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A war of recovery: Ukraine’s other front line

Photo: Matt Zbrog
A war of recovery: Ukraine’s other front line
Article by: Matt Zbrog


Welcome to Sloviansk, Ania says, greeting us warmly before adding, You will not like it. I immediately take that as a personal challenge. But I get it. It’s gray. There are a lot of broken things. Many stray dogs. Our hotel is the sort of place that keeps the curtains of its street-facing windows drawn. I admittedly was expecting a little more pop and zing – some outright spectacle. This used to be the front line for the ongoing war in Donbas. The first city to be occupied, and first to be liberated. But that was two years ago, and the artillery’s moved further east. Now Sloviansk is the front line for a different type of war – one fought by Ania’s NGO and others like it – a war of recovery.


Shortly after arrival, my partner Rie and I receive a lunch briefing with Ania’s team. Well, Rie receives a briefing while I order a plate of couscous and pretend like I have a good reason for being here. A little context: Rie’s the one on an actual invitation, to write human interest stories for Ania, the head of mission. I’m just an undercover tourist, really. I guard this fact from public knowledge by asking questions and taking notes on the answers with a ballpoint pen.

Ania’s NGO operates up near the contact line, inside the GCA (Government Controlled Area). They work to protect and improve the lives of IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). I’m learning a lot of acronyms and pretending to already know them. This is all happening very quickly. Ania’s project manager, Iryna, who is from the NCGA (Non-Government Controlled Area), delivers rapid-fire factoids on the separatist-held areas. Ania explains that 71 percent of children in the region suffer PTSD. Over half a million Ukrainian citizens in the GCA/NGCA are no longer receiving government benefits while their status as IDPs is being verified. My notes look like gibberish – 71%PTSD600,000IDP(?)GCA+NCA – but I continue to dutifully make them, because I want to feel like I’m doing something about this. I want to be involved in something important.


Still, nothing seems real about the situation. I’m an American. The only one at the table. And our wars happen behind screens, somewhere else, far away, on the internet, in newspapers, on broadcast television. They don’t happen in three dimensions. Even here in Ukraine, it hasn’t felt much different. Just the other day I was in a café in Kyiv bobbing my head to Afropop lyrics – we need each other more than ever before / how can I be rich when my brother is poor – while sipping an Americano and scrolling through my Instagram feed. It could have been Williamsburg, it could have been Venice Beach. Aesthetically, culturally, no obvious difference.

In my three months in the country, I’ve seen Kyiv in the center, Lviv in the west, Odesa in the south, and Kharkiv in the north-ish. And outside of the odd camouflaged camp sites or sporadic political rallies, it’s been easy to forget there’s a war in this country. Even now, inside Donetsk Oblast, in Sloviansk, less than 100 kilometers from the heavy shelling, it’s hard to picture a war, any war, truly exists, even if I can plainly see its grim and slightly boring after effects. And the desire to see it, however perverse, remains strong and unabashedly real. I suppose it’s my own quirky response to the media desensitization many of my fellow Americans feel.


At the lunch briefing, I pause while writing down the phrase publically sponsored mass-media disinformation, and when I look up at Iryna, who just said that, I make a tiny realization: there is no substitute for looking someone in the eyes while you listen to them. You can feel the truth instead of guessing at it. You can ferret out the fact from the emotionally-charged supposition. At least I think that’s what’s happening. I feel major vibrations. And it makes all the click-baited articles and scripted interviews seem like a sham – some desperate compensation for not being able to compete with the undeniable power of this, the here and now. It’s like the third dimension is a real thing that counts. What a revelation, I know. But I’m not a professional. And you don’t have to believe me. I’m just a slightly skeptical American who gets his information from behind a panel of glass every morning.


Photo: Matt Zbrog
Photo: Matt Zbrog

Part of me is totally here for the tragically cool stuff – the images, the sounds, the little details of terminology, the edgy future stories I can tell about all this, yes – and some of that’s just down the road. We take a two car caravan of Megane Renault cabs to a post-apocalyptic looking area that’s comprised of a medical center, a psychiatric hospital, something else, I don’t know, because while Andrey, the field coordinator, is explaining the history of the massive destruction we’re seeing, I’m scampering off and into the psychiatric hospital, snapping pictures with my smart phone. I’m shamelessly fascinated by shit like this. There’s something majorly attractive about exploring modern ruins. You get a sense of the world’s fragility. The impermanence of otherwise totally permanent-looking things. The vacancy is, I don’t know, spooky. Transporting. It feels extremely cool. Yeah. It feels like something real.

Something human and disturbing, however, spikes through in jags. Whenever I stop moving, whenever I put away my phone, whenever I begin to absorb my surroundings instead of capturing them in small, two-dimensional images, I feel it, whatever it is, and it doesn’t feel super good. I don’t know. It hits me hard on the third floor of the psychiatric hospital, near the collapsed roof. It’s then that I notice many of the rooms are strewn with not just rubble but also empty beer bottles, used syringes and vials, dirty blankets – things not left over, but recent. There’s this sort of dark and menacing reality of consequence that is suggesting itself implicitly while remaining invisible, just outside the periphery. I take more pictures. They all start to look the same. My high is totally fading.

I rejoin the group about a quarter kilometer away, by a more ancient looking thing – heavily shelled, barely standing. It’s a cultural center, Andrey is saying, gesticulating as he looks for the English words, or a place for meeting and holding activities, where people bring children maybe to learn on weekends, yes. I try to get closer to take more pictures and Ania has to shout my name three times before her voice registers and I stop. She calls out through cupped hands that walking any further is not a very good idea because there could be unexploded ordinance. Her voice is cheery. I jot down the phrase unexploded ordinance. I take a picture with maximum zoom. Then walk to the cabs without glancing backwards.



Photo: Matt Zbrog

At the next stop, Ania explains to us that she’s looking for pictures of hope, not suffering. Woops. Maybe that’s why she’s taken us to the bridge that connects to the road to Kharkiv – the old capital, about 175 kilometers away. The bridge is right in front of us. It’s only half there. It was one of the first things destroyed by the separatists, an effort to cut it off from the rest of the country. There’s a lot of mud. Construction material. A big crane. It’s a nice metaphor. But kind of boring. My pictures don’t come out that great. I’m more focused on the badass sunset in the distance. But I do feel a little feel as I see the professionals standing together and staring out at that half-bridge. It’s warming to know people like these exist. And a little jealousy inducing. It’s easier to be behind a screen. It’s easier to be the tourist. But it’s not nearly as exciting. A soldier from the Ukrainian army comes over with a real big gun and tells me to stop taking pictures. I’m cool with this. I already got a sick snap of the sunset. No filter.


Rie and I have a two-hour break where we sit down at a cafeteria and sort of stare at our notes for a while. I move around sentences in paragraphs on my laptop to look like I’m doing something – a kind of essay, I mumble. Rie twiddles a ballpoint pen and occasionally writes a few Danish words, which she punctuates with little sighs. It’s an incredibly hard situation to summarize. There’s no clear opening or angle. It’s here that for the first time I’m stoked to be a tourist instead of a professional.


It’s Ania’s birthday, and her colleagues and friends have rented out a hip little café near the city center. It’s pretty indiscernible from one of a hundred cafés in Brooklyn or Los Angeles. But it’s the only place like it in Sloviansk. A milestone. Maybe a sort of rejuvenation symbol. And the party speaks to the expertise in cooperative coordination present in this community of aid workers. Over 40 people from a dozen different countries and NGOs are in attendance. There’s champagne in tiny plastic cups. Finger foods on paper plates. Dancing. Coffee and cake.

I try to circulate. I insert myself into a conversation about politics where I both forget the name of the Ukrainian president and mispronounce the name of the city we’re currently in. I try to sound informed when I tell Iryna that a local I know in Kyiv thinks Ukraine should be cut up like Czechoslovakia, and she reacts as if she’s just swallowed a bug. I join a cluster where someone is explaining how before the war started, Sloviansk was nothing but a rest stop for families traveling to summer picnics in the forests far down the road, and how now it’s a hub for IDPs who can’t afford to move to Kyiv and Kharkiv. How Sloviansk is now a place to rebuild and call home and start fresh. A mostly blank surface where one can open a hip little café like this. It’s such an optimistic and pleasant point that I feel the need to be involved and voice a comparison to first wave gentrification. I receive several squints. I desperately want to prove my belonging here, but I’m not doing very well.

Listen. At a party full of humanitarian aid workers, the standard cocktail chatter – so, what is it you do? – takes on a drastically different vibe because the people not only have interesting answers, both to that first question as well as many others, but they care about the answers they’re giving. It’s crazy. Like, I’m coordinating the introduction of running water to a school, or I’m fixing houses that have been damaged by heavy artillery, or I’m installing wood stoves in buildings that have lost their electrical or gas powered heating. I’m the total outlier here. Oh, I write things, sometimes, and I have a typing job… on the internet. Eventually I retreat to a line I repeat approximately one dozen times – I’m just here to hold Rie’s bags. I get compassionate nods in return. These are professionally nice people.   


Okay. It’s time to synthesize a thought I’ve been having since I first arrived in Sloviansk. It has to do with the traditional kind of war, and then the kind of war fought by NGOs like Ania’s. It isn’t a fight with or against guns and ballistics. It’s a fight through paperwork and bureaucracy and cynicism. It’s a fight to play by the rules when the other sides don’t. A fight to undo what this war has done, to directly counteract its effects. We rebuild houses and buildings. We restore heat and running water. We bring in teachers and doctors where there aren’t any. We employ IDPs to help IDPs. It’s a fight against war itself, and the question isn’t who has more weapons but who has more will. And that’s such an inarguable good that my partisaned-to-pieces and argumentative American mind is having trouble dealing with it.


The next morning Rie leaves with the other professionals to go towards the contact line. They have security briefings to attend, checkpoints to pass, scheduled interviews to hold. Real things to see and dangerously cool things to do. I’m filled with an immense jealousy.

I sit in the hotel room and read the Wikipedia page about The Siege of Sloviansk for two completely foggy hours before I finally go back out into the world, wandering back to the café where we had the party the night prior. It’s just a café. The soundtrack is Western. Sixties. The Beatles. The Kinks. The Stones. I sip a 50 cent Americano. It’s time travel. Nice, but kind of boring. The people who set the stage for a place like to this to exist here are all gone, further east, near the war that’s always somewhere else, seemingly.

I struggle to do anything productive with the goop of disconnected notes I’ve taken. None of it sounds professional. Oh well. I guess I just ain’t one. My picture of the sunset received 50 likes on social media. This gives me a small but real sense of self-satisfaction.

Through the glass windows, I watch the city pass by. An elderly man, with a grocery bag full of apples, mutters something to himself and for a flash it’s my late Polish grandfather. A woman in high heels flicks her hair as she passes my table and the scent of her perfume is the same as a past girlfriend’s – has to be – and then she’s ordering in Russian.  A child scurries by dressed just as I am in a picture that hangs on my Ukrainian-born grandmother’s wall. And while the war still isn’t in front of me, it’s never felt closer, somehow.

When I get outside, I see a man across the street, about my age, playing a guitar and singing in Ukrainian to a tune not all that different from Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. Behind him, tall blue and yellow flags flap on and off. The sun’s out. Kids are swinging in swings in the park. Families are laughing and holding hands as they walk past the gold domed church. A man is riding a bicycle while carrying a cardboard box with a puppy in it. I notice lot of the cars on the street have inconspicuously placed decals on them that say things like International Red Cross, arche noVa, Danish Refugee Council.

I guess I’m looking for closure. And maybe I’m reaching a bit – but on my walk to the train station I felt the opposite of what I felt while exploring Sloviansk’s modern ruins. I sensed a permanence to things that usually seem incredibly fragile. I felt an invisible but real hope on the periphery. Because while a war is most definitely still going on, it’s not lost yet, and the good guys are out there fighting it.

Matt  Zbrog is a US freelancer living in California, US. He has published artist essays for Cirrus Gallery in Los Angeles, microblogs from his travels to Ukraine, Serbia, Kosovo, Hungary, and Türkiye.
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