Tom Nicholson in Ukraine -
As pro-Russian forces captured swathes of territory in eastern Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted that he could take Kyiv “in two weeks” if he wanted, life in the rest of the country seemed eerily undisturbed.
In the town of Lviv near the Polish border, 18-year-old waiter Nazar Dah served beer to university students at midnight on Mickiewicz Square. “To be honest with you, it doesn’t really affect me at all,” he said of the five-month-old conflict. “It’s very far away, and those are completely different people [living in Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine].” Embattled Donetsk and Luhansk lie 1,200 kilometers from Lviv, and on September 1 – a national holiday termed “the Day of Knowledge” – the distance seemed even greater. Dozens of young people were enjoying the warm night as taxis clattered at reckless speed over the slick “cat’s head” cobblestones.
Dah blames the war on a failure by successive Ukrainian governments since independence in 1991 to integrate west and east in a single polity. “It was like we weren’t sharing the same house, it was always one side moving in and the other getting kicked out,” he said. “But I still want to believe this country has a future. I am sad and angry about what is happening.”
Nowhere to go
According to the UN, the war in the east of Ukraine has displaced a million people from their homes and killed more than 2,500. But outside the main theatre of conflict, Ukraine gives few signs of being a country at war. Local radio stations on September 2 carried hourly updates on proposed EU sanctions against Russia and a new rebel offensive towards the important port city of Mariupol. But the news was given no greater play than traffic and weather reports, and did not appreciably reduce the airtime of Russian ballads and accordion music. Smoke frequently obscured the landscape, but it came from fields where farmers had set fire to grass and crop residues.
In industrial Kremenchuk, where Mayor Oleh Babayev was shot dead in July, a retired doctor was hitchhiking home from visiting a friend in hospital. Alexander Fedorovic, 60, gratefully accepted a ride in exchange for providing directions to Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s fourth largest city. “Babayev was a good man,” he said, wiping the sweat off his forehead before replacing his grey corduroy cap. “The thing driving this war is that there are a lot of young men around here with no work and no prospects, and no lack of oligarchs paying them to fight. Cut off the money, and the war would be over in three days. Babayev didn’t want to let his city become a staging ground for these militias, and he paid for it.”
Fedorovic, who served as a combat medic with Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, said his 20-year-old nephew had been shot dead in July in Kostiantynivka, about 40km north-east of Donetsk, as Ukraine forces took the city back from the pro-Russian separatists. “Some of my friends from my army days have gone back to help out as medics, but it’s a very sad business,” he said. “These kids don’t understand what war is.”
The first military roadblock on the M22 highway, a sandbag bunker guarded by regular Ukraine military, lay 10km north-west of Dnipropetrovsk. Fedorovic used the stop to take his leave and set off on foot towards his home village. “I’m afraid the war is going to come here as well,” he said, but is determined not to leave his small house, cow and chickens. “Besides, where would I go?”
An empty city
Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine’s fourth largest city, used to be a closed city during Communism because of its nuclear missile industry. Only 250km from the front in Donetsk, it is still sufficiently far from the war that its hospitals house wounded Ukrainian soldiers.
The choked congestion in Dnipropetrovsk gave way to an almost empty highway leading towards Donetsk. In Pavlograd, there is silence on the leafy main square, and outside what advertised itself as a branch of Raiffeisen Bank – in what turned out to be a converted flat in a housing block – two of the staff killed time. “There’s nothing to do inside,” said Anton, a young teller, explaining why he was standing outside. “There are no customers.”
He and his colleague, Max, had of course heard that conscription was to be reinstated for 18-25 year olds in the coming months. “It’s really scary,” Anton admitted. He said he felt lucky to have a job, with local unemployment at around 50%, but that if the front continued to creep westward, he would leave Pavlograd.
As the evening drew in, the emptiness of the Dnipropetrovsk-Donetsk highway became oppressive. At last, at the village of Karlovka, a substantial military checkpoint some 15km from the city, a soldier with a Kalashnikov not quite trained on the ground, barred the way. “You can’t get through here, they are still fighting,” he said. After accepting a pack of cigarettes and a two-litre bottle of beer, he pointed out a secondary road that might be passable into Donetsk.
Within 500 metres along that pitted, rural lane, shell craters and bombed out buildings were visible, likely from the fighting around Karlovka in May. The way did indeed seem to lead towards Donetsk, through tiny hamlets where old women gardened, men smoked on doorsteps and – incredibly – boys played an organised game of football in the setting sun. “I wouldn’t go there if I were you,” said a shirtless young man astride a bicycle at a village grocery store, refusing an offered bottle of beer in exchange for directions and advice. “Make sure you have something white to wave.”
The lane widened and finally debouched onto a larger highway leading into Donetsk from the south. There were three more military checkpoints, all of them manned by Russian-speaking soldiers. Further on, there were electricity transmission towers that lay crumpled on their sides like wilted flowers, a burned-out bus and two blackened armoured personnel carriers. In the distance to the north-east, near the airport, there was a plume of black smoke that did not come from any field.
And then – suddenly – the broad avenues of the half-empty city of Donetsk, with its shuttered petrol stations and McDonald’s restaurant, its dark suburbs where that same day shells had fallen.
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