Borderline crisis: Russian military and frightened civilians

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2014/08/15 • War in the Donbas

Russian military vehicles moving towards the border near Voronezh, author’s photo
By Elena Racheva, 11.08.2014
Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Racheva tells what’s happening on the Russian side of the border

EDITOR’S PREFACE:

For someone not embroiled in the war it’s not that important whether the region will be called Novorossiya or Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. It also isn’t worth caring whether Russia will retain influence over this blooded land or whether Ukraine will join NATO. All this is of minuscule importance compared to what already happened or what could happen.

The winner will be the one who can stop. Then there won’t be any losers, there will only be survivors – people, however different they are, but still having a right to breathe.

“Once we went with my daughter to the yard, when I heard mortars firing. My daughter was chasing chickens, then she rose her head: “Ah, they’re bashing the Khokhols [derogatory Russian term for Ukrainians],” she said and kept chasing the chickens. She’s three years old, can you imagine?”

“My younger soon can sleep when mortars and Grads [multi-rocket launching systems] are firing. He doesn’t care. When my older son hears the shells, he falls down. It’s so close. We can see smoker rising from Ukraine from our yard…”

Sasha and Pasha, local firemen, sit on a bench near the firefighting unit of Kuibyshevo village (6 thousand people, 5km from the Ukrainian border). Protective clothing and hard hats are piled nearby, other firefighters are busy with their cars. The unit has just returned from the steppe that caught fire during shelling. Shells regularly fall into the fields around the village, the over-heated steppe catches fire right away and sometimes burns out even before the unit comes. However, the firefighters aren’t in much of a hurry: the border strip has been mine-studded in places.

Rostov Oblast’s border with Ukraine stretches for 2,000 kilometers between corn fields, coal slagheaps and tiny villages. During all the years after the fall of the Soviet Union the border existed but on the map. Russians went to Ukraine for firewood and to stores, grazed cattle there, stole a bit of coal from the abandoned slagheaps here and there (50 rubles per bucket), and speculated on sugar and gasoline contraband as if it were a stock market. They bought it cheaply in Sverdlovsk, Ukraine, then sold it for more in Gukovo or Rostov, Russia, then they waited until prices in Ukraine rose and brought it to Sverdlovsk again.

Now the 200 kilometers between Donetsk, Russia, and Marfinka is a zone of the most heated fighting. Almost all the territory on the other side of the border remains under separatist control, fighting with the Ukrainian army drags almost non-stop, an unceasing stream of refugees runs from the only open Russian border checkpoint “Donetsk” (at the end of last week cars were waiting for their turn to leave for almost 3 days) and the inhabitants of Russian border villages have gotten used to incessant Grad and mortar rumble and shards in their yards.

Novaya Gazeta’s reporter has travelled the almost imaginary border between the Ukrainian war and the (relative) Russian peace.

Fighting in Chervonopartizansk, Ukraine, as seen from Gukovo, Russia. Andrei Skorohod

“I only wish there won’t be a war,” babushka Valya squints her eyes at the sun, waiting for the shelling to begin. It has been starting at about 1:00 PM for the last few weeks. I also wait for the shelling to start, but still I jump up: the first shot comes unannounced and deafening, roaring, it seems, not at the other side of the border, but right here, in the neighbors’ yard.

“This is an echo,” says Lena, Valya’s neighbor. We are in a lowland, so the sound reflects from the hills.

“Just an echo,” repeats another neighbor.

For the last months Lena’s family and Valya has been living like everyone in the village: they keep a bench, warm clothes, a flashlight and homemade canned fruit and vegetables in the cellar, but almost never go down there: they hope they will be lucky to be missed.

The residents of nearby Primiusskyi, Zarechnyi, and Repyakhovatyi have had it worse: they’ve been evacuated several times. “What’s evacuation like? They come to Kuibyshevo in the evening to their relatives and in the morning they go back home. The fighting goes from 8 PM till morning and then from late morning till the afternoon,” tells Alexander Krivorotov, Kuibyshevo’s mayor. “I wanted to move them permanently, so I said: “Move away, guys, quit playing heroes.” But the old men refused.

The mayor’s office tries not to think of full evacuation. War means evacuation of all settlements in the 50 km zone next to the border, while out of the 33 settlements in Kuibyshevo district the farthest one from the border is 25 kilometers away.

They don’t think about war yet, but Krivorotov is upset that the shooting could ruin his business plans: “We’ve been setting up a goat farm, opened a coal mine, set up a crusher, built a three-storey building,” he enumerates. “We’ve just got attractive for investors – and then war came. Who would invest here now? The railroad has been cut off, the banderites pulled out all the rails…”

Krivrotov claims Ukrainian bandero-fascists mine-studded all the fields as they retreated, so during the whole summer harvesting has been like this: tractor drivers wear protective vests and hard hats, a sapper going before each one of them.

Kuibyshev district’s harvest is a total disaster: people are afraid to harvest 1022 hectares due to artillery and mines, while another 500 have been destroyed by shells flying into the fields.

“TV journalists came, I went up a hill with them and see fire roaring and a field burning. I call the firefighters, but they won’t go: they tell me they are afraid. There can be mine traps and snipers there. But what the hell? Let them go tremble in the cellar if they are afraid. Am I not afraid? What can I do? I got my aides, we went there, the three of us, got some acacia branches and put down the three kilometers of fire by ourselves…”

Krivorotov – like everyone in the field – calls Ukrainians nothing but “Nazis.” “Old people, who have seen the [Second World] War, say: “We’ve beaten the fascists, but we’re going to die with new ones at the gates,” says Krivorotov. He recalls wounded Ukrainian soldiers being brought across the border. “We were giving first aid to one of them, and he hissed: ‘If only I had an assault rifle, I’d kill all of your moskal [derogatory Ukrainian term for Russians] scum…’ – all while his brains are almost flowing out.”

People in Kuibyshevo and everywhere along the border have a common view: they believe the war was started by Poroshenko and Obama and now “Nazis are doing genocide.”

“I can’t believe Poroshenko allowed to kill us, I still can’t,” Nadezhda Ivanovna, a teacher from Snizhne, Ukraine, is standing in the yard of her friends from Kuibyshevo who gave her shelter, rubbing her eyes: yesterday she found out a student from her class had died and had been crying all night.

“This all started long ago. First they ruined the Soviet Union,” Olga Viktorovna, deputy mayor, interrupts her. “It was back then that the damned Americans put in their tentacles, planning everything from abroad…”

“And then Yushchenko [former Ukrainian president] lifted up all this banderism [Ukrainian nationalism],” Nadezhda Ivanovna echoes, – “And Yanukovych… Thank God Putin has so much patience! Another one would have crushed those Banderites!”

“Aren’t you afraid there’s shooting nearby?” I try to change the subject.

“We are, but we’ve realized that they’ve been shooting from us, not at us. Scaring the fascist away from the border.”

“Actually, the border is so curved that it seems they are shooting from our side,” Olga Viktorovna barges in. “And there’s also echo…”

“And there’s also echo” the teacher agrees.

Matveiev Kurgan

Matveiev Kurgan (15,000 people, 20 km from the border) seems more calm. In the evening the young walk along the only boulevard, the rumble from the border is deafened by stereos of cars parked in the center. However, Avilo-Uspenka on the border comes under constant shelling.

“So I’m standing at night at the checkpoint (in Avilo-Uspenka — E. R.) and I see: as soon as the mortars start firing, half the village jumps in their cars, rushes to the road and stays there until the shelling stops. Now that’s a new fashion, rushing around at nights,” Andrei, a border guard from Matveev Kurgan, laughs merrily.

The checkpoint itself was evacuated only once when fighting erupted right across it. “However, the people are restless. Sometimes they call us at night. But we told everyone: don’t go out and watch the bullets! We told them about safety measures and machine gun specifications,” says Alexander Rudkovskyi, head of Matveiev Kurgan district. “My mom already can tell a grenade launcher from an under-barrel grenade…”

Rudkovskyi does not fear war and evacuation much (“Russia has done a lot of work to protect our people, troops are at the border just in case”), he’s only afraid of an economic fall:

“People have just started feeling alive. Before these events we were working to put the President’s orders to increase salaries to practice. Now we’ve been beaten back. But I believe everything will be OK. Although we were trying to integrate into Europe, now we understand that we have to develop safety, be food-independent, set up a separate payment system. Anti-Russia sanctions will strengthen her and help her become a new world power. The sanctions will strengthen the ruble. I believe in Putin and his statesman approach so much…”

“We all believe in him,” nods his deputy, silent until now.

“The sin of blaming Poroshenko”

The Nikolskyi church in Kuibyshevo stands aside on the highest hill. Here and in neighboring villages processions and prayers are being held to stop the war and for the dead warriors and the innocent killed in Ukraine to rest in peace. Maxim, the senior priest, does not specify by whom they were killed: “We pray and God sees whom to bring to senses.”

Father Maxim says Kuibyshevo is in a mood for panicking. Some have been selling cars and houses, “because war is coming.” Many come with the sin of despair, more and more have suicidal thoughts.

We are sitting in a church library. Shelling can be heard in the street, and the priest tells me that a new “sin of blaming the Ukrainian government” has appeared.

“The parish watch the news in the evening and come in the morning to complain,” ponders the priest. “I thought when the shooting starts and refugees come more people would attend. And it’s the same 80 people as it was. That’s all, amen.”

During the first days of the shooting there were rumors in the village that the church was the highest point in the district and it would be shot first if the village goes under fire. “One Sunday no one came,” Father Maxim recalls. “An old woman came and told me: “My daughter wouldn’t let me go, she told me there would be shooting and I would get killed at the service.” So I told her: “At least you’d die in the church and be a martyr, and Christ would take you.”

From the church’s bell tower you can see Ukrainian villages and columns of smoke where the shells fall – you can watch the fighting unfold.

Father Maxim proudly shows me the new bells and rings one of them. A low, drawn-out sound hangs over the village; I’m afraid the residents could think it was a signal for evacuation, but the priest just waves this away: “At least you’d see them running with suitcases”.

We already turn to go down the narrow stairs when I hear a loud, pulsing heavy sound behind.

“A Grad’s working” – father Maxim tells me unperturbedly.

We run down the stairs. Black robes flowing, white stairs passing by, icon gold shining, shells rumbling a couple kilometers away…

We’ve missed the Grad. Only a church caretaker is standing in the yard, staring at the sky.

“You should’ve seen how that one went” – he says.

Primiusskiy

Ivan got under fire on July 22. In the evening he was coming back to Kuibyshevo from his bee yard at Primiusskyi (1.5 km from the border and 4.5 km from Kuibyshevo) when a shell exploded about 50 meters from his car.

“I heard a whistle and then an explosion,” Ivan recalls. “I jumped out of the car, fell on the road, little stones hit my legs… I left the car together with the keys, rushed through the bush back to the village. Then I heard shots. I reached the village and got into the cellar. When I got out, people said: they were shooting at you, who else?”

Primiusskyi has been shelled regularly. Locals say about 20 shells exploded there.

“One got to us, Valera got three,” Nastya, a 15-year old girl from Primiusskyi tells us while showing broken windows and a huge hole in the road. “They came when it was unt Lyusya’s birthday. The dog was silent a week after that, it started barking only today.”

The serious shelling of Primiusskyi happened on July 25, when journalists from the Russian state channel “Rossiya-24” came to the village.

“It was like a firing pointer was there. The shelling started as soon as they came,” Krivorotov, the mayor, recalls. “Your guys fell when they heard the shots and then started running! I didn’t know journalists could run like this.

In a couple of hours investigators came and were caught in a new shelling. While the investigators weren’t harmed, a little girl was contused by an explosion. “However, she rather got frightened,” says Krivorotov, “while the chickens got killed! Corn, pumpkins and squashes god blown up… a dog lost hearing, windows got broken… The bees were simply blown away. The goats were hit by a mortar, two of them dead. Although they didn’t shell the goats on purpose, but they did that to the journalists. There was a whole barrage.”

The main question is who’s shooting at the village. Ivan is sure the Ukrainian army did it: on June 15 they seized the Marinovka checkpoint on the other side of the border: now the Ukrainian flag waves there, and the militia keeps firing on Ukrainian positions.

“Where are they shooting from?” I ask Nastya in a futile attempt to figure out the positions of the militia and Ukrainian troops.

“Depends,” two teenagers, Sasha and Artem, join the conversation. “Sometimes our guys, sometimes theirs. Our guys have a Grad dug in on the other side of the river (Mius. — E,R.)  It was shooting about three days ago…”

All three nod in agreement.

Federal Security Service

It was Ivan who handed me over to the police. First he asked for my passport and journalist’s assignment, then he recalled Bykov and Latynina [opinion journalists at Novaya Gazeta critical towards Putin] and vigilantly gave me up.

There wasn’t much crime in Kuibyshevo, so all local policemen, the head of the criminal investigation, and an FSB [Federal Security Service] senior lieutenant were assigned to here from Rostov. It was cool and very quite at the precinct, so the shelling over the village could be heard pretty well as if shells were flying out of a neighboring yard.

“Is it a Grad?” I asked carefully.

“Nope, just thunder,” joked the policeman on duty instead of answering.

“I can’t hear anything at all,” another one joined in.

“This is not shooting, these are fireworks,” concluded the FSB senior lieutenant [the name is known to Novaya Gazeta], guiding me into a separate room. “When my wife calls me I tell her it’s a wedding again. The locals are a merry people…”

“Are you sure a firework like that won’t land on your roof?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” he chuckled. “These aren’t their fireworks. They are ours.”

“Do people celebrate only here?” I asked.

“No, not just here. Ride along the border and you’ll understand.”

“Do you realize that I can write about it?”

“I do. But then my colleagues will come who will be more convincing to get you to agree these are fireworks.”

Taganrog

Surface-to-air missile systems on a road near Tagrog. Photo taken by the author

There are no Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. Russia’s Ministry of Defense keeps telling so, disregarding claims by the Pentagon, NATO and OSCE that Russia is increasing the concentration of forces on the border that can be used for invasion under pretext of “peacekeeping or humanitarian operation.”

Another person, that, just like the OSCE, does not believe the Ministry of Defense, is babushka Zina from Novorovenetskyi near Gukovo.

“When they came, there were about 20” – tells Zina, sitting on a bench facing her house. The border runs 300 meters away from us, somewhere behind mortar fire can be heard, but the old woman doesn’t even shudder: they’ve been shelling every night. “They dumped the soldiers in a field. Boys went to them, then ran back: “Our soldiers ask for water”. Well, we filled bottles and brought them the water. Then they came again: “The soldiers are asking for food, they haven’t been eating for three days”. No one brought them a field kitchen, they were surviving on rations. Well, we started carrying whatever we had. Some younger women set up a schedule and cooked food for a month: two courses and milk. They baked pies. Just like during the War…

We’d been feeding the soldiers for a month when another 30 came with a field kitchen”. Actually, Russian soldiers appeared at the border more than two months ago. First the military trucks, APCs and self-propelled artillery “wandered” (as the locals said) around the villages, scaring the geese and asking the locals for directions. Then they set up camp in the “plantings” – thin stripes of man-planted forest between the wide fields.

Now military vehicles were standing all along the border. “Tanks and APCs just go on and on!” – old women from Novorovenetskyi are ready to blurt out military secrets.

“They have both contract soldiers and re-enlistees” – says Kuibyshev region head Alexander Krivorotov. “It’s good they are self-supplied: stores and cafes get a profit…”

Me and my colleagues were driving around the border villages for a week and did not specifically try to find military camps but still bumped into them everywhere. Caravans of trucks, APCs, trailers with T-72 tanks move along the M-4 “Don” highway towards the border. “OSA-AKM” surface-to-airs systems on a road neat Taganrog, APCs carrying infantry rolling on dirt roads…

A sprawling military camp was set up right at the Gukovo border checkpoint, military trucks number in dozens.

Between Kuibyshevo and Novaya Nadezhda, in the rustling corn and sunflower fields, 152-millimeter shell boxes barricaded the road. Poorly concealed military vehicles can be seen in a planting nearby.

“You can’t go here! Go back” – a frightened sentry rushed to stop us. Driving further, to Yasinovka river, we could see tents and empty shampoo packages lying near the water – the camp had obviously been there for a long time.

“This is Ministry of Defense territory”, – a camouflaged man with no insignia ushered us away. “There’s an emergency situation, haven’t you heard?”

Near the road to Vasetskyi (2km from the border, 9km from Gukovo) a radio antenna stuck out under a camouflaging net. Right behind it another camp was set up under paratrooper flags, a conscript from Yaroslavl manning the auto barrier. The next day we saw no one there. The locals told us that recently the camps were right at the border, but when OSCE observers appeared, they were moved back past the border villages, In the morning of August 4 the road between Novorovenetskyi and Gukovo witnessed its first ever traffic jam – a convoy of APCs was moving back from the border, leaving broad white trails on the road.

…Dug in, covered by a sunflower field, guns unknown to me stuck out from a planting behind Gukovo.

“This is a “Nona” – a sentry explained eagerly. “We are conscripts from Ryazan. Standing all along the border, protecting it…”

A military truck with no number plates rolled past, jumping on the bumps and crushing the sunflowers.

“That’s GRU [Military Intelligence Directorate] special forces” – the guy said respectfully.

“Were it your guys that shot mortar rounds yesterday?” – I asked.

“No, these are the Chechens, they move around and shoot from different places”, – the guy replied. “Do you happen to have a cigarette?

All the locals told us about the Chechen special forces. Allegedly, it was them, ever elusive, doing the mortar shelling, rolling along the border with GRU special forces and occasionally going past it.

“A mobile store comes from Voroshilovka with sausage, bread, cheese and butter” – Zina told us. “They say the Chechens stop it and buy stuff…”

I still can’t believe the GRU special forces rumors, but we did find the Chechens pretty soon.

Late in the evening across the only cafe in Kuibyshev stood a parked military truck with no number plates. Music was playing, the back tables were occupied by camouflaged men with no insignia. In the half-darkness we could make out black beards and eastern eyes.

First two sad girls were dancing wearily on the dance floor, then the soldiers cranked up the volume and put on Lezginka [Chechen folk dance music]. In the red glow of the disco ball seven men went to to the dance floor: they clapped and beat the rhythm with their legs. Their movements were precise and sharp: other Caucasus people, like Kabardino-Balkars or Ossetians, don’t dance that way. I came up to one of the dancers, he turned out to be a Dagestani. “We’ve been serving here – well, sort of. Right there, behind the village. Yes, in tents. We’ll stay here as long as the Motherland tells us to. Let’s go dance.” I refused, and the Dagestani kept grumbling:

“This is what you get for protecting them. Those ungrateful…”

Miliary camp near Gukovo chekpoint. Author’s photo

In the evening Alexander Dadukin, Kuibyshevo’s deputy mayor, brought me to the outskirts of Kuibyshevo, where a small white memorial stood, crowned by a star. In 1941 the Wermacht set up a line of defense here from the Azov see along the Mius river – the “Mius-front”. Now the Ukrainian border runs almost along it, and for the locals the new front echoes the old one.Mius-front

We stop near a sunflower field. The border is right behind it, Ukraine can be seen clearly in the mulled evening light – Dadukin says border guards complained that the Ukrainian National guardsmen showed them “rude gestures” – “like drawing hands across their throats.”

Right behind the sunflowers there is Marinovka, recaptured by the Ukrainian army, gray dust rises nearby – looks like a tank column is on its way. To the left one can easily see Savur mohyla – a burrow where Mius-front fortifications used to be. The battle for Savur mohyla started on June 5. On July 28 the Ukrainian general staff announced taking the site, but the battle rages on.

To the right Kozhevnia is burning: it has been under fire since morning: “All the young run away from there through the wood. They’ll just blow up the old ones.” The field to the left of us has been cleared by sappers, but people are still afraid to plant there.

The sounds of shooting don’t reach Russia, the smoke rises to the monotonous chirp of grasshoppers and tractor rumbling – the peaceful details make it especially chilling.

Suddenly a column of black smoke rises above Marinovka: fighting starts right in front of our eyes.

An old man on a bicycle comes closer, near the road two refugees are desperately trying to catch Kyivstar’s signal to call their relatives. A cuckoo goes “cuckoo!” A smell of mowed grass in the air.

“That’s how life is now,” Dadukin says emotionlessly. “That’s how it is.”

Source: Novaya Gazeta, translated by Kirill Mikhailov, edited by Alya Shandra

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