Chapter 2 of Alex Kahn’s adventures… He wanted to see the war. And he did in Ukraine last Autumn. Here is one month of his unique diaries at the heart of an un-reported conflict.
Day 1: Hey ho Let’s go!
It was the morning of the day I would start hitchhiking from my grandparents town of Gotovlje towards Ukraine. I thought I’d start by getting to Kiev and then maybe explore Kharkiv and then I’d see what happens along the way. My mum was in Slovenia and while she was at a dance class (not sure what kind of dance it was) she met a woman from Ukraine, so she mentioned my plans and that girl said that I could stay at her friends place in Kiev. Oh yeah!!
My mum volunteered to drive me to the Hungarian border to give me a head start. She dropped me off at a truck stop, she quickly hopped out and grabbed a truck driver who was at the stop and solicited a ride for me. Way to go mum!
The truck driver was leaving the stop iabout an hour later, there was no one else around and he was going a decent distance so I decided to wait. I sat on my backpack on the ground while eating some homemade sandwiches from my grandma anxiously awaiting for the journey to come.
The last time I hitchhiked was only four months ago in North and south Cyprus but I felt like I was still a newbie. While I contemplated over my sandwiches a man who was working at a shop at the stop walked over and said something in Hungarian. I hinted that I didn’t understand and he said: “this is private property, leave now” in a grumpy manner. I asked why. He didn’t answer. While the man spoke to me, trying to convince me to leave the truck driver came out of the shop and explained the situation, I made out the word “migrant” when the shop owner spoke to the truck driver. I said I was Slovenian but the shop owner wouldn’t believe me. I can easily pass for a Middle Eastern person because I have ancestry from Iran and because of my darker skin from living in Barcelona. So it’s kind of understandable, also at this time was when the Hungarian government was putting up a fence on its border with Serbia and the Hungarian media was bringing up some very nasty, twisted and negative propaganda towards the migrants. Frankly I was shocked and quite angry at the shop owner’s xenophobic attitude towards migrants.
After finishing my sandwiches and the shop owner still not convinced that I was European, it was time to board the truck and head deeper into Hungary. The truck driver was a nice young Hungarian guy who had worked in his truck driving company for two years. I can’t remember his name. I asked him about the migrant crisis in Hungary, he told me that he saw streams of migrants walking from the Serbian border to Budapest along the highway and that some have tried to sneak into his lorry.
After only a thirty minute drive, he dropped me off at a small resting spot before he turned off the highway and incredibly I saw a car with a Ukrainian number plate with the letters “AA” on it. I learnt from www.Hitchwiki.org that “AA” is a postal code for Kiev. I walked up to the car and solicited a ride but sadly the car was full. I waited about ten more minutes sticking my thumb at the exit to the motorway and a middle aged couple who were on an overland holiday trip drove me all the way to Budapest.
I was dropped off when I saw a sign with the road heading towards the Ukrainian border and started to walk down it. I walked for about three hours as it’s really hard to find a ride inside populated areas. I had to walk out of the city.
It was about 8 pm at this point and finally I got a ride from another kind man heading only fifty kilometres towards the border. But hey how could I complain, 400 kilometres and a capital city cleared in one day. That was a winner.
I was dropped off at a gas station at dusk about an hour from sundown and I saw a bridge about a kilometre away, so I hid under it and rolled out my sleeping bag and slept for the night with the sound of echoing lorries and cars on the highway.
Day 2: Introducing….. Ukraine!
The next morning I couldn’t tell If I had slept at all or not but I was feeling good and that was all that mattered. I headed back to the gas station and started soliciting rides with truck drivers with no luck. I ended up sticking out my thumb at the exit and was picked up by some Romanians heading towards Nyiregyhaza. We arrived three hours later.
Once we arrived at Nyiregyhaza I started walking out of the city again on the road to the Ukrainian border which was now only 50 to 70 kilometres away. I was picked up by another Hungarian man who was not going to the Ukrainian border but said that he would happily drive me there if I let him finish delivering some stuff. I was like: “of course, Thank you very very much!”
After unloading some stuff and chatting a bit in very broken English he dropped me off at the border. The border town of Zahony was pretty much abandoned, there were so few souls around. Normally these border towns are booming with markets and people coming to buy cheaper merchandise and rarities from each other’s side. Not on this border it seems. I approached the border and the guards on the Ukrainian side scanned me and asked what I was doing, and I said that I was English and travelling around Europe. Some guards were indifferent to my response and asked to see all my luggage and so I showed them. One guard who was around 22 came up to me and asked me about my journey, he explained that it was his dream to do the same! Lovely chap! In the end they said that I couldn’t cross the border on foot so the Ukrainian border guards solicited a ride for me with a couple of Italians heading for the closest big Ukrainian city of Uzhorod. Thanks a lot buddies!!
It took about six hours to get from Uzhorod to Mukachevo and even then I was only taken about 50 kilometres with over five rides. Apparently everyone lives nearby and no one is going to the big city on its main road!!! The moment I entered Ukraine it appeared that hitchhiking had become a lot slower. People were a bit more conservative. Nevermind, I was happy to see the Ukrainian Orthodox churches that I had only see in pictures until that day.
There were a few military check points on the roads and war propaganda posters encouraging people to join the army everywhere.
At first I was a bit concerned about whether or not the army would be suspicious of me but it became apparent quickly, as I passed a few check points, that I was ignored rather than overlooked. Of the five drivers that drove me the short distances that day in Ukraine from Uzhorod to Mukachevo, one guy had a “Pravi Sektr” flag in it. The Pravi Sektr or the right sector is the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist political party that the Russian propaganda loves to point to as evidence of Ukraine being a fascist state. (red and black flag)
In the evening I was now crossing the Ukrainian Carpathian mountains. I had hoped to clear them that day but it looked like that would not be going to be possible. I left my post that I had been waiting at on the side of the road sticking out my thumb for the last thirty minutes and walked down the road until I found some farmers and I asked them if I could camp on their land. They agreed and fed me some of their home grown organic apples. I was grateful and needless to say, it was cold up in the mountains that night.
Day 3: Reality checks
I woke up the next morning and packed up my due ridden tent in the mountain mist and cold and stuck out my thumb on the side of the road again. Hitchhiking in Ukraine is nothing like in Hungary. It takes much longer generally, take my word for it!
After about an hour I got a ride from an awesome Ukrainian middle aged couple who drove me all the way to Lviv with banging loud dubstep music! For someone like me who never travels with music, it was a blast!
We arrived at Lviv two hours later and I was dropped off in the centre. I headed to change some money and I was blown away at the exchange rate of Euro to Ukrainian Hryvna. I felt a bit guilty thinking “This is ridiculously cheap, this is amazing!”
I thought, since I’m in Lviv, I’ll look around the centre and boy was it a surprise. The centre was filled with tents, all of which were donation collector centres for the army. Basically, Ukraine was completely unprepared and militarily underequipped for the war and so many volunteers had not only gone to fight without pay but also the army received 5/6 of its funding from private volunteers and about 1/6 of the funding from the government.
After spending the day around the centre it started getting dark so as I was passing by the train station I thought I’d look up the notorious Ukrainian railways. Apparently there was a train leaving Lviv thirty minutes later, an overnight train all the way to Kiev for 10 Euros. I took the train. No rules! To sleep comfortably, while arriving to Kiev the next morning and also having a truly ex Soviet train experience….why not!
Day 4: Kiev welcomes you.
Several times during the night we had active Ukrainian soldiers come into the wagon to ask for donations for the army, I never gave any. Donations for the army? Give money to keep killing? Of course, most Ukrainians don’t see it that way, most see it as the only means of protecting their country from Russia. And let me just stress here that absolutely everyone that I met in Ukraine during my whole 40 day trip believed that they were in fact at war with Russia and that the separatists in the Donbass region in Ukraine were not only supported by Russia but also that active Russian service men were joining them in battle.
I’ll come back to that later…
I got off the train at 6 am and met up with my mum’s dancer friend friend’s friend Irina at the Maidan station. Irina was a really nice lady who lived on the outskirts of Kiev with her daughter and husband. She let me stay at their place for two days. Me and Irina could only communicate using my Google Translate application on my phone. She asked me what I wanted to do in Ukraine?
I said: “I want to join a humanitarian aid organisation so that I can understand for myself what is going on.”
Immediately, she got onto the phone and called a friend of her’s and she said that, the next day, I could meet her friend’s son who had studied in Kiev and who could tell me about the volunteering opportunities.
I was awe struck! Wow Yakuju yakuju yakuju! (Thank you, thank you, thank you).
Day 5: The heavenly hundred.
The next day I walked over to the Maidan square to explore the memorial of the “Heavenly Hundred”.
Basically, two years ago a series of protests happened in the central square of Kiev, also known as Maidan square. The protests were later called the EuroMaidan protests. The protests started as Pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych made a sudden U turn in his diplomatic steps of strengthening relations with the EU and started strengthening relations with Russia, turning his back on Europe. At the same time he introduced new laws that basically illegalised any form of protesting. Sure enough, hundreds of thousands of protesters from all around Ukraine and the world staged an occupation of the Maidan square and an occupation of the administration building of Kiev. Thousands of police shot teargas grenades and the square became a battlefield for 30 days resulting in the death of 100 protesters and thousands injured. It was everywhere in the news when it was happening. During the last days of the protests an infamous police brigade mostly from Crimea called the “Berkut” were called in and took sniper positions around the city and shot dead several protesters. The “Berkut” are often used in the Ukrainian propaganda as Russian agents who were called upon by Russia’s puppet in Ukraine (Viktor Yanukovych). After the protests, the president fled to Russia and a newly temporary election candidate stepped into the stage of Ukrainian inspiration, a pro-European candidate Yuliya Tymoshenko. Now the president is Poroshenko who many Ukrainians have called a “good oligarch”. I wonder about that.
There are remnants of the fighting still in the Maidan today, as most people have decided not to rebuild the site in order to remember the struggle.
The war propaganda was huge in the Maidan, soldiers pretty much begging for donations, and even stickers on lamp posts asking for donations for the army.
I guess no one could have known what would happen after the revolution at the Maidan. A few weeks after the revolution, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula and a civil unrest began in the Donbass region. Rebels with anti European and Pro Russian sentiment began arming themselves and soon Eastern Ukraine fell into civil war. It’s been two years now since the war began and now the fighting has deescalated a lot compared to how bad it used to be. Now the lines and the trenches have been drawn and for the past month, the two sides have waged small skirmishes and from the safety of their lines. The Ukrainian army has now set up a blockade of thousands of checkpoints between the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk and the rest of Ukraine. But the area that is strictly controlled by the army is called the “ATO zone” or the “anti terrorist operation zone”.
I still had a few hours to kill so I walked around some other sites of Kiev and later met Irina’s friend’s son Anton at his university. Anton was 20 years old and spoke perfect English and was a very smart chap. He took me to a second hand shop and festival where he introduced me to his friend Katarina, they looked like a couple or maybe they both put each other into the friendzone. We sat down with some beers at a bench near the festival and started talking and they asked me:
“If you are travelling around Europe, why would you come to Ukraine?”
“Because, I want to learn about what is happening here for myself because there is just so much contradicting information on the internet and the news.”
“So, where do you want to go?”
“As far as I can go. I guess I’ll try hitchhiking to Kharkiv to learn about the Pro-Russian sentiment there as it is so close to the frontline and then maybe I can go into the ATO zone somehow. Ideally I would like to find a humanitarian aid organisation with which I can go with so that I’m not just a lonely traveller or a war tourist. Are there any volunteer opportunities that you know of here in Kiev that may be heading to the ATO zone?”
Anton and Katarina spoke to each other for a moment and said that Katarina knew someone who was volunteering and that they had his number, Katarina instantly got onto the phone and called her friend and she made at least ten calls and was on the phone for about fifteen minutes. She was being directed from friend to friend to friend until she handed me the phone.
“Hello, sir” said a candid voice in English. My name is Sviatoslav, and I have been informed that you are a capable individual who is seeking volunteer opportunities to help the Ukrainian cause.”
I was surprised at his impressive use of English as a Ukrainian.
“Yes, well I wouldn’t say that I have anything that another person can’t offer to help. I have travelled here wishing to offer my hands or anything else that I can help with.”
“Well, there is certainly no shortage of spare hands these days and there is also most certainly no shortage of volunteer opportunities. What is your speciality?”
“Well, I have a TEFL certificate, so I can teach English and I am eager and willing to do any physical work also.”
There was a short silence in Sviatoslav’s words.
“We are having a meeting about an imminent humanitarian trip to the ATO zone tomorrow at 15 o clock. You are more than welcome to join us.”
“Yes, Yes, it would be my joy and honour to join you and meet with you. Thank you so much!”
“You are welcome, best regards!
“Goodbye, thanks again”
I gave the phone back to Katarina and just paused, baffled at what had just happened. “Thank you so very very much Katarina!”
We returned to the festival to meet a few more of Anton’s friends that had been looking for us, another supposed couple: Inna and Max. As we chatted away I changed the topic and said
“I’ve noticed that you guys speak Russian to each other.”
“Yes, said Max, more than half of the Ukrainian population has some family member with Russian ties. So, most people speak Russian to each other.”
“Is Ukrainian really so different?”
“No, it isn’t but mostly the people in the West speak Ukrainian.”
Then Inna interrupted saying: “We are all Russians (indicating everyone around the table) but we fucking hate Russia.”
Day 6: But, someone has to go.
I left Irina’s place with my backpack full and headed to the volunteer meeting after our goodbyes and thank yous.
I arrived a bit early at the given location and found a building with the UN sign on it. And I immediately thought “huh, are they sponsored by the UN?”
It turned out, I was right.
A young girl answered the bell and was surprised at my English, she spoke pretty good English as well though. Her name was Elena and she brought me into a meeting room with several other people, none of which could speak English. I felt a bit embarrassed that I walked in with all my stuff in my backpack, unshaven as if I’d just come from the side of the highway.
Elena was the financial manager of the organisation called “Novi Donbass” or “New Donbass”. Then I met Taras who was the logistics manager but very young like my age and seemed a bit shy. Then there was a girl named Sasha who was also about 22 and she was also some kind of logistical manager. And Lora who was the director of the mission and of the organisation and was about 30 to 35 years old. With just gestures we could kind of understand each other.
I explained that Mr. Sviatoslav had invited me but they explained that Sviatoslav would not be attending, so they asked if I knew anything about the organisation, to which I said no. Elena then took me to the room next door and explained what New Donbass was:
So new Donbass is basically a cultural and humanitarian organisation funded by many other organisations and private donors. Their main aim is going into the war ridden territories that have now been recaptured by the Ukrainian army and rebuild the schools, hospitals and sometimes the administration buildings, they also want to reintroduce Ukrainian national identity to the children in those areas.
As we spoke, a young man walked into the room. “Another youngster!” I thought. For a UN sponsored organisation, it was quite a surprise to see so many young people.
He was wearing dark heavy clothes and had long hair in a low pony-tail. Elena introduced me to Vadym and said “Vadym is quite new, he is our guitar teacher”. Vadym seemed to speak very good English and he later explained that he studied and worked for the Wisconsin University in Kiev. I left my heavy backpack on the ground and Vadym offered to translate the meeting from Russian to English for me, which was awesome!
The meeting began as a few new people who had entered the room while we were in the back room introduced themselves. Dima who was a theatre performer and teacher. Anya who was an art teacher. Ksenia who was also an art teacher, Galia, who was a professional journalist, Natalia who was an assistant director and Nastja who was an artist. There was only Natalia and Lora who were above the ages of twenty five. One by one everyone explained their roles in the upcoming mission: art teachers, guitar teachers, video making teachers, history teachers….
And so, when the turn came to me, I asked Vadym if he could translate for me. He agreed.
“Hello, my name is Alex, I’m 20 years old, I am from the UK and I am very happy to be here. I was informed of this meeting only a few hours ago and I would very much like to join you in your mission as an English teacher if you need one. Thank you.”
Lora looked a bit lost, and said. “Do you know where we are going?”
I said. “Yes”
And she laughed saying “Why”.
And I said, hoping to impress the group and to allow me to join them: “Someone has to go.”
She smiled and sat back and the next person introduced themselves.
Lora then pointed to a map on the wall and explained that we are going to the ATO zone two days later to a town called “Stanisa luhanska” only two kilometres from the LNR or the self declared “Luhansk peoples republic border. And to the East about ten kilometres from the Russian border.
She then spoke about safety precautions in case of enemy attacks, from mines, to artillery fire to shelling. She explained that there is always a risk of these things happening, especially since the mortar and artillery range is of 40 kilometres so we will be well in range.
All of us would always be accompanied by a military convoy during our whole stay in the ATO zone as well as possess two mobile phones. One of which would only be used in a life or death emergency and would address the army immediately. The mission would basically consist of the ten of us going to three different schools in a rotary fashion over the course of ten days in the neighbouring villages to reintroduce Ukrainian identity into these schools and their students by giving classes to the students, each in our respective speciality, also with the intention of giving a positive impression of the outside world and of other Ukrainians.
She went on to explain that Stanisa Luhanska and its surrounding towns used to be controlled by the Pro-Russia separatists and after a six months bombing campaign from both sides, the Ukrainian army won the town back. About half of the population of Stanisa Luhanska had left during the fighting. Novi Donbas had already provided funds to rebuild these schools(one of which was directly hit by a shell round and the other two had all shattered windows because of the shockwave that is caused by the shelling). But we hadn’t met the students yet.
We were to leave two days later and Lora had told me that I needed to go to the British embassy the next day to get a letter of recommendation so that the Ukrainian army could let me into the ATO zone.
Officially foreigners were not allowed into the ATO zone unless they were in the army or humanitarian aid workers.
I found a cheap hostel for the night for three euros. God bless Ukraine.
Day 7: Don’t you just love beaurocracy.
The next day I went to the British embassy in Kiev and requested the letter of recommendation, to which the ambassador said:
“That area is a warzone and we will not facilitate any of our citizens to travel there.”
……….Dead end. I gave a few calls and sent a few emails to the ministry of defence of Ukraine with no luck.
“Defeated and sad, I gave a call to Sviatoslav explaining my situation and that I was sorry for the inconvenience and also to thank him for the opportunity.”
During the evening I thought I’d drown my disappointment by meeting some Couchsurfers for some beers. At about 9 pm, while at the park with the Couchsurfers I got a call from Sviatoslav. And he said:
“I have news from a friend, as long as you are an active volunteer in a humanitarian aid organisation, then you don’t need a letter of invitation from your embassy. You are leaving tomorrow with New Donbass”.
I was so happy, so happy that as I walked back to my hostel, my lucky charm pendant unstrapped from the string around my backpack and shattered on the ground. “Is that a bad omen?” I thought. We’ll find out.
Day 8: My scar on my right thumb and left knee.
At 9 pm we packed up all our stuff and boarded the train toward Stanisa Luhanska. Everyone said their goodbyes and one volunteer Sasha decided not to join us at the last minute due to her fear of the danger. The train began its journey and we were all called to a meeting. We were all instructed to provide two physical descriptions of ourselves so that the army could identify us if one of us was held hostage or if in the worst case scenario, one of us died and the army needed to identify our bodies.
I said, “my scar on my right thumb and my scar on my left knee.”
Lora explained that all nationalist symbols are to be disposed of, from Ukrainian flags to separatist flags, even the matching colours are not to be seen together. She explained that there is always a risk of being threatened not only by armed rebels but also by Pro-Russian locals who still live on the Ukrainian side but that it was unlikely as most people with Pro-Russian sentiment had already moved to the LNR and DNR.
I was handed a “New Donbass volunteer identification card”, it looked super official. I guess that’s kinda the point. With this piece of paper, I was an official member of this organisation and the army would just accept it.
There were a lot of military personnel on the train. I tried to refrain from speaking in English around them as I feared it could cause some hassle. I even saw an orthodox priest on the train. Apparently he explained that he was going to support and give his blessings to the soldiers on the frontlines.
Before tucking into bed I spoke to Dima, one of the New Donbass volunteers who was a theatrical performer and he said that he hoped to use theatre as a psychological healer that could help people bring out traumatizing experiences in a safe way, a way that would not inspire them to commit violent acts towards themselves or others.
I told him about the “Freedom Theatre” in Palestine that I visited in 2014 where they used drama therapy on a theatrical stage to bring out the children’s and teenagers’ traumas that they experienced under Israeli occupation in hope of moving them away from becoming suicide bombers and teach them to fight without violence.
Day 9: Entering the ATO zone.
We woke up an hour before our arrival to Rubisne, where we would meet our driver who would drive us to meet our army escorts during our whole time in the ATO zone. Lora told everyone that we would have two minutes to get all our stuff of the train along with ourselves. And so we did. We then met up with our driver who drove us through the first layer of Ukrainian army check points into the city of Severo Donet’sk. There we picked up another Novi Donbass volunteer. A middle aged girl called Julija who would be a volunteer Taekwondo teacher with us.
At about midday, we stopped to buy some supplies from a market for the journey ahead, as well as some “presents” for the soldiers on the army check points. It seemed slightly odd/pointless and even stupid to me at times that a bunch of young amateur volunteers would be heading into a semi-active war zone. As we left the market I noticed some vans next to ours filled with camouflaged armed men with sunglasses. Lora greeted one of them and I realised that they would be our escorts. We all took our turn saying “Zdrastie”(Hello in Russian), and I hoped that that would be all I would have to say to the soldiers so that they wouldn’t realise that I was a foreigner. I just didn’t want to cause any trouble for the organisation and for Lora especially since we hadn’t even entered the ATO zone yet. After a brief exchange we got into the vans and headed towards the ATO zone. The amount of military check point became more and more frequent but with our army escorts, we crossed them without any trouble. At every check point we crossed I realised each was more fortified than the other. We saw trenches, shooting posts and tanks dug into the ground. The tanks were also inside the trenches with only their cannon sticking out with full range of the road. We were told not to take any pictures for fear that if we did and we posted those pictures to someone or posted them on a social network like Facebook and if those pictures where intercepted then the enemy could acquire the geographic coordinates and with a singles shell they could cause several deaths. The signs of the fighting became apparent also, bullet holes in every single building, and mortar holes in the ground from the shelling.
We were stopped once by the army at a pretty important looking checkpoint that seemed to have at least a hundred soldiers there. We were ordered to get out the van, I tried to look natural but I was also very interested in the soldiers. I realised that the soldiers were wearing very varied and even improvised military gear. Some wearing German, British, even French flat jackets. I asked Vadym and he and Julija and a fellow soldier explained that the soldiers had to buy most of their equipment themselves. The gear, the sleeping bags and some vehicles were provided by the soldiers themselves or by local Ukrainian volunteers. They explained that the Ukrainian army simply couldn’t afford to provide these basic necessities for their own soldiers. One soldier at the check point claimed to have bought his AK-74 himself. I believed him because he had a lot of accessories on his gun, it seemed that he was a bit of a fanatic and was happy to be in the war. At the check point I mostly stood next to Vadym, hoping that if any soldier approached me speaking in Russian, Vadym would answer and they wouldn’t discover that I was a foreigner. Vadym spoke to yet another soldier and he then pointed to a river in the distance about 2 kilometres away. He then said “Over there, across the river is the LNR”. I reacted excitingly and confused “What?!”. I looked back at the river and then back at the soldier. I said to Vadym (almost whispering) “but we are so close and the check point is in full view. Isn’t it dangerous because of sniper fire?”
“I don’t think they can shoot that far said Vadym”. I still wasn’t convinced.
I looked at the forest like territory on the other side of the river and thought. “I made it this far”, It’s right there!, I was able to see a bit of the LNR.”
My somewhat twisted dream came true.
It started getting dark and we were told that we would have to stay in a village close to our final destination in an army post in a town called “Shastye”.
We arrived at the army post, we took our backpacks and were escorted to our rooms. We passed many soldiers who were relaxing with their AK-74s and AK-47s on their laps while watching TV and a hallway with drawing made by the soldiers children, wishing them to be safe and to come home. As we walked through the complex, my sixth sense activated and I asked Vadym to ask the soldiers: “was this place a retired peoples home before the war?”. I was right.
We were taken to our room and were told not to turn on any lights because enemy snipers would see us through the windows at night. Me, Dima, Tarac and Vadym were put in the same room. We unpacked our sleeping bags and anxious to explore I headed to walk around the complex. All the main windows and balcony exits were blocked by large wood boards and signs on them saying in Russian “Beware, snipers”. A few of them had several blocked and unblocked bullet holes in them. But the soldiers didn’t seem to be concerned. Vadym seemed nervous, he explained that this town (Shastye) had been very heavily talked about in the news as one of the most violent areas of fighting last summer. Shastye is only 500 metres away from LNR positions.
The New Donbass volunteers started talking to the soldiers freely, I felt sad that I couldn’t converse with them as well as they could as I had many questions about what happened there.
The soldiers made us a big dinner and we went to sleep early for the remainder or the journey the next day.
Day 10: This is like my school back in Barcelona.
We got up, and set off early with our army convoy towards Stanisa Luhanska where we would meet the school where we would be working in. I didn’t like the fact that although we genuinely wanted to do something to help these people that had suffered six months of continuous bombing, we would be escorted and protected by fully armed western Ukrainians. I didn’t want to be seen by the students next to the soldiers at all. It kind of felt like we were wearing an “enemy flag” on our faces all the time. At least that’s how I felt the first day.
We entered the school of Nyzhnio-teple. A school of around 500 hundred students. Much like my school back in Barcelona. Lora, lined us up and all the students came out to great us. Lora seemed to take great pride in New Donbass’s work as she talked about the “success of Nikolaevka” (the previous and first New Donbass project) to the students. We then all introduced ourselves, stating our name, age, profession and appreciation to be there. I stood next to Vadym as I asked if he could translate for me when my turn arrived. All the students where a bit dazzled when the heard my English. “Hello, my name is Alex, I’m nineteen years old, I’m an English teacher, and I am very happy to be here with you.”
We then repeated the same procedure to the next two schools, Plotina, a very small family-like school of a mere 50 to 70 students and then Kindrashovka with a student force of another 500 students. Kindrashovka had a large picture of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on the wall as soon as you entered the school.
After meeting three schools, we finally arrived at a small shed which would be our home base for the ten days.
We employed a local lady to cook for us and the soldiers every day. And she always brought along a small doggie that we all loved.
The shed had little heating and it was freezing outside during the night time so we all slept in or sleeping bags. The showers were just water from the pond. However, even though we were about four kilometres from the LNR, it felt very peaceful, the nature in the steppe seemed very calm. The soldiers assured us that the area was secure and that there were no land mines in the area. But they ordered us not to wonder into the bushes as “enemies or landmines could be present there.” That evening me and Vadym found a marijuana plant growing and blooming just on the other side of the shed’s fence. Secure eh? It made us suspect that the soldiers hadn’t looked around at all.
Day 11: Victims
I hadn’t realised that I snored pretty heavily and so, feeling bad for keeping my fellow volunteers awake, I slept under the porch outside. I still felt warm there and it felt very refreshing to be in the fresh air.
After breakfast the volunteers were divided into three groups. Each group would go to a different school that day. And we would rotate with all the schools for the next ten days.
For me the first school was in Nyzhnio-teple. I wasn’t so sure what I would teach in my first English class, I am an amateur TEFL teacher too with very little English teaching experience, but I put together a small bit of material to practice the basics of Hello, and how are you, and surprisingly the students were very interested and also had a lot of basic English covered. I quickly realised that the students viewed English as their means to a better education and a better life. The teacher at the school in Nyzhnio-teple was very skilled and determined to do her job well, for the sake of the children.
After our teaching session ended, a local council member of the town of Nyzhnio-teple came to visit us and thanked us for coming. She invited to show us the town.
Nyahnio-teple was a very contested city during the summer of 2014. For about six months the town was shelled constantly by both the Ukrainian army and Pro-Russia rebels. She said that a hundred bombs fell on the town every day and that they started every day at around 1 pm. And at that time the students would hide and have their classes in the school underground complex that served as a small bunker for that time.
There were bullet holes everywhere in the town which gave me a hint of an absolutely dreadful sight of close quarters fighting between ground troops. Most of the building had been shelled and had now been partially reconstructed. There was no discrimination in the bombing campaign. Everything was a potential target, schools, churches, bus stations, administration buildings, hospitals and even landmarks.
The council member showed us around a school that had also been bombed and was completely burnt. There were many flowers outside the school. Probably from families and friends of the victims.
Day 15: Consequences and more reality checks
The days lingered on and I continued to have a good but challenging time with the children. I started incorporating a lot more games and physical movement in my classes so that they wouldn’t get bored with grammar as I always would during my school days.
I think they appreciated that although we didn’t learn too much new English grammar. I felt a bit upset that I couldn’t communicate well enough in Russian to have a conversation with the students. I had many questions about what they saw during the fighting and about their political view and opinions. I could pick up a few hints though, there was one child in Nyazhnio-teple that was very unsociable in class and I simply couldn’t get him to participate. He sat in the back of the class drawing something. When the class ended I saw his drawing and it scared me. It was a schematic of a series of weapons: Guns, grenades, vehicles and their names under them: AK-47, APC, RPG, Dragonov, PTRD etc. I believe it gave me an insight into this child’s thinking. And it made me want to divert this thinking to something else because as I personally know once a human being is isolated, they begin to attach themselves to whatever they find exciting no matter what it may be, it can be positive or negative but if nothing can give variety or perspective to that thinking by providing awareness, then that person can fall victim to a thought or a thought program simply because no one was there to save them. And I felt that there was very little that I could do to help him. I simply didn’t have enough psychological or behavioural knowledge to do it.
On the way back to the safehouse from Nyazhnio-teple with our convoy the volunteers would sing their songs again. I couldn’t join in too much as the songs were all Russian and Ukrainian. But a few times, to my chilling surprise a Russian song that I did know was sung by Galia. The song was “Kukushka” and the volunteers sang it in a silent and focused way. I was silent, perplexed and even a little bit scared. That song was sung by Pro-Russia fighters in their propaganda videos that I watched during my research. Thoughts raced through my mind every time they sang….”Both sides are singing the same songs? Are we really that different? Is all of this fighting really worth it? What the f*** is going on here?”
I never told my friends how I felt in those moments.
That evening, back at the safehouse, the New Donbass volunteers had a meeting. I can’t remember who, but someone had found an exploded propelled grenade that day and brought it to the safehouse and simply put it on the meeting table with no hint of irony. I almost snapped with shock as did many around the table but soon this rusty piece of metal became a bit of a good luck charm and totem at our late night project meetings.
Lora had the awesome idea of me giving a series of lectures about my travelling experiences. I thought that this was a fantastic idea as it could use my travels a as way of telling the children that they should work for what is important for then and what makes them happy, in other words, to pursue their passions! To give the children a possible incentive to work harder and to give them inspiration and maybe even a reason for living. I asked Dima to be my translator and I was able to access an old computer in Kindrashovka to download a few pictures off my Facebook account and put together a small slide show of my hitchhiking and bicycle touring trips over the last three years! I named my class “And you? What does your heart say?”
The children were engaged during the whole talk, my focuses during the talk were:
- The world is not as dangerous as the media portrays it to be.
- I came from a town just like you and I worked hard to achieve what I wanted, which was to travel. And I believe that you can do the same.
And at the end of my presentation I asked the children to take a piece of paper and on one side they should write four things that “feed” them in their lives, things that make them feel happy and alive. Many wrote words like “Friends, Family, Photography, My phone, My country, etc. And on the other side, I asked them to write two things that “drain” them in their lives. Things that stop them from achieving their goals or from feeling alive. Almost 50% wrote the word “war”. I realised how the war had completely halted the progress of their lives and put them into a big limbo as to what the future would bring both educationally and socially.
That night as we were all having dinner I felt a bit happier about that my presence was actually influential in a good way, at least to me. We had been in the ATO zone for five days now and only now did Lora decide to introduce us all to our soldier guides. As she came to me and told the squad that I was British, there was a silence and then the captain said in Russian, “This mission will now cost an extra 500 dollars”, Lora laughed and I’m not sure if she ended up paying the extra 500. Apparently, foreigners are big targets in the ATO zone for the rebels as they can ransom us to our home countries for sometimes, millions of dollars and they could put the squad in extra danger trying to protect them. Up until then I had done a very good job avoiding our guides and simply communicating using very few basic words like: thank you, Bon appetite, Hello, Good morning, Good evening, etc (in Russian).But now that they knew where I was from I felt like I could communicate with them openly. I asked Julija to translate for me as I asked one of the soldiers where he had fought. He said that “we all joined together from Lviv when the war started, only now has the government started to pay us. We fought in all the major battles, Debat’tseve ,Alchev’sk, Ilovai’sk, Slav’yansk…..”. So he had been a volunteer soldier for two years! Wow! Volunteer soldiers were not paid by the army for the first two years of the war until the Ukrainian army officially put them on the pay roll when it incorporated the volunteer battalions into the national army. The volunteers bought their own equipment and were led by volunteer ex-generals which gave birth to the Ukrainian volunteer battalions. Apparently, this squad of ten were all close friends before the revolution and joined together to fight the Pro-Russia rebels when the fighting began. Many people including some New Donbass volunteers spoke with great pride about the volunteer Battalions as “the most effective fighting force in the war” because “they want to fight” while the Ukrainian army is forced to.
One of the soldiers was feeling very talkative that night as he started sharing stories of the fighting near Luhansk. He said” sometimes we had shells coming from the other side of the Russian border but we weren’t authorised to shoot back at them (the Russian border is only 10 kilometres away), also when we were in battle sometimes we would see very organised rebels moving like platoons, all these soldiers were wearing no national insignia but were wearing white armbands and had distinct Buryat Asian faces. Their equipment was very different also. They were Russian soldiers, I’m sure of it!”
His story didn’t seem farfetched for me or the volunteers, it makes sense that the Pro-Russia rebels would be supported by Russian military however no one has provided conclusive evidence that the vehicles and soldiers where active Russian military servicemen and Putin continues to deny Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine. A few hours later a soldier that was on patrol said that he received a call from a nearby check point that said that they had intercepted an “enemy transmission” only 300 metres from our position. We were ordered to go into the shed and go to sleep. We were still wide away so we lit a small candle and sang along to Vadym’s guitar playing until we fell asleep.
Day 16: “That’s a lie, no matter how you look at it.”
One of the volunteers, Natasha left early to go back to Kiev, we said our good byes and crossed the daily fifteen checkpoints to deliver the volunteers to the schools. Between the checkpoints we also decided to take the countryside roads through the forests to avoid any problems or sniper fire. Driving through the forests was quite an experience as the forest in this beautiful steppe had now been completely reduced to ash because of the mass forest fires caused by constant shelling. I wish I had taken some pictures of that.
I had another day giving my travel lectures in Kindrashovka. Kindrashovka was a school that had been directly hit on the roof by a mortar round and because of its shock wave, the windows were shattered but thanks to Novi Donbass’s funding was able to reconstruct the roof.
That day we learned that the school principal was very Pro-Russian during the brief time of the LNR’s rule and he had done a huge U turn by supporting and inviting back the Ukrainian army with open hands. The teachers of the school informed and slightly warned New Donbass that he was a selfish and egotistical person. I was feeling quite sick in the last few days and I suspected that I had a bug or a fever. A fellow soldier of the squad, obviously the medic (judging by the huge amount of kit that he always carried) codenamed “Chicago” gave me some pills. I wasn’t sure what they were but he said I should take them. I guess I couldn’t refuse.
That night I had another barrage of questions for the soldiers and poor Vadym was dragged by me for them. I could tell that Vadym wasn’t so interested in the questions that I had for the soldiers but I didn’t want to let the chance slip by. I asked about the fighting now, the soldiers said that the fighting was slowly winding down but the occasional fire exchanges, sniper shots and mortar round incidents occured every week. In fact we could hear them every second day. It was election term in Ukraine and the papers were saying that not a single bomb had fallen on Ukrainian territory in the last two months.
That was a lie no matter how you look at it.
We were there and we could hear a bomb falling close to us every two or three days with the occasional barrage of machine gun fire. Incredibly an hour later we got a call from Natasha who had left in the morning, she said that she was in Shastye and that a shell had fallen on the town, luckily she was okay.
Day 17: It was them
Another day in the English class in the school in Plotina. I finished my class early and went for a small visit into Nastya and Ksenia’s art class. The students were instructed to draw anything that they wanted and one 8 year old boy drew something pretty amazing. He drew a picture of a missile coated with the Ukrainian flag hitting a house and next to it a television screen with another missile coated with the flag of the DNR. I was amazed at the child’s intelligence and also a bit concerned about what political side his parents might be supporting and how it could influence him after all this devastation.
Another girl drew a picture of all the Donbass volunteers, our van, our army guides and the school. It was so adorable!
The day ended with a calm and serene breeze of the Ukrainian steppe as I snuggled in my sleeping bag.
Day 21: So, I’ve been rejected?
It was the last day of the mission and that morning we had a meeting. Nastya, our art teaching volunteer seemed displeased. Nastya was born is Luhansk which was just on the other side of the border but she was unable to return because she was a very big player in the Euromaidan protests in Luhansk and her Pro-Russia relatives, neighbours and former friends could threaten her. She was upset and she claimed that she didn’t want the mission to be a “Ukrainian propaganda mission”, I never expressed that I felt the same way, the fact that we came to reintroduce Ukrainian identity into these Russian communities didn’t quite feel right with me but I did get a bit upset when Lora showed us some flyers that were promoting the European union membership. She explained that she wanted us to hand these as we were saying goodbye at the schools today. If this wasn’t political propaganda, then I don’t know what that was. I could also tell that Nastya was sad to be leaving Luhansk behind again after she had gotten so close. We were leaving the shed, our homebase, our safehouse for the last nine days behind and were on the way to say goodbye to the three schools of Plotina, Kindrashovka and Nyzhnio-teple. I sat down on a bench outside the shed just to appreciate what we went through so far, I thought it was also quite a sight that behind me on the table was Chicago’s arsenal of weapons and medicine, so I asked Vadym to take a picture.
New Donbass had arranged for the Lithuanian ambassador to come down for a visit to these schools with us. I realised that a big chunk of New Donbass’s funding came from the Lithuanian government. Lora got on the phone an hour before the arranged pick up time and openly said “Yes, madam ambassador, we are on our way to pick you up now”. Vadym and the captain of our squad looked at Lora in despair,as if she had just dropped a kitten, “Are you crazy!!” said the captain, “don’t you know that everything here is tapped, and now we have an ambassador coming here!?”. You see….Lora is like my mum, she is a fighter, she gets things done by going around the obstacles in her path, she doesn’t compromise. Apparently, she had arranged for “another volunteer” to arrive for a visit on our last day and she didn’t inform the army that this person was a national ambassador. If the army had known this, they would have most definitely not allowed her to come because of the possibility of kidnapping, but now the ambassador was already in the ATO zone and there was nothing the army could do but bring her along. As we headed off in the van, Nastya pointed to the top of a hill and said “Look, that’s where we went with my school in Luhansk when we were little”. ……………
What does it feel like? To have had to leave the place where you were brought up because of a war and to not be able to return because those very same people with which you grew up with have opposing political opinions and could threaten your life because of it.
After a long and emotional day saying goodbye to all three schools and showing the Lithuanian ambassador what their money was being used for we headed back into Stanisa Luhanska to participate in a local festival, and after the school hours, the students joined us for some cake and some traditional Russian dancing.
But it was soon time to head into the vans and we left Stanisa Luhanska and said goodbye and good luck to our military escorts in Shastye. They had been with us for the entire duration of the ten days and we were very grateful and it seemed strange being without them afterwards for the next twenty kilometres back to Severo Donet’sk.
At the checkpoint that was our exit of the ATO zone we had to wait for about twenty minutes to get processed, I stepped out of the van and looked back to see a river. The river that separated Ukraine and the newly formed Pro-Russian territory of the LNR. I said my goodbye to the LNR with a slight thought of what would have happened if I took my chances to split from the group and try to cross the border into the LNR to see for myself what was going on. I decided that I had seen a lot and that it would be too dangerous. Goodbye LNR, I had you in my palm but I didn’t clutch.
As we entered Severo Donet’sk we decided to do some last minute shopping as the prices for vegetables was a lot cheaper here than in Kiev. I was handed a pumpkin to carry all the way on our train journey back to Kiev from Rubisne. Nastya seemed down so I went over and gave her a hug as we were all doing to cheer her up. Galia then laughed as she took a picture of me and Nastya side by side. She explained that there is a Ukrainian tradition, that when a man declares his love to a woman, the woman could either accept his confession by giving him a kiss or reject him by simply handing him a pumpkin.
So, the picture looks like it tells a funny story of rejection.
We boarded the train at Rubisne train station and as the train started moving I felt relieved that we were leaving the warzone but I wasn’t sure what we had achieved. I was just happy to have seen these places with my own eyes and to have spoken to the soldiers and the children that were being affected by these events and I did feel a smile on my face when I thought that we put some smiles on the children’s faces with our presence, that for a few we were able to provide some inspiration and that thanks to Novi Donbass’s funding, at least the children would have a warm classroom during the winter months.
Day 24: Mariupol is next
We had arrived back in Kiev five days ago and I had been staying with Vadym and his parents all this time, eating their delicious traditional Ukrainian food and using some usable internet. Spending time with Vadym was very interesting as he participated in the Euromaidan protests it was interesting to hear his motivations during the protests and his opinion of the conflict. Vadym believed that the whole conflict was started by Russian paramilitaries who took advantage of the revolution after the protests. Vadym was actually quite a gentle and kind-hearted soul who hated the fighting and who simply wanted to help fix people’s suffering. I believe that the war made the young Ukrainian generation more aware and more responsible for their own lives. At least that was the case with all the youngsters that I met during my month in Ukraine. After five days at Vadym’s and hanging out with the New Donbass’s volunteers at a few bars, I realised that there were still places that I wanted to explore and understand. I decided to take a train to Mariupol which was about 40 kilometres from the frontlines with the DNR. Mariupol was a town in Eastern Ukraine that used to belong to the Pro-Russia rebels for about six months because of its port and metallurgical factory, but it was won over by the Ukrainian military last summer and has seen small shelling incidences since then.
I wanted to go to Mariupol because it was a town that used to be occupied by the pro-Russia rebels and I wanted to hear from the locals what life was like under their rule. But more importantly, Mariupol was where the notorious Azov Battalion was stationed. The Azov battalion was also the battalion that had taken the most amount of land from the rebels. And the Ukrainian government spoke of them with great pride as the battalions that had been spearheading war since the conflict had begun.
The Azov battalion is a Ukrainian volunteer Battalion and the Russian and Western media portray them as an Ultra-nationalist and anti-Russian group. This is what makes Azov different from all the other volunteer battalions. In the Pro-Russian propaganda, they are often simply referred to as Nazis. The Pro-Russian rebels seem to feel very righteous in their interviews when they described their war as a war against fascism and fascist Ukraine.
I wanted to find out who were the soldiers of the Azov battalion and if they really were fascists as the media say.
Day 25: Back in the ATO zone
I arrived to the very small train station of Mariupol. Mariupol is officially in the ATO zone but because it is such a large city of around 500.000 people it is really hard to control who leaves and comes in. A perfect way for a foreigner like me to sneak into the ATO zone once again. Although I wasn’t sure how I could approach the Azov soldiers that could bag me if they found out I was a foreigner. “Ah well…..details, I’ll figure it out as I go” I thought.
I left the train station and boarded a bus to meet with my Couchsurfer in Mariupol, the driver asked everyone to show him our passports. I didn’t want to show him my passport so I hid behind some old Russian Babushkas until the driver turned his head to keep on driving.
I arrived at my Couchsurfers apartment in the afternoon. Kim and Artyom were a nice Russian couple who loved travel and hitchhiking. They gave me a whole room all to myself!
“Okay, I’ve made it to Mariupol! I wonder what’s gonna happen in this town.” Was my thought as I fell asleep.
Day 26: Who are you exactly?
I received a call from Sviatoslav from New Donbass and I informed him of my trip to Mariupol and he said:
“If you really want an insight into what is going on Mariupol, you should meet Diana.”
He didn’t tell me much about who this person called Diana was but he gave me her number. Thanks a bunch Sviatoslav!! I sent Diana a message immediately.
“Hello Diana, my name is Alexander Nicholas Khan, Mr Sviatoslav Yura has given me your contact. I am a nineteen year old traveller and I have come to Mariupol in order to learn what has happened here and what the current situation Mariupol finds itself in today. Mr Sviatoslav said that I could learn a lot from you. If you are free I would love to meet up for a conversation. I am free all week. Thank you very much and I hope to meet you soon. Alex”
It took about half an hour to write this on my old three-letter per button Nokia, by the time I finished typing my thumb had had two cramps :/.
I got a reply from Diana a few hours later saying.
“Hello, yes, Sviatoslav told me about you. But who exactly are you? Are you a journalist?”
To which I replied:
“No, I am simply a curious person who wants to understand and see the past and present situation in Mariupol and Ukraine for myself.”
She agreed to meet me the next day in the central square. I thought I should give Sviatoslav a huge hug and kiss when I get back to Kiev for all his help!!
Day 27: Walking around Mariupol with Diana
I had a few hours to kill before meeting up with Diana so I bought a map of Mariupol and asked Kim where there were signs of the fighting and the shelling. She recommended that I visit the old Mariupol police station and the administration building.
I decided that for the next ten days I would walk around Mariupol and refrain from using the passport asking buses. On the street of Mariupol were many signs like this one:
The upper picture is a picture of the Mariupol theatre as a symbol of stability and the lower on is a picture of the Donetsk theatre. Apparently it’s a campaign to show the “corrupt and unstable DNR”.
Mariupol didn’t have the high level of destruction that Stanisa Luhanska because the fighting happened outside the city and when the fighting came to the city itself, the rebels retreated and left the city to the Ukrainian army. The front line is now actually 40 kilometres away although some shells have fallen close to the city center.
There were also thousands of Ukrainian flags everywhere!
I walked along a main road to the centre and found the administration building. I was shocked, it was windowless and appeared to have had a fire. The new administration building was now somewhere else in a different part of the city. Kim told me that when the Pro-Russia rebels came in the early summer of 2014(if I recall correctly) they stormed the administration building saying: “this administration and Mariupol is now a part of The Donet’sk people’s republic” and because of the large Pro-Russian sentiment in Mariupol a vast majority of the administration accepted and welcomed the change. But after six months of DNR rule of Mariupol, the Ukrainian army finally won back the city after didn’t take much resistance. Or rather, the militants didn’t have the man power to hold the city. As the rebels were retreating they set the building on fire, as a symbol of their frustration towards the Ukrainian army saying: “You can’t have Mariupol”.
My next stop was the old police station. It was a truly horrifying sight and story.
When the Pro-Russia rebels arrived in early summer of 2014, their first stop was the police station. They demanded that the police surrender and abide by their new rules and to swear allegiance to the Donet’sk people’s republic. About sixteen police officers and officials refused and refused to let the Pro-Russia rebels into the building. This resulted in a fierce firefight and ultimately the rebels set fire to the building, killing all sixteen policemen inside it. I remember a man describing that day. He said that there was a feeling of sadness in the air. I understood that as a feeling of “despair and limbo.”
After a few hours wandering around I arrived at the centre of the city where I would be meeting Diana, but not before noticing that the Mcdonald’s branch in Mariupol had been closed.
I met up with Diana and her friend Sasha and together we went to a bar on the Azov sea. Both spoke pretty good English. Diana was from Donet’sk and she explained that she met Sviatoslav in Donet’sk while he was fixing for BBC journalists. He had exclusive access to high ranking rebel officials and the now president of the DNR. I thought that was amazing and I had no clue who Sviatoslav was in reality and what work he had done!
I was shocked to learn that Diana organised the last few Pro-Ukrainian rallies in Donet’sk and as I knew from watching the Vice news movies, those rallies didn’t end well. Diana spoke highly and proudly of the rallies, she said that hundreds of thousands of people supported Ukraine in Donet’sk and came out to the rallies to express it. However she said that it only took a hundred men with sticks to cripple and tear it apart. Apparently every rally was crippled and torn apart by men with pro-Russian sentiment and injured and killed dozens of people while chanting: “Ru-si-a!, Ru-si-a!, Ru-si-a! I remember watching the Vice news channel on Youtube years ago and how those protesters were literally stoned to death. Diana then fled to Kiev and then Mariupol. She is now organising many events to support the Ukrainian army.
I appeared to have arrived at the right time because our gathering was also a celebration for Diana’s new job. She said that she is now working for the Azov Battalion!! My eyes almost jumped out of their sockets. “Azov!? Really? How? What will you be doing for them?”
“I organise fundraising and support events”
She described how she got the job after a controversial event that she put together that made Azov realise her potential.
“A very big problem in Mariupol is that we are almost 100% Russians and we have the Azov battalion here that is painted as a Nazi organisation that is hostile towards Russians. The people in Mariupol don’t trust the army(Azov). I wanted to change people’s opinion of Azov”.
And she did, she put together an event where locals from Mariupol and soldiers from Azov would meet and clean the ruins of an old synagogue together. A few days before the event she got a scary phone call from an Azov general who wanted to stop the project saying that is was “immoral” and “against their beliefs”. Diana didn’t listen and she went ahead and the event was such a success that Azov gave Diana a job to organise more events such as that one.
“Wow! That is amazing but is Azov really an Ultra-nationalist organisation?” I asked.
There was a silence and Diana said: “80% of Azov soldiers are definitely not Ultra-nationalists but the higher ups, the generals of Azov most certainly are.”
“But what about the skin heads and swastika wearing guys that we see in the pictures?” I asked.
Diana: “As I said, some guys are fanatics but all the Nazi symbolism is just a sub-culture here.”
As perverse as it sounded, I was a bit sceptical but I guess it makes some sense. In a town like Mariupol where people have so little to do, it didn’t seem far fetched that people would become enchanted by extreme ideas and their hairstyles.
Then Diana said: “If you like I can put you in touch with a youth organisation that is sponsored by Azov. I’m sure that they can teach you more about Azov’s ideology.”
I accepted and said thanks!
I walked back to Kim’s apartment anxious to meet Azov in the next few days.
Day 28: It happened in a town like this
I spent the next few days walking around Mariupol taking a few pictures of the town. It seemed bizarre to me that a war would occur in such a simply, poor countryside environment.
Surprisingly I found a mosque in the central part. A lot of Caucasian Muslims from Russian used to pass through Mariupol.
And of course, patriotic symbolism was everywhere.
Day 32: Azov
After spending lots of time with my hosts and local Mariupol Couchsurfers, it was finally time to meet the youth organisation sponsored by Avoz. I was told that I would be picked up in from of the theatre. Once I arrived at the proposed time, a bus painted amateurly with green leafy camouflage pulled up and Diana’s friend Bogdan invited me in.
As we drove through Mariupol I was feeling a bit anxious, “what’s the deal with this bus, why is it trying to look like a military vehicle and why are the windows tainted”!?
After a twenty minute drive we arrived at the youth centre. I was invited in by a few tall strong young looking guys wearing black clothes and they had shaved heads. I felt a bit nervous. “What kind of youth organisation is this exactly?” I thought.
I was escorted to a wide open room that had rubber mats in the centre of the room. I thought “ do they do hand to hand combat training hear”. In the next twenty minutes many young teenagers walked in and also a journalist who said that he would like to report about me. Which I thought was kind of awesome! I guess Diana took advantage of me and created a whole event with me in the centre.
When everyone arrived, we all sat down in a big circle and Bogdan translated for me. I explained in a lecture like manner that I enjoy travelling to places where I wanted to understand for myself what was happening. I told them about my previous trips in Iraq, Israel, Palestine, The Balkans, etc. I also wanted to emphasise that it is important to pursue what you love. The kids seemed very interested but I think they were also more interested about the fact that I was a foreigner that had hitchhiked to Ukraine simply to understand what was going on. I think that many appreciated and respected that.
Then it was question time after about an hour.
The kids would ask me questions like:
“Aren’t you scared when you travel? Aren’t you scared sleeping in your tent at night? What do your parents think of this? How much money do you need? What did you study?”
And then one boy asked: “What do you think of nationalism?”
I paused thinking hard of a way to respond that would be appealing to them but that would still be true to me. I answered: “I believe that there is nothing wrong with loving your country as long as it doesn’t breed violence”.
I could tell from his face that the boy didn’t seem to get the answer he was looking for but he didn’t insist further.
Now, I wanted to ask the question: “In Barcelona, the news says that Azov is a xenophobic organisation. But they provide little proof of this. So I wanted to ask you. Is Azov xenophobic?”
There was a silence but then a few teenagers chuckled and with a smile said “No”.
I’m sure that they were truthful because all these teenagers were from Mariupol and were 100% ethnically Russian. If anyone would feel any sort of discrimination from Azov, they would. However I was still sceptical if this scenario was the same on the battlefield.
The teenagers explained that the youth organisation takes them on excursions, they learn martial arts, they do sport together and also deliver supplies to refuges from Donet’sk.
“Hmmm Not bad, Azov. You seem to be trying to win the hearts of these teenagers. You have succeeded.” I thought.
The lecture ended and the teenagers gave a big round of applause. They then asked to take several selfies with me. I wasn’t proud of having a picture of me taking with an Azov flag but I didn’t want to disappoint my new friends. The teenagers seemed happy and I was happy and very grateful for opportunity to speak with them!
After an interview with the journalists Bogdan and I went back to the centre where I walked back to Kim’s.
Day 33: Goodbye Mariupol. I wish you luck.
It was time to finally leave Mariupol. Before I left Kim’s place I checked out the Azov youth organisations Facebook page and I frankly found it a bit disturbing. It was true that they did a lot of sport and just enjoyed themselves but there were lots of pictures of the same teenagers holding guns and pictures where it seemed that they were having an amateur weapons class. I also found out that Bogdan was a former Azov soldier and was now an instructor in the youth organisation. I think that the youth organisation is definitely a fun thing but I was questioning if many of these teenagers had desires to eventually join Azov militarily.
I said my goodbye to Kim and Artyom and boarded the night train back to Kiev. I was tired, tired of receiving so much information and tired of the same old war.
Day 33: BABYLON13
I arrived back in Kiev at 10 am and joined up with Vadym and I would stay with him again for the next five days. I couldn’t express enough how happy I was!!
After lunch Sviatoslav invited me to visit the BABYLON13 office where the BABYLON13 journalists meet, discuss projects and edit footage. The office was filled with body armour and helmets, all with letter written on them saying “Press”. I was very happy to finally meet the man that had made my two trips to the ATO zone possible and so full of learning and experience. Sviatoslav was only nineteen years old and we had a lot in common. We both wanted to see what was happening for ourselves. Sviatoslav showed me footage of the Euromaidan protests which really captured the ferocity of the protests. People throwing stones, the thousands of riot police, the slogan chanting, the feeling of togetherness during the protests and the shootings at the crowds by the police.
We then got into a conversation about the uprisings in the east. Sviatoslav said that he went to Eastern Ukraine to see for himself what was going on there. He explained that at the very beginning of the uprising the story is that people who wanted to strengthen ties with Russia and not the EU started to storm and occupy the administration buildings in the Donet’sk and Luhan’sk regions which eventually led to an armed rebellion. This is the official story in western media also. However Sviatoslav said that he was present when the administration building in Slavyan’sk was occupied he said that there were many “men with masks that strategically led the protesters, they felt professional and they knew what they were doing.”
Sviatoslav believed that these men may have been Russian agents that wanted to spark the rebellion. It didn’t seem farfetched to me at all. And I believe his story.
Day 34: I’ll never forget them
It was the day from my departure from Ukraine. I decided to head west were I heard thousands of people were taking to the streets and protesting in Chisinau in the neighbouring country Moldova. I wanted to go and check it out and also visit the pro-Russian de facto state of Transdniestria. That night the New Donbass volunteers and Sviatoslav got together at a bar and I realised that I had made a home for myself in Kiev. These youngsters with whom I went with to Stanisa Luhanska in the ATO zone, all of whom had participated in the Euromaidan protests, I found them so aware, responsible, intelligent and sensitive. It was an enriching experience to be around such proactivity in a country whose future was uncertain. Ill never forget them!!! They are my heroes!!!
Day 35: Goodbye my lover, goodbye Ukraine
Thanks to Vadym’s help, I was able to find an overnight coach going all the way from Kiev to Chisinau. I was a bit worried about how we were going to cross the Pro-Russian de facto state of Transnistria. Vadym came with me to the bus station late in the evening. It was amazing that I had spent about a month in Ukraine! That was beyond my imagination when I entered Ukraine. I thought my trip in Ukraine would be just a couple of weeks, but I had spent a month here and seen, done, spoken to and met so many amazing people! By now Vadym had hosted me in his home for a total of ten days. Ten days of awesomeness! The bus arrived, I said a huge tear jerking goodbye and thank you to Vadym and boarded the bus. The bus began to move and I was happy to be moving to another country but it was the first time that I had ever created such ties and experiences in one country.
I might even live in Ukraine one day, surrounded by proactivity and desires to make our world a better place.