“Every night, they start shooting,” Evdokia says with a resigned golden-toothed smile. “This side, then that side. Back and forth. Sometimes in the morning, too. We try to go about our lives like normal, but there’s hardly anybody left.”
The 62-year-old babushka adjusts her green kerchief so it sits better on her round jowly face. She’s lived in the village of Kodema all her life. Part of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, Kodema lies in what’s known as “the gray zone,” a ten-to-fifteen-mile-wide, 150-mile-long strip of territory separating land controlled by the Ukrainian government on one side and by Russian-backed separatists on the other. The potholed road here cuts through an abandoned checkpoint, one that frequently changes hands between Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) troops and rebel fighters from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).
The war in Ukraine began in spring of 2014, in the wake of a popular revolution that overthrew the government of Viktor Yanukovych and called for closer ties with the West. As a reaction, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and began backing separatists in the eastern regions with arms and troops. A ceasefire agreement was reached in February 2015, but fighting continues here every day. According to the agreement, the so-called “gray zone” is supposed to be demilitarized. In reality it is anything but.
One of Evdokia’s sons has remained in the village; her daughter has gone to Kostyantynivka, in the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donbass; and another son “is gone.” She shakes her head and winces behind a few whiskers. She won’t say whether he moved away or died. “On pashol,” she repeats in Russian. He’s gone.
Evdokia, like many of the people interviewed for this article, declined to give a last name. I ask her when the checkpoint, less than a hundred yards from her house, was abandoned, and her face tenses up. She glances at her grandchildren playing with a puppy and politely makes it clear that questions about soldiers are better left unanswered.
Many of the remaining residents in villages throughout the gray zone have relatives who live either in the nearby metropolis of Donetsk, or in one of the many coal-mining and factory towns that crop up from the flat landscape of freshly sown wheat and sunflower fields – a vast steppe that extends into Central Asia.
Farther down the road an old man is standing with a younger one dressed in military camouflage. Our driver quickly removes the “Ukrainian Patriot Volunteer” flag attached to the inside of the windshield and hides it. As we approach, we notice there are no insignias on the young man’s uniform. Our driver, Artem Belov, gets out of the car and asks the old man whether the woods open out into the town of Zaitseve, where we are headed. The old man politely explains that the road ahead is bombed out and we’d best go back through the “Ukrop” checkpoint, where we came from. (Ukrop is the derogatory slang separatists use for Ukrainian forces.) The younger man watches us carefully as he reaches into the back seat of his car to take hold of an AK-47.
The old man insists it would be unwise to proceed. We’re only a few miles from the DNR stronghold of Horlivka, and the no man’s land we’ve stumbled into is crawling with nervous troops from both sides staking out bits of territory.
As we backtrack, a group of rebels smoke cigarettes around a parked open van. Further on, a tank suddenly cuts into the road from the field, then sputters into a dirt track that runs along a ridge high enough to get a view of the surrounding fields.
Back at the UAF checkpoint, Artem replaces the little flag that helps him cut through roadblock hassles. As a volunteer from the town of Slovyansk, about forty miles away, he uses his green Russian-made Lada to drive humanitarian aid and press corps around the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) zone. The early morning queue of people waiting to go from the DNR to the Ukrainian zone grows by the minute. The Ukrainian government has a policy that it will not pay out pensions to people in territory it doesn’t control. So residents who live in the DNR-controlled area beyond the gray zone need to queue up for hours and go through a gauntlet of military checkpoints in order to get to a town like Artemivsk, where pension checks are disbursed.
Accusations of bribe-taking and shakedowns at the checkpoints are rife. As our car is waved onward, soldiers unload a small truck with what appears to be a carton of cigarettes.
In Zaitseve, the Ukrainian troops manning the last roadblock are nervous. Earlier, the no-man’s land beyond the rise in the road was targeted by artillery. There are still snipers in the area.
About two hundred yards from the last roadblock, two babushkas feed their chickens in a front yard. They tell us about the shooting the previous evening, how for months they haven’t had gas for heat – just wood and coal – and only intermittent electricity. “Why do you want to take pictures? Look at us. We’re sixty years old and we look like we’re one hundred.” They describe how their houses have recently been hit with shrapnel, but they don’t want to invite us in because the last time a neighbor let an outsider in to see her house she got hit that night and died. “It brings bad luck,” one says as she tosses some feed to her chickens.
Further up the road, 74-year-old Maria Alexandrivna has no qualms about entertaining strangers. Baba Masha, as everyone in Zaitseve calls her, complains that her pension is only one thousand hryvnas per month (about $40) and she needs to pay a driver two hundred hryvnas each way to take her to go collect her money, so almost half of what the government gives her goes to paying the driver.
But that’s merely an inconvenience compared to the more pressing problem of mortar shells landing in her garden and blowing out her windows. “Every night they’re at it. Boom, boom. I have to run into my cellar where I keep the potatoes. The field behind the house fills up with men shooting at each other in the dark. Even in the day I’m afraid to go out into my garden.”
In Pervomaisk – a village within artillery range of the Donetsk airport, where a state-of-the-art terminal was pulverized by months of fierce fighting – there are still a few people left, mostly old men and women. The signs of heavy shelling are everywhere, with almost every other house damaged and abandoned. “Two years they’ve been fighting. We’re sick of it,” Larissa says as she sits by the roadside with her neighbors to get some sun on the first warm day of spring. As she speaks we can hear explosions from artillery and machine gun exchanges nearby. “Two years we’ve been sleeping in pants in case we need to run outside into the cellar.”
Her husband Alexy Borysovych, 64, offers us some of his own samohon, as moonshine vodka is called. Soon the women bring out stuffed cabbage, pickled tomatoes, and cherry pies in an impromptu picnic. Alexy was an emergency worker at Chernobyl thirty years ago, after the world’s worst nuclear disaster. “I lost all my teeth because of the radiation. Now I spend most of my days fishing,” he says, “and drinking whenever my wife lets me.”
Between Alexy’s dental deficiency and alcohol intake, his narrative can be as murky as the pond behind his house where he goes fishing – and as full of expletives as anything you’d hear from the soldiers constantly passing up and down the road. Still, he recounts with an obvious sense of irony how he used to work in a factory near Donetsk where they make all the missiles that have practically destroyed his village.
One of the younger ladies, Tanya, asks our driver, Artem, “So who are you for? These here or those there?” Artem responds deftly, “I’m for Ukraine, but not the government of Ukraine” – clearly a well-rehearsed response, one that is generally shared.
Olena, a schoolteacher from Kramatorsk, is among the few residents here who volunteers her services to the cause of Ukrainian unity. At school she tries to imbue the children with a sense of patriotism, and in her spare time she trains with the nascent Ukrainian Volunteer Army. Admittedly her task is difficult. “I’d say 70% percent of Kramatorsk is pro-Russian,” she remarks. “They don’t like the Ukrainian government – and neither do we, for that matter… Most people live with the illusion that Uncle Putin will roll in with his tanks and establish paradise on Earth.”
Demographically, the Donbass is densely populated with coal-mining towns; most of the inhabitants can trace their roots back to migrants who came from other parts of either the Russian Empire during the industrial boom of the late nineteenth century, or from other Soviet republics during subsequent industrial pushes. During the 1930s, Joseph Stalin’s artificial famine killed off as much as half of the rural population in many parts of eastern Ukraine; ethnic Ukrainians tended to be rural peasants – the kulaks Stalin was determined to liquidate.
Ida, who was born in Kramatorsk more than sixty years ago, is a descendant of Russians from the Ural region. She grew up proud of the hardscrabble proletariat culture that the Soviet Union encouraged. “We were all one country, one people,” she reminisces. She left Ukraine in 1998 to live in Italy with her husband, whom she had met at a conference. “Gorbachev ruined everything. It all just fell apart.” She is visiting her hometown for the first time since Ukraine’s revolution. “You can’t understand how I felt when I watched from Italy on TV and read about it on the Internet. My town being bombed, overrun by fascists. I thought I’d have to come here and keep my mouth shut, but I can’t. I have to say what’s in my heart. Other people won’t tell you what’s really in their souls. Neighbors don’t discuss with their neighbors anymore… If only Putin… Putin could take it all back with his little pinky finger. But it’s America that won’t let him. America wants to tear our Russian nation apart.”
Ida’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union is not uncommon in the Donbass – and understandable as you drive past the massive rusting factories spewing yellow-brown clouds of toxic gas into the air. Parts of towns like Kostyantynivka and Avdiivka, where heavy fighting continues daily, resemble circles of hell from Dante’s “Inferno.” Yet during the heyday of the Soviet Union, this was the industrial heartland, the dynamo of an empire. The coalminers and factory hands of the Donbass were proud to be the workhorses of Soviet glory. Today, the Donbass is a rust belt. Even factories untouched by bombs smack of general devastation.
The consensus among analysts is that Russia’s strategy is to maintain influence in Ukraine by insisting that the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk be granted enough autonomy to effectively veto any further movement toward the West, and eventually pull them back into Moscow’s sphere of influence. To that end, Russia has been arming and financing the rebels and has established a shadow government.
Militarily, the Ukrainians are much better prepared and equipped to defend themselves than they were two years ago. Any attempt on the part of the rebels to retake the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts would require the involvement of the Russian army and entail high casualties.
As the weather gets warmer though, there has been a significant uptick in the number of ceasefire violations. Throughout March and April the heaviest fighting has taken place around Avdiivka, where there is an important factory that supplies Ukraine’s biggest steel mills with the coal byproduct needed for turning iron into steel. In late February the UAF advanced from their positions in Avdiivka to the neighboring town of Yasynuvata, cutting off the major highway that links Donetsk to Horlivka and increasing the threat of encircling either of the two cities.
Commander Alexander Khodinsky of the UAF 16th Battalion based in Avdiivka suggested to me that rather than encircling any cities – which would require much more firepower than any commander has orders to use – the taking of the highway was more an opportunistic coup that makes life more difficult for the rebels. The hope is that conditions in the DNR become so uncomfortable that the people themselves will shunt off the occupiers when they see that their families and friends on the Ukrainian side are much better off.
For now, the military escalation seems to be a matter of convenience on both sides. The Russians can continue putting pressure on both Ukraine and the West, particularly Europe, which does not want to see a war on its doorstep compounding its many other problems. For the Ukrainian government, having an external enemy gives it a cause to rally around and takes the focus off its reluctance to carry out desperately needed economic and judicial reforms.
History has destined Ukraine to occupy the fault line between East and West. Today it wallows in a gray zone: not yet Europe, but committed to its divorce from Russia. And for the foreseeable future, the current waiting game will likely continue as a new geopolitical balance sorts itself out.
In the meantime, “We’re stuck here in the middle,” as Alexy, the former Chernobyl worker, says, raising a toast. “To peace.” Then, when an explosion resonates over the hill immediately afterward, he pours more and raises yet another one, “And what the fuck…to that too.”
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Stash Luczkiw is a New York-born poet and translator based in Italy, where he works as the editor of Longitude, a monthly geopolitical magazine.
Jonathan Alpeyrie has worked in 25 countries and covered twelve conflict zones, from the Middle East and North Africa to the South Caucasus and Central Asia. He has freelanced for the Sunday Times, Le Figaro magazine, ELLE and BBC, and is now a photographer for Polaris Images. His forthcoming book about WWII veterans will be published by Verve Editions.