Abbess Elizaveta is the mother superior of a convent in the village of Peski.
Currently she has no nuns under her supervision because Peski is on the frontline. The monastery was hit 35 times by shelling damaging buildings, the fruit garden and killing peacocks in the poultry house. The facility has had no water, gas and electricity for four years since the war started. The Abbess sees taking care of the convent despite the fighting as her responsibility, her obedience and an important spiritual experience. In practice, this experience includes long weeks of hiding in the basement, being threatened and being subject to looting by members of volunteer battalions.
Now that the fighting is less intense the convent is slowly coming back to life. Apple and pear trees in the garden are recovering from the damage. Recently the two surviving peacocks had chicks. The baby birds are growing and recognize Abbess Elizaveta already. Two weeks ago a mass was served in the convent for the first time since the beginning of the war. The only parishioners who attended were the soldiers from nearby positions: almost no civilians remain in this previously lively suburb of Donetsk. *** This is the last post in the series for now: our current assignment is over. We are very grateful to @eyewitnesstoatrocities who sent us to record the human stories in shelled civilian neighborhoods, to the beautiful and brave people in Eastern Ukraine who shared their experiences with us and to readers who approach our posts with open minds and hearts. We will continue soon because we believe that people who live on the frontlines pay the greatest price for the political and military ambitions of others, and that we must listen to their voices. Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind @anastasiatl and words by Alisa Sopova @sopova.alisa on assignment in Eastern Ukraine for @eyewitnesstoatrocities www.eyewitnessproject.org. #5kfromthefrontline#fivekilometersfromthefrontline
Valentina Mountyan loves foraging for mushrooms. When she was a child, her father taught her how to identify the good ones from the bad ones. Now she is teaching her niece Miroslava to find Russules, the most popular forest mushrooms in this region, among the leaves. This hobby provides the family with a nice dietary supplement: mushrooms get fried with potatoes, added to soups and pickled for winter.
Currently Valentina cannot go to the mushroom places she knows from childhood: nearly all the woods around her native Avdeevka are turned into frontline positions or contaminated with landmines. So she has to limit her foraging to a single forest zone that locals consider relatively safe.
Unfortunately, the knowledge of the surroundings often fails people who live by the frontlines, and landmines appear to be where they don’t expect to find them. Last Saturday, three teenagers stepped on a mine in a graveyard in rebel-controlled Gorlovka, two of them died. Only a few days earlier a farmer was hospitalised with heavy wounds after driving his tractor over a hidden explosive device in a field near the government-controlled village of Granitnoe.
According to a recent UN report, Eastern Ukraine has become one of the most mine-contaminated regions in the world.
Rodion Lebedev lives in Opytnoe, a suburb of Donetsk that became the frontline.
He used to be a small business owner. He had three children and a house that he built by himself and finished decorating three months before the war started. He also had three dogs, two cats, a guinea pig, a parrot and a turtle.
All the pets died during the war – some from shelling, others from stress. The oldest son, the one who would always help Rodion in business and housework, moved away when the war started and the family hasn’t seen him in two years. Their house was shelled multiple times. Rodion walked us around to show the furniture, wallpaper and wrought iron railings, all mutilated by shell hits.
Rodion suffered a lot from the actions of the members of Ukrainian volunteer battalions who suspected him of helping the enemy. They beat and humiliated him, looted his house in his presence and threatened to rape his wife.
Despite these traumatic experiences, Rodion stayed in the village and began helping neighbors, mostly elderly people more vulnerable than himself. Currently his yellow minivan is the only connection between Opytnoe and the outer world, driving free of charge people, groceries, cash and humanitarian aid along the mud road through the minefield to nearby Avdeevka.
Currently Opytnoe has no electricity, gas or water supplies, and the prospect of resuming them is not promising. But Rodion stays there, and for all the grandmas depending on him it means that the village is still alive. He also has a new pet in his house – a Scottish Fold cat named Tyoma. The authorities make it clear that the heavily damaged infrastructure in the grey zone won’t be repaired in the foreseeable future. But Rodion is stubborn and resourceful. “I saved some money and I am ready to rebuild my house,” he says, “And I am planning to install a solar panel on the roof.” Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind @anastasiatl and words by Alisa Sopova @sopova.alisa on assignment in Eastern Ukraine for @eyewitnesstoatrocities www.eyewitnessproject.org. #5kfromthefrontline#fivekilometersfromthefrontline
People in rural Ukraine rely on subsistence farming a lot, especially in times of war when jobs, access to goods and the banking system is unstable. Everyone here knows that you cannot depend on the government to survive winter but you can stuff your cellar with potatoes, conserved vegetable salads, pickles and jams from your garden. Summer is the time to grow, harvest and conserve plants.
Even people whose houses are uninhabitable because of the damage come back almost every day to work in their gardens. They clean up debris, bury shell holes and continue to cultivate the land. Often they find bullets and shrapnel among tomato and cucumber beds. It’s too hot in the middle of the day, so people usually start gardening late in the afternoon. So did Elena and Alexander when we visited them in their house next to the militarized zone. Afternoon is also the time when gunfire begins at the frontline, a few hundreds away from here, to be followed by shelling later in the evening. But the couple ignores shooting and continues weeding and watering plants. They believe it’s relatively safe as long as you follow some simple rules. For example, avoid climbing trees because the higher you are the greater the chance of getting hit by a random bullet, one of the many that fly around here in excess. Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind @anastasiatl and words by Alisa Sopova @sopova.alisa on assignment in Eastern Ukraine for @eyewitnesstoatrocities www.eyewitnessproject.org. #5kfromthefrontline#fivekilometersfromthefrontline
Masha was born four days ago. She doesn’t know yet that her home is next to the frontline.
Her parents, Diana and Dmitry, are Baptists. They believe that whatever happens, either war or a new baby, is God’s will. The family already has two daughters, 10-year old Sofia and 5-year old Veronica. All of them live in an unsafe neighborhood in Avdeevka, next to the battlefield.
When the war started, Veronica was only one year old. Once Diana was outside with her when shelling started. She had to throw her daughter on the ground, lay over her and pray that they survive. When she had a chance to look up, she saw that a neighbor, an old lady who was just standing next to them, had her head torn off in the explosion.
Sophia, the older daughter, is going through therapy to recover from her war trauma. On the therapist’s request she made a drawing of her life: children in the playground and a cave next to them. The cave, she explained, is to hide from shelling.
Now the situation in Avdeevka is more quite than before: you can hear shelling nearly every day, but it seldom reaches residential areas. Even though there is no political solution to the conflict currently, Dmitry and Diana hope this standstill means that their youngest daughter will have less traumatic childhood.
Today we went for a picnic with the Grinik family and their horse Lastochka (Swallow). We met them earlier this week and were amazed by their easy and positive attitude to life, which they’ve managed to preserve despite living next to military positions, under shelling for four years.
Before the war they would go picnicking in the forest next to their house. Now it’s turned into a restricted area, full of trenches and landmines. So Olga, with her two kids Miroslava and Kirill, her sister Valentina with teenage daughter Vika, and us took seats in the wagon while Nikolay took the driver’s seat, and Lastochka carried us to another, safer recreation zone. Everyone in the town knows this family and their horse, so people on the way were waving and smiling at us. Sometimes we had to stop because children were offering Lastochka apples.
We spent afternoon beside a picturesque meadow with a lake view, barbequing chicken wings, potatoes and eggplants, chatting and playing with the kids. Nikolay and Vika took a swim in a lake. The open-air was accompanied by the never-ending sounds of shelling and gunfire at the frontline, but nobody paid attention. These sounds have long become a habitual background for everyday life. People here joke that it’s silence that makes them feel uncomfortable now. Shelling means that everything goes on as usual; no one knows what silence may bring.
On the way back the children fell asleep on our laps. We were talking with Nikolay about how horse rides evolved from the basic transportation to exotic attraction. “Can you imagine that before armies would go to the battlefields with cavalries of thousands of horses?” he said, “Back then, the wars were more fair because soldiers used to fight each other face to face. Now they are launching this howitzer,” he pointed towards the heavy growl at the horizon, “and God knows where it’s going to land: maybe on enemy’s positions and maybe on our heads.” Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind @anastasiatl and words by Alisa Sopova @sopova.alisa on assignment in Eastern Ukraine for @eyewitnesstoatrocities www.eyewitnessproject.org. #5kfromthefrontline#fivekilometersfromthefrontline
At the edge of Avdeevka there is a community center and next to it a minefield. Past that is Donetsk airport, the main battlefield of this war, now controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
Despite such close proximity to the frontline, the community center is actively used for sport and creative activities. Wedding ceremonies are also carried out here since the registry office is in two small and dark rooms in a shelled building down the street.
Today, Alina and Igor got married married here. For The hall was decorated with an arc of artificial flowers and a red carpet for the occsssion. As Ukraine is a largely secular society, the ceremony was conducted by a state registrar, a charming lady whose profession is to marry people. After signing their marriage certificate, according to the tradition, the bride and the groom bowed to their parents. “Now that you are married to each other don’t forget to call your parents and come to visit them,” said the registrar lady.
In frontline Avdeevka these words are especially timely as many young people leave to safer places in search of more opportunities while their parents and grandparents stay behind. Earlier today doctors in the local hospital told us that they often deal with old people who die alone while nobody can get in touch with their relatives.
After the ceremony, the newly weds departed for their wedding photo shoot. Before the war everyone would go to take pictures in Donetsk, which was only a 15 minute drive away. But now that Donetsk happens to be on the enemy side of the frontline, the local fashion is to go to Avdeevka sand quarry that provides a reasonably romantic background of beach and water.
As the wedding procession was leaving the parking lot, two soldiers with their guns walked into the minefield on their way to the positions.
If you are covering the war in Eastern Ukraine in summer, you will come home every night with bags full of fruits and vegetables from the garden. People who live by the frontlines and have no access to basic services won’t let you go away empty-handed.
Maria Fedorovna (or Baba Masha as she refers to herself) lives in the village of Opytnoe in the grey zone. Only with a mud road through a mine field connects the village to the rest of the world. There is no electricity, water or gas here, and people don’t light candles in front of the windows because it may attract sniper fire.Baba Masha’s house and garden got six artillery hits, and her son was killed by shelling in front of her. She insisted that we take a bunch of cucumbers and plums when we left. “Girls, I am ok, I have plenty of everything here,” she said, “I just want them to leave us alone, and also the electricity back.” By “them” she refers to whoever is in charge of the war. She doesn’t care who exactly.
People in the war zone are always trying to treat you, from soldiers offering their lunch to civilians handing you fruits from their gardens. Earlier this year I joined an ICRC convoy bringing food supplies to a village that suffered heavily from recent fighting. When I arrived, I found a feast prepared for us in the shelled village council.
It’s not just about hospitality, but also about dignity. People who get into difficult situations don’t automatically turn into miserable refugees that TV coverage often depicts. They don’t want to be viewed as pitiful victims but rather as those who can still contribute to society in one way or another.
After four years of war people whose houses happen to be next to the frontline became desensitized to the sound of shelling. Now olga is putting her baby to sleep with the sounds of combat in the background. Neither react to the explosions.
Contrary to the popular belief, it doesn’t mean that they gave up and stopped caring about their safety. It means that they have become involuntary experts in ballistics, capable of determining the degree of danger.
Usually they don’t pay attention as long as they hear that the shelling is outgoing. When they hear incoming, they start listening carefully. Signs of closer hits, such as particularly loud sound, tangible explosion wave or car alarms triggered by it, usually serve as signals to go inside. Everyone knows the safest place in the house or apartment where the family gathers at such moments. Usually it is basement, bathroom, entrance hall or any other room without windows, protected by the walls.
Guests like us are also given simple emergency instructions. Today it sounded like this: “Don’t worry, these sounds are safe. If it gets bad, you won’t mistake it with anything. If you see us running inside, follow us. If it comes unexpected, just go down under the metal gate, it’s thick enough.” Such precautions work often but not always. A year ago a whole family in this neighborhood was killed while barbequing by a random shell that fell without any warning.
We often refer to our pets as members of the family. For Elena and Aleksander, their German shepherd Lord is definitely one.
The family lives on the most dangerous edge of Avdeevka, next to the forest where the fighting happens. There are at least three military positions around, that they know of, 100 to 300 meters away. Their house has had three direct artillery hits and multiple damages from the shelling around them. Now it presents something in between a real house and a makeshift shelter, with plastic covering instead of a roof, pieces of chip board instead of ceiling and closed doors leading to rooms that don’t exist anymore.
When the house was hit for the first time in 2014, Lord was burnt so badly that they thought he would die. The family chose to save on food so that they could pay for all the treatment that he needed, and managed to save the dog’s life. Now the only visible sign of his injuries is the missing half of his ear.
Another time Lord was shot in the leg by a soldier. Elena was so outraged that she made a scene and forced the armed men to drive her dog to the vet and save him again.
Soon it was Lord’s turn to save his family. One night Aleksander didn’t wake up when the shelling got really close to the house. At some point Lord began forcefully pulling him out of the bed by the arm. He woke up and followed the dog, and the next moment a shell hit and collapsed the wall.
Shooting and explosions can still be heard here every day, but actual arrivals are not that common anymore. However, people don’t hurry to come back: currently there are only 10 houses inhabited on the street. Elena, Aleksander and Valentina who lives next to them feed and water the pets left behind by their neighbors.
“Everything is ok, but our neighbors are a bit noisy,” this is how Olga and Nikolay Grinik refer to their life 50 meters away from a Ukrainian frontline military position on the edge of Avdeevka. The young couple take life as it comes. Both their kids were born during the war, and they joke about it. “In 2014 we were sitting without electricity for three months because of fighting. Nine months later our daughter Miroslava was born. In 2016 we had no light for a month, and nine months later we got our son Kirill. How else you gonna entertain yourself in the darkness? Now we pray there is no electricity outage again,” says Nikolay. The family owns the only horse in frontline Avdeevka – 11-years old Lastochka (Swallow). She contributes to the family budget: on the weekends they give cart rides to kids in downtown Avdeevka. “This is where we stable Lastochka, and this is where soldiers live,” little Miroslava tells us on the way out pointing at the trenches and sandbag fortifications at the end of the street. Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind @anastasiatl and words by Alisa Sopova @sopova.alisa on assignment in Eastern Ukraine for @eyewitnesstoatrocities www.eyewitnessproject.org. We’ve been working together over the last 4 years and are experimenting with a new project idea #5Kfromthefrontline#fivekilometersfromthefrontline
Today we are starting our second assignment in Eastern Ukraine to document the violations of human rights in the war zone and to tell about the life of common people who have to deal with the war next door. The first #5Kfromthefrontline post to be out tonight!