Last June, in the intense heat of a Ukrainian summer, four of Ludmila Brozhyk’s neighbours were sitting chatting in the sunshine. The children had stayed indoors, in the relative cool, to watch cartoons. When the mortar bomb dropped it came out of a clear blue sky.
“All the adults were killed instantly,” says Brozhyk. “Then one of the children came running and shouting down the street to us. Her mother had been decapitated.”
A 65-year-old grandmother, Brozhyk lives in Avdiivka, an unlovely industrial town in eastern Ukraine close to the “contact line” that divides a swath of territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists from the rest of the country. On the façade of one of the town’s shell-scarred buildings there is a statement of despair, written in white paint. It reads: “We are praying for Avdiivka.” At least somebody is.
In February it will be four years since Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, annexed Crimea and helped foment a rebellion in Ukraine’s industrial east. Since then about 10,000 people have died, including 3,000 civilians, and more than 1.7 million have been displaced. Aid agencies say that 4.4 million people have been directly affected by the continuing hostilities, while 3.8 million need urgent assistance. But the world has turned its gaze elsewhere. The rise of Islamic State, and attendant atrocities in European cities, has seized centre stage in the preoccupations of the west. Moscow has focused on exerting influence in Syria’s bloody, endless civil war. The related migration wave sweeping southern Europe has generated a popular backlash that dominates the agenda of European politics.
Inexorably, the fate of the contested eastern rump of a former Soviet state has slipped down the order of priorities. In 2015, Kiev and Moscow signed the “Minsk agreement”, which stipulated a ceasefire and a special constitutional status for the rebel-held territories of the Donbass region, which would re-integrate into Ukraine and hold elections. None of that has come into effect and the number of ceasefire violations runs into the thousands. And so a low-intensity conflict, squalid but deadly, has become the grinding everyday backdrop for a region that no longer sees a way out of its misery.
In Avdiivka, the mortar shells still fly sporadically between government-controlled territory and the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk. They home in on the town from rebel-held land around the battered buildings of Donetsk airport, a few miles away, and are duly returned as a matter of honour. The bitterness is kept on the boil.
Sitting in one of the meeting areas of a community centre set up by Save the Children International, Brozhyk says that this is one of the few safe havens where her 10-year-old granddaughter, Marina, is able to pick up the pieces of her blighted childhood. “Marina would come here every day if she could,” she says. “There is a high level of fear. Children still sleep in their clothes regularly. Even when they sleep, they hear shelling and that’s not really sleep. One of our relatives lost a leg to a mortar. How do you explain that to a child? When we hear the shells I say: ‘Don’t worry that’s from us, not towards us.’ That makes her calmer.”
Avdiivka was briefly in rebel hands at the beginning of the conflict and last January saw the most heavy bombardment of the town since 2015. But no one expects more street fighting any time soon. Instead, the town’s embattled residents endure a kind of melancholy stasis, punctuated by the desultory boom of another shell finding a target. The giant Soviet-era coke factories stand semi-idle. A bombed bridge on the potholed road into town testifies to a collapsed infrastructure that will not be restored any time soon. Thousands of people are without central heating as winter sets in, because of war-damaged pipelines. Many of the town’s professionals have fled. “The lawyers and judges have gone,” says Brozhyk. “There’s no courthouse. No specialist doctors for children, no psychologists. We have to rent a car and travel for one hour to get health services.”
An oasis of concern, the children’s community centre offers specialist counselling for traumatised children. But in a pattern repeated the length of the contact line, it is only aid agencies such as Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières who are stepping in to offer support and vital services. Kiev sends troops from western Ukraine to hold the line. But there appears to be no plan to regenerate towns and villages devastated by war.
Why doesn’t Brozhyk leave, following in the footsteps of the lawyers and doctors? “How can we leave?” she replies. “No one is waiting for us. We have no one to welcome us. We would have to find an apartment. We would have to uproot my mother who is 86. I have friends who left and they ended up coming back because there was no real welcome or opportunities for them.”
Another woman in the centre offers an explanation for the lack of prospects in western Ukraine: “People go to the west and they get called separatists.” It is a remark that goes to the intractable core of this forgotten, frozen conflict at Europe’s eastern edge.
Since the “Euromaidan” revolution in 2013-14, during which the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych attempted to violently crush pro-European protests before fleeing to exile in Russia, Kiev’s gaze has turned decisively westwards. An “association agreement” with Brussels, which Yanukovych rejected, was signed within months of his fall. Last year Ukraine joined a free-trade area with the EU, which also includes the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.
From Kiev to Lviv, western Ukrainians are desperate to integrate further, believing that EU disciplines will normalise one of the most corrupt societies in the world and boost one of the least successful economies of all the former Soviet states. With ruthless efficiency, Soviet-era statues and monuments have been toppled across the country since the revolution. But as Georgiy Tuka, the deputy minister for temporarily occupied territories and internally displaced people concedes, the perspective is very different in the east, where a large proportion of the population are native Russian-speakers and portraits of communist war heroes still take pride of place on school classroom walls.
“I would say 85% of people in the Donbass dream about the Soviet Union,” says Tuka, who has also served as a volunteer soldier and as the governor of Kiev-controlled territory in the region. “An entire generation has been raised with this kind of perspective.”
At one of the mobile health clinics run by Médecins du Monde along the contact line, Volya Babakova uses her fingers to count the heads of state she has lived under. “Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev, Kravchuk, Kuchma, Yushchenko, Yanukovych, Poroshenko…” It it a list that narrates a tumultuous and bloody history, all the way from the second world war and the Red army through to the travails of modern, independent Ukraine.
Orphaned during the war, Babakova will soon be 80. She mourns the fate of the small mining community in which she has lived all her life, bar a brief period when she stayed with friends as the shelling became too intense. “To get to the basement shelter, I had to run right across the road. It got too dangerous,” she says. Now the explosions are only occasional. “The conflict has become normalised. People are back sleeping in pyjamas now. Before I slept in my coat with a bag packed.”
For Babakova, the bad times in this part of the Donbass began long before Russian soldiers and Russophile rebels reacted to the Euromaidan revolution by staging a counter-rebellion. “I was a midwife in a hospital here,” she says. “I delivered lots of babies in this town. Now they are born here and then they grow up and move away.”
She remembers the Soviet Union with intense nostalgia. “This was a big important place in Soviet times. One hundred people worked at the hospital; there were two eye doctors, two gynaecologists, two surgeons and so on. We worked together, we partied together, we drank and ate together at a common table. Under Gorbachev it was very good. During the time of perestroika. Since then it’s got worse.”
In part, Babakova is remembering the happy days when she was in her prime. But those memories should not be dismissed as merely sentimental. More than a quarter of a century after declaring independence in 1991, Ukrainian GDP per head has barely grown since the country left the USSR and the Donbass has suffered more than most regions from the pain of economic transition.
Since the mid-19th century, this area has been an industrial heartland. Now it has become a rustbelt. The emergence of the coalmines and steel plants brought Russian settlers who populated the industrial cities and towns such as Dontesk and Luhansk. Reconstruction after the second world war brought a further surge of economic migrants and made the Donbass the most heavily populated area in Ukraine, outside Kiev.
Despite the pivotal role of the region in the old regime, in 1991 an overwhelming majority of Donbass voters backed independence from the collapsing USSR. But the remainder of that decade saw a decline in industrial output, a precipitate drop in wages, mine closures and bitter industrial disputes. Privatisation programmes concentrated enormous wealth in the hands of a new generation of local oligarchs, including Yanukovych. Corruption and gangsterism became commonplace. In the 2000s, state funds began to flow to the region again as a response to growing social unrest. Economically beleaguered, dependent on subsidies from Kiev and trade across the border to Russia, much of the Donbass saw the Euromaidan revolutionaries’ embrace of western market economics and rejection of Moscow as an existential economic threat. As one rebel fighter told reporters in 2015: “Many mines started to close. I lost my job. Then, with what happened [in Kiev], I decided to go out and defend my city.”
Nearly four years into the conflict, that kind of dangerous zeal is not so much in evidence. Russian convoys and the International Red Cross provide a minimum of humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas, where the conventional economy has more or less broken down. NGOs, co-ordinated and financed by the EU’s humanitarian aid agency, fill in on the other side. But as the conflict sinks into a low intensity stalemate, there is now a grim fatalism in the towns and villages close to the contact line. It is born from the sense that the wider world has become indifferent to their fate, while the rest of Ukraine has written the region off as a home to separatists, fifth columnists or worse.
Andriy Pashkevich’s biography bears testimony to the complicated ties that tangled up identities in the old Soviet Union. Pashkevich, 55, is Belorussian and married to Svetlana, who was born in Russia. Now retired, he participated in the clean-up of Chernobyl after the nuclear accident and suffers heart problems as a result. It is more than a year since he last saw his son, who lives in rebel-held Donetsk, 20 miles away.
Pashkevich’s village, right next to the contact line on the government side, is still shelled regularly. Recently there was a direct hit on one of the neighbouring flats in his apartment block. Since the conflict began, almost one in three residents has moved away. “The world has forgotten about us,” says Pashkevich. “But so have people in towns elsewhere in the Donbass. They don’t believe me when I tell them that the shelling is still going on. One side starts and then the other replies. And there are military stations here, so we are in the firing line.”
Svetlana teaches in the local school. “After four years, the children have learned to cope with it to some extent. But it’s hardly a normal childhood. We really need peace and an end to the shelling.” Her biggest fear is that the divisions and hatreds sewn by the conflict can never be repaired. “People on the rebel side of the contact line fear that there will be no place for them in a reunited Ukraine. They don’t know how they would be able to live if the country was reintegrated.”
Back in Kiev, deputy minister Tuka describes those living in the “People’s” Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as “hostages to terrorists”. But he accepts that if Ukraine is ever to be successfully put back together, a battle for hearts and minds must be waged in the Donbass and the ghost of the USSR finally laid to rest. “If you live in a closed environment you can be easily manipulated. The Russian TV that people watch there presents a negative view of Europe and what it represents. A generation grew up with this kind of information. It’s difficult to change this quickly and you can’t do it by just banning stuff.”
Meanwhile, he says, the rest of the country must go easy on the “bunch of separatists” caricature. Tuka’s ministry is trying to organise school visits to the west for Donbass schoolchildren and ensure their participation in national sporting competitions. He has also pledged to ensure that all pensioners in the rebel-held territories receive money to which they are entitled. As things stand, the elderly must register as internally displaced people on the government side of the line, a Kafkaesque process that leaves those who fail to complete it languishing in poverty. “Before it was difficult to address this issue,” he says. “At the beginning of the conflict there was a lot of indignation in the rest of Ukraine at the idea that the state should support those living in separatist regions. Now that has died down and we are trying to raise the issue again. We need to pay pensions to all Ukrainian citizens.” But despite Tuka’s good intentions, it is fair to say the “hearts and minds” strategy is in its infancy, and when it comes to finding a way out of the crisis he is blunt in assigning responsibility, saying only: “The person who has the key to solving this sits in the Kremlin.”
With no solution to the conflict in sight, the daily struggle to survive goes on. Every day at the Mayorsk checkpoint, about 40 miles north of Donetsk, more than 7,000 people, brandishing passes and identity cards, queue to cross back and forth between government and rebel-held territory. The wait can take up to six hours. In summer the heat is stifling and in winter the cold is intense. But the people, many of them elderly, have no choice but to pass through this or one of only four other crossing-points along the 300 mile contact line. More than six million journeys have been registered this year.
Among the travellers are anxious relatives trying to bring vital medicines from the government-controlled area to family members living in Donetsk or Luhansk, where they are in desperately short supply. Since 2015, Kiev has heavily restricted the quantity of commercial products and medicine that can be taken across the defacto border; the Ukrainian government has no intention of easing the hardship endured in the self-declared people’s republics. Humanitarian groups have condemned the partial blockade.
Travelling the other way, pensioners who live in the rebel-held territory must make an arduous trip, likely to last all day, to claim their entitlement. That is if they have managed to acquire the right papers and been granted internal displaced person status.
Last month, on one of the final mild days of the year, the stories that emerged from the Mayorsk queues offered a portrait of a conflict zone that mixes the violent with the surreal and desperately sad. Tatiana Chevchenko was holding a photograph of her son, Egor, who has been missing since 2014. According to his mother, he had been to Russia to buy medicine. When he returned, his home was looted and then he disappeared. Up to 2,000 people are estimated to have vanished since the conflict began.
Christina Belous, 28, from Donetsk, had been with her boyfriend to the baptism in government-controlled Sloviansk. “Today the queuing was OK,” she said. “Normally it’s at least two hours.” A football fan, she can no longer go to watch her club. Shakhtar Donetsk, the best team in Ukraine, now plays in government-controlled territory. “We watch them on TV,” she said. “ It’s pretty strange when Donetsk play ‘at home’ and the game is happening hundreds of miles away.”
Victor Bilik, in his 80s, arrived at the checkpoint at 6am to travel across to claim his pension. At 3.30pm, he is starting the journey home through rebel territory. What does he think about the situation? “Let’s say I’m interested in history,” he says enigmatically. “I could say a lot more but I won’t.” No one is interested in talking politics in the current toxic context. Maria Ivanova, 68, who had to go to Sloviansk “to do some things that had to be done”, is a picture of emotional and physical fatigue. “An end to the queues and the difficulties. That’s what we all dream about. It’s what we dream about all the time. Sorry I can’t talk about it any more.” And she gets on the ancient, jammed bus taking her back to the People’s Republic of Donetsk.
The high politics disrupting and blighting these lives is complicated and uncertain. The latest suggestions for a solution centre on the possibility of a UN peacekeeping force to take control of the rebel-held territories. But there is no agreement on the make-up of such a force and Russia will not countenance returning to Ukraine the control of its eastern border. That demand from Kiev is backed by the US, but it remains unclear how robust Donald Trump is prepared to be in pushing for an end to the occupation.
At the Save the Children community centre in Avdiivka, Olga Rebrova is dreaming of an escape route for her family. Rebrova’s husband deserted her when the conflict began and went to live on the rebel side of the lines. Since then, she has brought up three young children alone in a war zone. Her middle child suffers mental-health problems, which have been exacerbated by the conflict. Her oldest boy, Sergei, 12, is a fine boxer. “I’m hoping he develops well physically and gets better and better,” she says. “So he can participate in competitions and go to safe places to box. And if he’s successful maybe he can be invited to train somewhere safe, where it would be good for his career. And we would go with him.”
It may be a long shot. But Rebrova hopes that Sergei can box his way out of Europe’s forgotten war zone. For hundreds of thousands of others unfortunate enough to live close to the contact line, daily life for the forseeable future will be an exercise in grim resignation and staying out of the way of mortar shells.
Some names have been changed to protect identities
BRIEF HISTORY OF UKRAINE
1649 The Cossack Hetmanate, in modern central Ukraine, is established following a rebellion against the Poles
1764 Catherine II abolishes the Hetmanate after years of the Russian empire absorbing Ukrainian territory
1918 Ukraine declares independence following the collapse of tsarist Russia
1921 The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic is established after Russian army conquers two-thirds of Ukraine. The western third becomes part of an independent Poland
1941 Nazis occupy Ukraine until 1944
1945 Western Ukrainian lands annexed by the Soviet Union
1991 Ukraine becomes an independent state after the disolution of the USSR
2004 Peaceful protests, known as the Orange Revolution, launched by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, forcing the overturn of a rigged election
2013 Tens of thousands take to the streets, accusing the government of bowing to Kremlin pressure and backtracking on plans to sign a EU trade deal . The government uses violence against protesters, who occupy Kiev’s central square for three months
2014 President Viktor Yanukovych is ousted, prompting unrest in Russophone areas in east and south Ukraine. Russia takes control of Crimea, claiming it is protecting ethnic Russians from far-right extremists who overthrew the president. Fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists continues. Moscow denies Kiev’s claims that it is sending troops and heavy weapons to the region.