What do we tell Ukraine now?

10 December 2015

While Ukraine’s war grinds on despite the official “Minsk II” ceasefire, photojournalist Christopher Bobyn returns to the front line in Donetsk to document the soldiers and citizens caught in Europe’s unresolved conflict.

Ukrainian soldier stands guard on the outskirts of Mariupol, a rusting Soviet-era billboard behind him. (All Photos by Christoher Bobyn)

The ceasefire is on”, announces a Ukrainian soldier stepping into his unit’s quarters on the front line near Mariupol after his evening smoke. He has to raise his voice to be heard over the sounds of artillery fire, and the room of Ukrainian marines erupts in a mix of laughter and groans at his mocking reference.

It’s the type of humour that comes not so much from nerves, but routine. Along the Mariupol front, shelling and sniper fire is a daily occurrence despite Ukraine’s official state of ceasefire since September 1st. The supposed withdrawal of heavy weapons and the roving OSCE observers who monitor the quiet. It’s clear from the loud thuds nearby that things are not, in fact, all quiet on this eastern front.

The soldier’s playful defiance also speaks to Ukrainian disposition in the face the ghosts that haunt the Ukrainian psyche and explain its resistance to aggression and subjugation. The war in Donbass is only the latest suffering in Ukraine, a sad 20th century coming-of-age that seems to mark each Ukrainian generation with oppression and death.

1.5 million killed Ukrainians during WWI and the ­Bolshevik Revolution.
5 million starved to death by the Holodomor; Stalin’s Great Famine of 1932-33.
1.6 million deported to Soviet gulags between 1938-40.
5.3 million killed in WWII, of which 2.25 million were Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

One would also be remiss to forget Communist rule and Chernobyl to cap off Ukraine’s 20th century experience. Such slaughter and maltreatment has left Ukrainians with the indelible marks of victimhood and resilience.

It’s a resilience found in the Ukrainian marines stationed on the coast of the Azoz Sea. Stationed along this line of seaside and steppe, these marines are among best Ukraine can field to counter pro-Russian separatists. Many were present in Crimea to witness its annexation by Russian troops. Others are recent conscripts, but it’s no coincidence why they’re guarding Mariupol: the city is the linchpin of this conflict, the only major strategic target for a potential separatist outbreak (should one come). Mariupol’s port and massive steel works would provide the self-declared republics of the Donbass with a profitable industry, and rather conveniently, a friendly land bridge between Russia and Crimea. So the marines are dug in around the city – a thin line of conscripts and regular soldiers who have no idea when they might leave their pockmarked bunkers and trenches.

For some units defending Mariupol, conditions can be somewhat better, like the holiday homes requisitioned by the military as frontline barracks. Entire seaside towns have been levelled in heavy post-ceasefire fighting, throngs of visiting tourists but a distant memory amid the burned-out summer flats. But the surviving summer villas make for perfect outposts.

From one such home, both Marines and the CIMIC (Civil-Military Cooperation) unit operate. The marines man the front, while CIMIC services it, delivering donated aid and gifts from private citizens to frontline soldiers and civilians who refuse – or are too poor – to leave.

Among the CIMIC troops is an actress-turned-volunteer-soldier, Alla (31) has gone from TV to trenches. “My friend was an officer and said I should serve my country, and I agreed.” While Ukraine has conscripted thousands to swell it’s ranks to 280,000 personnel from just 130,000 in December 2014, women are not subject to the draft and must volunteer.

A Marine rushes from his bunker to take a new position at station Tiger. Continued shelling and sniper fire along this line keeps the Marines in a constant state of preparedness. The earth and wood trenches and bunkers are not just defences against continued artillery, they are homes, where soldiers cook and sleep for their six months of rotation on the front.

Now the only woman living with 20 men, Alla’s comrades built her a makeshift private room from bookshelves and shower curtains, “They’re good boys, my friends. I trust them. They even help me wash my hair since we don’t have running water and I need someone to hold a water bottle.”

Sleeping in a room with so many Ukrainian soldiers, the symphony of snoring and flatulence is nearly as impressive as it is cacophonous, and while it provides privacy, Alla’s shower curtain is surely defenceless. Thankfully, the noises inspired by the cook’s borscht are the only noises throughout the night, the guns falling silent.  

Nonetheless, tensions run high, with even the most basic acts taking on a form of severity. Earlier, a friendly and apparently inquisitive officer asked if I need to pee at night; his concern being that I couldn’t properly pronounce the Ukrainian password for the guards outside, who, “will shoot you” for failing to respond properly while sneaking around in the dark. I hold it in.

The next morning, while enjoying a morning coffee among weapons and flack vests strewn between beach chairs meant for tourists, a Marine officer stationed with Alla asks, “What does the west think about Putin in Syria? Do they remember our problems here now?” It’s a constant question for men on the front, who are all too aware of global events, and interest, moving on. Over a second Nescafé, the officer delves into the Ukrainian perspective of their own war. “This war is becoming clumsy to describe. First it was to be closer to Europe, then became for independence and our territory, then something against Russia, and now, it’s hard to say.”

The frustration in his voice, and the exhaustion, are echoed by most Ukrainians now, be they fighting separatists or fighting to eat. With an economy in free-fall and mounting human and financial costs of the war, it’s becoming harder for participants to understand just what is being accomplished aside from holding a line that itself still carves up Ukraine to the dissatisfaction of all parties. With such discouragement, hope in new leadership has long since waned.

“Poroschenko was great at first”, says the officer, “But then he appointed a dirty cabinet, and we were seeing more of the same. We really need a strong leader who can get rid of our old Soviet bureaucracy that keeps us from finishing this war.” He goes on to complain about even the most basic of supplies failing to be ordered because of false forms and stamps. “We’ve got units sitting out there, totally forgotten in their posts. They call us to say ‘we need water!’ so we go out and get them what we can.”

“So, now we sit here and just take it from the other side, and we are told to wait like that. So we wait”, the officer laments.

Near Mariupol, a Ukrainian Marine observes separatist positions through artillery damage at his frontline outpost, a former sanatorium.

Gone are the months of active fighting and movement, or bravely holding off enemy onslaughts to the celebration of media and countrymen. Now men sit in anticipation of attacks, their will and nerves ground down by the sporadic shelling that continues to kill and maim, and the growing time away from home and their now disrupted lives.

With strained resources, Ukraine is dependent on foreign assistance and charity to shore-up the financial and technical shortcomings of its war effort. Ukraine’s large diaspora communities from Australia, Canada and the U.S. are especially crucial. While some diaspora aid undoubtedly goes to supplying arms to the under equipped military, much is delivered as food, clothing and medical care for the internally displaced, widowed and wounded.

For the third time since the war began 18 months ago, 20 volunteer Canadian doctors and nurses have travelled to Kiev to perform complex surgeries on wounded Ukrainian soldiers. They bring with them better instruments and expertise than is available in Ukraine. Among the doctors are burn and plastic surgery specialists to treat the horrendous wounds typical of the artillery that still falls along the front. While they operate in Kiev’s military hospital, they also teach local medical students with new techniques and tools.

Complex facial reconstructions and muscle re-alignment operations are performed on men who otherwise were only minimally treated in the field and could not receive better treatment in Ukraine. For many with disfiguring wounds, the Canadian visit means the chance to engage with society and families again. Over the 10 days, the Canadians perform 80 reconstructive surgeries for 60 patients, then leave their equipment behind for Ukrainian doctors to keep using.

Many of those treated by the Canadian team are not regular soldiers, but conscripts, drafted into the Ukrainian military by President Poroshenko’s Decree for compulsory military service. While the quality of training and equipment is dubious, four waves of mobilization managed to put an extra 100,000 Ukrainian men into government boots in one year. Incidentally, Canada supplied 70,000 pairs of those boots for a military unable to clothe its new ranks.

Among the wounded conscripts sitting in Ukraine’s military hospital is 28 year old Andriy. He was injured by a landmine while serving his rotation in Donetsk, “one week before my birthday”, he adds with irony. Now he waits for plastic surgery to reduce the deep scars running from his forehead to chin, and to remove the shrapnel still in his face. The rough distinctive “x” pattern of his scars reveals the simplicity with which he was treated by field doctors. Technically still able to serve, Andriy can only return to his job working with satellites once his full 12-month rotation is complete.

Also in pre-op is Sergey (37), another landmine victim. After a month on the front, his soviet-era Armoured Personnel Carrier was hit by explosives and he lost his left hand in the blast, his face also took shrapnel. He has travelled 300km from the Chernigiv region to have the Canadian team treat his wounds. However, as a carpenter before mobilization, his primary concern is not the appearance of his wounds but being unable to carve wood with only one hand. The army provides him with no compensation and now, after one short month as a soldier, he is dependent on volunteers to provide for his 12-year-old daughter.

Both men betray the socio-economic disruption the war continues to have on Ukrainian citizens; a call to arms that has forever altered careers and families.

Anja, Katja and Tasha.

In the sprawling Soviet-era suburbs of Kiev, Katja (30) now lives with her in-laws with her two daughters Tasha (2) and Anja (9). Her husband Maxim (30) was drafted into the Ukrainian Marines and now serves on the Mariupol front.

“It’s horrible for me without him. I don’t need a big house or lots of money, but I need my husband here to raise his daughters”, says Katja tearfully. “The hardest was when he came home for a week. Our youngest daughter didn’t recognize him. She doesn’t really understand she has a father who’s missing. He was already training by the time she turned one.”

Looking at a photo of her husband on the front, Katja can also barely recognize him. Well fed and clean cut before the war, he is now gaunt and sports a lumberjack’s beard. “He’s started to smoke too”, Katja says dryly.

About 800 kilometres away, Maxim sits in his underground bunker, dug into the earth and reinforced with wood planks. He explains that he didn’t object to his mobilization. He told his wife, “It’s easier for us if I go, and I can help our people.” It meant not only leaving his family, but also sacrificing his three clothing stores, that have since closed without his management, also leaving their employees unemployed. Now he must also pay for his family on a meagre soldier’s salary.

For three months, Maxim and his unit have called dirt trenches home, and will for months to come. Here as winter sets in, they warm themselves with hand chopped wood and eat homemade jams and pig lard as rations. It’s here they listen anxiously to continuing fire.

As both incoming and outgoing shells impact in the distance, one predominant fear doesn’t come only from the disconcerting thump that rumbles in one’s chest. Concern comes also from considering how long this will continue without proper, satisfactory, conclusion for the parties involved. What will become of Ukraine if Europe looks away in favour of events perceived as more important or more domestic?

Each soldier on the front punctuates that the Minsk II peace accord fails to offer a real political and military end to war. Artillery fire is the exclamation mark to this failure. Now Ukraine’s state of pseudo-war leaves the nation of 45 million in economic and political paralysis. With 8000 dead, 1.5 million internally displaced (3% of the population) and Ukrainian men continually drafted to the front, citizens carry the burden of living with wartime conditions without tangible progress to justify the sacrifices.

Forgotten by a Europe distracted with refugees and Russia’s subsequent adventures in Syria, the de-facto amputating of Ukraine’s east by pro-Russian self-declared republics may stir the disillusionment that sabotages nascent political processes, corruption-reforms, and economic growth.

It seems lost on western leaders that the shock of seeing Russians in Syria and Syrians in Europe is, in large part, the result of their own four years of failed foreign diplomacy to engage Syria with political strength. Now the refugees have fled home to roost. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s 1.5 million (and counting) refugees sit hours away from Warsaw, Berlin and Paris. With little prospect (or desire) of returning or working in a Donbass rendered uninhabitable by war, those EU capitals will appear more and more attractive.

As the worth of lauded European values and leadership is increasingly shown wanting Ukraine, the country risks abandoning its European path, stuck between the EU and Russia as a failed state. In turn, if the West does not engage diplomatically and economically to nurture Ukraine’s sovereign future, it risks the socio-economic fallout of an unresolved 21st Century war in Europe.

These are the things one considers when Ukrainian marines ask, amid the thud of shelling, “does the west remember our problems?”.

Christopher Bobyn is a Canadian photojournalist now living in Berlin.
© FrontLine Defence 2015