November 6, 2014
Snizhne, the Donbas – a crowd of elderly women and mothers with children form a huddled queue at the steps of the local administrative building. Some read the announcements taped to the entrance: there are lists of papers required to obtain retirement and child care allowances from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), and below there is a new sheet, saying: “DNR aid temporarily suspended, as there are no supplies”. The head of the queue is already inside. An elderly rebel mans an improvised entrance checkpoint, consisting of a table and a stool. Retired women voice their complaints at him.
“Well, where can I get [the money],” he retorted, “if there isn’t any?”
“We’ve seen nothing since September,” says an elderly woman in an overcoat. “Neither Ukraine nor DNR pay us, why the hell does it have to be like that!”
“Do you want everything to happen at once? We are at war, when we end it you’ll have your pension, your money and live happily”.
“I’ll be dead by that time”, she answers, upset.
“Well, your children will live happily,” replies the rebel.
At the checkpoint we are greeted by Snizhne’s “people’s mayor” Valery Khlopenik and his aid Olga. The “mayor” is tall and has big hands – he says he’s a former miner. He moves around the building, clad in camouflage, a pistol hoisted at his belt. However, many walk here like this – except the callers.
“I understand the elderly,” Olga says. “But, if we look into the matter, who should pay their pensions? They’ve been funding Ukraine’s budget their whole life, toiling for this country. So it’s Ukraine that has to pay, right? But it’s dumped them on the shoulders of our young republic!”
“You mean the DNR doesn’t have to pay anything?”
“How else? Think for yourselves,” Olga flares. “Come to think of it, the DNR shouldn’t pay”.
“We will pay everyone, but later,” Khlopenik finally said. “For now, we have to win. Drive the [Kyiv] junta away, and then…”
“Live happily?” I suggested.
“Why shouldn’t we? We have plenty of coal, the richest soil, and the people!.. Real workers! When the Maidan started, no one slacked off and went there.
We step into an office, where another leader of Snizhne’s “people’s authorities” – deputy “people’s mayor” Sergey Kochergin – waits for us. Although the office is his, Kochergin does not sit at his seat at the head of the table (occupied by Khlopenik), but on a visitor’s chair. Kochergin is a short man in his 60s in civilian clothing. It is worth noting that Kochergin was deputy mayor even during the “Ukraine era.” But when the insurgency in the Donbas started, he joined the rebels and kept his post.
“Generally, we try to cleanse the bureaucratic elites,” Khlopenik says. “You know how they are. They play both sides, so to speak. Too far from the people. But Sergey Leonidovich here is a loyal and experienced professional…”
“Thanks,” Kochergin replies, a bit flushed. “Everything for the people!”
“For the workers!” Khlopenik notes.
“Sure!” Kochergin quickly confirms. “And although we have no money, we do what we can.”
“We just can’t understand how the politicians managed to set us, brothers, against each other”, Khlopenik continues. “We used to live well together! Yeah, Yanukovych did blatantly grab everything for himself, but at least there was peace and stability. Life just started getting better but then that damned Maidan happened.”
“People were sure about the future, they just started to feel completely happy,” Olga agrees. “People took loans, bought appliances, did renovations. Valery Nikolaevich can testify: the miners bought foreign cars that even bosses didn’t use to have!”
“This! And what’s now? The last salary came in July!”, the “people’s mayor” complains.
“Do you have a plan, a program?” I ask.
“What program do we need?” Khlopenik replies. “When the junta leaves, everything will go back to normal right away.”
“But then you won’t have banks, loans or car dealers.”
“Whatever! Russia will help!” Kochergin, the deputy, replies. “If Putin gave Yanukovych three billion back in winter, won’t he give us money as well? He certainly will!”
“Why do you think so?”
“Because we are Russian, Orthodox Christian people,” Kochergin states. “We are fighting for the Russian world. If Russia doesn’t aid us, we, Russians, will be squashed like cockroaches here! Look what Kolomoisky’s [Ukrainian Jewish oligarch] battalions do!”
“Those battalions also speak Russian.”
“They speak Kolomoisky!” Kochergin, the deputy, said. “We studied at university together, I was one year older than him. So while other students were drinking, he ran around collecting the bottles [presumably handing them in to earn his first money, a practice common in the Soviet Union].”
“You say “Russians.” But what did they do in our villages during the fighting?” Olga asks. “They simply destroyed Saurivka! First they robbed the houses, then killed all the men and raped all the women!”
“Go there and see for yourselves,” the “people’s mayor” advised. “That’s a terrible tragedy.”
The now-famous hillock topped by the Saur-Mohyla memorial can be seen almost from any part of Snizhne. After the heavy fighting in July and August only twisted Soviet soldier statues remain. Neither the monument nor the triumphant warrior stand anymore.
Several villages have been destroyed around the memorial as well. The village close to the memorial, Saurivka, is renowned among the locals for Ukrainian soldiers’ atrocities – almost everyone in Snizhne and around told us about them.
The only people who knew nothing about the atrocities were the inhabitants of Saurivka itself. For more than four months, the village has been living without electricity and mobile reception, not to speak of the Internet – although there isn’t anyone who would use it. Saurivka, as before the war, is inhabited by only five people: two elderly couples and a single old woman. Out of 12 houses three were destroyed by artillery, but no one lived there. Those closer to the burrow had roof cement sheets broken and windows shattered by shards. In September the village saw DNR humanitarian aid for the first (and last) time.
“If not for those “killed and raped,” they probably wouldn’t remember we exist,” says Nikolay Alexandrovich, an elderly man in an ear-flapped fur cap,
“Dirty lies. Why would they make that up?” asks Galina, Nikolay Alexandrovich’s neighbor. “It’s now shameful for us to go to town.”
“They said things, including household appliances, were taken from the village. Is it true?”
“No theft happened here. If only a little. But those were ours (locals — author’s note),” Nikolay Alexandrovich replies. “Neither the [Ukrainian National] guardsmen nor the DNR fighters stole anything.”
“Were there rapes?”
“No one was killed or raped. It’s all lies! Who would they rape?”
Nikolay Alexandrovich was the only one who did not leave Saurivka during the fighting at the burrow. He sent his wife to the children in Kuibyshevo – a Russian border village 10 kilometers from here. He stayed in the basement with his cat. Now the cat follows him everywhere.
“We’ve had one hell of an experience together,” the retiree tells me. “But, thank God, the house is intact. I don’t know how I’d live otherwise”.
“How do you live now?”
“Well… Gathering nuts, for one,” Nikolai Alexandrovich went to show a nut tree and the cat started screeching. “Why are you so worried, you poor thing? The nuts are very valuable. We peel them and bring them to Snizhne, they buy them off peeled for 75 hryvnas [5.18 dollars as of 11/07] [per kilo]. Then they move it to Russia, through [Ukrainian-controlled] Kharkiv. I believe they should cost a hundred [hryvnas] in Russia, how many rubles would that be? Three hundred?
“They sell them in stores for about 700 rubles.” [218.8 hryvnas or $15.11 as of 11/07]
“Oh fuck,” the retiree said to the cat. “That’s a lot. But 75 is good enough for us, isn’t it? The only thing we miss is peace. Let the higher-ups finally agree that we should be friends with Russia and Western Ukraine, Kyiv, as well. East, West – what’s the difference? We are the same people. If only the higher-ups could be friends.”
Another village, Stepanivka, had almost half its houses destroyed in the fighting. It used to have about 200 houses, a thousand people and three paved streets. Now out of three houses only brick stoves and walls remain. The roads are crushed by tracks. Twelve locals were killed by the shelling. Burnt-out tracked and wheeled vehicles and APCs litter the roadsides. A glade at the village’s entrance from Saur-Mohyla is home to a mass grave of mangled heavy vehicles, tanks with turrets torn off and hollowed-out APCs. Rust spots appear on the armor here and there. A faint smell of burning lingers. The ground all around is burnt, although soldiers’ name tags and bent metal helmets lay here and there.
I take several pictures. This view in Stepanivka’s borderline is surreal.
The locals don’t know who shot whom and who the burnt vehicles and name tags belong to. They waited out the fighting in basements. They only went out for water during calmer periods.
“They were just ordinary soldiers,” Artyom tells us. His house is near the glade with the destroyed “armor.” “The Ukrainian did behave harshly during the first days. They broke into houses, rummaged through everything, looked for weapons, but then left and didn’t take anything. It was OK later. And when the shelling started, both we and them hid in the basements.”
“And who shelled you – and them?”
“Well, who shelled… somebody did,” Artyom mumbles.
However, Snizhne’s officials (who vowed to help restore Stepanivka) told me the National Guard committed atrocities here just like in Saurivka: they robbed houses, raped women and the “Right Sectors” threw grenades into basements where people hid. But, just like in Saurivka, the locals confirmed nothing of that. Moreover, there was no National Guard at all in Stepanivka: during the siege of Saur-Mohyla the village was under Ukrainian military’s control, then the Ukrainians were pushed out by DNR forces. However, some locals say that Russian tank units fought Ukrainian soldiers here – “they spoke very fluent Russian, not like we do.” A tank convoy moving from the Russian border was seen in Snizhne as well.
It should be noted that the part of Stepanivka far from [rebel-controlled] Saur-Mohyla suffered almost no harm. Even the windows are intact and not a single hut was hit. However, all the new brick houses, five in total, were hit. The villages don’t doubt that it was the Ukrainian soldiers who shelled the “beautiful new houses” on purpose.
“Their commanders probably said the “head separatists” lived there. That’s what we think, else why the hell would they do it?” flares Gena, a driver and owner of a brick mansion.
(However, it’s hard to call his mansion beautiful, yet it was still hit by a tank. The shell went through several walls on the second floor and flew out).
“I witnessed all that, it still gives me shivers,” Gena said. “I was in the garden when I saw a tank convoy with Ukrainian flags. I yelled to my wife: ‘Open the basement!’, and we all went there. We just jumped in, when – bang!”
“Did you see the flags?”
“I did! They were blue and yellow. I don’t know, they could have lost their nerve. Why the hell else?! It took me ten years to build this house.”
The mines “Udarnik” [“Model worker”] and “Zarya” [“Dawn”] in Snizhne worked through the war, stopping only several times. The first stop was when a military ground attack jet bombed the DNR garrison in the town center. (However, then the bomb missed the garrison and hit a neighboring residential block. Two people were killed. The DNR accused the Ukrainian Air Force of the bombing. The Ukrainian Security Council, in turn, called the accident “a cynical and bloody provocation aimed at discrediting the Ukrainian military.”) The miners went in even when fighting closed in on the town. They are working even now, despite receiving no salaries in four months.
However, there are few miners in the town. For instance, at the state “Udarnik” mine only 10 people per shift work. Just like before the war, however. The mine itself, like many in the Donbas, is considered unprofitable and is subsidised from the budget.
At the “Udarnik” entrance checkpoint we talked with the men arriving for the night shift.
“Sure, there’s no point in working, but they’ll have to pay for our work eventually,” says Roma, a miner.
“Yesterday we had a meeting, the director said the mine would be closed soon,” Zhora tells, lighting up a cigarette. “That’s because Ukraine doesn’t pay us any more and the DNR has no money to subsidise us.”
“That’s some bullshit, isn’t it? We are in the DNR now, we voted for them, so it’s they who have to pay us!” Roma storms, also lighting up a cigarette.
“They pay no one!” Zhora says. “I did three months in the militia in summer and didn’t get any money.”
“Did they promise any?”
“Some were promised as much as ten grand! [$690 as of Nov 7]”
“Are there many miners in the militia? We’ve heard about 400 men.”
“Why would there be many? “Everyone is working,” Zhora replies. “Although I can’t see why.”
“What are you planning to do next?”
“Get out of this DNR,” Roma says.
“In September father got a DNR pension, allegedly two thousand [$138 as of Nov 7],” Zhora recalls. “He got a thousand in cash and the other allegedly went to pay the debt for utilities. After that they said on TV that retirees got two thousand each. How would you explain that?”
“Zhora, don’t talk too loudly about this,” Roma advises. “You know what they do now if you say something wrong”.
“I say, we gotta get out, while we still can”.