Whenever somebody asks me about my reporting on the war in Ukraine, I hear flippant things like: “Oh yeah, is that still going on?” or “didn’t that end, like a while ago?”
I usually use this anecdote from a terrific Guardian piece last year to answer them. The story happened in 2017 when a young girl was indoors watching cartoons in Avdiivka on the contact lines between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military. I could invoke a Mad Max metaphor for this frontline town, but the war in eastern Ukraine isn’t the goddamn movies. It’s real.
She’s playing and the fighting starts, as it’s wont to do everyday around 4PM, like some twisted tea-time ritual. One flying mortar hits the backyard where her mother and friends are enjoying the sun. The young girl flees the house and books it down the street, screaming about how her mom has no head anymore.
The war is hot. Which is to say it’s a shooting war and it hasn’t stopped since 2014. The West, just doesn’t care about it anymore for a cocktail of both partially bigoted and ignorant reasons. This isn’t an epic War On Terror where the bad guys flew planes into buildings, behead journalists, enslave Yazidis or commission attacks on rock concerts in Paris. In this one, good and evil is shrouded between forces using cyrillic, looking vaguely like people you know back home. This one is happening in the former Soviet-bloc; somewhere the Western consciousness accepts as a place of war and violence. After all, it’s Slavs fighting Slavs and Eastern enough that it won’t get close to the places that really matter, right?
But the war has claimed over 10,000 lives for over four years now, with no sign of abating and caused a billions-of-dollars-worth humanitarian crisis. Ironically, western media daily waxes poetic about collusion and Russian meddling; at the very same time, they ignore the frontline of this war between Moscow and western democracy happening in Donbas. Except, in that place, things like the DNC hack, Robert Mueller or Paul Manafort aren’t on the minds of soldiers on either side, whose faces say it all: I’m sick of the death and destruction.
I started reporting on Ukraine in 2016 and I’ve seen those faces peppered all over the frontline in Donbas. Whether it was regular army soldiers shedding their body armour and fighting in t-shirts in a trench close to the Promzona or militiamen in Marinka eating spoiled kielbasa in between firefights or a baboushka hiding in her pitch dark fruit cellar during shelling—it’s an unmistakable look. One completely foreign to a guy who grew up in the suburbs of Ottawa.
Sure, hostilities slowed down after the clear height of fighting in 2015, but instead of major offensives with huge troop clashes and shot down helicopters, both sides settled into their trenches (which look like impressions of the Somme), calcified into their positions and every night they hit it: gunfights, heavy weapons. The boom-boom of heavy artillery pops off constantly, while tracer fire, the lights of drones and smoke colours the sky. Sometimes, there’s even the thunder of GRAD rockets. And somewhere during these nightly clashes, along the expansive frontline running across Donbas through Donetsk and its surrounding towns, people die. Both civilians and soldiers, alike.
President Donald Trump likes to talk tough about war. He’s got a bigger button than Kim Jong Un. Little rocket man. Whatever. But he’s never seen or been near one. Nor has he or the international community done anything to truly end the crisis in Ukraine, happy to continue this ignored war stuck in a purgatory of destitution where a distant people die to keep a geopolitical chess match afloat.
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If you went to Donbas, into the conflict, you’d see packs of seemingly wild dogs roaming around, until you realize a lot of them still have collars; the remnants of civilians who fled their pets at the outbreak of war years earlier. They’re fine, though, reverting to their basic instincts: running around in packs fighting and fucking amidst a bombed out landscape, littered with buildings covered in flowers of explosions busted into walls, shattered glass and minefields. Human and animal shit everywhere. It’s the type of place where old orphanages, strewn with faded crayon pictures and children’s shoes dumped into a kiddie pool filled with refuse, have turned into sniper nests and morgues.
And the fighting starts at 4PM and goes all night. So get ready for the show.
Most of all you’ll see the traces of the not so distant past: shot up school buses, never opened dry cleaned suits and dolls. You’ll see those a lot. One time, I noticed a GT snowracer, just perched on some rubble during a firefight. I laughed (it wasn’t the Brett Hull version).
In the meantime, while this horror show beats on, the international community has tossed out ideas about sending peacekeepers and the like. But Putin won’t accept them and the West isn’t in a hurry to make him.
“You have to learn to like the fighting,” one Ukrainian soldier told me once. “It’s how you survive. And now I love it.”
Welcome to Europe’s forgotten war, the one the West doesn’t care about and never ends. In fact, it’s happening right now.
Follow Ben Makuch on Twitter.