The fragile Ceasefire
By Olof Jarlbro
An early morning in March, I am leaving for the Ukrainian capital Kiev. This time I depart from Sofia, Bulgaria where I visited part of my family. The last thing you see when the plane takes off except the Vitosha mountain, is the former Soviet Union panel buildings, which probably had not seen paint, or received any other care since all they were built about fifty years ago. On the plane I was wondering why I’m leaving and why I want to follow the Ukrainian soldiers on the front line. I also think of all the conversations I had with both older and younger Bulgarians since the so-called Ukraine-crisis became a fact. Obviously, many of them were happy over the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 and also about Bulgaria’s membership in the EU. But at the same time Russian news programs keep on broadcasting in Bulgarian television sets, constantly telling that the Ukrainian army is filled with Nazis and it’s the US and EU’s fault that there is a conflict in Ukraine. I simply wanted to try to get my own idea of what is happening and what are the people thinking about their fighting for Ukraine’s independence.
When I landed in Kiev, the city was as grey and with the same remnants of the Soviet Union as Sofia. Sergey, journalist and a fixer met me at the airport and had a taxi wait for us.
“My country is bleeding, he sighs in the taxi, but the problem is we do not know how to stop it.”
Sergey explains that the political system is built on corruption and to reach the top you have to be corrupt as well. This rather cynical view of the Ukrainian politicians is something I hear among many young people both in Kiev and at the frontline.
Sergey has arranged for us to visit some sanatoriums with refugees from eastern Ukraine. IDP -Internal displaced person as it is called, and which, according to the UN is the most vulnerable group of refugees because they do not have international refugee status. These refugees remain within their national boundaries and may therefore not have the legal definition of a refugee and all that it implies. I am going to meet Natalia from Crimea (38 years old) who is a single mother with two children.
“I did not want to be Russian,” she says. She explains that her mother is still in Crimea.
“She did not want to go to Kiev because she was afraid of all the Nazis and fascists. We do not talk to each other anymore.” she says tearfully.
In another Sanatorium at the outskirts of Kiev, I meet Lena (32 years old). Lena has shrapnel in her legs and is in great pain. Her husband, sister and two-year-old son died when bombing was at its worst in Uglegorsk.
“My husband and sister threw themselves over the children to protect them. Now I am alone with my four children,” all clinging tightly to their mother when I take a few pictures.
During the night in one of Kiev’s many industrial zones, we arranged to meet some volunteer soldiers who now work for the Ukrainian military intelligence. It is with this special attachment that we are going into the ATO zone in eastern Ukraine. The trip from Kiev to eastern Ukraine takes the whole night. The minibus we go with is packed with everything from body armour, cans, freshly baked bread, ammunition and rocket launchers. Sasha, the group leader, says:
“Half of the men in the group are dead, it’s only the four of us sitting in the car now.”
But despite the group’s harsh fate, it seems they all have the spark of life left when they hum along to the music from the radio’s speakers. Something that amazed me on this journey is that all these volunteer soldiers who fight for Ukraine have Russian as their native language. They speak Russian but they support Ukraine as their homeland. How many times has the Russian government stated that Russian speakers in Ukraine are under constant oppression? And here I sit with volunteer soldiers who have Russian as their native language, but are willing to go into battle for Ukraine.
“Russia doesn’t want anything else except Russians to speak Russian,” says Igor one of the soldiers in the car.
Sasha turns around from the front seat and tells us it’s not long now before we “Gear Up”. The jeep in front of us stops and a kilometre away we can see the smoke, the truce certainly does not apply to grenades. It’s serious now. The light-hearted mood is all gone, now the Ak-47’s are taken out from their cases, Bakelite magazines are loaded with armour piercing ammunition and silencers are mounted on. On one of the silencers there is a small picture of Putin and a cross on the forehead as a clue to whom it applies.
Our first stop is at a field hospital in the Svatovo village. While we drive through the gates, I see many tired faces. It’s a mix of young boys and old men. Some are limping and some just looks very exhausted. We are waiting outside, and before we can go inside the hospital the officer in charge has to give us his approval. After a few minutes, the officer arrives and shakes my hand. Many of the wounded soldiers are suspicious of the media and some of them are lying on their bunks and trembling. Their nerves have failed and others have just pulled on a cold and resting up. I meet two older soldiers – Michael and Vitali, they both are approaching the age of 60 and are sipping on some tea. They look quite unconcerned if you compare them to the young guys who are shaking in their beds a few bunks away. Michael shrugs.
“I signed up voluntarily to defend my country,” he says.
And Vitali sitting next to him nods in agreement. A young soldier comes in and Vitali puts his arm around him: “My son,” he says proudly.
We leave the field hospital and drive towards Scastie. It’s dark now, and as we approach a checkpoint, the driver turns off the headlights and lets the parking lights flash. We are approaching the front line. At every bang the driver either slows down or accelerates. We run over something and under the car we hear a sound. The driver flashes the headlights towards the jeep in front of us, we stop and with flashlights we check the undercarriage. Nothing is visible. We continue and everyone is now tenser. A muffled bang, and when the car slows down, we are just at a checkpoint. There is smoke everywhere – a grenade has struck precisely. The guard is gesturing at us to hurry in case more grenades are incoming. The driver Dennis shifts down and presses the gas. The smoke and the fire disappear behind us while Dennis zigzags with the minibus between the holes in the asphalt. Behind us we can hear the muffled roar periodically. Sasha shrugs.
“Russian truce,” he says with a grin on his face.
When we arrive to Scastie, it’s pitch black. We drive through the gates and trough the headlight we can see that there is some movement among the soldiers. Someone says that we have to turn off the lights and we park in the dark.
We are at a former orphanage and school that is now used for accommodation of the Golden Gate Battalion and Aydar battalion. I meet Sergey – a sniper for the Golden Gate battalion.
“This is my third war,” he says. He is a former Spetsnaz and policeman in his civilian life. He shows me his rifles and equipment while his “spotter” lies asleep next to us.
“At home with my family I become bored and I just want to go back to the front near my comrades and fellow countrymen,” he says while he is working with his night vision riflescope.
Before we all bunk in on mattresses scattered on the floor of the former orphanage, we get some dark bread with Ukrainian salo and blood sausage. Sometimes a bang from a grenade sounds outside and everyone jumps, only to return quickly to the blood sausage and bread pieces.
The next day we visit Sloviansk, which was heavily bombarded for more than a year ago, but is now relatively quiet, although the destruction is still visible. We drive to a mental hospital. It lies up on a hill and is totally destroyed. The massive area became shelter for both the Ukrainian forces and the pro-Russian ones.
“Mind where you walk, for mines may be left here,” says Sasha.
Just mines are somewhat Ukrainian farmers encountered when they set fire to their fields to get a better harvest. The massive destruction in the mental hospital leaves us all lost in thought. Were there patients left when the bombing started?
At dusk we drive into the city of Sloviansk, where we will spend the night with the 12th Battalion, which is a battalion of the MP (military police). All windows in the regiment are covered with sandbags and the walls sprayed with bullet holes. Many of the officers ask curiously how Sweden looks on the Ukraine crisis and I declare that Sweden has approximately the same position as the UK and the Baltic States and that Sweden supports Ukraine’s right to defend its borders. It’s getting late and the whole group goes to sleep in a large hall, with real beds. Sasha and the group are doing night patrols and it’s the first time I denied to tag along. However, I am grateful that I get some sleep. When I wake up the whole group is sleeping, and I take the opportunity to take some pictures. They’re all tough guys who have been in a lot of battles and have survived, but now when they sleep, they look like their mothers remember them, like good boys.
After breakfast we head to a residential area, which was in the middle when the fighting was at its worst. Its small picturesque houses are not spared from either artillery or machine gun. An elderly man whose house is totally destroyed, sits and smokes, sighing heavily.
“Where do I begin,” he says resignedly.
In the car back to Kiev, I am lost in my thoughts after all the impressions. It’s just not true that the soldiers of the Ukrainian army are a bunch of right-wing extremists this is just part of Russia’s propaganda. The ceasefire certainly does not apply to grenades from the Russian side or machine guns, for that matter. Another question that must be asked is whether it is correct to call the pro-Russian soldiers ‘separatists’? This conflict was started by Russia and every so-called military success has either administered or made by Russian soldiers and Russian arsenal. Making Ukrainian conflict to some form of freedom struggle for Russian speakers in the region is another of Russia’s propaganda ploy. In short: a fragile truce.
The reportage was published by Czech magazine Lidé a Země