A Diary From the Eastern FrontSpecials

by Phil Rambousek, Pyshevyk.

Finally, we set off for the front. Specifically, for the town of Pyshevyk, which now serves as the main border crossing between the rebel-held territories and Ukraine in the south of the front. It is used daily by hundreds of civilians, and so both sides have reached a sort of understanding of a ceasefire – to an extent. The checkpoint still comes under occasional artillery fire, and the Ukrainian forces have dug a number of bomb shelters in the area.

The Ukrainian side of the checkpoint is full of administrative huts and queues of cars.The local forces showed us the painstaking procedure that anyone entering Ukraine from the rebel-controlled territories has to undergo, including sniffer dogs and other various checks. It was obvious that they had done this many times for the media before.  

We walked on from the administrative area to the edge of the Ukrainian line. Before the war, the area was defined by its surrounding fields. The few houses in the area happen to be located in what is now a buffer zone between the administrative and waiting area, and the edge of the Ukrainian territory.

DSC_0191We knocked on the door of a old house, and spoke with its eighty-five year old inhabitant. To me, this woman represented the incredibly tragic history of Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The woman was born in Chernobyl, Belarus, in 1931 and as ten year old, was old enough to experience the full might of the German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Aside from being in the way of the front line twice, first moving eastwards and then, when the Germans were retreating, westwards, she obviously also suffered under the Nazi occupation. She lived through Stalinism and the height of Soviet oppression. Then, in 1985, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened; again, she was close enough to see it first hand. The Soviet authorities moved her to eastern Ukraine, what was to become to front line some thirty years later. When we spoke to her, accompanied by a soldier, she looked at him and begged him to stop the war, go away, and leave her alone. She certainly knew better than anyone.

Our armed escort refused to come any further, but we went on, and crossed the line into the rebel territory. We were warned not to go too close to the trees on the horizon a few metres away, as then we would be in serious danger.

Keeping an eye on the ever-present minefield signs, we were surprised to reach a fully-functioning bus stop, with civilians waiting to be taken back to Donetsk. Hearing my guide’s Ukrainian accent, they were reluctant to speak with us at first, but soon enough our shy attempts to interview them turned into a fight, with civilians, mostly old women collecting their pension in Ukraine, screaming at one another. They complained they are forced to stand in the sun for hours without water or shelter, and said that the Ukrainians were doing this purposefully to punish them. When we told the soldiers on the Ukrainian side what we had heard, they shrugged their complaints off. These old women collect their pensions from the Russians in Donetsk, and then they come here for a second round, they said, and it was clear that felt little sympathy for them.

DSC_0170Before leaving, we sat around smoking and casually talking to the soldiers. We found that the Canadians were the only ones who have offered any help (‘I heard about a guy who was given a Canadian helmet’, said the soldier I was speaking to), and when I asked how certain they are that they are actually facing the Russians, the soldier paused, looked me in the eye, and literally burst out laughing. ‘They don’t even bother sewing off the Russian flag from their uniforms anymore’, he exclaimed.

Just as we were leaving, an OSCE car drove past. The soldiers muttered insults directed at these observers, and I found out that the reputation of the OSCE is to stay in a nice hotel well beyond the front line, drive a bit closer – but still safe – once month to make an appearance, and then disappear. More seriously, the soldiers said that more than half of the local OSCE observers are Russian, and they are certain that they provide information about the Ukrainians to the Russians. ‘When the rebels are close enough, we can see them get out of their fancy armoured cars and hug each other’, they said.

We shook hands, and got ready to leave. ‘You are going to Shyrokynne tomorrow?’, the soldier asked, and I nodded. ‘Well, you’ll enjoy that. This is a kindergarten compared to Shyrokynne’, he said. ‘I hope so’, I said, praying that our plans of finally getting close to the action, on our last day, wouldn’t fail.    


A Diary From the Eastern FrontSpecials

by Filip Rambousek, Kramatorsk.

Getting up early this morning, I caught a 6 AM train from Kyiv to Slavyansk, a city in the east of Ukraine, which has grown by more than 30.000 internally displaced persons (that is, refugees from the areas directly stricken by war) from its originally size of some 90.000. Aside from the fact that it has a direct train connection to Kyiv though, and is used by most local international NGOs for their headquarters, it is only remarkable for how run down and unremarkable it is.

DSC_0027After a quick meeting with international NGO workers, we were glad to catch a marshrutka (minibuses that serve as the backbone of public transport in much of Ukraine) and travel some 20 minutes south, to Kramatorsk. Both Slavyansk and Kramatorsk were actually at one point under rebel control, but the rebels withdrew in the July of 2014. The 5th of July is now officially celebrated as the Kramatorsk independence day.

Kramatorsk is virtually the press HQ for the conflict, as well as the provisional seat of the Donetsk Oblast, and it is a larger, and overall much more interesting city than Slavyansk. Our guide was a local activist and Kramatorsk native, who has been shelled, seen the front line engulf him, and experienced life in rebel controlled territory.  We spent the day exploring the city, talking about the war, and meeting all sorts of volunteers and representatives of civil society.

Being Czech myself, I was shocked to find a Czech cultural centre at the local library. The centre organises language classes and supports students who want to study in the Czech Republic. De jure, the aim is that these young people will return and help reform Ukraine. De facto, the director knows full well they simply want to get out of here. I have not seen this much enthusiasm for the EU in a long time. Do they see in the EU something that many of us do not, or do they not see the many drawbacks that the member states have to put up with?

Then again, anything is better than living at the edge of war.

Next, we toured DSC_0025a local volunteer workshop, which focuses on producing camouflage nets and ghillie suits for the Ukrainian soldiers and materiel. This has so far been the highlight of my trip. The volunteers- mostly women from 50 up- were so glad to see that they had not been completely forgotten by the world, their welcome could not have been warmer. We sang the Ukrainian anthem, fought off demands that we immediately eat soup because it was absolutely clear that we were starving, and promised we would be back to celebrate the Kramatorsk liberation day.

As everywhere in this city, we heard war stories.

We were told the ways many of the local boys, ranging from 16 to 18, died fighting, and the ways the volunteers themselves ended up in Kramatorsk, as many of them have had to leave Donetsk and the surrounding areas. In the enDSC_0019d, one of the few male volunteers told me his brother had been killed while taking part in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The brother’s death was his family’s tragedy, he said, but his nation’s shame.

We agreed that our countries’ experiences were much too similar.

In the evening, we met with the head of the local veteran’s association, who talked us through the organisation’s brief history and work. He described the difficulties they have with persuading the vets to talk to a psychologist, as well as the many different types of extreme sports events which they provide for the vets just to fill their need to feed their adrenaline addiction, which so often arises after experiencing combat. Overall, this interview was the most difficult; the man, a veteran himself, admitted he disliked talking to journalists, because they always ask about what he did in the war. We resisted these questions, but sensed he was glad when he left.

Finally, I have already begun to reach my goal of experiencing the practicalities of a (quasi) military life. In short, I learnt that moving around in a warzone in a military outfit, with heavy boots and a heavier backpack, on a scorching hot day, is exhausting and demotivating. The only thing that could make this even more stressful would probably be to be shot and have to shoot back.   

Tomorrow, when we leave Kramatorsk and move on, we might get to experience just that.

A Diary From the Eastern FrontSpecials

by Filip Rambousek, Kiev.

My summer has not been fun. So far, I believe I have spent the majority of my time calling, emailing and otherwise begging strangers for help, which was usually followed by trips to various administrative offices in Kyiv, Ukraine. All the while I am technically on holiday.  

But finally, tomorrow morning, I’ll set out for for Kyiv’s main train station, and catch a rather slow fast train to the east of Ukraine. Because this isn’t just any trip, I’m really quite excited.

Over the following week, I will travel through the main areas of the so called Anti-Terrorist Operation Area (ATO), from Donetsk all the way south to Mariupol (see map), with the aim of spending time on the front line, interviewing soldiers, civil society representatives, and volunteers.  

Kiew=kyivinsteadofkievDuring my trip, I will use the Campus Europe website as my personal diary, and will update it every day of the week with (hopefully) interesting stories, as well as photos.   

My motivation for this trip is manifold. I have always been interested in war journalism, international security, as well as the post-Soviet states. This trip means that I can experience a bit of both first hand.

On a broader level, I am worried about what is happening with the world, and especially on the EU’s frontier, whether in the East or in the South. If I am to have a more accurate understanding, I need to experience these events personally. I cannot expect anyone to take me seriously when I write about war or conflict without ever having set foot anywhere near a frontline. I can’t advocate for a country, whether the US today, or the EU in future, to go to war, without at least trying to come close to how these learned and distant decisions affect the soldiers and civilians on the ground.

More personally, I feel as if my experiences lack when its comes to extraordinary and perhaps risky adventures. I believe that now is the best time to pursue these passions, while I have few commitments still. It may seem silly or like a romantic cliche, but I want to be able to tell anecdotes a little more interesting than office gossip.

I am also very curious to talk with the many volunteers and soldiers, many of whom are younger than I am, and most of whom had plans and careers different from risking their lives in a hybrid war. I believe that through this experience, I will learn a little bit both about myself, and the society that I live in.

Would I, my classmates or colleagues, be willing to throw everything away and join a rather cash strapped, inefficient army? I am not so sure, and I want to see whether there is some deeper difference in worldview or culture that has led many Ukrainians to join up. Do they share they share the patriotic excitement so eery to the modern reader of Remarque, Orwell or Hemingway? Are they fighting to finally leave the European borderlands and once and for all join the West, or are they simply defending their country from a foreign invader?

The Ukrainians deserve our help. I believe this is more or less clear to anyone who will ever read my upcoming entries, and those who disagree won’t come near reading them in the first place. In other words, I have no illusions regarding exercising any meaningful influence, or “creating awareness”, about the war. Because of this, I am also not going to pretend that I have some noble aim to help the civilians or the soldiers in their plight. I may change my mind afterwards, but I believe there are far more qualified people on the ground doing far more than I could possibly hope to achieve in my week’s visit.

Above all, I am going to learn for myself, and I look forward to sharing whatever I find with you.


You can also follow Phil on twitter: @rambousekf

Picture by Sasha Maksymenko.