“Liberated?” A Report From Village Reclaimed by Ukrainian Army
19 June, 2018

The village Pivdenne (which incorporates the hamlet Chyhari) was recaptured by the Ukrainian Army in early May. It lies a mere 1.5 kilometers from occupied Horlivka and has long been in the “gray zone” – territory not fully controlled by the Ukrainian government or Russia-led separatists.

For the past four years, Pivdenne has been under fire, but only this May did villagers begin fleeing. In the past several weeks, 11 buildings have been destroyed by shelling.

View of the spoil heaps in Horlivka from the village of Pivdenne, Donetsk region, June 7, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

When the Ukrainian army arrived, there were no Russia-backed separatists in the village, but Pivdenne was still declared liberated. It is now controlled by the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

At the time of writing*, Chyhari – which is a part of Pivdenne – is inaccessible by car. You can only get there by foot, and only if you’re a resident. Journalists must have a military escort.

The OSCE mission has arranged for a three-hour ceasefire so there is no shelling. During this interval, the army has allowed residents to enter by car and take their belongings. Those who left Pivdenne in the past month or want to leave now are loading small trailers with their things: rugs, washing machines, clothing, dishes.

Every third building in Pivdenne is in ruins, Donetsk region, June 7, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

Zarichna Street is deserted: every third building is ruined and smells burnt. Smoke rises from one of the ruins, which means a shell hit this house quite recently. There are no people around, which is rather unsettling. In the distance, we hear the sound of automatic fire. While our army escorts are unloading food (they’ve settled into some abandoned houses), we go look for any residents who are still here.

Granny Klava

Turning the corner, we see a woman hunched over her cane. She’s walking quickly, clearly in a hurry.

“Granny, where are you going? Do you live here?” we ask.

Granny Klava has been living on Zarichna Street for over 50 years. She built a house, raised two children and buried her husband here 20 years ago. A shell hit her house, and now she has to leave the village. Donetsk region, June 7, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

“I’m going to get a handcart from the house. To transport my things,” she says while moving toward the bushes. “Do you know if this way is clear? Is it mined?”

“We honestly don’t know,” we say. “Better ask the soldiers, don’t just go.”

The woman looks at us for a moment, then turns and disappears into the bushes. Not risking to follow her, we wait until the woman returns, even though we – unlike her – are wearing bulletproof vests and helmets.

Klava’s house was shelled. Now only half of it remains. The army wrote a warning on the fence – “Mines.” Pivdenne village, Donetsk region, June 7, 2018. Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

Her name is Klavdiya Shuklina, but people call her Granny Klava. She has been living here for over half a century. She built a house, raised two children, worked in the mines, and buried her husband 20 years ago. Now she is preparing to leave. Granny Klava leads us along Zarichna Street to her house or, more precisely, to the half of it that remains.

“I worked at the Gagarin mine, preparing tea for the miners,” Shuklina explains. “There were 1,500 of them back then. Today it’s completely destroyed. Nothing but posts sticking out of the ground.”

New beginning?

Today Granny Klava’s children are taking her to Toretsk, where they’ll rent her an apartment. She wants to take everything with her, even the old, ragged carpet, but there’s no room. She leaves her chickens and cat behind.

A red Zhiguli awaits Granny Klava by the fence. Her children are taking her to Toretsk. Pivdenne, Donetsk region, June 7, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

Granny Klava’s friend Lida is also leaving Pivdenne. She lives at the edge of the village. She emerges from the yard with her bags, sloshing about in rubber galoshes. There is water everywhere.

“It’s been like this for five years. A pipe burst and nobody’s repaired it. Who would come all the way out here? So I’m wading. In the summer it’s fine, and in the winter I’m skiing or sledding, I’ve got an iceberg,” she says laughing. “And we’ve been without electricity for two months now.”

Granny Klava is already in the car, wiping her eyes again. Her friend removes her galoshes and throws them on the grass as if she won’t need them anymore. Granny Klava’s daughter-in-law picks them up and puts them in the trunk: they may still come in handy if they return. The Zhiguli slowly drives away from the yard. In half an hour the ceasefire ends.

From Pivdenne, people leave for either Ukraine-controlled Toretsk or occupied Horlivka. There they rely on help from volunteers and aid organizations. The charitable foundation Prolisok is assisting people who have fled Pivdenne. Since the beginning of May, they say, they’ve been working as intensely as in 2015. They’ve already taken in 25 families. The families receive bedding, guidance in registering as internally displaced people and applying for social assistance, and 4,000 hryvnias (about $150) for each family member.

Granny Klava’s friend Lida is leaving Pivdenne with her. She holds a photo album with pictures of her children, grandchildren, her daughter’s wedding, and one with her now-deceased husband when they were young by their house in Pivdenne. Donetsk region, June 7, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

Svitlana Aleshchenko – the Prolisok coordinator in Toretsk – is registering Anatoliy and Tamara Bakhery. The couple left Pivdenne to visit friends on April 26. Two days later their neighbors sent them a photo of their house in ruins. They had nothing to return to.

“It’s good that at least I took the bag with our documents,” says Tamara. She shuffles through the papers in her file with agitation. Her husband shakes his head and says that the shelling has made his wife very nervous.

In the last several weeks shelling has destroyed 11 buildings in Pivdenne. Donetsk region, June 7, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

“Our family has lived in the same place for 150 years. The house we built ourselves, and I brought my wife from Horlivka. We don’t know where we’re going to live yet. We’ll spend a few days with friends and then start looking.”

Those who stay

Friends Viktoriya and Nataliya don’t intend to leave Chyhari. Their children go to school in occupied Horlivka that is just 1.5 kilometers away by foot. The kids aren’t afraid to walk by themselves. The school in Toretsk, on the other hand, is eight kilometers away and there are no buses to the city.  

While Anatoliy and Tamara Bakhery were visiting friends, their house in Pivdenne was destroyed by shelling. Now they are relying on help from volunteers and charitable organizations, Toretsk, Donetsk region, June 6, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

“It’s good [in Horlivka],” they say. “We don’t pay for anything, and they don’t pressure the kids. Not like they do here. We’re lucky – our houses are protected by the spoil heap and the shells don’t reach us.”

Friends Viktoriya and Nataliya don’t plan to leave Chyhari, but they also hope for monetary assistance from Ukraine, Toretsk, Donetsk region, June 6, 2018. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske

Although the women don’t want to leave the village and clearly avoid talking about the Ukrainian army, they are counting on monetary assistance from the Ukrainian government.  

We then ask them whether they feel like the village has been liberated.

“We don’t feel anything anymore.”

*This article was originally written in Ukrainian on June 7.

/By Anna Tokhmakhchi

/Translated by Larissa Babij