his ration. He looks at my companion Nelja and says: “You have become beautiful, girl. I’ve known you since you were little.” The boundaries blur between memory and imagination. People can not imagine that someone outside the Donbass cares any more. They are cut off from the rest of the world and their only regular visit, the two retirees from the neighborhood on their “bread-Tour”. Journalists, to say nothing of Western ones, have never been here, and doubtless won’t.

Nelja is a bit embarrassed, and laughs. She’s from St. Petersburg, not Donetsk, and certainly not from this “Gladsome Settlement.”

At evening, as we are on our way back to Donetsk, we hear the cannonade begin again behind us. The pounding is heavier than in the preceding days. The reports coming in through our network show assaults all along the front line. Indeed, War has found a favorite spot, and just won’t let go.


Subscribe to our newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.