Inside The Frontline Village Declared Ukrainian Twice
2 April, 2018

The Luhansk village of Katerynivka is Ukrainian again. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko himself greeted the Katerynivka residents with the news of the village’s second liberation since the start of the war, adding that this had taken place “without a single shot being fired.” Petro Poroshenko visited the village mid-February, along with heads of the regional Donetsk and Luhansk Civil-Military administrations.

The President announced that Katerynivka was no longer part of the “gray zone” – the name given to the area by the militants. He also took photos with the residents, handed out gifts and assured the inhabitants of Katerynivka that life was about to improve for them. A week after the presidential visit, Hromadske visited Katerynivka to find out if the frontline town is really out of the “gray zone” and if Poroshenko’s statements about the situation are correct.

The Anti-terrorist Operation headquarters announced that Katerynivka was under the control of the Ukrainian Armed Forces back at the start of February:

“The servicemen of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are helping the local population to resolve pressing issues and restoring peace.”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

The first time the village was declared free was in 2015, straight after the Minsk peace agreements. Back then, the media reported information that “Katerynivka residents have asked to go home to Ukraine.”

At the same time, Katerynivka’s liberation, in military terms, means an “improvement in military positions.” In other words, the soldiers had established a checkpoint outside the village, which did not exist before. This occurred at New Years.  

However, Katerynivka residents told Hromadske that there never were any militants there, so the village was not actually liberated. They have been flying the Ukrainian flag in the center of the village for three years already. The then head of the Luhansk Civil-Military Administration Hennadiy Moskal hung the flag himself.

Inaccessible neighbourhood

The shop, the steps of which Poroshenko gave his speech from, is actually the center of the village. It has reduced opening hours: the shop’s owners Ruslan and Olena, a couple from the neighbouring village Rodyna, find it hard to maintain the business – it brings in almost no income and doesn’t even have a permanent shopkeeper. However, it has not closed once throughout the four years of the war, even during shelling.  

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Ruslan says that the main issue for the residents is the limited access to the village. Despite the President’s announcement that Katerynivka was no longer part of the “gray zone,” getting there is not easy. The two roads are are closed off by the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ checkpoints. The first way in is through the Zolote checkpoint, which opened in October 2017, but only from one side. Therefore the exit and entry checkpoint serves a purely nominal function – you can not pass through to the temporarily occupied territories, only to the frontline villages. Moreover, getting into the village is also limited by time. Until recently, it was only possible to cross the checkpoint between 8am and 5pm.

“Everyone mainly works at the mine. Work starts at seven, but the checkpoint only opens at eight. Students also use the checkpoint. My son is at school. How can he get to lessons if the checkpoint only opens at eight,” Olena complains. “Why hang a sign saying: Zolote is Ukraine, when we’re treated as if we’re going abroad?”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

However, the transport situation in Katerynivka has become slightly easier. Twice a week, buses travel to the village on the Zolote-Lysychansk route. There are now school buses as well, so the children no longer have to travel on foot to Zolote. The villagers are pushing for the checkpoint to be open round the clock, at least for locals. The soldiers have promised to agree with the border guards to allow the checkpoint to be open 24/7, only for those with local permits. At the moment is it still uncertain whether this will extend to migrants who have moved to Katerynivka.  

Being “out of the gray zone” is still a long way off

Besides, there’s no post in Katerynivka. The majority of the village’s almost 300 residents are pensioners, and therefore have to travel to Popasna to collect their pensions.

“We know they have to bring an Oshchadbank here?” we ask the local residents

“Oshchadbank has been here twice over this whole period: when the governor came, and when the president came.”

The nearest hospital is also in Popasna. Katerynivka resident is a pensioner. She has diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems. She can’t get hold of her necessary medication in Katerynivka. International organisations only bring humanitarian aid in the most urgent of circumstances.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“I need to test my sugar levels. I have to travel to Popasna for that. Then I have to go the the hospital there. The doctor can write me a note so that I can buy discounted medication from the pharmacy, but getting there and back makes the discount pointless. So I get at my own expense, but my pension is one and half thousand hryvnias (about $57)” Hanna complains.

Katerynivka has a medical center, but it has needed repair work since the time of heavy chelling. Only the minimum amount of medication is brought here. The head of the medical centre Liudmyla Horyainova mainly visits the patients at home.

 — I have two people who need insulin. They get insulin in Popasna.

— How do you get there?

—It’s unreal. Before the war it took 15 minutes, now it takes one and half hours via the checkpoint. And it’s 500 hryvnias ($19) to rent a car.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Liudmyla is on the bus to the hospital with her four-year-old son Maksym. This is the same little boy the President befriended when he came to visit Katerynivka. Liudmyla proudly shows us pictures of Maksym and President Poroshenko on her phone. She is glad she got the chance to stand next to the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Oleksandr Turchynov. She says that her son has not started kindergarten yet – it’s too far away. Maksym could get cold and sick.  

“We’re getting vaccinations, we’re going to Stakhanivets. The doctor comes there from the Karbonit settlement, we get vaccinations. They also examine us there.”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Fuel is another problem for the residents of Katerynivka. Most of the pensioners, who are former mine workers, get free coal. But they complain of problems with the cars, they simply do not bring any. The fuel that you can buy is expensive and does not burn very well.  

The situation with wood is no better. Ever since the soldiers arrived, it became dangerous to go out and gather firewood, especially as the village is surrounded by minefields. The locals already stepped on landmines while summer grazing their cattle.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Mykola refers to himself as a “native Katerynivkan.” He bought a semi-destroyed house opposite his own and dismantled it all for a winter’s supply of firewood. He says that his wife saved his life on two separate occasions during heavy shelling. She stood next to the president when he visited and then appeared on television.

“I have another joke to tell you. How did we go and get our pension? We had no way of driving there, so we asked the funeral services in Popasna for a car. They took us there, they did their thing and we did ours, then they took us back home.”

Four years without any leadership

Katerynivka has not had a local government since 2014. They also do not have anyone to lead the local government. In 2016, the president signed a decree for the creation of Civil-Military Administrations in these residential areas. But these promises have not been fulfilled. According to the Luhansk Civil-Military Administration this is because of “legal conflicts.”

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“We are really counting on getting a new leader in the near future. They are trying to appoint their fourth person. It is a painful issue,” explains Vyacheslav. He is the head of the Civil-Military cooperation group of the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade. The Civil-Military cooperation groups are actually the only intermediaries between the residents if Katerynivka and central government. However, they do not have the authority to deal with the pressing every day issues. 

“The head of the Katreynivka Civil-Military Administration is supposed to appear the the nearest future, maybe even in 10 days,” the deputy head of the Luhansk Civil-Military Administration Yuriy Klymenko explained to Hromadske.

Photo credit: Mykhailo Palinchak/POOL

Klymenko justified the delay by pointing out that, according to the law, the Civil-Military Administration must be headed by a law enforcement officer. The first two candidates for the position were selected from the police. However, Minister of internal Affairs Arsen Avakov refused them both, referring to the fact that the law on “Civil-Military Administrations” was drawn up before Ukraine’s police reform took place, before the old militia-style police force disbanded. Because of this legal discrepancy, the law needed to be changed.

Photo credit: Mykhailo Palinchak/POOL

And so two candidates from the military were selected next, bypassing the bureaucratic path from the command to the Ministry of Defense. This took six months, and, by this point, the selected candidate turned down the position. They are now proposing a fourth candidate and promise to make an appointment soon.

The locals do not understand why they need a new head. They say that they have never had one here. They are used to the difficulties and cope with it by themselves. The main thing, they say, is to make it easier to get to the “civilization” and for the shelling to stop.

/By Sofia Fedeczko