Note: this is the first article sent to my by the Saker Community representative in Novorussia, Dagmar Henn, from the German Saker Blog. Dagmar has had a tough trip, with very little opportunity to write and only sporadic and slow Internet connections (this is, after all, a war zone). I hope that this will be a first of a series of eyewitness reports by Dagmar about the reality of life in Novorussia today.
by Dagmar Henn
We stop in front of a burnt-out church. This is Petrovsky, one of the areas most affected by Ukrainian shelling. The destruction seems completely accidental, a shelling lottery that left ruins between untouched, immaculate buildings. This is a suburb with small single-floor houses built with red bricks, surrounded by green metal fences, squeezed between mines, factories and railroads. The whole landscape is dominated by the artificial hills, left by a century of mining, that still show their raw stoney faces.
This building was built in the 19th century as an administrative building, tells Alexandr Kolesnik, a member of the Novorosian parliament, later turned into a school and eventually transformed into a church, during perestroika. All the women in our group cover their heads. Stanislawska, one of our guards, rushes to the Turkish photographer to ask for the neckerchief around his neck, when she notices [deleted ‘that’] I don’t have anything on me that could be used as concealment, so I end up entering the place with his grey, cotton scarf over my hair. What once was the central room, is now an open ruin. Black marks slide down from the gawping holes that used to be windows, and the smell of burnt wood lingers in the air, even though the fire died down weeks ago. The roof of the entrance still exists, only now as a ceiling of charcoal. This is Donetsk’s tiny version, of Coventry cathedral.
A small room, behind the former sanctuary, still remains somewhat intact, and a tightly packed community is attending a service there. The area was shelled, without interruption, for a whole day, I am told, and when the church got hit, there were people inside, but luckily they managed to escape and nobody got killed.
There’s a yard behind the church, guarded by two chained dogs that loudly bark their protest against our intrusion; there’s a well in the yard and a few beds for vegetables too. In between a table, with a collection of metal tubes, the leftover of the shells that destroyed the church; is this Grad? No, this is not Grad, this is Uragan. Uragan shells are larger than Grad ones…
We continue our trip.
Between shrubs, small houses and a hill of mine spoils, a tiny hut reveals itself as the entrance to an old Soviet bomb shelter. I have never before entered one. As we walk down the concrete stairs, I think of my mother. When I was small, she tried to make me fold my clothes orderly after undressing, by telling me how useful it is, if you need to dress fast in the darkness of night, in case of a bomb alarm. I never wanted to fold my clothes, because I didn’t want to cause a war…
Behind two heavy white steel doors, starts a subterranean world full of beds, blankets, heaps of personal belongings and – people. Two girls with blond curls show up; the elder sister carries the younger in her arms; the little girl wears a pink dress and a silver crown and is presented as princess…
People cook there on tiny electrical cookers on the concrete floor, just a few meters from the next bed, directly below a picture depicting the structure of long gone Soviet defence. The top of the walls in the first hall are decorated with a fading frieze of the glorious Soviet army, which gives the whole place the atmosphere of a desecrated shrine of the past, invaded by inhabitants of the present. It’s a special form of cynicism that one of these once proudly coloured images shows a Grad rocket launcher, exactly the type of armoury they had to seek shelter from.
In the next room, the frieze is dedicated to the enemy forces, black-and-white sketches of Pershing rockets and Tornado jets; in the corner below, a small baldachin forms a tiny personal space filled with teddy bears and relics of humanitarian Christmas presents.
Some of those people have lived there since last year summer. Some of them don’t dare to leave the shelter; they smuggle other life in there, in the form of a parrot, a pigeon and a dog, that share their hidden habitation. It’s too far off from the town center for them, to reach the spots where humanitarian assistance is delivered, so their whole existence depends on volunteer deliveries, some of which are transformed into freshly made dumplings on a wooden table, with a direct view upon the sleeping man and the organigram of Soviet defences.
This was constructed as a nuclear shelter, so there is water, electricity and fresh air, though it smells moldy; a relative luxury compared to other shelters, which are actually just ordinary cellars, lacking all infrastructure for a longer inhabitation.
When she heard last summer that the Donetsk People’s Republic was preparing bomb shelters, Olga, my interpreter, thought it was ridiculous. Most of the shelters proved unusable; they had been connected with factories and mines, so the new owners stuffed them with something else or neglected maintenance, and some of them became the victims of shut-downs and bankruptcies. Still, who could seriously expect a fratricidal war turning the Soviet armoury against the people it was once built to protect?
Here nobody wants to talk to us. The member of the Novorussian parliament who accompanies us, gets targeted by the rant of an old miner, fragmentally translated by Olga, who probably censored out the curses. They just tell lies anyway. We don’t want to speak with them. While he delivers his anger, a middle-aged woman with a beautiful hairdo and make-up, pets the pigeon bound to one of the tubes, running through the second hall. It’s the skin of his hands, which betrays his former profession.
When we walk out of the shelter, the two girls sit silently beside each other, on one of the wooden benches.
It’s late afternoon when we arrive at the stadium of Donetsk. The recently landed UFO, with its glass facade, got scratched, but not heavily damaged through the hostilities. The sports heroes shown on the enormous banners decorating it, are long gone; the club moved to Western Ukraine, probably because it’s owner didn’t want to lose the chance to participate in the Champions league, even though it means that the fans from its home town, have to cross into now enemy territory to assist. The shiny stadium remains an empty shell, surrounded by the elaborate system of cages and fences the UEFA nobles use to control a wild proletarian mob.
It’s illuminated at night, says Olga, it’s beautiful, it looks like a diamond. I can’t confirm that; there’s still a curfew at night in Donetsk, so the only strangers able to see that, are the ones residing in the flashy new hotel towers, nearby.
Besides the stadium, is a monument for the Great Patriotic War, a late version from the 1980s, a black triangular construction with two big statues of a soldier and a miner; on the platform in front of it, tanks, anti-aircraft-guns and other WWII armoury. Stanislawka, the former florist, climbs an ancient APC and asks for a photo. The space next to it is empty; nobody knows whether the missing object was removed for a repaint in preparation for the approaching anniversary of Victory day or whether it was put back into service, as it happened to others of these monuments. Couples come here after their wedding, tells Olga, it’s tradition, to honour their ancestors, who fought to defeat fascism; how could we ever accept our history to be rewritten? How could we ever accept a Bandera rule?
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