In Background, Ukraine

Trip inside the ‘capital’ of the separatist East, recaptured by the troops of Kiev in July: Hospitals bombed and children without care

By Vauro Senesi, published in Il Fatto Quotidiano (Italian daily), Dec. 12, 2014. Translated by Roger Annis & Robin Monotti Graziadei for New Cold

Five hundred and fifty five kilometers. It takes more than six hours to cover the distance in the modern, high-speed train opened two years ago for the European Football Championship in Ukraine. Five hundred and fifty five kilometers is the distance between Kiev and Slavyansk. The capital of the war.

Slavyansk, June 2014, photo by Andrey Borodulin, Flkr Commons

Slavyansk, June 2014, photo by Andrey Borodulin, Flkr Commons

Until just under a year ago, the superfast train traveled to Donetsk. That city is now partially destroyed by bombing. It is beyond Ukrainian lines. Unreachable. In the hands of the ‘enemy’.

Slavyansk, on the other hand, was recaptured in July. The sky is grey-cold. Grey is the color of the walls gutted by mortar and artillery, with empty sockets for windows. Grey are the huge piles of rubble scattered everywhere on the ground dotted by bomb craters. The greyness is broken only by the black silhouettes of twisted and burnt trees. It is the landscape of reconquest. In this silent desolation there is only the sound of flocks of crows that come to rest on the debris.

Debris, craters, burnt trees is all that remains of what was the largest hospital in the city. Razed to the ground by the blows of the Ukrainian army. “The hospital was evacuated”, explains a lady who collects funds for the Ukrainian army. “It was bombed because it served as a control center of the rebels.”

It seems absurd that to ‘free’ the city, the ‘liberators’ didn’t hesitate to destroy vital structures–hospitals, schools, power plants. But the siege of Slavyansk consisted precisely of this, closing access routes to the city and, after destroying its facilities and infrastructure, blocking the arrival of any supplies—from military equipment to food and health supplies–placing fighters and civilians in the same stranglehold.

“One doesn’t see the internally displaced people. They are there but few in number … but the situation is evolving in these very hours … I told you, yesterday we were invited to a ‘Neighbourhood assembly’, one of the most bombed. They are pissed off because these rebels shoot mortars from the streets where people live, then shelling from the Ukrainian army falls in response, causing damage, injuries etc. The discontent is now visible. People do not want war. ”

These were the words in a text message sent by Andrea Rocchelli to Damiano Rizzi of the NGO Soleterre in May, at the beginning of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. This was almost certainly his last testimony. On the 24th of that same month, Andrea and his interpreter, the Russian journalist Andrei Mironov, were killed by mortar fire in a ditch where they had sought refuge after the car they were traveling on had been targeted by gunfire. Mortar shells fired from the same hill which then bombed the hospital. “People do not want war …”. But how much weight has the voice of ordinary people in this clash sought by great powers and rich oligarchies? And most of all, who listens to it?

Map showing Slavyansk

Map showing Slavyansk

The road that from Slavyansk leads to Artjomovsk [Artemivsk], just behind the front lines, runs straight across a plain between fallow fields and birch trees. The ground is frozen. The ice has covered everything from strands of dry grass to thinner sprigs of trees. In a van driven at breakneck speed by Ghennadj, the driver, we cross a panorama of crystal. Ghennadj drives fast because he fears incursions of “separatists” infiltrated inside Ukrainian lines. After the first checkpoint, made ​​of large concrete blocks and sandbags and manned by cold militiamen armed with Kalashnikovs, the race resumes. The streets are deserted in Artjomovsk. Here and there are burnt houses. Gunshots echo now and again in the distance.

We stop at the entrance bar of the military hospital, obeying the “halt” of a bearded giant in camouflage. In fact, this was the civil hospital, but an entire wing has been requisitioned by the army for first aid to the wounded soldiers that arrive each day from the front line that is twenty, thirty kilometres away–the distance depends, because the lines are very fluid and uncertain.

The big bearded man is called Nicolaj. We discover that before enlisting, he was an interior designer. It is he who escorts us inside the hospital. Narrow stairs, semi-dark corridors, stretchers and boxes of medicines here and there, the smell of sweat and disinfectant. Even the hallways are narrow and crowded, we hardly manage to squeeze through nurses with dirty uniforms and militiamen with guns and hand grenades hanging from their shoulders.

The bulk of Nicolaj who shows the way is of great help. On the floor are backpacks and helmets. There are only two beds. In one lies Alexiej, just over twenty years old. He has a broken leg. “A stupid accident”, he says. “I rolled over the truck I was driving. It’s my fault, I did something stupid,” he says. Alexiej is almost ashamed that his is not a real war wound.

Sitting on the other bed is an older man, over fifty. He’s wearing his camouflage and his rubber boots. He is absorbed and quiet, looking ok. A few hours ago, instead, he was hit in the left arm by a bullet fired from an automatic weapon, just below the shoulder. He was lucky. A few centimetres to the right and the bullet would have struck his heart. It has just been extracted. Vassilj rummages in his pocket and shows it to us. “I’ll hang it on a chain around my neck as a good luck charm,” he says with a smile. Then he shows us the entrance hole on his arm. He does it without emphasis, without emotion. As though it was not he who was shot but another.

And it is others that Vassilj is thinking about. Pointing to Alexiej, he says, “…in my case, I’ve already lived a large part of my life…” Vassilj has a small transport company, a wife and two children. They won’t know that he is wounded. “…but these guys? The war is stealing their present, the best years of their lives.”

Vassilj does not like the war.”I was hoping that President Poroshenko would open peace negotiations … There must be a way out of this crisis without continuing to kill each other.” But instead, he concludes bitterly, “We are still here. I will stay there as long as need be.”

Vassilj boasts that he has never fired a shot. “I look after mines and unexploded devices. I prefer to save lives rather than take them from others.”

Nicolaj, Alexiej, Vassilj and the young doctor, Natalja–bundled up in a bulky uniform too big for her—arrived here recently. She already shows on her face the signs of fatigue and confusion.

Serghej gives me the phone number of his sister living in Rome: “Just tell her that I am well, please”.

Other soldiers and militiamen whose names I don’t know wear weapons, boots and camouflage uniforms that resemble those worn by many of the boys who were in Maidan Square in Kiev. In their faces, there is no trace of the exaltation and fanaticism of the ‘patriots’ of the capital. Their faces show resignation, bitterness and the sad exhaustion impressed by the daily experience of the horror of war.

Andrej sparks fear. His uniform is sleek; he is squat and sturdy, his skull shaved, shiny as his uniform. He smokes Russian cigarettes, black, inside a long, golden mouthpiece. “Do you want to see the children?” he asks us. What children, we ask? We don’t understand.

“The orphans of Donetsk. Those who already had no parents and those who have lost them in the war. I bring them to Artjomovsk because they are safer here. Donetsk is bombarded continuously. There are separatists there.” And the separatists allow you to enter the city and take the kids? He shrugs. “Well, they have hearts, too.”

We follow Andrej’s car. A sports car, with the license plate concealed by strips of tape. Andrej must be an official of some description because at checkpoints no one stops us.

The orphanage is located in a single storey building, not far from the center of Artjomovsk. Three steps and we’re across the threshold. We are received by two women dressed as nurses. “There are 50 children, up to 4 years of age here. I brought 26 of them myself, “says Andrej.

From behind a closed door we hear children’s voices, the sobs of a crying child. That door won’t open. “No. The children can’t be seen”. The oldest nurse is adamant. “You need a permit. You do not have permission.”

We’re leaving Artjomovsk, following the car with the covered license plate of the mysterious Andrej, who will get us through the checkpoints easily. In our ears and hearts are the voices and the crying of the invisible children. Invisible like the children of all wars.


EDITOR’S NOTE: We remind our readers that publication of articles on our site does not mean that we agree with what is written. Our policy is to publish anything which we consider of interest, so as to assist our readers in forming their opinions. Sometimes we even publish articles with which we totally disagree, since we believe it is important for our readers to be informed on as wide a spectrum of views as possible.

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