Life on the Demarcation Line: One Man’s Fate

Always when I approach Stanytsia Luhanska (a Ukrainian village bordering the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic), I feel anxiety. Inside, everything shrinks painfully and a sense of dread is combating an overwhelming desire to see my grandparents, to wander the streets I used to walk on as a child, to stop by a flower shop with my grandmother and to buy some fresh milk on the way home. We pull out onto the main street and move towards my grandparents’ house. So close, so far away.

Checkpoint “Stanytsia Luhanska” (Ukrainian side)

For almost seven years now, there has been war in eastern Ukraine. Parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions have been unofficially occupied by the Russian Federation, and now my hometown Luhansk is no longer the regional centre of Luhansk region in Ukraine, but is “proudly” called the capital of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. Seven years ago, it took ten minutes by car or 15 minutes by bus to get from Stanytsia Luhanska to Luhansk. Now they are separated by two security checkpoints, a foot bridge, kilometre-long queues and an all-consuming mutual hatred to each other.

I remember our escape from Luhansk as if it was yesterday instead of seven years ago. On June 2, 2014, I woke up at 5:30 in the morning, although the alarm clock should have rung much later. I woke up because the sound of a squall of wind outside my window. That’s what it felt like to me in the first few minutes of my awakening. The next few minutes later, I realized that it wasn’t wind at all, as such a noise was not realistic for wind. As I later found out, a Ukrainian fighter jet was flying over Luhansk and pro-Russian separatists were seizing a border outpost in an area that was a five-minute drive from our house and there was a fight between the separatists and the Ukrainian military. We followed the news the whole day. Around 6 p.m., a fighter jet launched an airstrike on the regional state administration of Luhansk. There were very many victims. In the evening the local news broadcast the names of the dead, and among them was my former teacher. What seemed so distant and unreal was now happening to me and my family. It was a Monday.

Sometimes I think that only God sees how sad I am when I come to Stanytsia Luhanska. It would seem that I am not on my way to Golgotha, I have a long-awaited meeting with my loved ones! If only everything was as easy as it seems at first sight… But first things first.

Damaged administration building

Having rested from the trip, my grandmother and I decided to take a walk around Stanytsia. There were brutal 15 degrees below zero frost outside, but the sun was shining brightly, making it seem that there was no cold at all. Walking along Central Street, I looked around. The flower shop was at the same place as before, and it touched me in a childlike way. It was a kind of reminder of my past life. But then I saw the administration building, and everything inside me shrank. In front of me stood the administration building, completely riddled with shells. It literally plunged me headlong into the icy water, forced me to put aside my childish sentiments and return to the merciless reality.

Turning onto another street, I also saw a huge number of houses destroyed. My grandmother told me and I knew it that Stanytsia Luhanska was on fire in the summer 2014. Shells flying from Luhansk city direction destroyed houses not only in Stanytsia Luhanska, but also in nearby settlements. That summer, my grandparents lived mostly in a cold basement, and only came out in the evening to have a word with the remaining neighbours and call us, i.e. the children and grandchildren, to say that everything was all right. Although who can say that what has been happening since 2014 is “all right”?

We decided to visit grandmother’s friend Galina (name has been changed) and talk to her. She lives alone in the house, and Galina’s mother-in-law lives next door. When there was active fighting in 2014, the two women, like my grandparents, hid in the basement. One day a tragedy almost happened. Galina was in the garden when she heard the howl of a flying shell. In a rush of adrenaline, she rushed to the basement, quickly ran into it and did not have time to close the first door tightly. She was already relatively safe behind the second door, but when a hail of shells began to fall nearby, she screamed in an act of desperation and held the door with her hands as if it would protect her. When the explosions stopped, Galina came out of her hiding place after a while and found the first door had come off its hinges and was lying in splinters nearby. Can we all imagine the force of the shock wave which caused the door to come off its hinges, like a leaf off a tree? Hardly. Seven years later, Galina still lives in Stanytsia Luhanska and does not intend to go anywhere. Because of the rising price for gas heating in Ukraine, Galina cannot afford to heat her house every day, or her pension will no longer be enough for anything else. She has had to install a makeshift stove in the house, which is heated with wood, and the pipe from the stove goes out the window. Galina only turns on the gas heating at night. This is how she has been living for the past few years.

St. Nicholas Church

After saying goodbye to Galina, we went straight home, but on the way we met another grandmother’s friend Marina (name has been changed). She is a deeply religious person and was just returning from the church. She told me that there was only one church in Stanytsia Luhanska – St. Nicholas Church. As a result of active hostilities from 2014 to 2016, the church was subjected to mortar fire, which caused partial damage of the structures there. It, like many other buildings, is in a poor state and needs to be maintained. All the repair and restoration work is carried out by the work and funds of the members of the parish. Unfortunately, there are still many unfinished repairs in the church, but there is very little financial support. Many inhabitants of Stanytsia Luhanska regularly visit the church and find in it the strength and support of the holy faith. The church also helps people in need, namely by providing food and shelter, clothing, and basic necessities. Such help is provided from funds donated by parishioners to charity.

Destroyed house in Stanytsia Luhanska

The whole time I was with my grandparents, I thought about the ruined lives of so many people that I couldn’t get my head around it. When it was time to leave, I was both sad and relieved. I certainly didn’t want to leave my grandparents, but I realised that if I stayed here for any longer I might lose my mind. Destroyed roads, piles of rubbish lying around houses, packs of hungry homeless animals that people either abandoned when they fled themselves or kicked out of their homes unable to feed them, ubiquitous Russian television (yes, despite the fact that Stanytsia Luhanska is a part of Ukrainian territory, the television here is predominantly Russian and in order to switch to Ukrainian television, one has to buy a special expensive set-top box, but almost none of the pensioners buy it, as they do not have extra money) and all this is covered by grey viscous hopelessness.

Most of the population of Stanytsia Luhanska are pensioners. And I ask myself and you: how is it possible that people who are almost at the end of their way, however it may sound cynically, and who sincerely love their country, do not even live but exist in such devastation and endless uncertainty? And how many such settlements are there not only in eastern Ukraine, but throughout the whole country? Famous writer Mikhail Bulgakov wrote that “he who loves must share the fate of the one he loves”. Reading all of the above, this phrase could safely be questioned, but no one has promised us the MUTUAL love, have they?