Eight years ago, I spent some two weeks reporting from the troubled conflict zone of Donbass, the self-proclaimed pro-Russian republic that mostly incorporates the regions around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The area, mostly ethnic Russian, has since the end of the Second World War. The language is Russian, the outlook is Russian.
It is these pro-Russian separatists that have now called on the Kremlin to protect them from Ukrainian authorities, and it is where Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops and tanks. That was, of course, before all hell let loose on Thursday in a full-scale military operation that is still unfolding and whose consequences, unknown now, will indeed be far-fetched.
We are witnessing the map of Europe being redrawn with events that are the most consequential since 1945 and certainly since the breaking apart of the former Soviet Union and its satellite republics.
I visited a mine — coal is the bedrock of the economy there — is the small town of Katya. It’s a community of row upon row of utilitarian brick apartments that have communal facilities and were built back in the days when Ukraine itself was an integral part of the USSR. All of the production from the mine is shipped east to keep Russian furnaces burning.
At the Shaktar — that’s the Russian word for mine, hence the biggest club in the region being called Shakhtar Donetsk, literally Donetsk Miners — I met a woman, Svetlana Kurilakov, who was trying to get the mine manager to hire her son, Vassili. She was a coal miner’s daughter, a coal miner’s wife, and a coal miner’s mother — and it was time for Vassili to enter the family’s black trade.
“Of course we are Russian,” she told me at the time. “We have nothing since Ukraine broke away from the motherland. Before, miners were heroes. Now they [are] slaves to quotas.”
The mine manager couldn’t see Kurilakovs that day, but she remained confident. “He’s a good man,” Svetlana said of the mine boss. “Russians look after Russians.”
That certainly seems to be the case now, given that for months, the Kremlin has been building up close to 200,000 troops on the border of Ukraine before unleashing a sustained military operation in the early hours of Thursday morning.
As bad and bleak as the black of a mine in Donbass might be, it is deep enough to avoid the hell that might unfold above as a conflict inevitably widens.
During my time in the Donbass, I sought out the stories of Ukrainians who were linguistic and ethnic minorities in their own country. West of the River Dnieper that pretty much divides Ukraine into almost equal halves, ethnic Ukrainians are in the majority. To the east, it is Russian that is spoken — and the self-proclaimed Donbass republic is as Far East as Russia proper. And now that has changed as the territory will formally be integrated by the Kremlin just as Crimea was back in 2014.
My “fixer” — Felix was my interpreter, driver and font of local knowledge — at the time brought to an orphanage where the images still haunt me to this day. The walls were feeling pain and plaster, there was little real food, the emaciated children sat on soiled horsehair mattresses in prison-like beds.
These children were mostly ignored, the institution forgotten, the few staff that remained barely managing to cope. The children were deaf and signed in Ukrainian. Russian sign language is different, deaf and blind to these orphan’s plight. To this day my stomach turns with regret that I should have done more to help. I could not.
In a large square in Donetsk stood a huge granite statue of Vladimir Lenin, the revolutionary founder of the USSR and a hero to all in the Communist Party that ruled the vast political empire for so long.
In the troubled land
In the square gathered ageing Communists, selling dog-eared copies of “Pravda” — “Truth” — the party newspaper that was once the only source of official news across the USSR.
While happy that the area had proclaimed itself interdependent, they wanted a return to the glory days of the USSR and a return to a single-party state under the Communist Party. I observed drily at the time that pigeons were perched on Lenin’s head, leaving their guano on his nose: On some days you’re the statue, on others, you’re the pigeon. That seems to be an analogy for life itself there in that troubled land.
I wonder now what those Communists, if they have survived — expectancy is shortened in eastern Ukraine, conditions hard and life made tougher as a result of the simmering conflict that up to this week had claimed some 14,000 lives — would make of the events unfolding around them in Donbass and across the wider Ukraine too.
Across the outlying areas, I visited numerous town and villages, all invariably protected by makeshift barricades manned by local men with an assortment of firearms and weapons, and even though I hold an Irish passport was accused time and time again of being “nayto spion” — A Nato spy. Distrust of the west is ingrained, running deep and now likely more vengeful than ever.
I called Felix on Thursday. His name and number are long in my contacts, so too are other fixers from Libya, Syria, Sri Lanka and other conflict zones from my reportage.
The line is silent. There are no crackles or beeps that are made in trying to connect. There was no voicemail greeting to leave a reassuring message after the beep. Nothing. Maybe it is because the mobile phone network is down — communications are always taken offline in a time of conflict.
Hopefully Felix is doing OK. I have a feeling he is. Let’s hope everyone is doing OK. I have a feeling they are not.