«That's what Europe thinks is armistice...» is how and Ukrainian Army 14th brigade soldier ironically puts it. These past three weeks, his unit has been in constant exchange of fire with separatists in Donetsk who almost daily blast their positions not with light arms only but from mortars. Pursuant to «Minsk-2», these wold have to hold their peace for nearly a year.
Marinka, a suburb of Donetsk, is the hottest spot currently along the 500 kilometres of frontline between Ukrainian forces and Donbas separatists officially called «line of contact».
The word makes the soldiers of 14th brigade laugh out loud. Just a week ago, they held this nine hours of a serious battle with separatists to defend Marinka, involving all by heavy guns and tanks. The 120 and 82 millimetre mine throwers of the latter played like an orchestra though supposedly silent since last fall according to peace treaty.
For them, this continues to be a bona fide frontline and a war, no matter the euphemisms in use in Europe as well as Kiev.
The brigade press rep said the last attack was so severe that the frontline headquarters feared a major onslaught and, in light of a potential breakthrough, were talking about emergency evacuation of Marinka’s population of 7,000. Even so, the Ukrainian soldiers held their ground.
Marinka is the closest town to the frontline which is controlled by Ukrainian forces. Truth be told, it actually sits on it – the trenches and shooting positions of Ukrainian troops at where the houses begin.
«The foremost positions of the foes are in the forest over there, where the smoke is rising,» I am shown by an Ukrainian soldier nicknamed Babushka (Granny). Well said, I think, as the guy is big and feels kind of kind-hearted.
The patch of a forest pinpointed is 400–500 meters off, or less. An empty field in between. Any movement in plain sight.
«Never along the entire frontline are we so close up as here,» claims the media officer, Vlad.
Such closeness spells being shot at daily, many times a day. «Their snipers never rest,» says another soldier. I don’t need to be told that, hearing the constant shots all around. «They are trying to pick on us all the time but we are not allowed to respond to such single shots. We may only open fire in case of real threat of attack.»
Thankfully, in addition to the shelters, soldiers are protected from snipers by residential houses. The problem being, of the houses under constant fire by snipers, automatic rifles and mortars, several have people living in them who refuse to leave.
«But where to go? Is there anybody waiting for me anywhere? I’m not going anywhere anymore,» I’m told by Liidia Petrovna aged 80, whose house is some ten metres from a well fortified Ukrainian position. Indeed, the troops and Liidia is almost a family here by now.
Liidia says her days are made up of fear and stress. The soldiers show me her refrigerator, in the hallway, clean shot thru by a sniper bullet. First thru the wall, then thru the wall of the fridge, then its door, and out thru the other wall of the house. With whatever material available, the roof torn by mine splinters has been patched by the soldiers. With the snipers watching, mind you.
«I don’t care anymore where death takes me! So tired of this already! You happen to know how long this will last?» Liidia Petrovna asks me with these sad eyes of hers. «They said, didn’t they, that Europe did a deal with Putin.»
I’m not about to explain to her that the «Minsk-2» deals are not actually binding to any side. And that several European nations cannot wait for the end of sanctions against a Russia still openly supporting the Donbas separatists.
In the next house from Liidia, right behind the trenches of Ukrainian troops, there lives a man of about 50. Hearing me knock, he opens the door, hears me out, and with this bewildered look asks me if I gave any cigarettes. I hand him two and immediately he pulls the door shut. «It’s his nerves,» comment the soldiers. From time to time, they say his ten year old daughter comes to see him. Also used to the shootings, the girl. Around here, everybody is.
Meanwhile, Liidia Petrovna and her neighbour aren’t the most extreme. Because on the no-man’s-land between the positions of Ukrainians and separatists, there sit several houses and if you think nobody lives there you are dead wrong!
In a house untouched by some miracle, though the windows have veneer for glass, there dwells this lonesome auntie who occasionally goes shopping and asks the soldiers for firewood. Like an angel, neither side touches her.
Indeed, the local life is interesting enough and a good showcase of adaptability of man.
Barely, 300 metres abode the Ukrainian positions, almost every house has people living in them. A store is functioning, people talk in the streets, someone rides by on a bicycle, kids are coming home from school. By now, they have figured out that the grenade throwers and mortars behind the woods only begun blasting later towards the evening and the daytime is relatively danger free. The worst that can happen is a sniper bullet hitting some wall or a tree somewhere. But for the locals, this is the inevitable. And, should a mine drop nearby, this must be their destiny. With death, they are accustomed.
I ask three locals if they were ready to be evacuated in case of attack. None was. «But where will I go? Here, at least I have my house. Better to die at home,» calculates a man in his 50ies, indifferently.
Do you watch Ukrainian TV-stations, I ask him. «I don’t even remember when these were seen here. We are all watching Russian channels, that’s all we have here,» he answers with like indifference.
I can’t believe my ears! Okay, asking this a year ago in a neighbouring town, I was not too surprised at such statements, But now I am! A year has passed and Ukrainian state keeps allowing people on territory under THEIR command to dwell in the total information space of a hostile state. Ukrainian channels are only viewable via satellite, other pictures are put off from Donetsk.
«Yep, we are protecting people here who only watch Russian TV and believe their propaganda. It’s beyond us, believe me,» says a soldier from Western Ukraine. «A funny state we have.»
Not limited to locals watching Russian news behind the Ukrainian troops, hearing what fascists they are, many have sons, fathers or other relatives fighting with the separatists. When separatists took control of Marinka in the summer of 2014, lots of locals were convinced that would remain the case so in hopes of good income they went to fight for «People’s Republic of Donetsk». Having taken up arms, they have no way back to the Ukrainian side but they still do daily communicate with relatives, see, via telephone and internet.
«I do not even want to know how many informants we have behind our backs,» says Vlad the 14th brigade press rep.
His brothers-in-arms have a lot they do not quite understand.
«Like from the Donetsk TV tower it still spreads Russian propaganda on our territory, unhindered, and puts out all our signals to the other side,» says an Ukrainian soldier. «One would think nothing would be easier than to shoot is to smithereens with gunfire, but we are under strict orders not to do that. Guess in whose interests is that.»
As also evident in what the soldiers are saying, it’s not better with the equipment than a year ago. While there are no problems with arms and ammunition, the garments are still so bad that most buy their own uniform and boots or trust in donations.
«Winter clothes given us are such that we are cold outside, even now,» says a soldier. It is a few degrees above Celsius, but it’s windy. Lucky to have a warm winter.
«They brought us new boots and said if you damage these you have to pay 8,000 hryvnias (€270!),» adds another. «Naturally, nobody took these, all bought their own.»
Damage? In war? Better sit at home then.
«You do at least have thermal cameras and night vision?» I ask.
The soldiers laugh. Like being amused, I feel. For them, my questions are outright funny.
«We were distributed night vision equipment but these were so bad that we saw 20 metres if lucky. Better get used to the dark and train one’s hearing,» one answers.
Concerning thermal cameras, they say they think there are seven for the brigade (3,000–5,000 men) but these have not been handed out. «We might break them,» one sneers.
A camera is dearer than a soldier’s life.
About the soldiers’ lives... official losses cannot be published without permission of the general headquarters. Hat I figure out from what the soldiers are saying, much more than from enemy bullets and shells and mines, people have perished due to accidents and negligence.
The men are visibly tired. They say they have been sitting on the frontlines in rather Spartan conditions and under constant fire for six months.
«But we know we are defending our land and that’s why we are highly motivated despite it all. «The separatists better not even try where we are at,» assures the chief speaker. To which the rest nod.