Liberated Territories

NEW – August 26, 2022

People of Krasny Liman, Svyatogorsk, Nikolskoye

“It’s a half-hour drive home. It takes 8 years to get home”

At the exit from Donetsk, the car of volunteers is slowed down by the military:

“Where are you going?”

Viktor Mikhalych, a former captive, says with a smile:

“As usual, to save the world! However I did not learn in advance if it needs it, though.”

Two volunteers, Sergey and Viktor Mikhalych, are traveling in a gazelle battered by all the winds and the Mariupol explosions on the liberated territories with humanitarian aid. Both are 2014 militia members.

“People lived their own lives, it is clear that they did not need this war…”

“And how they lived, can it be called a life? People just tried not to notice, and those who noticed suffered more and more…But all the same, these are people who, if not by us, will not be helped by anyone. At the same time, our main task is not just to take people away – now their villages are becoming safer than in Donetsk. Our task is to give people a line they can cast themselves in order to escape to the surface. We need to help them with precisely getting a job, building materials, it’s necessary to get going…”

To Krasny Liman or Svyatogorsk directly from Donetsk – a little more than 100 kilometres. But now it’s necessary to go for more than 5 hours – making a detour (bypassing Konstantinovka) through the liberated Lugansk Republic.

According to residents of the liberated territories, this is nothing. Previously, their path to their relatives in their native villages of the Donetsk Republic was even more thorny: across the border of the Russian Federation and the DPR or at risk through checkpoints, where they were not always allowed in.

The war is mainly over these distances, which are divided by an unbroken line of closest relatives.

Pensioner Nina Ivanovna, a resident of the outskirts of Krasny Liman, says:

“My husband and I moved to Liman from Donetsk more than 20 years ago, when he started having problems with his lungs – clean air, nature. But in 2019, the ‘idea’ came to my husband at the age of 70: he says, I’ll go to Donetsk, I stopped loving you, I’ll get married again there. I thought the whim would pass… It didn’t. He left. He easily allowed to pass. And then it’s 2020: COVID, he called me, asked me to pick him up – he was homesick before he died. And that’s it, it’s too late: Ukraine has closed roadblocks due to COVID. I came up with such an adventure: my neighbour’s daughter went to a dance competition, so I was thinking of getting an escort with this daughter. But nothing happened, my husband died without me.”

Now the streets of the settlements of the liberated territories look surreal because of the too unnatural combination of solar-powered lanterns installed by Zelensky that survived in the village of Shchastye and signs “Beware of mines” on each field through which the soldiers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces retreated, leaving a dead zone behind. At the entrance to Shchastye, where a temporary bridge spans the Seversky Donets River, our driver comments:

“And here 26 people died in February of this year, our military. When the transition to the other side began.”

The streets of the liberated territories can no longer be called completely extinct, in such villages as Krasny Liman, life is slowly recovering, but a sense of danger and tension is in the air. The fact is that there are still a large number of spotters in the cities, who inform the Ukrainian army about the location of not only military units, but even about the distribution points of humanitarian aid, and subsequently correct the shelling of volunteers at the time of a crowd of people.

That is why the work of volunteers is currently most difficult: they do not distribute humanitarian aid in one place, but deliver it to points, without mentioning in advance where they are based. At the same time, the need for humanitarian aid is acute: people continue to live without water, gas, light works only from the generator, communication is carried out only in Krasny Liman.

Local residents themselves did not see or interact with the Ukrainian military until the beginning of the Special Military Operation:

“They came and settled down somewhere. They were shooting from us [from the settlement – SZ], yes…”

Krasny Liman

April, May and June were the most difficult for Krasny Liman, residents spent this time in basements, using food supplies that they managed to make in March:

“The Ukrainians bombed us before entering the city, before leaving, and then from afar. The shells were really falling at random, and our house was on the front line, that is, even when the projectiles were directed from one side to the other, we were afraid that it might not reach us and fall towards us. The Russians, when they came in early May, immediately told us: leave quickly, they will kill us here and you with us.”

Three flags are flown on the administration. Pensions are already underway. Unfortunately, not everyone initially knows the rules for registration and sometimes they walk kilometres in order to receive an answer: “you will receive a pension only in a week”. Vegetables are already being sold at a small market, but locals complain that in addition to grandmothers with the fruits of their garden, speculators also come here, selling products from humanitarian kits at an inflated price.

“Grandma, where are your children?

“Yes, they went to Kiev.

“Why aren’t you with them?”

“Well, I once thought that everything would end quickly, the garden should be planted. I thought they’d be back, but I’ve got everything ready…We have a lot of visitors: young people – almost all of them. That left us – the old people, and those who return: no light, no gas and no glass. At the market, you sell it from the garden for rubles or hryvnias – and you get by.”

“There is heavy destruction in the city?”

“Those who are rich stayed with their own, they didn’t break their houses – they apparently paid, and they smashed everything of the poor …”

The remaining residents of Krasny Liman are no longer so eager to leave the city, leaving only if absolutely necessary – to get treated and return. A grandmother who lives on the edge of the village and is now cut off from the world (there are 3 houses left on the whole street) is taken by volunteers to her daughter in Donetsk, where she lived for 8 years:

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“Have you followed the events in Donetsk all these years?”

“And how not to keep watch over it … My daughter’s husband died during the bombing, by shrapnel – immediate death. I have a shepherd dog that lives there, they took it at the beginning of the war. After the death of my son-in-law, its hair began to fade – they took it to the veterinarian, so he was surprised and said: ‘It’s strange, but your dog has turned grey’.”

“And how did the Ukrainians treat you?”

“We didn’t touch them – they didn’t touch us. The only thing they could say was that we were separatists and the Russian world.…We didn’t leave, we stayed.”

It should be noted that the majority of residents now travel by bicycle, creating the effect of a certain European gloss: people try to protect the surrounding atmosphere. A heavyset man who is barely supported by a bicycle clumsily brakes with his feet next to a group of volunteers. He immediately begins with a request for help:

“I have a car and most of my belongings left on the other side of the village – on the Blue Lakes, and the military won’t let me go back and pick them up at the checkpoint! What should I do, dear ones? Help! What’s going on? My daughter is crying, she is a little deaf even from these explosions, what to do…”

“We’ll try, but we can’t promise.”

Later I’ll clarify with the volunteers in the car:

“Why don’t the military allow a person to get what they need?

“But you see how cunning he is! On purpose, as soon as the Ukrainians were approaching the city, he drove the car away with things so that nothing would happen to it and no one would get it, and now he wants to return his goods at the expense of volunteers.”

In Donetsk courtyards, you will never find shell fragments – they are always taken out of the yard territory, because people believe in a bad omen: a shell fragment attracts its fellows. On the liberated territories, this sign is not known, so they collect “trophies” right on the stump near the well.

An old woman in a nightgown looks out of a broken window, asks the neighbours from below to put her tea on a makeshift stove at the entrance. Everyone here has their own story.

The little girl Vera, a student and resident of Kharkov, originally from Liman, visited her parents here on February 24:

“I’m probably the only one who tried to go to Zoom for an online meeting at 8 am on February 24, but no one appeared online. I have an excellent student’s syndrome, everyone blames me for it. That’s what’s been working for me all these months. Bombing and bombing, but I have to learn.”

Vera always uses the expression “before the bullet” and “after the bullet” in her speech.

“What does that mean?”

“Every time I came out of the basement, something terrible happened! I never got out just like that: I went up to the hillock where the connection was to tell my friends that everything was fine with me, so at that moment a projectile was flying straight at my hillock. And then I was going up to the toilet one day, and I had to put my foot on the last step, and for some reason I stopped. I just decided to stand there. And a bullet flew past me. If I were one step higher… After that, I couldn’t sleep any more, and the feeling of dread never left me. I just knew that I had to survive, that I had to fight…For me, the war will not end now, it continues, I keep my eyes open all the time.”

Did you feel that this war could happen?

“Well, how to say it… Personally, no, I didn’t get involved in politics, I lived my own life, no one offended us. But my mother, a primary school teacher, was very agonised, because they [the Kiev regime – SZ] removed the Russian language and began to redo the program. You know, they even changed the fairy tale ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ to ‘Little Yellow Riding Hood’!”

“??

“Well, red is not a patriotic colour, but yellow is suitable.”

Do you keep in touch with your relatives from central Ukraine?

“Central Ukraine now reacts to all events in a completely different way than we do… They are somehow sure that nothing will come to them… Some of my family went there and invited me to stay, but I chose to stay with my mum and dad. We say that the war will come there too, but they don’t believe it – their life goes on. But after what we have experienced over the past months, we began to look at Donetsk in a different way: people there are always like this.”

“How do your classmates in Kharkov react to everything?”

“At first, everyone left the city at once for neighbouring countries, most of them for Poland – they stayed for a month and then came back to Kharkov and are simply ready to accept any development of events. Because this is fabrication, that they are well received in Poland. It’s one thing when you go there as a tourist – all the doors are open for you, but when you are a refugee – it’s a completely different attitude.”

Svyatogorsk

Svyatogorsk is a pain that unites both the residents of the republics and the people of central Ukraine: everyone went there to pray, to ask God for protection. Many residents sat in the village, not leaving until the last moment:

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“Why didn’t you leave? The war started in mid-May…

“Oh, what do you mean! We thought that the Lord would protect us from this misfortune, the war would pass Svyatogorsk…We once moved from Donetsk closer to the Lavra – a holy place.”

Svyatogorsk was taken by Russian troops in early summer, but the remnants of the Ukrainian army were entrenched on the mountain near the Lavra, which is separated from the village by a small river. From the mountain, the village is clearly visible, so shooting can start at any time – it is extremely unsafe to move along the street. From time to time, breakthroughs occur, in which part of the enemy army manages to occupy up to half of the village territory.

Local residents tell us:

“We have impassable forests here, I went in one direction – I came to Lugansk, in the other – Krasny Liman. After that war, so many shells were found in the woods, and one person was doing souvenirs -until his hand was blown off.”

In fact, Svyatogorsk began to be bombed from May 20. Grandmother Natalya stayed here until mid-June, when a shell hit the house and, as she put it, only “the key and the register of tenants” remained of all the property, even the chest with the necessary things was cleaned out by an enterprising neighbour. In June, she was moved to Krasny Liman, where she was sheltered by random people who later helped her get in touch with Donetsk volunteers:

“What was the worst day??

“June 1 – Children’s Day. The head of our national park, Baitchenko, congratulated us – he indeed congratulated us. He was just celebrating his birthday, and he decided to destroy us in the guise of a gift for himself. After all, he said there’d be nothing left of the city, and it is so… If he can’t have it, then nobody can.”

“Was there any humanitarian aid from the Ukrainian volunteers before they left the city?”

“Yes, the most annoying thing is that a volunteer group called ‘Slavic Heart’ operated in Svyatogorsk – they had a food warehouse, but as soon as the aggravation began here in May, they immediately left the whole building and closed the warehouse! When they were able to crack it open a month later, there was so much meat, but everything went bad! Why couldn’t it be distributed to people? Or at least keep the doors open?”

It glistens dolefully in the sun with the domes of Lavra standing erect. Now an impregnable fortress. On the other side, Artyom stretches out his hand in its direction – a huge monument, white from a distance of several tens of kilometres. The monks and the abbot remain there as hostages. The villagers are watching the situation there with bitterness.

“We saw how a part of the people crossed the river on a boat from the Lavra here to us. Then they were even located somewhere here. But this cannot be done, we know that the rector Arseny did not give his blessing to the monks to leave the monastery. They can’t, it’s them against his will.”

As it turned out later, the monks used a rubber boat to ferry people who had come from the Valley and had been hiding in the monastery since the beginning of the bombing. The monks themselves returned later. Two large families were rescued from the Lavra: a mother with a grandmother and three children, and parents with four boys.

13-year-old Olya, the oldest in the family, is crying:

“I am afraid to remember how we cross the Dniester River, and they shoot at us, we swam to the forest and ran. And the monk sailed back on this rubber boat, and it is only for fishing – my father and I went on such a boat.”

“Why are you crying? He’s still alive, isn’t he?

“Alive, yes…They talked to us about everything, gave us advice on how to live. A monk gave me a book of parables. On all holidays, the church priests went around all the cellars of the Lavra, congratulated and sang. All the festive services were held.”

“And it was Easter?”

The children nod happily:

“Oh, yes! It was so much fun, my father went and threw us eggs, I caught three of them, and I wanted to catch one – I jumped up, and it hit me right in the forehead! But everyone was laughing.”

Mum of four boys, Oksana adds:

“Ukrainian correspondents came to us: they asked the rector questions, made some material. People came from the other side, tried to convince the priest, to persuade him to believe in their faith: they are not Orthodox now. But he immediately told them that if they started placing their guns on the territory of the Lavra, we would go out with the whole Lavra and lie down under the tanks. So we didn’t agree on anything.”

And in general, did you communicate with people in the Valley, what were their views?

“We tried not to talk about these topics, because… Well, because you don’t know in advance what kind of people you’ll run into, it’s better to avoid them…How it all started, my husband’s father took us to the Monastery – he’s a monk, he’s there.”

Children talk about the war a little differently:

Danya:

“A shell under the tree came first, and then in the tree itself – we watched it burn.”

Dima:

“You could always come to the bakery and ask for bread, and we also baked it ourselves! I was officially a baker.”

Grandma, thinking, adds:

“This bread was then sent to Liman and to other places that were blocked, the Lavra supplied them to the last…”

The eldest of four children, a boy named Dima, makes a paper tank (provided with pencils and paper at the Lavra):

“Did you play in the war before the war?”

“Yes, of course, we played a lot with the boys, even dug trenches, we had sand in the yard.…”

“And real war is strikingly different from the fake one?

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“It’s all the same in theory, only everything… It’s all too much. Well, after all this, I don’t want to play it anymore.”

Later, on the bus, he will enthusiastically read some book that he got from the Lavra and took from there:

“Adventure?

“No, about war…”

Nikolskoye

Volunteers leave for the evacuation early, around 5 o’clock in the morning. The car is littered with humanitarian aid. Sergey throws over his shoulder:

“Now we will go, but first we will take away one woman who has grown tired of living.

“What do you mean ‘grown tired of living’?

“It means that we evacuated her from Nikolskoye about a month ago, where her sons stayed to look after the farm. She spent two weeks in Donetsk and now she’s on her way back. What can I say here: the feeling that we are turning into a free taxi.”

“Why do so many people stay?”

“You won’t believe it, a lot of people are holding on to their stuff. Or a vegetable garden. Or animals. There is another family living in a five-story building, there are six children! I’ve offered to evacuate so many times! No way! Do you know why? They have two goats. They can’t leave them, and there’s still a vegetable garden… The child flew into the car in one fell swoop when he heard that I was taking them away. But my grandmother was still thinking, and I told her: ‘You may save the garden, but the child will remain permanently disabled with a broken psyche’…It worked.”

The front line in Nikolskoye is only 1 km away, and attacks are being conducted from Ugledar.

The Ukrainian troops that were moved beyond Novomikhailovka now have the opportunity to flatten the village, but they are already doing it blindly, since the village is out of their line of sight. Coming here is still very difficult and risky, and the last people were evacuated from the infamous St. Nicholas Monastery only in July. Residents themselves are aware of the seriousness of the situation and call their favourite volunteers:

“We need you, don’t come today, we are in danger!”

But if the volunteers could make their own map, the village of Nikolskoye would be marked with some kind of label of admiration:

“The people were very friendly and grateful. I took away some of the people, so they are now helping me to take away others, they are repairing transport.”

For example, one of the families took care of the abandoned dogs of the village: many did not take them with them during the emergency evacuation. They are fed porridge cooked on a homemade cauldron. Thus, the dog of a 97-year-old grandmother who went through that war, lived with them from May to August, waiting for a volunteer.

Sergey always goes to one of the five-story buildings in Liman to talk to the locals about the distribution of humanitarian aid that he leaves for them. He is happily greeted by a smiling woman with a plate of steaming pancakes that seems to have magically appeared in her hand:

“Ksenya, did you get hurt?

“A little bit, it’s nothing..The humanitarian aid package with Andrey was all delivered, there was no person left without help.”

“Well, what are you doing here, Ksenya? You should stay with your parents!”

“Don’t start. I’ll bring you another small one from Moscow. Don’t look like that! But not here, but in Dmitriyevka, it seems quiet there. Her father in Moscow also got tired of the child. I understand, he hasn’t seen his child in 8 years, and then he took the child away and spent all his time with them.”

“And after 8 years he isn’t happy, is he?”

“Maybe he was glad. But for the first week. And then the child indulges, and in general, a mother is a mother. She calls me, cries, misses me. The doctor came to work for us, by the way!”

Local grandmothers talk at the market. The usual querulous condemnation of neighbours in peaceful life was rebuilt on military rails, only it sounds absolutely terrifying:

“And Nikolay Ivanich, who is also a teacher, is a stupid one. There were two arrivals [of shells – SZ] in the yard, and he went out to see where the arrivals were, and then the third one just happened, he was killed by shrapnel.”

“What is there to see with these arrivals? And Vladimir Ivanovich! The fir tree in the garden caught fire – he ran. Do you need this tree?! Lida screamed so much, screamed so much then! From one end of the village on the other it was heard, but it was told to stay at home…”

P.S. The volunteers return from their trips late. The car is broken, Sergey goes to repair it at night, so that in the morning he can follow people to Krasny Liman:

“Maybe you should wait out the day, relax?”

“Oh, what are you saying. I once did not go to Nikolskoye to pick up a family, I promised, but I could not, the car broke down and I stayed, the next day I was going – and the house burned down and the family in it died. How can I postpone my trip after that?”

Again, at 5 a.m., two volunteers will be sitting in the kitchen, drinking very strong coffee in total darkness, so as not to wake up their wife and daughter. Viktor Mikhailovich in a half whisper:

“Man is an animal by nature. What defines a person: consciousness and being. No one can change a person’s consciousness, it is already formed, in fact, we cannot change being, but we can try to transfer a person from one being to another. Do you understand? In fact, this is what we do when we help people get out of their past lives. We were driving a 97-year-old grandmother from Nikolskoye, she barely moved to the border at all, and at the border, when she realised that she was in Russia, she came straight to life, even refused to eat Rollton noodles – she said: it’s slop! There is no absolute justice and never has been, but there is an instant justice that is worth fighting for.”


Ekaterina Lymarenko

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