This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission
Translated from the Ukrainian by Amanda Love Daragh
On 26 August, on the day when Petro Poroshenko met with Vladimir Putin in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, Ukrainian forces captured an armoured personnel carrier and ten Russian paratroopers. The Russian government, which has been denying the presence of Russian soldiers in Ukrainian territory on a daily basis, was slow to respond but eventually came up with an explanation: they had taken a wrong turning. The paratroopers were captured 20 km from the Russian-Ukrainian border. In a televised interview the paratroopers themselves said that they had been given orders to advance 70 km into Ukraine territory, which is precisely what they were doing when they were apprehended by Ukrainian armed forces. These paratroopers are lucky, really. They are still alive.
Other Russian paratroopers are being buried in secret – in the village of Vybuty near Pskov, in Bashkiria and in other towns and cities across the Russian Federation. No official information about these burials has been released, but Russian journalists arriving in Vybuty to find out more were met by men in civilian clothing, who attacked them and damaged their car. The journalists were told to leave the Pskov area immediately, or they would end up in one of the local marshes and their bodies would never be found.
Russians are gradually coming to realise that it is not only local separatist rebels fighting in Donbass, but also a great many Russian citizens, including conscripts, who have been sent there by military command. The mothers of dead and missing Russian soldiers have compiled a list of 400 names and are demanding answers from the authorities regarding the whereabouts of their sons, who only joined the army in the first place because they had no choice.
But while the Russian government is trying to find answers – or rather, choosing to remain silent – Ukrainian troops are finding more and more mass and unmarked individual graves in territory reclaimed from separatists. One of the latest burial sites was discovered by Ukrainian guardsmen in the middle of a field in the Luhansk Oblast. There were around twenty graves marked with little signs saying ‘Soldier No.7’, ‘Soldier No.9’ and so on. These signs bore no names, no dates of birth or death, because the Russian soldiers and officers lying in these graves are officially still alive and on active duty at various military bases within Russia. Nothing will be done to investigate these graves while the conflict is still ongoing, which means that those who are buried there might remain on the list of ‘missing’ residents of south-east Ukraine and Russia indefinitely. Incidentally, the list of missing Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers is also growing.
Several days ago I went with my wife and children to our country house, in a village 90 km outside Kiev. We were filled in on the local news as soon as we arrived, and it was not good. A report had come through from the anti-terrorist operation zone that three local men had died after being drafted into the conflict zone, but only two bodies had been sent home for burial. The wife and relatives of the third dead man had simply been told that he had died during an artillery raid and his remains could not be moved.
At the same time people there seem to somehow accept what is happening. My old friend Viktor, who used to be the local telephone engineer and lives on the street next to ours, said that he is expecting to be called up to fight any day now, so he wants to finish sorting out the heating at home. We have a cold winter ahead of us. Chances are that it will be a winter without Russian gas. Many people living in rural areas are converting their boilers to run on peat and firewood as well as gas. Viktor has already converted his boiler and is currently insulating his single-storey brick house with foam rubber. He would ideally like to brick up one of the windows before winter too, because it is particularly draughty. Viktor has two children, and his priority at the moment is to provide them and his wife with a decent environment in which to spend the winter.
I heard from another neighbour that some villagers have already stocked up on antifreeze. Yet there is no sense of panic. Everyone is calm. People are digging up potatoes from their allotments, drying them out and storing them in their cellars. Everyone is thinking and talking about the immediate future, about winter, about the gas supply, which is bound to be cut off or at least severely restricted. Hardly anyone in the Ukrainian countryside even mentions Europe or the prospect of a European future for Ukraine. Right now the prospect of the coming winter is more tangible and significant.
Another date has recently been occupying the attention of a large sector of the Ukrainian population: 1 September. Apart from updates on the military situation in Donbass and Russia’s latest incursions into Ukrainian territory, the subject most discussed on the radio lately has been the start of the new school year. Due to a combination of the military situation and the economic crisis, which has itself been exacerbated by the military situation, the cost of school uniforms, textbooks, exercise books and other school essentials has increased by as much as 30-50%. Salaries, however, remain the same and in some cases have even decreased. But the parents interviewed on the Ukrainian radio and television try not to complain about their predicament. It would be inappropriate to complain about personal problems when their country – Ukraine – is facing such serious problems of her own. Refugee families in towns and cities across Ukraine spent the month of August frantically filling in school paperwork, trying to secure places for their children. Seventeen new children have already joined School No.92 in Kiev. In total, over a thousand children from the Donbass region started school in Kiev on 1 September. Most are children of the regional elite, whose parents can afford the higher cost of living in the Ukrainian capital. Establishing relationships with their new classmates may present a particular challenge for Kiev’s schoolchildren, since many of the Donbass refugees hold Kiev and its inhabitants to blame for the tragedy currently unfolding in eastern Ukraine.
The militarisation of life in any country also militarises the way people think, and this applies especially to children. The first lesson of the year in all Ukrainian schools was devoted to patriotism and the territorial integrity of the state . Which meant that the school day began on 1 September with a discussion about war, about a war that, for the immediate and foreseeable future, is going to be part of our lives, day and night.