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The Line

Piotr Andrusieczko, Marcin Suder

450 kilometres of demarcation line in Donbas means 450 km of war, which has divided the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts into two parts since 2014. It means hundreds of kilometres of trenches and fortifications, villages and localities in the firing line and their inhabitants, who suddenly found themselves in the middle of the war and the outlaw zone. These people, living in the war reality, try to save themselves and to help others. Some of them have dramatically changed because of war. They try to take advantage of the opportunity the war has given them.

It may be trivial to say that “the first casualty of War is Truth”. Though, if someone had even attempted to understand what is happening in the east of Ukraine today, it is important to recall how it all began. Without the beginning and the context, each description and each remark of the people involved, can distort the essence of this conflict.

A war that could have been avoided

In the beginning, it would be necessary to go back to the moment of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. On August 24, 1991, Ukraine declared independence, as did the remaining former USSR republics, headed by Russia. It quickly turned out that the latter had plans for Ukraine, which also had many internal problems.

However, perhaps, one should go further – to the times of Kievan Rus, the Cossacks, the struggle for independence 100 years ago and over 70 years of Communism, which brought the collectivisation policy and the Holodomor. Later, the Second World War broke out. The war machine first ruined the entire country, moving eastwards, and then, once again, coming back westwards. As Ukraine has always been between East and West, and its different neighbours have always had different plans and ideas.

The latest stage in Ukrainian history began in the autumn of 2013 when the protest of activists and students in Kiev turned into Euromaidan in defence of a pro-European choice of Ukraine. Minor demonstrations expressing solidarity with people in Kiev took place in other regions, including Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts. Russia did not approve the idea of Euromaidan, so the Russian media prepared a particular information campaign that reached the Crimea and the Donbass area.

February 20, 2014. Euromaidan in Kiev won, but the people paid a blood sacrifice. At the same time, the situation in Crimea was getting tense. In the night of 26th to 27th of February 2014, unmarked, armed men took over government buildings in Simferopol. It marked the beginning of the Crimea annexation by Russia.

People were also getting anxious in Donbass. Local, pro-Russian activists started to rebel against Ukrainian authorities and want “to be heard” by Kiev. People from neighbouring Russia, who supported pro-Russian concepts, began to appear in Lugansk and Donetsk. Russian media were doing their job. The tension was mounting, some people mentioned and warned against the conflict like the Balkan Wars. Wait a minute! Was there any religious, ethnic or even language problem, as some politicians and the media were trying to suggest? No, there was not, claimed people, who thought clearly. However, it was too late. It was possible that the situation could have been solved somehow. Unfortunately, there was a weapon within reach.

Armed people who started to occupy Sloviansk in the Donetsk region on 12 April 2014, got through from Russia and were trained specifically for this operation.

We, the citizens’ militia from Crimea , several days later in Sloviansk one of the fighters’ commanders made a mistake when asked about the place they came from. After a while, he said – “From Donetsk.” – We all came from Crimea – one of the fighters added a moment later, answering the question if they were all locals. They were members of Igor Strelkov’s combat group, a Russian warlord.

That is how the war began, during which more than 10.000 people were killed.

A military parade

A woman with a portrait in her hands stands out from the crowd. Most of the people around are joyous and wait for the parade in the hustle and bustle.

In the middle of June, Mariupol celebrates the fourth anniversary of liberation from the hands of pro-Russian militants. It was the first successful Ukrainian military operation. It is the woman who catches the eye. She is standing sadly, she isn’t celebrating or waiting for oncoming armoured cars and marching soldiers. She waits for one particular soldier who went missing four years ago.

– In April or May 2014, Yuri helped the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine) to liberate Mariupol. On May 26, he went to Kiev to join the Donbas Battalion. He served there and on August 29, 2014, he went missing in the “Debaltsevo Cauldron” – the woman says quietly with her voice breaking. 

– We have been waiting for him so far, and we hope he will come back. You can see my son is in the photograph, my eldest son.

Soldier’s nickname is “Foks”. According to his mother, he can remain in captivity.  

– I live in Mariupol. My husband served in Poland, in Stargard Szczeciński. My son is a very good man, and I can not cope with the fact he is not here. I hope he will come home soon. I can not say anything more.

However,  the war is not past for Mariupol. The front line runs just over 20 km outside the city.  At night, in some districts, one can hear the noise of fights around the town.

Zero, zero…

– Cover your ears! – Nick shouts.

Vova aims for several seconds. A bang and a flash. A cloud of sand rises, covering everything with the dust. One can hear an explosion after a while. Nick’s friend has just fired an RPG-7. Sometimes this is the only way to force your opponent to remain silent. The terrain is flat, so the trees are used as orientation points for the enemy’s position, and they are used to calculate the distance.

– Vova, it lit up a bit! – shouts Nick and shoots several times.

The opponent’s positions are only 450-500 m away from the Ukrainian ones – which is below the range of a machine gun.

Until the war, Vodiane was a holiday village, although due to the proximity of Mariupol many people lived there all year round. Vodiane is a small village several kilometres east of Mariupol. Until the war, Vodiane was a holiday village, although due to the proximity of Mariupol many people lived there all year round.

It is one of those places on the front line which is mentioned practically every day in the reports of the Operations Headquarters of the United Nations Force. In Vodiane every day there is a fire exchange.

On the Ukrainian side, the defence is maintained by maritime infantry units which considered to be the elite of the Ukrainian army. Vadim Sukharevski is the commander of the battalion. This 33-year-old captain is a living legend: on April 13th, 2014, he was the first Ukrainian soldier to open fire in Donbass. He saved a special SBU group which fell into an ambush of the Russian fighters under the command of Igor Strelkov. It happened near the city of Sloviansk.

It is said that on the other side there is also a maritime infantry of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, also considered to be elite.

The silence during the day is deceptive. One never knows when the firing may start, and the village itself is so close to the front line that even bullets fired from an automatic weapon could fly between the houses.

– I’ve been at war for two and a half years now. It was also a long time ago that we arrived at these positions for the first time in the autumn of 2016. We know them well, we did them ourselves, says the company’s commander, Pavlo, 23 years old soldier.

He was taken to maritime infantry after graduating from the Lviv Academy of Civil Forces in February 2016. – Ever since I was a child, I have dreamt of becoming a soldier. I attended a military high school. The war, which started in 2014, only strengthened the decision to serve and defend the homeland – explains the young commander.

According to him, there is only one difference between the current ceasefire and the previous situation: no heavy artillery is used. However, the enemy is still shooting with mortars and small arms. Anti-tank missiles and automatic grenades are also still in use.

– Nobody here has heard of any ceasefire – he adds.

On June 20th, the positions of the maritime infantry in Vodiane were under heavy artillery fire. A few days before that, it was reported that another Russian humanitarian convoy had arrived in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. According to the Ukrainian side, the ammunition is supplied this way.

– Just two days later, a powerful artillery fire of our positions began. It lasted for almost eight hours. We were shot at with 82 and 120 mm mortars, with 122 mm and 152 mm artillery, as well as from tanks. All at once. There had not been such an intense fire for a long time – says Pavlo.

Their observation camera recorded a video showing a series of explosions.

The commander is convinced that Russian officers are fighting on the other side of the front line as the Russian technology and ammunition are used by the opponent.

– We have enough evidence: fragments of bullets fired from grenade launchers of Russian production. They are using Russian anti-personnel mines against us. Their markings and a year of manufacture indicate that they were made after 1991 – emphasises Pavlo.

The positions behind the village can be reached on foot or by car by the so-called “road of life”, which is sometimes under fire. After that, one has to walk a few dozen meters among the trees. The positions are named after Ukrainian towns or regions, e.g. Crimea, Uman.

There is another ceasefire, so-called “chlebne” ceasefire, so it is usually quiet during the day.. Fire exchange usually begins after dark, although nothing is for sure.

The trenches are human-sized and offer good protection against missiles. The soldiers deepen them continuously and make new ones – it is a real maze. Between the trenches, there is even a “relaxation area”, which includes a sofa, an armchair and a mini-gym. It’s strange when you sit sprawled comfortably in an armchair, although wearing a vest and keeping a helmet in your hand, and staring at the starry sky; the stars seem to hang very low. Now and then red streaks appear. These are light bullets. They seem to fly between the stars.

The twilight falls, and crickets are now easy to hear. Everything takes place like in a clockwork. When it gets dark, the first shots suddenly take place – first single ones, then, after a while, series. From time to time you can hear the characteristic swish of bullets flying over the trenches.

Marines work calmly and systematically on their positions: they seek for places from where the enemy shoots at them and they respond with fire.

During the breaks, they load magazines and the ammunition belts of their machine guns.

– Maritime infantry service has lived up to my expectations. Honestly, it is even better – says Nick.

Nick is 27 years old. He has only been in the unit for a month and says that he is still learning the habits of the military. He comes from Dnipro and recently worked as a manager in one of the companies. He wanted to join the maritime infantry because it is an army elite.

He is quite cool and answers the questions calmly while observing the defence line.

– They are shooting using the RPG too, even during the day. Yesterday they were shooting at us from an automatic grenade launcher. I know the marked trees, I know where their positions are, but you can’t see them – says Nick.

Our discussion is interrupted by opponents’ shots. Nick answers with his Kalashnikov. The fire exchange takes a few seconds. Then Nick calmly continues talking as if nothing happened.

Zero!, answers Nick through his shortwave radio. The same commands come from other positions. The officer on duty checks the situation in the defended section. ‘Zero’ in the military slang is a shortcode used to communicate that it is calm.

The situation is tense not only near Mariupol. There are certain places on the entire length of the front line where trench warfare takes place, sometimes turning into limited offensive actions.

600 meters to the line

It is bizarre that one can still find places on the front line where people live. Many, as soon as the fighting started, left and tried to make their living in other regions of Ukraine. First of all, those who had opportunities and enough strength to do so. As a result of the Donbas war, over 1.5 million people were forced to leave the east of Ukraine. However, there were also those who, even during intense fighting and shelling, did not leave their homes. There are also those who have returned.

Officially, at the beginning of May 2018, the anti-terrorist operation in Donbas called ATO was replaced by the Joint Forces Operation. The Armed Forces of Ukraine took over the command from the Ukrainian SBU. Many changes were introduced, for example, an official division of Donbas into three different zones. In the green zone people can move without restrictions, but random checks by the police are possible. In the yellow zone civil rights are limited, only registered citizens can stay there, outsiders can only come in exceptional situations (visiting relatives, taking part in funerals, visiting the relatives’ graves). In the red zone only people with special passes can stay.

However, colloquially the red zone means places near the front line, usually where people live. There is also a term “grey zone” – its meaning varies depending on the use. It might be a place located in areas that are not controlled by either side or places safer in comparison to the red zone.

Krasnohorivka is a small town in Donetsk region, located only 20 kilometres from Donetsk – a city still controlled by the separatists. In 2017, more than 15,000 people lived there. Krasnohorivka was recaptured from the hands of pro-Russian fighters in August 2014, but since then it has been a town on the front line.

The centre of the city, however, allows you to forget about the war, or to treat it like a story from a distant past. Renovated buildings, cars drive down the streets, people walk, shops are open, ATM works. In the centre, there is a large park and a kind of summer swimming pool where children bathe. They do it illegally, but who cares if the military positions are just over a kilometre away.

– We’ve been trying to open the pool for three years. We can not officially use this reservoir as a pool because there are no appropriate permits. That’s why we put the signs: “Firefighting storage tank for water. Swimming prohibited!” Well, somehow you have to get creative, you know. You can see that children are happy now. It was our dream – says Andriy Shapochka proudly.

He is the director of a local power station, but he is also known as a social worker whose hobby is sport. He says he wants to help others.

We meet in front of the so-called stekljaszka (it means “glass” in the Russian language). The sports hall, covered with glass, was built before the Olympic Games in Moscow, which took place in 1980. Many windows were broken during the artillery fire, so the empty spaces are covered with plywood.

Inside the sports hall, on the first floor, there is a large playground with a net hanging in the middle.

– Here we have volleyball and football. Table tennis and karate are on the second floor, and boxing on the third floor. Many children come – says Shapochka. – We want to show people that we try to live normally.

A man comes to us – a local pastor Ivan Ivanovych. Shapochka and pastor are friends, even though the director speaks of himself as “a believing atheist.” Above all, however, they cooperate like local patriots and try to engage others in actions to help the town.

The last heavy artillery fire in Krasnohorivka took place on May 28, 2018. The missiles destroyed the hospital, hit the school and the prayer house. Later, the shelling lasted until September last year.

– There are some shots now, and then, we hear them, but the missiles don’t hit the town. In the summer of 2015, we were 12 hours under artillery fire – explains Shapochka.

At 4.30 a volleyball match began. This time adults play, and they play a hell of a game. Pure sport, as if there were no war.

But even Krasnohorivka has been divided into two different worlds: a red zone and, let’s say, a grey one. The grey zone is the centre of the town, with a park, the sports hall and the swimming pool. However, not more than 500 metres walk from the park, and reality looks completely different.

– A part of this estate is considered a red zone, and another part a grey zone, and we can not understand how it is possible? Just walk four meters, and it’s already a grey zone, it’s ridiculous – says Svieta.

The woman is 55 years old and lives in building no. 11 at Słoneczna Street or the Słoneczne housing estate. All buildings are damaged, the difference is only the scale of destruction. In a four-storey block of flats, people live in 9 apartments. The same story is in other blocks of flats.

– Some stay in their apartments during the summer. In the winter they leave because it is too cold and they have no fuel or material to heat the apartments. Electricity is too expensive – says Svieta. – I did not leave even in 2014 when the shelling was very strong. We hid in a basement and had a stove on the street which we used quite often. Our house was also hit – the roof, the walls and the wardrobes full of clothes were all destroyed. Thank God the missile missed the TV. We were so impressed that we blessed ourselves. We bought the TV a year ago. We were lucky – Svieta smiles.

Now even the outskirts of Krasnohorivka are calm. There are water and electricity in the town. There is no gas, and it will not be in the coming years.

– It’s rather quiet lately. Shots can be heard only from a distance. But we are afraid that it will start again. Earlier, when they were shooting, we lived by the schedule. Even the food was prepared in a rush before they started shooting. And then we were sitting in the basement – she explains.

And so another woman came. She lives at number 4, but she doesn’t want to introduce herself.

– These bullets and missiles were aimed at us, not somewhere down there, not at someone else. That’s why I don’t understand, why the other side gets aid. Sometimes we get some bread – twice a month when the pastor brings it. And that’s all. Any other organisations? They don’t come here. They come to the town centre. And you know what people living in the centre say about us? “Let they shoot them there so that only nothing bad happened to our part of the city. Let they shoot the  Słoneczne eastern estate!” – How can people say that, how is it possible to understand it? – she asks, getting emotional.

– That’s people nowadays. Everyone thinks only about themselves. And Słoneczne estate is sealed off from the rest of the town – adds Svieta.

Does anyone say that in the city centre? Certainly not the people whom we had talked to earlier.

– Well, what else could be said? Everything has been said for a long time. This land is cursed – Svieta’s neighbour ends the conversation.

There is a block of flats with a burnt stairwell at the side of the estate. Dogs come there. There are some bowls. Someone feeds the animals.

– That’s our bunch. Don’t you want a dog? – a woman asks cheerfully and adds: – I live in the neighbouring staircase and I was here when it all happened.

Five people live in the damaged block of flats – three women and two men. Olena is 54 years old, and she is already retired.

– It was June 16, 2016, right?! – Olena yells to the other woman and continues without waiting for an answer. – It was shelling from self-propelled howitzers, it lasted four hours.

Olena talks with joy as if it was about an adventure. Birds are chirping loudly around. It’s scorching outside.

– It hit from the side and exploded inside the building. It was precisely June 15, at 4 am. We were sleeping. As I recall, almost all the shots were fired at the same time. We almost fell out of bed – laughs Olena. – We were terrified.

A second woman approaches us. She writes everything down and confirms the given date.

– One day there were four hits straight away – missiles flew one after another. One woman was injured – she adds.

The missiles pierced three floors, making an impressive concrete crater inside the building. Interestingly, the red lights of electricity meters still flicker on the floors in this staircase. The walls are still black of fire. One can see a black, soot-covered kitchen in one of the flats.  Someone wrote with his finger on the plate covered by dust and soot: “War”.

– Well, it is not really quiet right now, but the missiles do not reach us. They were reaching this area last year, which was terrible. Even the rocket launchers “Grad” were here and there. We have survived a lot – says 50-year-old Svieta, Olena’s neighbour.

Their apartment building was damaged. Fragments of windows destroyed the walls and the roof, making holes in them. The women did not leave. They have nowhere to go. However, their children learn or work in other cities.

– We have spent the entire war here, from the very beginning… In winter we heat up using simple, traditional stoves called “bourgeois”. Some windows are broken, some have been plastered or covered with boards. There are new ones on the other side of the building. We gather up wood where it is not allowed to enter, but sometimes we go through the area where they can shoot at us. Nobody gives us anything – says Olena.

The second woman shows photographs of the day the missiles hit their building. The pictures show the burning staircase. We are standing in front of it right now.

– We are not getting bored here – they laugh. – Although it would be better if it were boring – they immediately add.

The women say that we, the Poles, are lucky. – Poland managed to break free from the influence of the Soviets and may develop normally. We also want Ukraine to break free from that Soviet circle – they add.

An older woman comes to us. Alla is 59 years old. All of them are full of joy. They do not complain. They rather notice the presence of problems.

– Unfortunately, those who support the separatists believe that Russia will give them everything they want. Ukrainian TV is only available for those who have a satellite dish. The rest watch Russian TV, they show that everything is great there. There they revive the Pioneers [The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization], and Komsomol [The All-Union Leninist Young Communist League]. Propaganda works well there – explains Olena.

In their opinion, many Ukrainian patriots remained on the other side. The women regret Ukraine is so weak that others decide about its fate.

– The front line remained as before. Just 600 metres from us. The most terrible thing I can think of is, God forbid, that I wake up in the morning, and I don’t see the two-coloured Ukrainian flags, but three-coloured Russian ones … It’s a real nightmare – says Olena.

Dogs are wandering around watching us from afar, and they are afraid to come closer.

“Come, my bunch, come”, one of the women calls them.

Dogs are suspicious of strangers.

– Do you want to see some different shrapnels we have? Or maybe you want a photo with a tank shrapnel? Olena laughs.

– Good luck to you and your country. Do not forget about us – Alla says goodbye.

In the shadow of the airport

– Can you see? There is a terminal straight ahead – says Rodion while driving the delivery van belonging to the NGO Proliska.

The famous Donetsk airport, or rather what was left of it after the fierce battles in 2014 and at the beginning of 2015, can be seen while driving from Avdiivka to Opytne and from the Opytne itself.

Avdiivka, located 13 kilometres from Donetsk, is a typical industrial city in Donbas. The largest coke plants in Europe are there. The town’s population is about 34.000. The proximity of Donetsk has turned out to be a curse. Until last year the city was under fire. Although, as is often the case in such places, it all depends on luck, and actually on the location of your home or your neighbourhood. The missiles can hit or not. A war lottery.

The world heard about Avdiivka in February 2016, when the fightings for the so-called “promzon” (industrial zone), on the outskirts of the city, began. It is still one of the hottest and most crucial places on the frontline. In February 2017, the part of the city where civilians live was under heavy artillery fire. There were casualties. A partial evacuation was carried out. Over time residing in Avdiivka has stabilised. Throughout the years of war, what kept people in place, was primarily a chance of being employed in industrial plants, especially the coke plants.

It is a good place to live during the war. Fugitives from other parts of the country also live here. In August 2018, gas supplies for the residents were resumed at the Independence Day of Ukraine.

Unlike Avdiivka, Opytne is not mentioned often. It is a practically closed zone, a place outside the law. Officially, it is difficult to get there, apart from soldiers and the representatives of humanitarian organisations (who also have problems getting to Opytne).

The specific status (the most red one that can be),  Opytne owes to its location, which became a curse for its inhabitants in 2014. The runways of the Donetsk airport are less than 1.5 kilometres away to the south, while about 2 km further to the south-east there is a village called Spartak, where the positions of fighters are. It is a region of intense fighting.

Before the war it was possible to get from Avdiivka to Opytne in 15 minutes by an ordinary, asphalt road – it is only 7,5 kilometres. Now the road is closed, at least for civilians. Officially you could not get to Opytne.

However, there is another, hardened road, and it is much shorter – maybe 2 kilometres. The inhabitants of Opytne, the volunteers from the NGO Proliska and, of course, the military, know that road.

We leave by a service car from the NGO Proliska office. The organisation was established in July 2014, and its task is to help the victims of the conflict in Donbas. It is apolitical and cooperates with the UN. Her boss is Yevhen Kaplin, who helped us to find contacts in Avdiivka. The organisation has its offices in all district centres along the front line.

We are passing the cultural centre of the Avdijewski coke plant. There are warning signs against the mines behind the building. We enter a dirt road that has been mined. There are still mines around. We drive along the trees.

– Everything overgrows here quickly. Earlier, 30-40 years ago, there was a road going directly to Opytne. Later, when the new asphalt road was built, the old one was forgotten. And now, when it rains, it is impossible to drive through -says Rodion.

Suddenly we see a destroyed passenger terminal of the airport. Opytne was one of the points on the front line controlled by Ukrainian soldiers, and it remained so until today. There were heavy fightings here, and one can hear gunshots until today. A few minutes more and we enter the city. Hello, civilised world (well, it is close to the front line, but there are ATMs, supermarkets, water, electricity and even gas). Although, only 15 to 20 minutes of a car ride divides us from the black zone. Provided the road is dry.

– It’s the only place in the Yasynuvata Raion that is in such a difficult situation. I do not know why. Maybe because the land here belongs to the state. People grew vegetables and seeds, they were selecting black pepper, round aubergine and watermelons. It was a good place, no one wanted to sell their house before the war. It’s only 8 kilometres to Donetsk – our driver continues his story.

Rodion is an employee of NGO Proliska and a resident of Opytne at the same time. He lives there with his wife. It so happened that he is both a victim of this war and a person who helps others. He likes to talk a lot, and maybe he feels he must do so. He wants to be able to give us as much information as possible so that we can better understand what this war is and what they all have to face. However, you do not hear self-pity and complaining about life in his story.

– The situation is tense. Three days ago soldiers were breaking down the doors of the houses and aimed their guns at people. The military does not help us anymore. They backed us in 2015. Now they isolate themselves – they have their own lives, and we have ours – he says calmly.

He is not surprised, it is just the war reality. There are bad soldiers and good soldiers. Good people and bad people. But he emphasises that he supports a strong army that respects the residents.

Viktor also explains that the inhabitants themselves, those who traded vodka, were to blame. Those dealings lasted three years, and thus there were many conflicts. Fortunately, it is past.

– This place was rich back in the days – adds Rodion. – People were breeding cows and growing crops, fruit and vegetables. They were selling these products in Donetsk. There were meat plants and ten different companies.

Along the way, we pass the remains of former outposts, which could have been found on all the roads. Now soldiers have their stations on the edges of the localities and only on some of the streets.

– Until a car with Caritas humanitarian aid was blown up two months ago, we sometimes had been driving a bit along an asphalt road – he says.

People are waiting in the village in front of Rodion’s house. The dog is barking loudly. Two signs hang on the gate. They inform that NGO Proliska, with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), gave Opytne a chainsaw and that the city was also given three generators.

– None of us has left this place for longer – unless they were hurt or fell ill. Two months ago, a man blew himself up into the air. We have plenty of dangerous objects here – they say.

People wanted to take some food brought by the Red Cross. But the Red Cross representatives reach only the safer part of the village, the so-called Upper Opytne. We live in Lower Opytne.

– Well, let’s have a walk and see the conditions people live in, and you will find out if they need any help. Let’s go! – says Rodion.

Before the war started, 760 people lived in Opytne. Now there are 40 residents.

– Pobieda and Druzby are two streets that do not exist. Most of the buildings were destroyed between June and July 2015. The artillery shelling lasted 20 hours – says our interlocutor together with his wife, Lena. – My neighbour lost his arm. A tank was standing on a bypass road and firing into this building. It was impossible to cross the streets to find another hiding place.

When you live in such places, you quickly deepen your knowledge of weapons. For example, you already know how many shells are in a tank, which means that you know the number of shots after which you can jump out from your hiding place and run away or seek for another place to hide.

– There is not a single house that would be undisturbed. But our criterion is different – if there are no windows, it means that the building is undisturbed. For example, there are houses in good condition, although soldiers were staying there – says Lena. – People had to make their way through the gardens because soldiers forbade them to use the roads and did not let them pass. Grass and bushes overgrew and covered everything. In 2015, we could not go out to the gardens, because soldiers were immediately shooting at us.

The nature is doing well quickly. It is reborn as if it was also one of the contending parties. And it wins.

– This year there was plenty of fruit, especially apricots and cherries. The land is fertile, and it feeds us – says Rodion.

It’s amazing, but nowhere have I seen such large and tasty apricots – their yellow colour turns red. It seems like they just want to be eaten.

– Unfortunately, the constant shelling has changed the composition of the dirt. For the second year in a row, cucumbers and tomatoes bloom, but the fruits don’t grow – adds Rodion. – There is also a problem with drinking water. We have four wells in the lower part of the village, two of them contain drinking water. Unfortunately, there are no wells in the upper part of the village. There is only a reservoir with chemical water.

It is a strange trip. Instead of the monuments we see destroyed buildings, and we listen to stories describing the way they were damaged: direct hit, shards, tank, howitzer, mortars, large-calibre bullets…

– Do you have a flashlight?

It is dark in Maria Fiodorowna’s house; the windows are covered – it is a protection against the shards. Small chicks that live in her kitchen are twittering – they are the pride of a 78-year-old woman.

– I sleep here, on the couch, and there is a TV set in the chair. A shard flew through the window, broke a mirror on the wall, and then another shard flew past the couch and stuck in the wall. – I was scared – she admits.

– I need to redecorate the flat. I lived here with my husband, but he died in 2014, he was ill. And a year later, my son was shot near the house – she adds calmly.

A dog is barking in the yard. – Vanocka, stop, don’t bark! Come, let’s see the garden – says Maria.

– My son was buried here for half a year, and then he was taken to the cemetery. Our Rodion helped – says the woman.

Rodion is a local hero – he takes care of the locals, helps them and solves their problems. To the possible extent, obviously.

– They told me to leave, but I won’t go anywhere. Me resting somewhere and missing this place? Look, my potatoes grow, cucumbers, watermelons. I got a lot to do here. I literally fight with grass, my neighbour helps me. I’m used to this place. I’ve been living here since 1949.

Rodion says that Maria’s house is located on the most densely populated street in the village – five families live here.

– There was a heavy shelling here, the trees were broken. Our house is more like a shed. That’s how we live. There is no electricity – they promise and promise. For the fifth year in a row we have no proper light, we have to use candles. Rodion is a blessing- says Maria.

– Coal, money, pots, clothing, candles and food – everything is a gift from the United Nations. During a year, we help her at least ten times – says our interlocutor.

Maria adds that Rodion and his wife fill in all the necessary documents and bring the doctors.

– Doctors without Borders, they work at our house – confirms the man.

Opytne is like a black hole. According to the volunteer, there is no state aid scheme here, even one. The state does not even take care of an ambulance service. Volunteers have to do it.

– We only live thanks to these two persons. Without Rodion and his wife we would have died a long time ago – Oleksandr confirms the opinion of others. He’s Maria’s neighbour.

The main problem is the absence of the authorities. There is simply no power in Opytne. Rodion and NGO Proliska have been trying to establish a civil-military administration there and in the neighbouring Pieski for two years. But Kiev still does not want to cooperate. Everything is up to the volunteers and humanitarian organisations.

Nevertheless, Rodion does not give up – together with the management of NGO Proliska they will continue their efforts to establish a kind of power in Opytne. Unfortunately, the inhabitants themselves had different opinions on this issue, but this is changing.

– Most people have already understood that the conflict may take a very long time and you can not live without any authorities on the spot. People have already realised that you have to be united and fight for power and electricity.

The residents trust Rodion because they see the results of his work.

– We brought three generators – two of them went to the lower part of the village and one to the upper one. We have divided them into a specific number of people – everyone can come and recharge a phone or a flashlight.

The volunteer says he wanted to run away from Opytne in the early 90s. His wife comes from here. The locality was quickly changing. In 2010, a house in Opytne cost as much as 80 thousand dollars. Rodion is already a grandfather, but he has not seen his granddaughter yet. She lives with her parents in the areas that are not controlled by Kiev. Rodion is not allowed to come and visit his family.

We come back to Rodion’s house. They finished building it four years ago. Despite some war damages, they are proud of the house, and they show us around.

– A shell exploded here – points Rodion. – It was something like… It destroyed the entire wall…

– We sat in the basement when we were attacked. Most of the furniture was destroyed. The ceiling hung to the floor, later we supported it. Come on – says Lena.

Tioma, the cat, is meowing loudly.

– The upper floor is the most damaged. It is a pity that we did not have a chance to live here longer. We barely finished building before the war. We were glad that we paid off debts… Everything was new… – says Rodion and continues showing us the damages. – A mortar missile hit here, the 122mm howitzer there, and a large-calibre shell there… – he adds.

– Before the war, there was a fair standard of living here. Now the water leaks and the birds fly through the holes in the walls. Are you really going to take pictures of the airport from the balcony? Aren’t you afraid? – the woman asks.

The remains of the terminal can be seen from the damaged balcony. Until recently, you could not just go out because the snipers were shooting.

Viktor fills in documents regarding damaged buildings in the village. It is a special board with 350 houses and apartments.

– We determine the houses’ degree of damages. There are four categories of damage. The fourth is when even the walls are gone, the third – when the house was burned, but the walls remained, the second – when the roof and the windows are damaged, and the first – when the building has slight damages, e.g. broken windows. It is a difficult task because most people are gone. We take old lists, and we look for the residents – Rodion talks about his duties.

There would have been more residents easily. The only condition is to connect the electric power. 20 people are ready to go back immediately. Everybody dreams about the electricity – it unites those from the lower and those from the upper part of Opytne.

– People could have been able to keep food in refrigerators and prepare it in a normal way. Moreover, the lack of electricity is an information void – we are not informed what’s going on: no TV, no radio, nothing.

– Electricity means everything – says Masha, introducing herself.

The woman is 65 years old and lives with her sister, 68-year-old Zina, in a block of flats in the upper part of Opytne,

– Let the President come here and stay with us for a while. Let a representative of the authorities come to us – the sisters say. – Now we don’t use fire to cook, but at home, we have a gas cylinder.

In addition to the electricity, a hardened road would also be useful. – It would be great to have a proper road so we could move. Nowadays, when it rains, it’s hard to go on foot or ride a bike to the city – says Masha.

– Everything is wrong, boys. Nobody wants to help us. The only ones who take care of us and fight for everything, are Rodion and his wife. And some people criticise them for those activities – emphasise the sisters.

The discussion goes on. They kind of talk between themselves about the wells and the quality of water,  but they want us to listen to them. They want others to know that 40 people are living in Opytne and that they have a hero there. Someone who helps.

To share the music

For the Saviekich family, music is an essential element of life. – Oleksy plays the guitar, his mother plays  the piano, and now she teaches her granddaughter, who is already successful in competitions. However, it is not everything. Oleksy and his wife Svetlana have organised the Avdiivka FM festival in April this year.

For them, the war turned out to be a chance to change their lives and make their dreams come true.

– I wanted to become an activist before the war. I probably made a decision after my trip to Poland in 2004. I was amazed when I saw flowers everywhere. It was so green and aesthetically everywhere. I returned to Avdivka, where there was full of rubbish, so the desire to change that situation and get the city organised was pretty intense. Unfortunately, I did not have the time, and the war broke out. We coordinated only a few social cleaning actions with some children – Oleksy says.

– Since 2014, the city hasn’t been able to cope with problems. In winter 2015, the situation was very tense here – the shelling was so heavy that we took away the children. It was the first time that we did not have the electricity and the communication.

We started helping other people – together with the neighbour – we were taking  those, who needed it, and moving them outside the danger area. We delivered humanitarian aid. So it happened that during the war I started to do what I had wanted to do before. From that moment I began to deal with social activities – says Oleksy.

We are sitting in the garden of his house in Avdivka. It’s getting dark slowly.

Oleksy was born in Donetsk, but his grandmother comes from Avdivka. His mother was born here and hence his wife, Svetlana. In 2002, he moved to Avdivka – they worked together with his wife at the Donetsk National University. The woman was dismissed from job in 2005, and Oleksy tendered his resignation in Donetsk in 2014. He took up a job in Vinnytsia, where the university headquarters are located.

– Our city is often identified with war. There was such a time that it was a shame to admit that you were from Avdivka because people immediately began to feel sorry for you – says Oleksy

Donetsk was once a cultural centre of the region. Oleksy, his wife and their  friends wanted to change that, and so the idea of organising the festival was born.

– We wanted to do something positive. It turned out that many people in Avdivka wanted to get involved in such initiatives. We wanted this festival to give something to children and young people, teach them something, help them acquire practical knowledge thanks to the guests we invited, who led various workshops – says Oleksy.

The man is setting a fire. We’re getting ready for supper.

– After we had discussed the idea of the event, it was possible to show our project at one of the competitions. Moreover, we won a grant of 90.000 hryvnias to implement the festival. Initially, we thought it was a lot, but later we understood that it was a drop in the ocean. The cost of setting the stage? 100.000 hryvnias. However, our idea appealed to the district and regional administration, so they supported us. The Ministry of Culture has helped us and brought the artists – a strong musical support – adds Oleksy.

People liked the festival so it will be organised next year.

We are about to listen to their 9-year-old daughter Marijka playing. Grandma is preparing her for the autumn competition. Marijka, although she likes playing the piano, prefers to climb the trees in the garden right now. And she is observing what adults are doing.

The campfire is burning, a huge dog and a cat are wandering around. We are drinking cognac.

We are listening to Oleksy playing the guitar and singing the classics of Soviet and Russian rock of the late 80s and 90s. The repertoire includes songs of the bands Kino and DDT.

The hosts, smiling, recall the time of the festival when they had to find a place at their home for a painter from Germany, musicians, journalists, mother-in-law, all their children and somehow they managed.

Idyllic… Only some gunshots are heard from time to time.  The locals do not pay attention. One can even think, they do not hear them.

– We felt that it had completely calmed down recently. We usually do something at home so late in the evening, we are busy, and we do not hear the shots – explains Oleksy. – Now it’s quiet, two months ago it was very loud.

To give a job

130 km to the south, on the shore of the Azov Sea, there is the village of Vynohradne, practically a part of Mariupol.

On June 15, 2018, fishermen gathered on the shore of the sea. It was their last day of work that season. They are a small collective that operates legally – they have a license and fishing quotas. It is not so frequent, because many poachers hunt in this region. Well, if the head is Mikola Hnatushenko, it cannot be otherwise.

– I was born here in 1951. My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents come from here. And these are my boys. They all lived in Shirokino, and I worked there earlier – he says sitting at the table.

There is no more Shirokino, at least the one you could live. The village was destroyed between 2014 and 2015, and now there is a front line there.

– That’s why we decided to join forces and start a collective. My boys work, I pay taxes, they fish and sell. The boys can earn a living, buy something to eat. They work very hard – every day from 4am till late in the evening – explains Hnatushenko.

The collective is multiethnic, the same as the region. Apart from Ukrainians, one fisherman has Polish roots. One comes from Greece, and another is an Assyrian.

They specialise in catching small fish: anchovies, tiny catfish and herring. They work from March 1 to June 15 and from September 1 to November 30. The boys sail 3-4 km into the sea, put the nets deep, near the bottom – the fish flows in, and it can not flow out.

Hnatushenko’s son-in-law and two grandchildren aged 20 and 14 work with him. The boys say they like it.

– They earn money so they can afford to invite girls to the café and cinema – adds grandfather.

Mikola Hnatushenko is known here and has appropriate authority. For many years he was a director of the Mariupol fish cannery, which belonged to the Ilich Steel and Iron Works. The plants were doing well at the beginning of Ukrainian independence. Their fleet consisted of 26 fishing vessels that fished along 120 kilometres. They were producing fish preserves and repairing ships. They also dealt with restocking the sea.

– No one thinks about the State now. Education needs to start in kindergarten to teach children that Ukraine is their homeland – he argues.

His thoughts are interrupted by dinner preparations. – Remember about potatoes! – someone screams.

– Come, Andrij, call the brigade! Who’s gonna drink? – asks Mikola.

– Yes, we! – is the answer.

– Come on, let’s drink and wish ourselves good luck. I want to believe that it will come. I am glad that everyone is safe and sound – proposes the first toast Mikola.

Authors: Piotr Andrusieczko, Marcin Suder

Webdeveloper: Piotr Kliks