Some claim that the war in eastern Ukraine does not exist: it is only a strategic gesture of politically sponsored media outlets. Some speak of a silent war, which hardly claimed any victims. Nevertheless, the war in eastern Ukraine does exist. It exists as much as the airport of Donetsk, which was assaulted in January this year. Today, Donetsk’s airport is a ghost airport. It is the wreck of an ongoing war, which is further destabilizing an economy that is already weak and uncertain.
“There was a war, and there still is one” are the words of a woman that we meet sitting on a bench in a village near Donetsk.
A Chronicle of the Silent War
The houses around are all more or less affected. Some lie gutted, with the roof fallen upon himself. “A mortar shell fell on that house during the night“, the woman tells us while picturing with her hand how the war with the Russians is a dark page of history for the Donbass. She then explains us how the tension between pro-Russians and pro-Kiev government is a reality that goes beyond the boundaries of international politics. She prefers not to claim that today’s situation arose from an ethnic fracture, but she emphasizes how the separation between East and West of Ukraine is not only geographical.
To reach Donetsk I need to travel in the direction of Kharkiv. The airport of the eastern city (Donetsk) was in fact destroyed seven months ago and today is nothing but a heap of rubble. Kharkiv is 478 km far from the Ukrainian capital, about one hour flight in the skies of Ukraine. I know I am heading towards the heart of the conflict, where the question still remains on whether the war exists or not, whether it is a propagandistic tool of the media or a matter of fact. With me I have a local interpreter, who knows the history of his country, its skeletons in the closet and the ghosts that still haunt the Donbass and the rest of Ukraine.
Once in Kharkiv and after we left the “LITAK”, how the Ukrainians call the airplane, we travel on the road in the direction of Donetsk: almost 300 kilometres of bad roads and streets perforated by artillery. The vegetation is dense: the wild steppe becomes more and more prominent. We get gradually used to the idea of being just around the corner of the vast and immense Russia. We do not reach the heart of the Donbass, but we stop a few kilometers from Donetsk. We visit some villages and take some photographs to show how the war in these lands is not a fanciful creation of the vertices of power. People stare at us with suspicion. At times they do not seem used to seeing the press, journalists, reporters. Other times it seems that our presence is unpleasant for them: they flee at the sight of the camera. We manage, however, to stop a man. We ask him what he thinks about the war. At first he prefers to deny the existence of the conflict, but as soon as we show him a few pictures we took, he understands that we want to know something more of the tension between Russia and Ukraine.
“They should leave the common people the freedom to pick a side,” he explains, “In Donbass clashes between the army and separatists are on the daily agenda.”
We ask him about the armed convoys that arrive in Ukraine seemingly sent by the Kremlin. At this point he moves to one side of the camera and pleads us not to ask him any further questions. He says he does not want trouble with the authorities, neither for himself nor for his family.
What is Left: Rubble and Fear
Meanwhile we photograph destroyed buildings, among which a palace that once used to be a hotel, now totally gutted and with all its glass panes completely shattered. An abandoned school with the last floor totally burnt down. We could still observe the traces of the fire. A woman in her thirties comes over to us and tells us that used to be the old school of her children. “It was bombed in the evening, shortly after closing time” she exclaims,
“Because of the war I almost lost both of my children.”
Then she beckons us to sit for a moment on a wooden board screwed to the outside wall of a building. She shows us the photo of her husband, a young blond man with short hair, a squared jaw and little beard on his face. In the woman’s story there is the anger of those who know they have to look after the family alone. Her husband left for the war, but as soon as we ask which side he stands for, if for the pro-Russians or the pro-government, she says she cannot answer.
“Men here do not fight only for the defense of their homeland,” she claims, “They do it for their children. We cannot leave Ukraine under such conditions to the new generations. “
It is a country with a hollow face. We buy water and bread with a handful of coins in the wallet. In most neighborhoods small market stalls arise here and there along the roadside; they sell everything and for few pennies. The vendors sit on the steps of the sidewalks or on wooden chairs. The market is set up in the areas that are still free from shootings or where they recently stopped. We buy some fruit and vegetables from a girl and in the meanwhile we asked her a few questions. We ask her how much a market stall is worth today in the Donbass, where this silent war does not seem to know a truce. She explains that they still earn enough to survive. The company of her husband – she says – was closed down after the conflict intensified, so he moved to Kiev to join the heavy industries. They see each other once a month if they have enough money, otherwise once every two. They have three children – she tells us – and the oldest one is at home to look after the younger siblings. She also did not bring herself to confess which side she stands for, but she did tell us that she participated several times to public demonstrations.
“Some houses have been hit by artillery,” she tells us, “but no one has the money to repair them so we live with the walls mended like fabric “.
During our journey towards Donetsk our way is often obstructed by knife-rests. Sometimes there is also the armed militia waiting to interrogate the bystanders, shot in the barrel, which commands us to show the documents. Other times, the knife-rests have been abandoned, just like at the entrance to an industrial neighborhood apparently abandoned. We do not meet anyone when entering; we can only hear from a distance some rap artillery. There is no trace of human voices. The buildings are rusty and tons of rubble accumulated here and there are covered with dust. We wonder if the neighborhood was abandoned before or during the war. Some properties bear the scars of the bombings, the wounds of this war that the media have dubbed as “silent”, even if it is not too much so.
We pass the industrial area and we end up in a residential village that is a couple of kilometers away. The sound of artillery persists in the distance, but sometimes it becomes more intense and sharper. Suddenly, a mortar explodes a few dozen meters from us. The roof of a dwelling is centered in the middle. A blaze rises and then a thick, black column of smoke obscures the horizon. We hide behind a concrete wall. We remain crouched hoping that other shots of that caliber would not reach us.
We have proof that the war exists, that it is not a hallucination or a mystery: it is made of flesh and blood and it is daunting.
We hear some screams. We do not see bodies on the ground nor injured people, but dozens of people fleeing everywhere in search of refuge. In the distance we see the silhouette of a photographer with the camera around his neck. We confirm that this land – at least – was not entirely left to herself.
Translation of Adriana Bianco