At War with Reality in Eastern Ukraine

For many citizens living in parts of Eastern Ukraine occupied by Pro-Russia rebels, reality has become a tenuous amalgamation of rumors, propaganda, and dreams.

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Jul 21 2014, 8:31pm

A demolished bridge in Semenovka. All photos by the author

Pro-Russia rebels had blown the bridge at Semenovka two weeks ago, but there were still no signs. The road climbed steadily to the crest of the bridge, and then suddenly, there was no bridge. The little white Lada had been carrying a family of four when it went over. While most cars just plunged into the Bilenka River below, the driver of the Lada had been in a hurry, and we discovered the wreck on the opposite bank—leaking egg yolks, blood, and a gasoline rainbow. Looking up, I could see another family standing delicately above the void, peering down at what could have been, as a lone scavenger picked through the wreckage, searching for unbroken eggs.

It was local businessman Ilya Lazarenko who sent his crane to drag away the wreck. The act of removing one smashed car from a smashed landscape—to Ilya, it was progress. It brought his village just a little bit closer to the way it had been. He did this, even though he is convinced that the fighting will return. “Absolutely it will,” he insisted wearily. 

An official within the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) revealed to him in advance that the retreat of the rebel army from the adjacent city of Slavyansk was purely tactical: the DPR is massing their forces for a strike against Odessa. This was the same official who had accurately predicted the destruction of Ilya’s home at the crossroads of Semenovka. His house had been the large one with the red roof and the two cats—one piebald, the other black.

The home of Ilya and Nastya Lazarenko

Ilya’s wife, Nastya, had foreseen the destruction even earlier—in nightmares. They started last November, as protesters gathered on the Maidan. “Nobody was thinking about war then,” she added. Still, the visions came. She saw herself and her husband crouching—hiding from gunfire in the ruins of their home. She saw their betrayal, and their execution. “Maybe it means that will happen too,” she contemplated. “I don’t know. I never believed in dreams before this.”

“The official news is not reliable,” Ilya muttered grimly when asked about the status of the war. Reality had become a tenuous amalgamation of rumors, propaganda, and dreams.

There was that story about the crucifiction of a boy in Slavyansk’s Lenin Square. Both sides told it, shifting the blame. I heard it for the first time in a Kiev bar. In Odessa, school teacher Iryna Pietrova recited her version, adding that every time it’s retold, the boy gets younger and younger. “He was three years old, the last I heard,” she added. “By next year, I expect he’ll be a newborn.”

The DPR had another story from when they still held Slavyansk. Radio bulletins announced that Ukraine was printing new maps of the country without the name of their city on it. The implication was that the Ukrainian army intended to wipe Slavyansk off the face of the earth. After the city was retaken, I heard reports that sixty percent of the buildings were in ruins. I also heard that Slavyansk had survived nearly intact. I traveled to the area with a translator and a driver to find out for myself.

Past vast sunflower fields, sounds of distant artillery fire rumbled on the edge of Slavyansk. One Ukrainian soldier in motley camouflage and bandana skullcap speculated that an artilleryman had gotten drunk or become insane from the war and was firing at nothing. His friend said that they were clearing rebels out of a local forest. Another soldier assured us that it was the shelling of nearby DPR-held Artemovsk.

Our car shook as we raced through the city center over tank-tread-dented concrete. There were many broken windows, shot up storefronts, and artillery holes in buildings, though for the most part, the center was unharmed. It was at the outskirts where the damage was greatest. The Topopolyok school for special-needs children was in ruins, as were many of the adjacent houses.

Lena stands in front of her destroyed home in Slovyansk

Aleksandr and his wife Lena were shoveling rubble from their gutted home. The only possession spared was a lawn gnome. “This used to be a two-story,” Aleksandr said, shaking his head. The upper floor had completely disintegrated.

“It was the Ukrainian army,” Lena claimed. “I don’t know what they were aiming at. There was a rumor that rebels were in the school. It was only a rumor. Both sides were firing carelessly.”

“It was the DPR who did this,” another man insisted.

“Most people here don’t care which side wins,” a woman added. “We just want the shelling to stop.”

Unexploded mine in Semenovka

We passed through Semenovka next. Like the DPR story, it had nearly been stricken from the map. Residents stepped over unexploded rockets embedded in the ground, as an adjacent minefield exhaled the putrid stench of corpses whenever the wind shifted. Boney dogs drank rainwater out of shell-craters as they waited for their owners to return.

A 60 year-old man talked about hiding in his basement during the battle to guard his chickens. He accused the Ukrainian army of using phosphorous bombs—a type of incendiary banned by the U.N. “They made a fire that we could not put out with water,” he lamented. “It just burned and burned.”

Blown out apartment building in Nikolaevka

We weaved through craters on the road to Nikolaevka, near the front lines. We passed its bombed-out power station on our way to an apartment block in the center of town. The building had been eviscerated. A massive section had collapsed, forming a kind of jagged, open-air courtyard with the innards of each apartment exposed to the sky.

Standing on the road I could see into an old woman’s second-floor living room: her couch, her bookshelf, her decorative plants all huddled together away from the precipice. She was sobbing as she swept clouds of dust over the edge, through where a wall used to be. There was nothing else to do. She had been sweeping the same floor for days. The only thing she wouldn’t clean was the blood spatter on the wall beside the radiator. It was all she had left of her daughter.

Sergey sorts through family photographs

Her third-floor neighbor Sergey had been lying in bed when the explosion occurred. His mother, his girlfriend Oxana, and her friend were cooking in the kitchen. The ceiling came down on them all. Sergey and Oxana were trapped under bricks—calling out to one another until a Ukrainian rescue squad extricated them half an hour later. Sergey’s mother and Oxana’s friend had been crushed to death instantly. Oxana refused to ever return to the shell of that apartment, so Sergey stayed there alone, slowly sifting through an album of old photographs found in the wreckage. It took him a minute to realize that they belonged to his mother. He had never seen them before.

“Do you think this was gas?” he asked irately, gesturing at the emptiness around him. The remark referred to state news reports claiming that the explosion here was the result of a broken gas-line. “It was an airstrike,” he insisted. One by one, the residents opened their hands to display the fragments of shrapnel they had found at the scene. Nobody believed the official explanation.

Maxim holding up a gas-pipe

Another man from the building, Maxim, beckoned us to the rear of the complex. He hoisted up a heavy segment of what the crowd of onlookers insisted was part of a rocket. He grinned as he asked us, “Does this look like a gas pipe to you?”

Roc is a photojournalist working on his latest project, World Dream Atlas

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