Note: following Desecrated Shrines, this is the second eyewitness report about daily life in Novorussia sent to my by the Saker Community representative in Novorussia, Dagmar Henn, Team Leader German Saker Blog who has found the time to write this text while reorganizing the German blog.
A place in between
by Dagmar Henn
It´s a cold, but sunny morning when we start for Oktiaborskii, another one of the prominently shelled quarters, like many others built around a mine of the same name. We drive to the last row of houses; just a few trees separate them from open fields, and just 500 m from the Ukrainian lines. Here we meet a delivery of food by the Vostok battalion. Planned or accidental? It´s not quite sure; here everything happens in a hurry, a few minutes on the spot, then it´s time to leave again.
No gas., no electricity.. in front of the second house we visit there’s an improvised stove, just a metal plate on a few stones under a tiny shed; there’s no lack of firewood, they collect the branches the shelling breaks off the trees. The facades are pockmarked from shrapnel. I remember those marks, in my childhood many buildings in Munich still wore them, dark dirty holes, but these are fresh, and the stone under the grey skin shines in a virgin white.
One of the men that came out for the food approaches me. He is drunk, and angry. A bit later he tells me he was a lorry driver for the mine. „Don’t you have money in Germany? Can’t you just buy the gas,“ he says, and „you tried it three times already, you will fail a fourth time again.“
We should get off, signals Stanislava, and we get back into the bus, but where´s the Turk? The photographer went off to catch an impressive hole in the street framing the rest of a rocket that we passed when we came…
We leave the rim of the city and get a bit deeper into the quarter. We need to wait a bit until we can leave the car. The weather changed, abruptly, and it’s hailing; we hide from the nasty weather in our bus, but everyone thinks of the unnatural hail that falls here so often.
This spring looks like a weird kind of autumn, where the trees shed not only leaves, but branches, and the houses shed glass in sympathy. Close to the buildings every step crunches.
People react to us in two different ways. Either they don´t want to talk with us, don´t want any contact with westerners, or thy flock around us to get rid of their anger. Even just for the chance to call Poroshenko a bastard. Here we meet the second type.
„We passed weeks in the cellars,“ says one woman, and her neighbour adds, „I couldn´t even go there; I got my mother at home, she can´t walk, should I leave her alone?“ Just last night this quarter was shelled again. At the moment there is a distant rumble from the area of the airport; mortars, it is said, some machine gun; this ceasefire is audible.
Around the corner there are tiny gardens in front of the houses, concrete benches and freshly planted rows of tulips. The sky has cleared in minutes and the sun is out again. We meet an old couple; the man grumbles he grew up in the second world war, he still knows where a shell comes from, and he knows they are Ukrainian, and his wife tells about her 19 years old great-grandson, who is fighting at the airport. She starts to cry, and Stanislava hugs her, and then Stanislava nearly starts to cry too, and says,“We have no right to lay down our arms, as long as those old people have to suffer like that.“
Bus again, and again hail, and Olga comments, the sun fights with the clouds, and someone adds, the battle between good and evil. A place in between, says Dana, the second translator, and this phrase seems to sum up their whole existence.
We stop at a market for a fast lunch; the next destination is Saur-Mogila. Next to the food stand flowers are sold, and I ask Olga, if it were okay if I took some along, it wouldn’t be proper if I, the German, went there without offering my respect to the Soviet soldiers, and which flowers it should be. Red carnations, she says, that’s the custom. But even numbers. Even, I ask, I always thought flowers are bought in odd numbers. Odd for the living, she answers, even for the dead; but she doesn’t know why. Later we ask Stanislava, who is a bit surprised to be needed in her civilian profession and says, the florists think it is because odd stands for the possibility of happiness.
The landscape changes on the way to Saur-Mogila, we drive through naked hills. There are trees, but no forests. Perhaps a kilometer from the monument the road turns into an alley of birches, some of them badly burnt. Again, like in Donetsk, there is a platform below the monument with old armory, and I ask myself what happened to it during the battles of last summer. Was it safeguarded somewhere? Was it used and now sent back to rest again? Or are these pieces a replacement already? In any case, one thing is unimaginable – that it stood there during these battles and stayed whole.
We walk up broken stairs in an relentless wind. I look for a place to leave the carnations, and I discover that the actual place for it is below the big iron boot that is the only standing remnant of the statue that once crowned the hill. An even number of red carnations for the monument of the old battle, and an even number for the fresh graves beside it; the same place, the same foe. Further down the figure of a Soviet soldier from one of the collapsed reliefs seems to crawl out between the debris. Between these parts of the monuments cut last years trenches. Past and present merge; truly a place in between.
Stanislava’s Chechen husband, our second guard, kids us by driving uphill on the grass beside the stairs in the car that accompanies our bus, and then overtaking us again on the way downwards. The rest of the hill we rush down, but the dark clouds that were still distant reach us before we reach the bus with another load of – hail.
Meanwhile half a dozen large buses arrived at the platform at the base of the hill, our second encounter with Vostok battalion today. This time it is a group mainly of adolescents who climb the hill ceremoniously under banners of victory.
We leave them behind and drive to Stepanovka, a village close by. Here nearly no house is left standing. Those that were left untouched are pretty buildings mainly in white and blue, with yellow flowers decorating the walls. The Right Sector had set up it’s headquarter here, we are told, and Iarosch’s brother used to drive up and down the road in a tank to shoot at the houses for fun. The Turk goes astray again and walks through the ruins to kneel down in front of a half-buried shell, even though the area is not yet completely cleared.
Back in the hotel we pass a silent night. But the places we visited in the morning are shelled once more. However, if anything happened to the tulips, I’m sure they will plant fresh ones again.