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Life in occupied Luhansk — a resident

Life in occupied Luhansk — a resident
Article by: Mykhailo Vasyliev
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

Luhansk used to be called poetically the “city of roses and fountains.” Now it has become the city of glum faces. Sad, glum, exhausted. And extremely tired — from an almost total lack of money, constant problems with electricity, water, heat, communication. But most of all, from the loss of hope.

The glum faces are everywhere. In the streets, in the half-empty stores, in the agencies, in the noticeably shrinking markets. This face has become the mark of a strange, protracted war — the “black mark” of the so-called military syndrome. A smile in Luhansk is now as rare as a dandelion in winter. It has remained back there, along with the destroyed world, in the past, in memory.

People with glum faces buy products very carefully . And the glum saleswomen considerately weigh out 50 grams of cheese, of liver sausage, place 2-3 cracked eggs in packages — eggs that are in great demand because they are cheaper. They even weigh one frozen chicken wing. But they categorically refuse to accept change. Those jingling coins have become the subject of fierce conflicts and violent scandals. In the grocery store in the center of Luhansk an angry cashier explained that they already had coins equivalent to hundreds of thousands of hryvnias but that it was impossible to exchange them anywhere. The same was true of the old version of the 100-hryvnia banknote with the portrait of Taras Shevchenko that they gave to a number of retirees as aid before the so-called “LNR elections.” They were considered invalid, printed in Crimea. The banks do not accept them. Naturally, neither do the stores and private traders.

The retirees are unhappy, resentful. They say different things, but they do not threaten “to complain.” There is nowhere to complain and no one to complain to. They only wonder about the banks. What banks? There is no functioning bank in Luhansk. Recently the last remaining branches of Oshchadbank have been closed, where even the cold could not disperse the long lines near the ATMs.

Now there are lines near the still functioning internet providers in the city. After Triolan unexpectedly and without warning stopped providing free internet services in late November, hundreds of people began standing in line for a connection. Long lines, few specialists and equipment, damaged communications and an emergency connection that costs 150 hryvnias — not affordable by many. Therefore, the Internet has become for many people a temporarily unattainable luxury. The window to the world has closed that had made watching Ukrainian TV stations possible — In Luhansk now only the Russian, Crimean and Belarusian stations are broadcasting. The door to the world has been shut — a world where heroes are called heroes; terrorists, terrorists; mercenaries, mercenaries; invaders, invaders;  and occupiers, occupiers; and where occupiers are not presented as angels with halos over their heads. This is why visitors have increased significantly in the internet-café (8 hryvnia per hour). Although, to tell the truth, the place has not been sold out.

But there are noticeably fewer people in the center of the city. After 4:00 pm it is better not to leave home without a special reason. It is very rare to see any pedestrians at that time. The institutions and businesses that are still functioning usually close “unofficially” during the early part of the day. The “night delis” that used to be open 24 hours now close at 17:00. And why work — there are no buyers at that time. There are not very many of them even during the day. In late afternoon it is frightening to walk in the dark and deserted streets. Besides, packs of wild dogs, crazed with hunger, have literally flooded the yards of central Luhansk. They are attracted by the warmth of the damaged gas mains that the utility workers have not managed to cover up. Many people have been bitten. But naturally there is no one to take care of catching the stray dogs.

Dogs are secondary when the sound of shooting never stops in the city and people are dying in the suburbs.

Faces are particularly glum among the pensioners, who at the dark and cold hour of 6:00 in the morning try to squeeze into a bus packed with people to go to Lysychansk or Starobilsk for their pension. What awaits them at the checkpoints during these endless inspections? What have they done to be forced to line up in their old age before the young, armed people, as captives before conquerors? As powerless prisoners before all-powerful guards? My neighbor has already made four trips to Izium but he has never received his pension. There were some problems with documents. But he no longer complains; he simply remains grimly silent. He waves away all questions, turns around and leaves.

It is impossible to complain now. And indeed many in Luhansk have been transformed recently from vivid  talkers into the speechless. They can still talk about the weather, but never about politics, the economy, the situation in the city. Even with old friends and former colleagues. Who knows? A word does not fly away like a sparrow. Many now remember the year 1937 with its “black ravens” (vehicles of the political police — Ed.). Shadows, they say, arrive at midnight.

There is a vivid example from life in our neighborhood. After his apartment was flooded, the owner began repairing the swollen floor. The construction workers, according to a neighbor, spoke loudly and bothered her, even though they worked neatly and during the day. She turned to an acquaintance who was close to certain circles. Instantly several men arrived with guns and dressed in camouflage.  They seized all the electrical tools from the workers and took away the apartment owner, accused of disturbing the peace, “for review” to  jail (the term used for the cellars that hold the detained people of Luhansk, where the “amenities” consist of one bucket for 15-20 people which is not emptied for days). Only after 10 days by dint of various arrangements, agreements, and payments, was his wife somehow, miraculously able to free him. Thin, aged, and a completely different person. Does he have any desire to speak now? Does she?

And how many people vanish without a trace in the city.

Yes, the LNR version of Luhansk has become a city of glum faces. My friend, who this summer moved to Kyiv, says he can accurately identify recent refugees from Luhansk and Donetsk through their particular sorrowful expressions, by their clear distinctive mark of the military syndrome.

How long will they have to live under peaceful skies for this mark to wear off? And will it ever wear off completely?

Mykhailo Vasylev, Luhansk

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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