Avdiivka, Krasnohorivka, Marinka, Shyrokyne, Hnutove, Popasna, Shchastia, and Pisky are toponyms of Donbas that are often mentioned in news about the war in eastern Ukraine. This is only a small part of the 155 settlements of Donbas located on the line of contact in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Individual human destinies and stories are hidden in the names of towns and villages. Terrible, piercing, life-affirming, and sometimes just ordinary ones. Statistics of international organisations attribute about 3,500,000 people as victims of the humanitarian disaster in Donbas. Of these, about 1,800,000 people live in the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The rest live in the territories controlled by Kyiv, including about 450,000 people living in the frontline zone. Each of these 450,000 residents of the red line of demarcation has his or her own war on a daily basis – the war for life in a land the colour of war.
Iryna Ustymova, 38, who left Donetsk in September 2014, joined the ranks of local teachers in Avdiivka. There is always a shortage of teachers and doctors in the region. In 2014-2015, there was a real boom in migration of the population to the frontline towns. The increase was, on average, 15% due to the so-called “refugees from the war and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).” These people did not go deep into Ukraine, but only moved within Donbas. Therefore, Ms. Ustymova teaches children in one of the schools in Avdiivka from morning until 8 p.m. due to the rapid increase in the number of pupils. Internally displaced persons are now a separate social stratum of the population from the most densely populated region of the state – Donbas – which it was before the war. As of 4 January 2021, according to the Unified Information Database of Internally Displaced Persons, 1,459,170 internally displaced persons from the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea were registered.
Raisa Taranenko, 73, a pensioner from the village of Zaitseve, Bakhmut district, Donetsk region, badly damaged by shelling, looks at its traces on the walls of her house every day. Until 2016, her house was located in the so-called “gray” buffer zone of Zaitseve. That’s why she managed to live some 600 meters from the separatist trenches. The firewood stacked near the wall for the winter served as a protective barrier against shells. In 2019, the repair of damaged by shelling began with funds from the Norwegian Refugee Council in Ukraine (NRC). First of all, the restoration will apply to houses of pensioners, who make up 35-40% of the population of the frontline zones. The civil-military administrations of these towns help to obtain compensation for the destroyed housing or new housing for the victims. Life in the frontline zone has become more peaceful, and the intensity of shelling is much lower. But more money is not allocated for repairs because it is a red zone. Therefore, hypothetically, all the investments may be lost due to possible destruction.
Mykola Yushkov, 70, from Mayorske, regularly visits his daughter, who lives with her family in pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory. Every day, about 30,000 “tourists” cross the 427-kilometer demarcation line at five checkpoints in both directions. Someone does this to visit a family divided by the war, others to receive a pension or social security benefits, or to buy or sell food. Sometimes even old people are forced to participate in such schemes of earning money on food. Needless to say, this is not always safe. Mariia Kryslenko, 80, stands in long lines at the checkpoint every day and brings food from Stanytsia Luhanska to Luhansk, where her grandchildren live. “I was going to die in 2013. My back ached and I could not walk. And now, I have been making efforts for four years of war, otherwise my grandchildren will die without me,” she says. As of 30 August 2015, there were about 600 residents in Stanytsia Luhanska. As of January 2020, about 12,000 people lived in the village due to internal migration.
The Semeniuk family from Zhovanka, the spouses, went through the traumatic experience of being kidnapped by militants and having a difficult return home. It happened in early 2015. At the time, Zhovanka was also a “grey zone,” and Russian hybrid forces quietly penetrated there. The spouses were taken to Yenakiyevo, where they were beaten and bullied. But, fortunately, they were released. After that, the family left for the Poltava region. When Zhovanka was back under control of the Ukrainian army, they returned home. After such stories, the fear of being kidnapped existed in many frontline houses and in occupied territories for a long time.
There is also a collective story. Students of the local vocational school of the mining town of Hirniak regularly painted pro-Russian inscriptions around the town during the most difficult years of 2014-2015. In the first years of the war, they were almost the only Ukrainian center in their hometown. In the first years of the war, teenagers and vocational school teachers often did not find support and understanding among the majority of the townspeople. Now, the situation is changing. “People are not blind, albeit zombified by Russian propaganda. They see what Ukraine gives and what the DPR does. They gradually accept Ukrainian side. They even come to our vocational school club to talk about life at the front,” says Mykola Drazhny, a 17-year-old vocational school student.
Some of these 450,000 frontline residents had to become more persistent, escaping from a hard life. Vasyl Hotko, whose car was destroyed as a result of the shelling of Mariupol in January 2015, is still actively fighting for compensation from the state. Natalia Krasna, who left the dangerous Shyrokyne with her family, went through several stages of infernal part-time jobs before starting her own business in Mariupol. The woman claims that without the war, she wouldn’t have found all those wonderful people with whom she stands together as entrepreneurs of the new Donbas.
Events in the east forced many residents of the Donetsk region to become more socially active and learn to contribute to the life of the community. Grant projects teach them to defend the right to a dignified life, control the local budget, and implement public initiatives. In particular, a project called “Increasing the ability of community members to influence local governments in the frontline towns of Ukraine” was launched at the end of 2020 and will be implemented in eight frontline towns. There have been no local elections in the frontline zone since 2010, including elections last autumn. In these territories, there are civil-military administrations, the heads of which are appointed, not elected. To prevent the creation of an autocracy, members of local communities should be involved in the decision-making process and realising the interests and needs of frontline towns. “We live in the line of fire. Nobody knows how it will end for us. We have no other choice but to be constantly in good shape. When we wake up every morning, we must ask ourselves what we have done to make our town a little better while the war is going on. If we sit down and just wait, the budget money will not come to us,” a Toretsk resident said.
Many lives in the frontline zone were cut short. According to the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, 3,375 civilians have died since the beginning of the Russian Federation’s armed aggression in Donbas. More than 7,000 civilians have been injured. The mortality rate of the civilian population is 25-26% of the total death toll (3,375 out of 13,100-13,300). During the war, this ratio has changed significantly: from 33-34% in 2014 to 4-5% in 2019-2020. During the entire period of the war in Donbas, the number of civilian casualties was the lowest in 2019. The worst thing is that since the beginning of hostilities in the East of Ukraine (from April 2014 to August 2020) at least 42 children have been injured by mines and explosives in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Due to the active conflict, it is still impossible to implement a demining plan, which can take at least 25-30 years. Since the beginning of the Russian aggression, the total size of mined areas is about 7,000 square kilometers in the controlled area and about 14,000 square kilometers in the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
Some residents of the frontline towns live creatively, despite the proximity of the front. They are shooting amateur films. They become heroes of professional documentaries. For example, Hanna Hladka from Krasnohorivka, a mother of four children, became the heroine of Iryna Tsilyk’s documentary “The Earth Is Blue as an Orange.” The film won the Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. “The Earth” is a film within a film. For a whole year, the director watched Hanna and her eldest daughter Miroslava, who were filming their everyday life in the frontline zone. “In fact, our film is not about war, it is only a background here. This is a film about growing up, about balancing between war and peace, about self-therapy with the help of cinema, and about many other things that can be close and understandable to different people in the world,” Tsilyk said in an interview with Moviegram. Despite the surreal combination of art and war, the film did not get dramatic. Various funny scenes from the life of the family are demonstrated; there are no loud “popular” discussions about resolving military conflicts or accusations of the authorities. Cinematography helps the protagonists cope with the unpleasant experience of war. Mother Hanna and her children speak frankly about their experiences of the war only in the episodes where they interview each other. Tsilyk noted in an interview with The Village: “I want to share the stories of such people. Ukrainians are very different; we tend to feel sorry for ourselves, we focus more on problems. But there are a lot of people around who amaze me. I like the way they take their lives into their own hands and live and even know how to enjoy their life. I am terribly impressed with such people, and I want to tell about them.” The amateur movie of Myroslava Trofimchuk, the daughter of Hanna Gladka, has already been screened at two festivals (Open Nights and Bardak).
Peace in the frontline zones is still very fragile. The soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine to provide the local population food and medical assistance. The hostilities and shelling do not cease on the part of the enemy, even in the context of the current ceasefire. Among the lower-level problems, the most critical are access to health care services, ambulances, staff shortages, road conditions, transport links, crossing the contact line, rising prices for coal, firewood and utilities.
But the frontline zone for 450,000 people has long become a place of real life. Life with hope for the best, small victories, daily routines, and the gradual growth of social consciousness. And all of them, residents of the Donbas frontline villages and towns, will definitely and finally win their war: the war for life in the land of the colour of war.