Ukraine is at war. This is the fundamental truth about the situation in the ex-soviet country.
It has been going on for two years. 10,000 have been killed, other 21,000 wounded and over 1,4 million people have been displaced.
In September 2015, both sides of the conflict renewed their commitment to the Minsk ceasefire, reducing the scale and intensity of the war in Ukraine to a shadow of what it was during 2014 and beginning of 2015. But the Ukraine war is far from over and the chance of achieving peace is as volatile as the weather.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our concert!”, Aleksandr, a 30 year-old soldier that goes by the war name Grom (thunder) would greet the staccato of mortar fire. Back in Zenit, a Ukrainian army position on the front line with a direct view of the Donetsk airport 2 km away, soldiers got concerts coming to their “hometown” every single day.
I don’t know how the landscape around Zenit looked in April 2014, but these days it surely resembles the set of an apocalypse movie. Only this is real, not cardboard made. The few standing buildings look like a poorly played Tetris game, with huge holes between their bricks. The fields like an old junkyard with rusty damaged armored vehicles and car skeletons. The ground appears like it came down with a bad case of chickenpox, all littered with craters from Grad missiles and mortar rounds. The trees have no branches, their arms amputated by shrapnel.
This war costs Ukraine more than a country already confronted with economic recession can afford. The fighting in the East is placed in some sort of quarantine, leaving other parts of the country seemingly unaffected, with daily life carrying on almost undisturbed. So the true impact of the conflict is far from being obvious. Still, over 3 million are in need of humanitarian aid, with people facing shortages in food, health services, shelter and medicines. And that’s just the consequence that we can count.
Approaching the frontline, private cars on the road become less and less frequent and military vehicles are the only ones left to pass by. The asphalt is so damaged from the tanks that what was once a European road looks and feels like a bumpy country-side road at best. The few civilian cars that pass line up at military checkpoints where soldiers check IDs and trunks in search of contraband. The villages on the front line are battle-scarred, ghostly apparitions on the map. Life in the towns on the edges of the front is as frozen as the conflict itself. Here, the military’s presence has become part of the daily scene. Soldiers in uniforms are a regular sight on the sidewalks or in restaurants. In other parts of Ukraine that did not see war with their own eyes, there are towns with more internally displaced persons than inhabitants.
Thousands of families have fled their besieged towns, moved among strangers and now they are every day confronted with the choice whether to start fresh, rebuild their life in this new place or wait for the war to be over and the possibility to return home. For some, the return home depends not only on the war ending, but also on its outcome.
Even further west in the country, the consequences of war come to light. Returnee soldiers, that have spent most of the last two years on the front, are coming back to their home towns in all parts of Ukraine. In this hybrid war, the return home is not easy. Life on the front line and life in peace are like two different worlds for soldiers. For most, life on the frontline is a life of rules, honour, code and pretty well-ordered things. And most of all, a life where they have a purpose, a meaning. Coming back home they lose all that. They cannot find their place among friends and family that have to continue with their normal lives. They feel lonely and unappreciated.
“I cannot adapt here in peace, with friends that don’t understand war”, Grom told me some time after he came home from the front. “They call me a crazy man because I want to go back. But war is my job!”
With this two year-long, no foreseeable end conflict, Ukraine is also facing an epidemic of post traumatic stress. A very serious aspect, considering people’s reluctance to seek help from psychologists. Whether it comes from the stigma surrounding any mental health problem, soldiers being convinced that psychologists are just not prepared because they have not experienced war or some just not acknowledging they have a problem, this is a huge step in Ukraine’s recovery as a nation.
My work covering the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and its consequences in the media: