On the Front Line

–What is your name?
–Zhenya.
–Where are you from?
–From Sverdlovsk. Nearly all of us are from there.
Zhenya is so young, tanned, and cute, that one wants to hug him. In a motherly fashion, with no ulterior motives. And it’s so wistful, so sad, when one realizes where he is.
I don’t know what they call the line of contact in other hot spots, but on the Donbass they say “the front”. It’s the very edge. You look over, and 800m away is “their” checkpoint. “Ukie” one, as they say.


It so happened we ended up there. On the front. I didn’t want to say or write that we were there.
My posts have long stopped being reports. And people have stopped reading about the Donbass. Sometimes it seems I am writing for a tiny and constant circle of readers.
What’s most terrifying is that my mom reads these posts. And every one of my trips means stress for her. We argue every time, and I promise every time we’ll only visit safe places.

I won’t name the location. But they did allow us to take occasional photos.
This is Galina, the head of the medical service.
–You can publish me as much as you want.
Galina’s husband went off to war almost immediately, and she went after him. As a chief medic. They are also from Sverdlovsk-Dovzhansk. This city is on the border between Russia and LPR. We at first thought they meant Ekaterinburg, which at one time was also named Sverdlovsk. But you often hear references to Sverdlovka among teh locals.
She and her husband are at the front three years already.
She puts on bandages, pressure dressings, and generally saves the boys’ lives. And she does look like she’s their mother. She laughs and summons us for the tea. There is something very homey about her, very familiar, very calming. She radiates borshch, cheese pancakes, and care.
And yet she’s spent all these years sleeping to the accompaniment of exploding shells. Their checkpoint got it, and more than once.

 

Most of the boys are young. Nearly all local. There are several Russian volunteers.
We walked a little in the heat with Zhenya, a young guy from Sverdlovka. Looked like 18.
–I’ve been here since ’14. In the militia.
He smiles but hides it. He has a very bright and naive face, and one can’t believe it. One can’t believe that face.

–What is that?
–We used to have a puppy, called him Case. Was killed by mortar bomb fragments. We loved him a lot. Was with us exactly two months.
“A puppy”. We walked in the heat with this boy along the road, and I kept asking him, and he kept answering and smiled like a kid. He was very shy. There was something so honest and earnest about him, it’s hard to describe. He did not self-promote, did not engage in bravado, did not try to make himself into a hero and a patriot. He answered simply and briefly. Monosyllabically. And when he started to talk about Case, he began to splutter. Something got a hold of him and he became a very different person. He described how this dog lived with them, how she ran, bit. How she was funny and impossible to tame. And how ishe covered someone with her body, saving his life. A man’s life. But perished herself. “A puppy.”

Artificial flowers at the pillbox.
–Beautification?
–Of course! See the grapes?

There are various types of people there. Many were suspicious of us. Journalists again. Had enough.
Others, on the other hand, were happy to see us and were asking with interest how things were “in the homeland.” Some went away and didn’t want to talk.
The heat was unbearable, and everyone was fairly listless.

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Any Donbass checkpoint represents something incomprehensible, self-made. Out of sandbags, old sofas, hand washers. Whatever was available. Some things were brought by locals from neighboring villages. Others they got themselves.

What can one say about the front?
Only one thing.
If they is an offensive, they are all dead. Zhenya, Galina and her husband. And everyone else.
They’d have few chances to survive. 15 minutes of battle and it’s all over.

 

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I wrote above that I didn’t want to write about being at the front. Or publish these photos.
But, you know, recently we had an argument on our plot in Gurzuf with someone. He was trying to prove to me the war on the Donbass started because Russia provoked it. That our mercenaries did all that, and that the people there themselves would have never done anything like that.
At that point I began to cry. I simply couldn’t find words.
I realize he backed his position with arguments, and many agree with him. Frankly, nearly the whole world agrees with him.

And at that moment I remembered Zhenya’s face who told me about the “puppy” so gently, as if he was not someone who spent three years at a checkpoint but a boy from the yard who plays games with his peers. I recalled Zhenya Ishchenko who with his bare hands extracted an unexploded Grad rocket from the asphalt, recalled militiamen whom I met there. With whom I happened to chat at checkpoints. Local guys who dropped everything and went off to defend their land. Who then, in ’14, froze in their trenches practically unarmed. For them it was “defending their home,” even if my acquaintance thinks they were forced to do so by Russian soldiers.
I cried. For all of them. From the unfairness.
They are being denied the right to defend their homes. Denied the ability to want anything on their own. Do you understand? All of these internet warriors, all of those who threw incendiary bottles in Kiev, the entire world can’t even for a second accept the fact these people can want to do something themselves.
–No, it’s Russian aggression.
Goddamit, go tell that to these guys at the checkpoints–who are fighting for them. Tell it to Galya and her husband to their faces, and to Zhenya.
Tell it to those who sit behind torn sandbags, who are short of medications and boots. Who feed puppies, who hang icons next to kalashnikovs, who places toys and hangs plastic grapevines. Who try to be “at home” there, on that horrible line of separation.
I didn’t want to write about it. I try to remain apolitical, after all. I try to look at the situation from the side, realizing that the other side has its own truth. Its own Zhenyas and Galyas.
But the truth here is that all these guys are in their own home. They didn’t go somewhere with weapons, others came to them.
I feel so bitter, damn it all to hell. It’s so unfair. To all of them.

 


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