4 Sep 2014

Pride and despair along the country roads of Ukraine

They say it’s better to travel than to arrive. In eastern Ukraine we may find that it’s impossible to reach our destination, but the journey has opened my eyes to the reality of this war.
Abandoned road in donetsk
We set off from Donetsk for the city of Luhansk, normally a three hour drive, but with checkpoints, stretches of no man’s land and unmarked frontlines between Ukrainian government and rebel-held territory, we doubted we’d make it in a day. The first obstacle was a rebel checkpoint on the outskirts of Donetsk – there was fighting at airport, said the polite, uniformed guard of the People’s Republic of Donetsk, so we would have to find another route.

We meandered along country roads, past fields of drooping sunflowers turning brown in the late summer heat. For long stretches we saw no-one and had little idea who controlled the territory around. After about two hours we reached the small town of Yasinuvata.

Two rebels in half-uniforms, one with a khaki bandana around his ponytail, both with kalashnikovs slung across their backs, were sitting in a bus stop. It must have been some time since a bus picked anyone up, so this was their checkpoint. Beware mines, they said, the Ukrainians leave them when they retreat.

A few yards further along we could see the impact of the war. The House of Culture, with its faux doric columns, was blackened from shelling. Apartment blocks were ruins of shattered glass and rubble. A middle-aged woman came up to talk. As we filmed her weeping with anger and desperation I could only admire the fortitude and pride of a woman who puts on perfect makeup when there hasn’t been water or electricity for weeks.

Soviet bunkerA few yards down a side road, several dozen people were gathered outside what looked like the entrance to an underground carpark.

As we were led inside, through the rusting iron door, I realised it was a Soviet era nuclear bunker, the walls still covered in yellowing posters with instructions on how to survive radiation.

The residents had set up a subterranean dormitory with cooking and sleeping areas.

children in bomb shelter

About 70 people had been living there through a month of shelling by the Ukrainian forces as they tried to drive out the Russian-backed rebels.

Five-year-old Dominica and her three-year-old brother Denis were still in bed, cuddled up together in a red blanket.

“I try to turn it into a game for them,” said their mother, Anastasia Denichenko. “That way they don’t get frightened.”

We drove on, skirting an unmanned road block of concrete pillars laid across our path. It was too quiet. Worryingly quiet.

Deserted road block After a while an emerald green Lada appeared so we drove together but soon came across another deserted road block, this one marked by empty ammunition boxes.

They were moveable but it didn’t feel right – who knew what was up that road?

Ukrainians or rebels? Friendly or hostile?

We turned back and the man in the green Lada led us to a village, past grazing cows and small houses covered in vines.

It looked like a scene from a Checkhov play, as bare chested farmers gathered round our driver to give him directions, next to a tree laden with red apples.

A woman came out of her gate and started crying. “No one comes to see how we are,” she said. “No one cares. We haven’t had electricity for two weeks or water for a month. There’s no bread” . Even here in the countryside, where you can’t see or hear the war, its effects are being felt.

We set off again – green Lada, us and a couple of vehicles we had picked up on the way, driving along dry dirt roads through grass fields until we reached a town and then a main road. We were back in Ukrainian territory where the petrol stations actually have petrol, and it feels safe and normal to drive.

We passed the idle oil refinery at Lisichansk – it stopped working in May when shelling made it dangerous – and a petrol station reduced to melted, twisted metal, probably the result of a mortar strike.

When we told a Ukrainian national guardsman at one of the checkpoints where we were going, he grew animated. His mother was in Luhansk, he said, and he had no news of her – could we go and see if she was OK? We said we would try and drove on past the blue and yellow Ukrianian flag he and his colleagues had propped up in a ring a tyres.

By mid afternoon we had got to Severodonetsk where we would spend the night. Luhansk? I doubt it. Word is that Ukrainian troops, who have been shelling the rebel-held town for weeks, are retreating west along exactly the road we had hoped to travel. Russian soldiers with heavy armour are reported to have come over the border to back up the rebels.

We’ll try but even if we never arrive, this trip has been worthwhile.

I have learnt on the road that this war is damaging lives and livelihoods far beyond the cities where we normally report, and even if a ceasefire comes soon, it will be years before the people of eastern Ukraine can return to the lives they once had.

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