Photo by James Sprankle
Some of Ukraine's frontline soldiers toasted Monday's Independence Day with a bowl of yoghurt. "We'll make do with that instead of alcohol," Che, the commander of a 20-strong unit of grenadiers, told VICE News. "We are at the front. We won't be celebrating in any way."More than 400 miles west, Kiev was marking the 24 years since the country's secession from the Soviet Union with celebrations, pomp, and a military parade. In a rather outlandish tweet, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko used the moment to compare Novorossiya (the term pro-Russian rebels often ascribe to the territory they hold in eastern Ukraine) to Mordor, the evil domain in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He insisted that both would remain in the realms of fantasy.
While the ceremony in the heart of the capital lacked the powerful military hardware that was on show last year, more than 2,000 soldiers were deployed in a march past Maidan Square, the hub of the protests that helped topple former President Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014.It was, however, an altogether different affair in Pesky, a northern suburb of Donetsk close to the city's airport in the country's east. This ghost of a town, formerly one of the city's more exclusive neighborhoods, is now reduced to ruins.Months of fierce combat have emptied the community of its inhabitants from a pre-war population of around 3,000. It lays claim to one of the deadliest front lines in the conflict — the antithesis of the colorful celebrations that occurred further west.
As the crackle of heavy machine-gun fire echoed over the deserted streets, Che's men seemed relaxed enough in the leafy garden of an abandoned home, surrounded by ammunition crates and assault rifles. The building's roof had been blown apart. A large, empty cage, once occupied by some exotic animal, lay empty, and vast plumes of wild marijuana bloomed from the wreckage of a greenhouse."Today is our national holiday and the integrity of our state is in our hearts," said Che. "It's been 24 years since we realized our independence but the Russian politicians still want to influence us. They cannot forget that we should be free of them. It is up to Ukraine to choose its own destiny, nobody else."
Related: Ukraine's Mystery Battle: Hunting for Truths Across an Elastic BorderAn imposing mansion stood across the road; its once-impressive interior was in disarray. Clothes and detritus littered every room. A chandelier lay shattered where it had fallen. The wealthy owners had fled months ago to be replaced by pro-Kiev soldiers. They, too, have now vacated. From the attic, a hole blasted into the roof by a mortar round afforded a wide panorama of the town. "Stick your head out and wave to the snipers," one soldier joked.Outside waited Dmitry Voychenkov, a 48-year-old infantryman sporting an impressive Mohican and clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with a Rastafarian lion. He got behind the wheel of a customized, camo-patterned camper van and drove nonchalantly into the frontline village, accompanied by Jefferson Airplane and Soviet reggae. Whenever he passed a group of soldiers, he would honk a comedy horn attached to the side mirror.Despite the festivities being enjoyed elsewhere, he explained that this was just another day on the job. "Today we woke up, wished each other happy Independence Day then carried on with work," Voychenkov said, who moved to Ukraine in the mid-1990s from central Russia. "Nothing's changed."He had the air of an aging hippy, ostensibly drawn less to killing than peace and love. What attraction did war offer such a character? "Well of course, this is why I'm here — to fight for peace.
"My wife's son is a similar age to independent Ukraine. They were born not so far apart. It's been interesting to follow both their progress — her son's and my country. First they needed mama and papa when they were young. Now they are finding themselves and continue to grow."He spoke during a lull in fighting, which has lasted several days here. "I had concerns about today," he admitted. "It's been too quiet the past few days and when it's quiet, you know that something bad's going to happen."On the extreme perimeter of Ukraine's front line, a small unit of snipers surveyed no-man's land from the top floor of a bombed-out building. Nothing stirred in the fields below but their rifles were primed.Related: Meet 'Muslim': The Chechen Commander Battling Russia With Some Unlikely AlliesIn the gloom of this sandbagged eyrie, the mention of Independence Day failed to provoke a spark of emotion from one of its occupants. Where did he expect Ukraine to be next year when it marks a quarter of a century of independence? "We'll be in exactly the same place," Vasily muttered.His fellow fighter, a 26-year-old called Bardan with a laid-back air and goofy grin, chimed in: "There's a big difference between Independence Day here and at home. There, you can go for a walk with your family, enjoy the occasion. Here, you can only go to your positions."Bardan looked around at the devastated room and seemed to catch the sound of his own voice. "But now we feel at home here," he quickly added, eager to dispel any impression of self-pity. "This is our home. People can get used to any situation."
More than 16 months into the conflict, the official death toll hovers close to 7,000, though it is likely to be much higher. Both Ukraine and the pro-Russian rebels had earmarked Monday as a possible springboard for a renewed offensive to break the deadlock. Waves of propaganda bore Independence Day scare-stories to civilians and soldiers on both sides. But as the day progressed, this was proven to be less than prophetic.One pro-Kiev newspaper had carried a report of an alleged conspiracy for rebels to dress up as Ukrainian troops and fire on civilians in government-held territory as part of a false-flag operation. Meanwhile, rebels all along the front lines of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics [the DNR and LNR, respectively] had been braced for a major Ukrainian attack. The heightened war rhetoric in the pro-Russia media had fuelled their fears of an impending assault.Alexei Markov, deputy commander of the rebel Ghost Brigade near Luhansk, earlier told VICE News of his belief that "full-scale war" would soon erupt on the frontline. With leave canceled and all men brought to the front, his fighting force appeared to be on a war footing. He said the brigade had "intelligence" that Ukrainian troops were "preparing for a big offensive".Spetz, a special forces commander for the rebels operating south of Donetsk, also told VICE News of his fears that Ukrainian forces would "attack the entire Donetsk and Luhansk area" in a "huge mobilization" on Independence Day.
Related: The Holdouts: We Witnessed a Battalion's Final Days on Shyrokyne's FrontlineBut the men's fears failed to materialize, at least in Pesky — widely regarded as one of the more likely sites for an offensive from either side. As the afternoon progressed, a group of soldiers stood around smoking inside a half-finished church, its roof damaged by bombs. One, Viktor, said: "It's a solid structure. With God's blessing, it should keep us safe."Another pro-government soldier spoke of his frustrations at the deadlock. "It's boring when there aren't any explosions. We want orders to attack. We have lots of ammunition for handguns and machine guns but these are only good when you're up close."Scavenging packs of dogs were the only signs of life on the road out of town. Major buildings lay in ruins and, apart from the occasional burst of machine-gun fire, the once-thriving community was silent and eerie.
Despite the utter ruin that war has wrought upon Pesky, a stubborn few civilians remain. One couple in their late 60s, Anatoli and Svetlana, have refused to flee from the bombardment of shells and rocket attacks, so far defying the mortal danger that living in such a grim, frontline location presents."It's Independence Day but we don't know what it means to us," explained Svetlana in the shade cast by grapevines in the couple's garden. "We're caught between two warring sides."She plucked two large bunches of grapes and offered out handfuls. Around them, summer flowers lit up their garden. The couple's faces remained etched with stress and fatigue but unfurled with laughter as Anatoli, a former builder and factory worker, wrapped his arm round his wife's shoulder and pulled her in close.An armored personnel carrier tore past on the road outside. Svetlana exhaled. "I see these men with their guns and my heart sinks to my feet. How can I feel independent while this continues? We didn't ask for the DNR, we didn't ask for these Ukrainian soldiers. We just want peace."Follow Jack Losh on Twitter: @jackloshFollow James Sprankle on Twitter: @jdsprankle