Welcome to Zaytsevo

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Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ

13th April, 2016


It was supposed to be an ordinary officious visit of the OSCE monitoring mission to the frontline village of Zaytsevo, but now we lay tightly pressed to the ground. In the distance something heavy drops. Falling shells and gunfire fills me with inspiration that I could not find in the official walk with Alexander Hug. I was lying on the ground, and only now realized that it was extremely careless and arrogant not to bring body armor and helmets.

Because before the trip we had hoped that the military in Zaytsevo on the OSCE mission’s time of arrival would be quiet, that the Ukrainian army would not dare to open fire on the positions of the DPR army at the time when the Deputy head of SMM OSCE was visiting. We were deeply mistaken, because two minutes after the departure of Hug, the Ukrainian army opened fire. At this time there was still two cars belonging to the observers in front of us in the village, and after hearing the explosion and landing of shells, we gathered their things and left to a safe area where the deadly projectiles will not reach our armored SUVs.

I greedily in one gulp drank half a cup of cheap instant coffee at the gas station in Gorlovka. Opposite me stands a woman with a child in his hands. He was about six months. The baby is dressed in pyjamas in the form of a Teddy bear. His brown, blue eyes, smiling, looking at his mother. “War child”, I thought. The newborn could become another victim of the UAF shelling, which, sparing no shells, rain lead on Zaytsevo about one kilometer from the positions of the Ukrainian military from where I stand. Theoretically, they could hit a gas station at any moment…

The rest of the coffee I decided to drink slowly, remembering the last two hours that I spent in Zaytsevo. It all started as planned. Alexander Hug, accompanied by crowds of journalists and staff from the OSCE mission,  inspected the most dangerous sector of the front. He spoke with local residents who brought him to the present Church of the village, where local people come to pray. Cute, small talk, a flashy smile for the camera, a small tour of the ravaged Church and the crowd of strangers went on. The destination is the famous school, which has regularly been hit by the Ukrainian army.

Broken to pieces, the school showed the observers and journalists the remains of shells on the ground, snapped branches, broken glass, pieces of brick, and the dissatisfied views of the local residents. Near this place there was one house where, until recently, people lived. Journalists were whispering among themselves. The last time they were here the house was intact. Now the house is broken and the residents have left.

The Deputy head of SMM OSCE arrived in Zaytsevo for a reason. His goal was to find out in what positions the monitoring mission could install video cameras to monitor violations of the truce. After performing his task, Alexander Hug decided to demonstrate communication with the residents of Zaytsevo.

The non-contentious man good-naturedly talked with everyone and answered all their questions. We have heard the usual stories about night attacks. For employees of the OSCE mission this information was known. Only it seemed that it was easier for them to ignore it. They had smiles on their faces and listened to the terrible, but real history of the reality of Zaytsevo. But I was interested to observe the reaction of the Deputy head of the OSCE. I stood in front of him and looked at his face. He calmly listened to the man who boarded up his windows with sheets of chipboard, because the glass had been smashed by shock waves or shrapnel. 

After the conversation was over, Alexander Hug, with a smile, shook hands with the poor man and said, “Good evening”. At this moment I thought that exactly now somewhere in distant England, in this manner the conservative British are sipping tea with milk, wishing each other a pleasant evening. But this is not England, this is Zaytsevo and there is war.

Against the background of an armored SUV, wearing a helmet and body armor of the fifth class of protection, the staff of the OSCE mission were unwilling to answer inconvenient questions from journalists. At the same time, the patrol of the OSCE mission mirrored the Ukrainian positions in the village of Zhovanka, which is in front of Zaytsevo. There was no audible or uniform shots or volleys, but all the representatives from the mission had means of protection. Otherwise they can’t obtain insurance back home. I wonder who will pay insurance for those Ukrainian military shooting ranges, where militants are testing their heavy weapons on Zaytsevo civilians daily.

The impromptu press conference ended quickly. I stopped at a ruined house and took some pictures. I did not notice that the entire crowd of reporters had disappeared. There remained only me and my companions – Janus Putkonen, a Finnish journalist, the Italian Vittorio, Katya, a war correspondent for the news agency NewsFront and Roman Gnatyuk.

We lingered to do some more shots of the destroyed Soviet military monument. Janus wanted to do write-up against the background of cars from the remaining employees of the OSCE mission. At this moment we heard a loud bang. Something heavy fell. It was followed by gunfire. We heard gunfire from heavy machine guns. We could hear the sounds of a battle beginning literally before our eyes. The OSCE mission was in a hurry to leave while we were trying to listen to the flow of shots. Apparently, the mirroring patrol on the Ukrainian positions left their positions early, which allowed the Ukrainian military to open fire at a time when the OSCE staff were still in Zaytsevo.

I leaned against the wall. We all noticed that the wall had holes from gunfire. The bullets lodged in it, glistened in the sun. We dashed, sneaking closer. The sounds did not fade. Videographers wanted to ensure the explosions were audible on video. I just clung to the ground with my camera. My heart was trying to escape from my chest. We heard shots coming from three sides. Zaytsevo was half-encircled. The Ukrainian military gradually matched the positions of the DPR army, but Alexander Hug somehow didn’t notice that the frontline had approached Zaytsevo. One more violation of the Minsk agreements by the Ukrainian side was ignored.

…we’re halfway to Donetsk. In my mind I relived the next two hours, again and again, trying to remember more details for my article. For a long time I hadn’t heard the war. I got out of habit from being on the forefront and went limp. A year ago we regularly went to Stratonavts Street in Gorlovka, in Spartak. But for various reasons I’ve been away from the fighting. Today I remembered what the war means. What the people of Donetsk hear everyday cannot be compared with shells exploding in the village of Zaytsevo. This is not fiction and not a Hollywood movie. This is a war. A real and ruthless war, inflicting death and destruction.

P. S. While preparing this publication, I learned that last night, one civilian was injured in Zaytsevo.

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