URBAN SURVIVAL, CITIZEN’S RESILIENCE AND COMMUNITY PREPAREDNESS
An impression of the life on the frontline in Donetsk region, East-Ukraine
Urban survival training
In November 2015 I attended an Urban Survival training, held in the former Russian prison camp Rummu, an hour drive west of Tallinn. This was part of my SERE A-instructor training at the Survival school of the Kaitseliit, the voluntary military national defence organisation in Estonia.
My buddies from a Danish military reconnaissance team and I along with a number of Estonian and Finnish military instructors and several other Estonian military teams had to cooperate with each other and deal with collapsed and abandoned buildings. This was part of a scenario in which our area was soon to be overrun by enemy forces.
Here I came into contact with an Estonian camera crew who had just returned from a trip to the Donbas frontline and who told us that our training area looked very similar to what they had seen there.
That is when I started to plan my visit to the front of East-Ukraine in the north.
Mid-August 2019, I had an unplanned Skype call with my Ukrainian friend and fellow survival-instructor Col Igor Molodan, who was on duty at CIMIC Kramatorsk. I asked him about the current military situation at the front.
He asked me straightforward when exactly I was planning to visit him. A few days later I called him back to discuss my plan, after which I booked my flight to Kyiv and the trip by night train to Kramatorsk.
On Wednesday, 4 September, 2019, I boarded a flight from Amsterdam-Schiphol to Kyiv. From there I took a taxi to the Dutch embassy, where I had an appointment with the political section and the first officer to discuss the current situation and the security threat level in East-Ukraine. Their travel advice was clear: negative, a no-go. Of course, this was clear from the start.
Their intel classified East-Ukraine as a red zone meaning that it was too dangerous to travel to. They also mentioned possible geopolitical dimensions and consequences if something were to happen to me.
Thorough preparation and proper planning are key to accomplish a mission. Since I had done both of these things, I went.
In the late evening, I took an old night train which was designed by the soviets, full of passengers, from Central Station Kyiv to Kramatorsk. I love travelling by train. I never feel bored on the road, instead I even feel a little excited. The trip was approximately 627 kilometers and it took over 14 hours. I slept well, because it had been a very intensive day. I heard the monotonous voice of an elderly lady speaking Russian who seemed to be suffering intensely. Fate had not spared her.
Our train was approaching the industrial outskirts of Kramatorsk when I awoke from a good rest. At the station I was welcomed by my friend Igor. He and his driver took me straight to a private rental apartment in a suburb of Kramatorsk that was rented for the coming week. While he was on duty during the day, I had to make my own plans or stroll through the nearby open market.
Life on the streets
I felt relatively safe walking through the streets, I looked around and observed people. I saw street vendors, shopkeepers, housewives, youngsters, and elderly people. I also looked at billboards, graffiti, soviet monuments, old busses, lorries, trucks, taxi’s, damaged roads, new pavement, the courtyards beyond the main avenues, and small businesses. I observed the way people interacted and spoke with each other and how they were dressed. Though I did not speak Russian or Ukrainian I was able to communicate nonverbally and use all my senses to interpret my surroundings.
It was the sight and odour of freshly chopped lamb meat, dried pig ears and noses, turkey, fish, nuts, cheeses, a wild variety of vegetables and fruits, second hand clothes, shoes, electronics, and furniture. I listened to the noise created by people of different ages, haggling, discussing, negotiating, enjoying themselves, and socialising amidst their fellow citizens.
I had a brief encounter with a Russian or Ukrainian orthodox priest, who showed a text in Cyrillic and did his silent prayers in return for a little gift. He nodded without saying a word. What was reality? What was true?
Just six years ago, Kramatorsk was a battle zone where Russian backed separatists took control of a number of public buildings and the main streets in the city center. After the heavy fighting, Ukrainian military forces defeated them and took back control.
How immanent was the threat? How close was the frontline? What was going on behind the scenes of the daily life in Kramatorsk?
A lot of questions were asked, but barely any answers were given.
While wandering around and slowly expanding my perimeter I noticed graffiti, street art, signs and announcements in Cyrillic. On some of the walls of soviet build apartment blocks I saw creative images.
I passed by a Ukrainian orthodox church, or was it Russian? It was hard to tell because I was not familiar with the local differences and customs. Did it matter? Not to me, but I did realise that the past had left behind pain and trauma and that the innocent people had to live with it.
Ukraine was occupied and terrorised by Russian tzars for centuries and after that Soviet governments did the same for almost seventy years.
In the early thirties, the Soviet authorities in Moscow decided to start the collectivisation of private farmland in Ukraine, Russia and the occupied territories. The Khulaks, the traditional Ukrainian farmers, resisted communist rule because of the violence that the Soviets used against their cultural heritage and tradition. They kept their livestock, supplies of grain, and seedlings to themselves. As a result, the Soviets ordered a total surrender and forced a brutal collectivisation. Hundreds of armed communist gangs ransacked and pillaged the countryside, taking all the food, livestock and supplies from the farmers. The gangs destroyed the farmhouses and they frequently killed, raped and tortured the Khulaks. Any resistance was brutally oppressed or annihilated. Within three years, three to seven million Ukrainian farmers starved to death or were killed whilst resisting the Soviet state of terror.
Collectivist farms such as Kolchoz and Sovchoz were established.
One late afternoon, I met up with Igor in a fine restaurant in Pushkin Park, located in the city center. We ate good food and had a drink.
I asked him about the plan we discussed earlier. Nothing was as it seemed. I had made clear that I needed to visit the frontline to be able to do my research for this article. He clearly understood and told me that he would try his best to make it happen. He was not certain if he could accompany me on a trip.
I realised that everything is different outside the luxurious, consumerist, fragile bubble of Western-European countries, in particular the Netherlands.
A day later Igor arranged a meeting with his friends. His friends were Myroslav Hai, a filmmaker, an adventurer, a world traveler, and a soldier in the reserve military and Valentina Okhlopkova, a documentarian, both from Ukraine and personally involved in the liberation of occupied Ukrainian territory.
We talked about this regional conflict, history, art, travelling, the need to express one self, the lust for exploration, and embracing the unexpected.
It became clear to me that these two people were to become my personal guides, and I had to trust them and put my fate in their hands, because Igor could not make it.
Saturday evening at the restaurant in the Pushkin park, their commander, Rusman, showed up to see if they could trust me. I felt a little uneasy while I was being interrogated, but it made sense to me that they had be sure that I was trustworthy.
In the end he confirmed that I could accompany Myroslav and Valentina the next day on their travel to the front.
Saturday night was thrilling, surreal and busy. Igor, one of his friends named Yuri who was an arms manufacturer and successful businessman from Charkiv, and an unknown pretty woman took me out to dinner at a Karaoke bar in the basement of a restaurant in the city center of Kramatorsk. Well-dressed men and women were singing, chatting, drinking and eating. It seemed hard to believe that a war was being waged where soldiers and citizens were being killed on a daily basis, despite the fact that Ukrainian forces and the Russia backed ‘separatists’ had confirmed a cease fire.
After a few hours of karaoke I felt tired and I decided to go back to my apartment. My friends called for a taxi and after a ten-minute drive I was dropped off at my apartment. It was a pitch black night.
Early in the morning, I was picked up by two men from the military and brought to the CIMIC-office in the city center.
Igor, Valentina and Myroslav were there waiting for me. I got a bullet-proof vest and a Kevlar helmet after which Igor wished me all the best. The three of us were going on a mission travelling in civilian all-terrain vehicle. After leaving Kramatorsk, we headed towards Mariupol, a harbour at the Sea of Azov.
After leaving Kramatorsk, Myroslav accelerated, to be less of an easy target for snipers, who could take out targets from 1000 meters away. The weather was fine, the road was abandoned and in a very poor state, with potholes and broken asphalt. The countryside was endless with fields of sunflowers and hills. Sometimes we would pass through small villages with people working in their gardens and children cycling. It seemed normal, as if there was nothing to worry about.
At certain points road-blocks manned by Ukrainian soldiers halted us. Myroslav would enter the heavily protected concrete shelters, ordering me to stay inside the vehicle, and return with clearance, after which we would continue our journey.
In the meantime, Myroslav and Valentina taught me the basic rules of surviving the mortar shelling and what to do if anyone of us would be separated or killed. If I was to be separated, I would have to survive without my guides. In which case, Myroslav would wait 24 hours at CIMIC HQ.
It was essential to notice the direction from which the firing was coming, to stay as low as possible, to dive into a ditch if there was one, not to hide behind a car or building, not run in the open fields while being a visible easy target, and not to run into the green (fields) alongside the road because there could be mines hidden underneath. Artillery barrages could easily reach Kramatorsk with mortar grenades that exploded at a lethal 45 degree angle and modernised Stalin rockets launchers which were devastating because of the efficiency of being able to kill everything within a large area.
Russian military and separatists used high velocity ammo that easily penetrated Kevlar helmets and bullet-proof vests, so those were almost of no use.
If I were to survive, I was to head back the same way making sure not to walk into Russian territory to be captured or killed.
I started to feel a certain unrest and excitement.
All my previous training from the past thirty years suddenly fell into place.
In the early afternoon we were stopped by a large group of Ukrainian military police.
We were directed to a parking spot next to the office. After a thorough search of our car by a couple of soldiers, an officer suddenly detained Myrolav and held him responsible for illegally taking six machetes with him and not being able to show an official signed transport document for these ‘weapons’.
He was told that he had to stay another 24 hours. However, we were bound by a strict travel plan as he had to give a lecture at CIMIC in Mariupol.
When I was asked for my passport, it included a Russian visa with stamps, because I had visited Tyumen, Siberia, Russia, in February 2016 to attend the World Winter Swimming Championships. I went there together with a couple of women from the swimming club Meriumarit ry in Helsinki. That raised questions and Myroslav was not happy. Fortunately, I was able to show them proof that I had been there for that specific event.
In the meantime, Myroslav had made a call to the governor and within the hour we could continue our trip.
I am certain that my perspective would have changed if I had got stuck there together with Valentina.
Life is very unpredictable, especially in a warzone.
We drove along the frontline, held by Russian backed separatists. It was unclear if it was friendly or enemy territory. So Myroslav and Victoria used Google navigation, a map and compass to navigate and even then it was hard to stay on the right track, because the enemy positions could have changed.
The image was surreal, the sun was shining, a clear blue sky was above me and an endless view of the horizon was around me. Whilst we were driving slowly at a intersection, a woman appeared on the abandoned dirt road through no-man’s-land. A couple of signs indicated the existence of landmines and it was concluded that this was definitely enemy territory. Why was she walking through this dangerous area?
Myroslav asked her if we could go through. She replied that we would be shelled immediately. The danger was hidden, but present.
Russian monasteries in the area were believed to function as intel posts for the separatists. Civil and religious wars between people with similar or very different ethnic backgrounds or history are said to be the worst kind of war. For me it was extremely difficult to tell what was what, and who was who. I had no idea. I had to rely on the information of my very supportive guides and “brothers and sisters in arms” and I had to trust my gut feeling along with my other senses.
In the distance loomed the grey silhouette of the buildings of heavy industries: steel and coal covered the sky above with dark brownish-red coloured smoke and dust. The taste and smell of the metal in the air was disgusting. It caused a burning sensation in my throat, and on my tongue and lips. Mariupol, part of Oblast Donetsk, is a harbour city with approximately 500.000 inhabitants and situated along the shores of the Sea of Azov.|
In the twenties and thirties of last century, the Soviet communists launched their five year plans and started the mass scale industrialisation of the Soviet-Union. The New Communist World Order had to be based on steel and coal. The traditional peasantry had to be wiped out for this plan to be completed. This lead to the Holodomor, the genocide on the Ukrainian people.
At the entrance of the city we were welcomed by military officers who guided us through the roadblocks, straight to the CIMIC-office at the seashore. The office was just outside the city and close to the frontline.
Fortunately we were in time for the talk Myroslav had to give about the documentary he and Valentina had produced:
“The first independent mission of Ukrainian peacekeepers—the Security Service’s special operation on evacuating Georgian refugees from the Svaneti Mountains—took place on 10-14 October 1993. Under the fire of Abkhazian and Russian forces, Ukrainian pilots on 17 helicopters pulled off 291 flights, saving 7,634 people from ethnic cleansing and delivering 487 tons of cargo.”
The audience of male and female soldiers responded enthusiastically and afterwards went back to the frontline.
After the talk we visited the Greek Cultural Centre in the center of Mariupol. The Greek community was established during the reign of Czarina Catherina the Great after the Russian-Turkish war from 1768-1774. The Greek escaped Muslim persecution in Crimea. They speak their own language: Rumeika, Mariupolitan Greek. We were welcomed by the president of this society.
Myroslav gave his lecture to a group of schoolchildren.
The people of Mariupol and the Ukrainian authorities had restored the inner city as much as was possible, there were still obvious signs of damaged windows and houses by shelling and bullet holes.
During the warm evening and night we stayed in the Grand Hotel at Korolenko Pereulok and in the garden we discussed a variety of topics, including Russian disinformation strategies, the propaganda war, and the traumatic history of Ukrainian people fighting for their independence.
A full interview on YouTube with former KGB official Yuri Bezmenov reveals Russian Subversion Tactics.
In the early morning, we left Mariupol for a small town at the front named Marynka. We said our farewells to our new friends and continued to move along the frontline together with a new military escort.
What surprised me was that all the places we visited and passed by still exhibited the remains of Soviet socialist-realism in architecture, buildings, monuments, wall paintings, and propaganda slogans. A frozen reality, comparable to what I saw during my visit of the ghost town of Pripyat, close to Chernobyl last year.
The city center of Marynka looked clean and well-organized, even though it was part of the warzone.
On the main square in front of the community center, I was told by the military officers not to go further away than 25 meters. Although it was a warm peaceful sunny day, the danger was present.
Inside the entrance hall of the building, refurbished and renovated after heavy shelling and bombardments, huge metal containers were placed with grey water and fresh drinking water. Critical infrastructure was still damaged so collecting and gathering points were established.
In the auditorium, Myroslav gave another presentation to a large audience of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds with a lust for life.
The building also housed a museum, which I visited and it gave me an interesting view of the local history and Ukrainian past during Soviet times: the Holodomor, WWII and the aftermath of Chernobyl.
After the lecture, we boarded a military vehicle and the two supervisor’s Close Protection Officer’s, who were our current guides, brought us only two hundred meters away from the trenches. It was surreal in many ways, citizens were cleaning the pavement in front of their little houses, cleaning their carpets outside, and the children were cycling. Even the metal fences with thousands of shrapnel and bullet holes had blooming flowers coming through.
In the distance we could hear the artillery barrages.
They brought Valentina and me to a nearby ruined block of apartments, it was forbidden to walk inside or next to the paths, the presence of booby-traps and mines were still there. The buildings were partly inhabited by elderly men and women. I came in contact with an elderly lady, who sat on a wooden bench outside entrance. I could see in her face that she had suffered and had pain inflicted by war. Her warm smile and a sense of strong dignity and posture gave me a good insight in her ability to cope with hardship.
I was allowed to take a picture of her and ask her questions that Valentina translated for me.
What trivial matters are many of us westerners discussing? Living in our bubbles and safe spaces, not enjoying our extreme wealth, complaining and exchanging small talk about the weather conditions, best available pensions, insurances you definitely need, where to go for skiing holidays. That does not mean that reality is not going to confront us with extreme disturbances which can blow us off our feet instantly.
The brave Ukrainian elderly men and women I have met are true survivors.
The Road of Life
Our military escort vehicle took the lead while we followed in our 4x4 and drove the small distance from Marynka to Krasnagorovka (only 11 km) with high speed. This route was named ‘The Road of Life’, because it supported the Ukrainian population and troops with food, medicine, water, fuel, and ammo. In the far distance I could see occupied Donetsk. Along the road on the south-east side, there was a possibility that we would be fired upon by the enemy. Myroslav asked me to say immediately if I saw any bright intense lights coming towards us. Inside the car I wore my Kevlar helmet and I had put the entire bullet free vest (two ceramic layers) between the door and my upper body. If we were to be hit by sniper rifle fire and or mortar propelled grenades, I would have a chance of surviving. I did not feel any anxiety or fear. Something more worrying would be crashing the car into a pothole or ditch with a speed over 100 miles an hour on this severely damaged road.
Luckily that did not happen and we arrived safely in Krasnagorovka.
Valentina and I went to a local supermarket to buy candy for the schoolchildren that we were going to visit. Outside and at close range, we walked around an abandoned and destroyed supermarket and petrol station which still had its petrol prices dating back to five years earlier. A road traffic sign depicting a pedestrian had numerous bullet holes.
And off we went to the music school where Myroslav would give another lecture.
Five years prior, the spacious concrete cellar underneath the music school had housed thirty five children who had survived the heavy Russian artillery barrages. Metal bedframes and a steel emergency exit door to the garden were silent testimonials.
Through the windows I could hear happy children’s voices singing and a piano being played.
Again, surreal to the max.
Together with one of the accompanying officers, I went for a walk. I could see the heavily shelled houses. A number of birch trees showed marks of shell bursts and the impact of bullets.
We visited a brand new school building, still under construction, financed by the EU.
The officer told me that it is important to show the local citizens that their needs were being met and that the Ukrainian government wanted to improve their living conditions. Despite the risk that this building could be destroyed in a new phase of aggression.
Officially a ceasefire between the Ukrainian authorities, Russia backed separatists and the Russian military was declared in September 2019, but the fighting still continues to this day (April 2020).
A little further down the street we met Olha Kitsmanyk in her art school. During the Russian raids and occupation of Krasnagorovka she had taken care of wounded Ukrainian soldiers and helped hiding them. She was betrayed but she survived. She showed a positive mindset, she was running art classes for children and helped them express their fears, hopes and dreams. The class walls were covered with drawings, pictures and paintings. On the ground I noticed a painted grenade in red, yellow and blue, suddenly it looked very fascinating and kind of peaceful. Together we drunk green tea that I had brought along with me and Olha in return offered us her homemade pie.
After an hour we said goodbye and went back to our vehicles.
Plans were changing continuously, but I managed to follow with ease.
Shock and awe
Again we crossed The Road of Life without difficulties, after which we left our supervisors at the nearest roadblock and wished them the best.
Myroslav had changed his plans and so we headed back to the CIMIC-office in Kramatorsk.
In the evening we arrived and immediately a meal consisting of dark sour bread, pickles, pizza, different types of meat, sausages, garlic, onions, ‘Borsjt soup’, was served to us by two military women. I was offered three shots of moonshine, self-distilled vodka, by Myroslav. The first shot to celebrate our successful mission, the second for our safe return and the third was our salute/tribute to the fallen.
It was a true shocking and awe-inspiring experience. Nothing is certain in life and it unfolds itself unexpectedly.
Back in my apartment I felt a bit drunk and could still not fully grasp the extent of what I had experienced.
The next morning, it was already warm and sunny when a military driver picked me up by to go back to the CIMIC HQ.
Myroslav and I drove two hours southward at high speed over abandoned, damaged roads to a town called Pokrovsk. On the way, we were stopped at roadblocks that were protected by sandbags, concrete and steel barriers and at that point I realised that travelling in a warzone is like Russian Roulette, because there are official and unwritten rules. I made my way through a grey zone as a Grey Man: not easy to distinguish or to spot. If someone were to notice my presence, by then I was already gone. That is a key principle of travelling on one’s own through unknown territory.
We arrived on time at a neo-classicist building in the city center where Myroslav held another lecture for a large group of students.
I was allowed to stroll around. The main square was surrounded by trees, shrubs and wooden benches occupied by groups of young students. While walking through the main street I felt a bit uneasy, which was difficult to grasp, but it had to do with atmosphere. It looked quiet, but it was hostile. I felt suspicious looks directed at me and it was hard to foresee how a traumatised society torn apart by ‘civil’ war would respond. Life is very different in such conditions.
The day after my trip with Myroslav, Igor and one of his colleagues took me on a trip north-east to Slavjansk, where a number of recent and WWII war memorials were erected. During the 2014 invasion of Russian backed separatists, a Ukrainian helicopter with thirteen soldiers was hit by a rocket and crashed. Nobody survived. First we went to a memorial along the main road and a little later we visited the crash site in between hills with thousands of sunflowers.
Further north the holy mountains and nature park of Svjatogorsk inhibited an old style, rebuild, wooden monastery in Kyiv-Rus style.
Totalitarian Soviet art
A couple of hundreds meter further along the road, there is an amazing viewpoint over the Seversky Donets river and a large Russian orthodox complex with golden domes and bright blue rooftops. Next to the viewpoint there is a giant concrete statue of Artem Fedorovich Sergev, a communist leader and close friend to Stalin (1883-1921). The cubic object weighs 800 ton and stretches up into the sky for approximately 22 meters.
Totalitarian art optima forma. There is no difference between the art work of the Nazi-sculptor Arno Breker and this Soviet statue.
After a fourteen hour journey by night train, I arrived in the early Saturday morning of September the 14th in Kyiv. It took me a 45 minute walk to get to my hotel. A little later, Valentina picked me up to visit the Invictus games in a sports stadium. Numerous severely handicapped male and female warriors showed their remarkable cross-fit and other sport skills.
One of them, Jurek Kozlowski, lost his left lower leg due to a boobytrap that went off while he was taking cover from heavy enemy fire. He represented the powerful, mentally strong and flexible person who is able to overcome hardship and tough circumstances. He is a true role model.
Afterwards we went for an inspiring sightseeing tour through the old city center.
Definitely a place and a country to visit again.
Once I had returned to the Netherlands, I had a conference call with an official of the Dutch embassy in Kyiv via Skype. It was important to me to stay in contact, to share my experiences and relay the most up-to-date information regarding the front. This was to partially contribute to the attention being payed to the poor living conditions of the civilian population in the ‘forgotten’ frontier zone.