MainPolitical

Golden frontier

1

If you look around with the eyes of a stranger, that is who I am here, the skyline seems lush green, with rolling hills and hollows and occasional mine shafts and heaps, the two signature silhouettes of the east.

In fact, this is already an occupied territory: it is "our" up to that hill and then it is the LPR; this shabby mine with a trident painted back in 1998 is "our" unlike that one, which is so deceptively close.

When I was going here, I was told: "It is called Zolote [Golden] because everything here is flooded with sunlight in the summer, the steppe."

They also said: "Water here is golden yellow because it comes from mines flooded by the occupiers."

I share these stories with Eduard.

"No, not the sunlight," he laughs predictably. "The first residents settled here in the early 19th century. There were no deep mines at first, only rat holes. So, there had been no deadly incidents for a while, and in Russia they would be given the Golden Owl award for this. Hence the name, Zolote [Golden]."

This place has seen much worse incidents since then.

We pass the checkpoint whose operation the LPR has been blocking for six years now. The region's only operating checkpoint is in Stanytsya Luhanska. For some, this travel is too expensive, too far, or too tiresome, therefore some families and friends have been separated for years.

Eduard carefully drives a light-olive car around potholes. The only level road is the central one, leading to the idle checkpoint. To the side, there are a blue-domed church with a shell stuck in it, some hot-red signs saying "Danger. Mines!", small houses hiding behind green trees just several hundred meters from them, and a neat row of cows crossing the road.

Eduard has been a miner for 25 years, 17 of them at the Zolote mine, the one which he painted a trident upon. Now it is half-flooded, the only thing being lifted from underground is water, not coal. Eduard is now in charge of ventilation at a mine in neighbouring Hirske.

Having turned 18, he first went underground in currently occupied Antratsyt. He got scared as hell: clatter, shouts, swelter, drafts and dust. He could have stayed in East Germany with his military father, but he did not want to go to a boarding school, so he chose Antratsyt and living with his grandmother.

"Everyone studied, and you should too," his father told him.

"People work, and I will too," thought Eduard before enrolling agreeably in a mining college. It was considered a prestigious and high-paying job. A real profession.

After college, he joined the army. Upon discharge, he returned into a world where miners no longer had money and did odd work for living. Eduard went to Russia. There he worked at construction or sold axes. Having returned to Antratsyt, he got a job as a college vocational training instructor. For Eduard to become a teacher, the management advised him to take extramural classes from the Kharkiv Engineering and Pedagogical Institute's branch office in Stakhanov.

There he met Lyudmyla. They settled in Zolote where Eduard's parents bought a summer house which they turned into their home. Antratsyt was just around the corner.

An old rusty conveyor belt of the Zolote mine suddenly pops among the trees. Eduard worked there when the war broke out. Several people were injured by the wreckage, power lines were cut. In the 17 hours off the grid, the mine was flooded so badly that it took three months to pump that war out. Out of a thousand workers, only 46 remained. Others either left or ended up across the line of fire. Currently, the mine employs 640 people.

"Mines are working but as if against all odds. Half-abandoned," Eduard sighs heavily.

He regrets both the fact that the mines are falling into disrepair and the fact that there are plans to close them down due to environmental damage. He says there would be enough coal even for the next generation, and besides, there is safe technology.

"Young people have nowhere to work but mines," he says. "I don't think something will be reorganized here. Everyone will leave. We, pensioners, will be the only ones left."

In the summer, Zolote may get another pensioner resident as Eduard's mother is planning to move here from occupied Antratsyt. He has not been there since 2014. He only visited Luhansk once, during the first "ceasefire", to see his mother. Living in Antratsyt, she saw columns of military hardware rolling in at night from Russia's Rostov Region.

"It was immediately clear that they were Russian, brand new. My mother knows a military machine when she sees it because my father is a serviceman. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he returned from Germany and worked for a military registration and recruitment office in Antratsyt. He is now retired. He does not live with my mother."

As if lowering a heavy curtain, he hides the rest of the family history behind a remark about the city: "There are a good club, a good park."

2

As we are sitting in the shade of linden trees next to the "good club", a deafening roar of shelling can be heard on the horizon. Neither Eduard, nor children on the playground, nor old grannies who are slowly crossing the road are paying any attention, only me.

"When Lyuda's mother was dying in the 2000s, she said that there would be war here." A sound of shooting accompanies the phrase. 

"How did she know this?"

Eduard's mother, for her part, may not have predicted anything, but she could clearly see what was going on. How in May 2014, "Cossacks" came to Antratsyt and their leader Nikolay Kozitsyn raided businesses in the newly-created "stanitsa" [historically: a large Cossack village]. How Russians later shot their very own "Cossacks", their pet project that got out of control. How big stores turned into piss factories. How Russian servicemen were moving into the apartments left behind by her neighbours. How women of over 50 from a so-called "women's battalion" were waving [Russian] flags, making her blood run cold.

Photo: Oksana Seniv's collage

She refused to move because she was scared of fighting that was taking place near Zolote in 2014. She did not want to abandon her flat either. She only visited Eduard once, and Zolote was shelled that day. But now, at 72, leaving her home behind does not seem such a bad idea.

Eduard loved Antratsyt. He wanted to buy a flat there. Unlike many of his colleagues, he did not have that illusion that he would earn money by working at the mine and move to other places. His life was happening on the road between Antratsyt and Zolote, without really separating the two towns.

He turned on the TV and watched Russian channels report on Maidan. He did not like Yanukovuch but, like his neighbours, he was accustomed to obeying his superiors' orders. In the news, "protesters beat and burnt Berkut [riot police]", then "the army fired on peaceful Slovyansk", followed by rumours of killings and rape spreading like stench. So, when Eduard and other men in a café were talking about pulling ranks and "beating the Nazis", these were not just words, they were serious about their intentions.

But then a thought crossed his mind: they lived and worked in this country for so many years; after all, he likes to go on vacation to the Carpathians; his passport has a blue-and-yellow cover which he bought in Lviv back in 1991; he himself once spent a night in the house of an old Ukrainian Insurgent Army soldier. Weapons were brought to the city and calls were made to join the separatists' ranks. He felt dizzy. Eduard did not take up arms. 

It was the end of spring 2014. His elder son Misha had a prom. A white limousine he had dreamed of since his ninth grade, which was booked back in the winter, arrived from Luhansk when fighting was already underway in neighbouring towns. Ten school graduates went to neighbouring Pervomaysk, their popular weekend destination, as if to say goodbye to it. 

The school principal, who wore a Ukrainian embroidered blouse just last year and was the only one in the district to play the Ukrainian national anthem before classes, was now collecting arms in her garage together with her husband, as well as building roadblocks for the separatists. Misha was eager to join the "militia" since his friends were already in. His parents were silent, fearing a teenage rebellion.

External evaluation tests were usually held in Alchevsk but the area was already under fire. A friend told Lyudmyla that Donbas teenagers may take tests in Kharkiv. When Misha came back home, he no longer wore a [separatist] black-and-orange ribbon. It turned out there were no fascists or Banderites in Kharkiv.

"Leave. There will be a concentration camp there!" Lyudmyla's aunt was shouting on the phone while the woman was asking every acquaintance for money to send Misha to Kharkiv to study. She cried because Eduard was hesitant whether they and their two-year-old son Nazar should go to Russia to get away from the shelling. Shuttle buses ran to Moscow twice a day, their neighbours were leaving. But they did not.

They went to Kharkiv on 21 July to check on the evaluation test results. Eduard put Lyudmyla and their sons on a train packed with people who were fleeing the war. He trudged home via a separatist roadblock. An old woman, who was their neighbour, said confidently when she met Eduard: "They will shell us tonight." 

He did not trust her. So far, fighting had not affected Zolote. Just in case, he set his alarm for 00:30.

That night, Aleksey Mozgovoy's "militia" was leaving Lysychansk, so the first shelling of Zolote began at 1 a.m. "Come what may," Eduard thought. He took a bottle of vodka, Ryzhyk the cat, Rex the dog, and sat down on the porch. Everything around him was rattling and trembling, there was not a soul in the street. Things calmed down in the morning, but the shelling has become commonplace since then.

Edward went to work in the mine. A month later, his wife and Nazar returned while Misha stayed in Kharkiv to study. In 2015, Lyudmyla could no longer bear it and went to Slovyansk to look for a flat. They found one, but everything suddenly calmed down and so they stayed.

3

The town's main square is across the "good club". There are two murals on concrete fence: a light and vibrant one with wheat and a coat of arms, which children painted together with their teacher, and a dark one saying "Zolote is Ukraine!", painted by servicemen.

When hostilities reached Zolote, Eduard decided there was no flying from fate.

"The earth jolted but Lyuda's brother and I did tiling and fried kebabs," he says with a hardly noticeably laugh before adding seriously at once: "Many were in panic. But if you let fear in you, it is better not to live at all as you would be scared of your own shadow. Let the fear go – and you will be able to survive at war."

Soldiers, who were demonised in 2014, turned out to be ordinary people. They gave children cookies, married the locals, brought food, showered at the mine, and miners connected their roadblocks to electricity.

And then the "green corridor" opened. A flow of people, cars and banners rushed in from Pervomaysk. Eduard and Lyudmyla stood along the road, trying to spot and pull out their friends to take them home: after days in cellars without food and water, they just could not get enough of shower. 

But what turned out to be a lesson for some was not the one for others.

"Once things get a little harsh economically, people are on the roll," Eduard gestures dismissively. "People here got accustomed to living in Ukraine but wanting to live as in Russia. 'We feed Ukraine!' And what did we feed Ukraine? …As long as we are together, we can achieve something. Once something splits, that is it. Russia simply wants to destroy Ukraine. You can be friends with Russians, if they are on the other side of the fence."

Eduard has not been to the LPR over these seven years, not even to visit his mother.

"Why?"

"I don't really know," his voice cracks.

Eduard seems to be searching for a thought, untangling it from the others, turns up the volume and strength in his voice, and says after all: "I studied with a boy Zhenya at school. We worked at the college together too. He did not go to work at the mine after all and sold perfumes and deodorants at the market. He was harmless and did not drink. But one night he drank a little. When he was going home, he was met by the "Cossacks". It was during the curfew. They beat him to pulp, his mother was simply given a sack with a body to take home. Is it possible to live a normal life around them? I am not bloodthirsty but this is not right – they just enjoy it. And is it really necessary to bring back people who will hate everything Ukrainian?"

Sometimes someone "from the other side" calls the mine or Eduard with threats: "We know that you are working for khokhols [derogatory for Ukrainians]!" Other callers speak about living under occupation in a reserved manner, fearing wiretapping.

Eduard's mother still manages the college library. This year she will resign. [Ukrainian poet Taras] Shevchenko's poster has stayed on the wall for several years after the start of the war. Hardly anyone took notice of a woman behind the books. Now they are demanding that the library get involved in political campaigning, run events on "day of the republic" and report to the "ministry". A new employee is doing all those things.

"I do not mind living even 200 metres from the frontline, just not in the LPR," Eduard suddenly says. "This is not life, this is not a state, it is a joke supported by Russia."

4

Iryna will never see her father again. As he was waiting for the Zolote checkpoint to open as promised, he prepared a sack of potatoes he had grown himself to bring as a gift to his daughter. The potatoes were there waiting for Iryna when she came for his funeral.

There are walls painted with flowers and door plates with the names of international donor organisations lining up the corridors. A school in Zolote with its nearly 300 students and a crafts room full of applique, painting, origami, kinusaiga and foamiran projects is Iryna's consolation.

"Let us now keep silent for half an hour. Listen to your feelings and name them," says Lyudmyla who, together with Iryna, is holding an art therapy class for children.

"Paint all you want, this is the most important. Close your eyes, imagine your feelings and paint," says Iryna. 

And they paint. A muddy green eye on one leg that looks like the Baba Yaga witch's hut. A flower. A volcano-like explosion. Tanks. A nuclear power plant. A dark green circle with "offroad car" written over.

Afterwards, they play a "car wash" game: children line up in the hallway with one of them walking through this corridor of friends who hug, stroke or touch him or her. Before walking in, you need to say who you are and what you need: "I am an armoured personnel carrier, I need to have my windows cleaned!"

Once the children scattered, Iryna shrugged her shoulders: once more shells started reaching the area, the kids reacted immediately by becoming APCs and painting tanks.

"However, one painting is not indicative, you need to analyse the entire series. Today we had the seventh lesson out of 10," Iryna explains as she files children's drying artwork. "If a child cannot cope with a problem, we work individually and talk to parents. When they paint, it is as if they talk it out: their trauma no longer feels as strong."

Classes are usually held in the school's little hub of a basement. It was a bomb shelter in 2014.

"One boy painted "A War" but while I went away to get a pen to sign his artwork, he renamed it "A Clown". I asked him why. He said: "I want it that way." This is also some kind of defence: if I don't talk about it, maybe, nothing will happen to me."

Photo: Oksana Seniv's collage

But it is not a word swap that helps but simple knowledge: if there is shooting, leave the classroom windows open, go out into the corridor right up to a blank wall, if necessary, go down to the basement. Iryna had to take her classes along this route in 2014 and 2015. The main thing is not to panic, not to show fear.

She did not flee even during the heaviest shelling. In the autumn, when the school year started to the sound of artillery and Grads, Iryna and other teachers had to walk from neighbouring Hirske, where she lives, to Zolote. A 90-minute walk between the towns looking like twin stars.

It is 20 km along the road to the right from the Karbonit mine sign in Zolote to Iryna's native village. A big house, a garden and a river. Such a short distance, her mother's pies did not have time to cool. Now it takes 10 hours to get to this village through Stanytsya Luhanska, the region's only operating checkpoint. A few dozen hryvnyas for a bus ride grew to a monstrous few thousand. For Iryna and her children to visit her mother in the village and discuss her possible move from the occupied area, the family would need to pay 12,000 [hryvnyas]. She would also need to bring gifts, and her father's grave needs a headstone.

"She does not go out at all… Perhaps, Dad could no longer take it. They live right by the Bakhmut motorway. They had to re-roof the house three times. Dad was always restrained, he was our support. Mom said he had cried in his final years."

Walking towards a bus stop, we pass the Karbonit sign: for seven years now, there has been no way home from here. At the turn to the village, there is now a poster advising against obtaining a Russian passport. Opposite the stop is a blue-and-yellow concrete block which is occasionally painted over in the colours of the Russian flag. 

5

The town of Zolote is more like five villages spilling over the hills with the Sonyachnyy neighbourhood at the centre. One of them, Zolote-5 or Mykhaylivka, is occupied. Earlier, buses ran from here to more compact Hirske nearly every 30 minutes, now they do it several times a day.

There is a funeral home with a recently-opened café for respective receptions not far from a stop in Hirske.

"A profitable business in our area," Lyudmyla says. "The war has finished off anything there was."

Eduard and Lyudmyla recently bought a flat in Hirske. It has two rooms, no kitchen furniture, but there is lilac in the courtyard. Behind the house's fence is a windowless grey building that used to be the surgical ward when Lyudmyla studied at the medical school. It did not work out, so she had to enrol in the Engineering and Pedagogical Institute to have her first university diploma. She dreamed of studying psychology extramurally but she had to become a university graduate first. Her mother was sick, these were the 1990s, she got married and took a maternity leave. Psychology had to wait until 2000.

"I was the only [psychologist] in the district, people looked at me as if I was a voodoo priest or a fortune-teller," Lyudmyla laughs, and her laughter is deep as coal layers.

In the last two years, more adults have been coming to Lyudmyla's sessions: initial fear and brain freeze have somewhat lost their grip, and it turned out that they need to find a way to live in this new world. The less life they have seen outside their homes, the more resentment they had now. Suddenly they had this burning sensation of living in a province, at the end of the world, at the border, when you can no longer go to a cinema in Luhansk in the evening – the least of the many available drawbacks.

"Adults have more symptoms now than at the beginning of the war. Add the coronavirus to top it all. At least children have been taken care of all these years," she sums up.

We pass a newer building of the clinic. On the one side, there is a nurse whose "militia" husband and son were killed in Pervomaysk. At the other entrance, there are Ukrainian servicemen on the porch covered with camouflage netting. There are scalpels, solutions and hatred between the two entrances.

Lyudmyla knows who hates her when she wears an embroidered dress. He knows mothers whose sons are still fighting for the LPR and whose only wish is for them to stay alive. She knows the guys, Misha's peers, who used to run with him around the school but are in the "militia" now. She knows the doctors who were waiting for Putin's arrival. She knows school teachers who go with the political flow. She knows a Ukrainian language teacher who was waiting for the Russian army but fled the shelling to Zaporizhzhya. She knows which of the passers-by is already bubbling with anger because he does not understand how he and his children deserved all this.

Lyudmyla knows about herself: about her cousin who used to buy Ukrainian embroidered blouses but now curses the Banderites; about the aunt with whom she did not speak until shortly before her death; about friends who got into a fight over the war on her son's birthday; about her own unexpected anger at peaceful cities in the first years of the war; and she lives with this knowledge in this new frontier.

Photo: Oksana Seniv's collage

6

This frontier with its occupied mines is not only geographical, but often mental and ideological. What appears to be unambiguously black and white has transitional shades here; what seems to be a frontier from afar, on the spot turns out to be the centre of history. And what seems to be the golden mean here becomes a logical error at the distance.

Lyudmyla accepts this frontier state in people's heads as a person rather than a psychologist: "When a person is given the choice to save the whole world or someone close, he or she chooses the latter. From this perspective, you can understand everything."

Just like a person, she wonders too: "How to forget it all?"

Here, near the front line, Lyudmyla says about things that may seem ambiguous to the world at a distance. That she does not want to live in the LPR but she wants to stay in touch with a friend who supports the separatists, they simply do not discuss this issue. That she does not want to go to Russia but repulses the imposed memory of the struggle for the Ukrainian state which did not exist in Donbas. That she cannot stop recalling the little boys from her school who are now fighting for the "militia".

It is late, and the night is pitch black behind the curtained windows. Nazar is falling asleep in the next room, and she dreams that he will not stay here. She dreams that there will never be the LPR here, in this flat, in this neighbourhood, in this town. And from what she knows about the firmness of her beliefs and about the same steadfastness of her opponents, she is lost: what next?

"I think a lot of people did not change their opinion but tensions eased after they saw that they still live normally in one town. After all, any war calls for compromises. These issues will have to be addressed. You can't say "you're wrong and I'm not". Nobody will make me change my mind about the LPR."

One of Lyudmyla's clients asks her how it is possible to reconcile now. She answers that another idea, a common cause may help - and it also looks like a "golden mean". Nobody knows whether it is presumptive or ironic.

Lyudmyla learnt at one of the recent trainings held by an international organization with which she works as a psychologist that all contracts expire in 2023, afterwards the projects will be carried out mainly in the occupied territories. Whereas earlier experts came to Donbas and talked about overcoming the crisis, now they focus on non-violent communication and dialogue.

"They want to smooth over the situation and work towards reconciliation," says Lyudmyla.

As a psychologist, she is fully understanding: "But I have no idea how this can be achieved. I have no idea how to fully bring these people back to Ukraine. I can't imagine how those who collected the remains of their parents and those who killed them would communicate with each other. Shots were made from both sides. I work with a client in Luhansk who has a child-parent relationship problem. They do not know where to seek help with this issue in Luhansk. My colleague had a client from Schastya. It's not easy, of course, although children are the same everywhere. But the trauma of the war? I work here with Ukrainian veterans, it's scary, but we are on one side of the barricade. And I'm not ready to work with a "veteran" from "the other side". It is difficult even with familiar faces in one' own town. And I don't know what kind of nonviolent communication we can talk about if all there was here was violence."

 

 

Oksana Rasulova, journalist
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