Life In An Isolated Village On Ukraine’s Front Line
3 November, 2017

Editor's Note: This story was published in November 2017. On April 11 2018, the National Police of Ukraine has reported that a family of four from Pishchane village in the Luhansk region has been killed after their car drove over an anti-tank missile. According to residents of Pishchane, that family was Nina Solomakhina and her husband Volodymyr, as well as their son and his wife. We send our sincere condolences to the family's relatives and close ones.

The village of Pishchane used to be sleepy settlement of small vacation cottages — homes meant for occupancy and leisure in the balmy months of summer. Today, however, the residents of this small hamlet in Ukraine’s Luhansk region live here year-round.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, only a river separates the villages’s residents from Russian-occupied territory. The forest they used to pass through on their way to the nearest shop is now full of landmines. Instead, they take a longer route to buy groceries. Guests are few and far between — primarily, because it’s dangerous. Fighters sometimes shoot across the road. But the Ukrainian soldiers guarding the area also don’t let anyone in: the village is closed.  

For three years the residents of Pishchane village have been living as one big family. Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

Despite these challenges, locals have not given into despair. For three years, they have lived as one big family. They bake bread together, grow vegetables communally, and take care of each other.

Hromadske visited Pishchane to find out how the residents are getting by.

“Academic settlement”

There is no front line anymore. To the right is the Siversky Donets river. Across the river is the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic.” If you drive along the dirt road — which locals term “dangerous” — your car will eventually hit a blockade.

Pishchane is closed. In fact, even the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s monitoring mission is not allowed inside the village. The Red Cross managed to visit over a month ago, and they have no intentions to come back.

Nobody is allowed to go into the closed Pishchane village, not even international organizations. So all the residents are always eager to socialize or speak about their problems. Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

Not far from the town of Shchastya, Pishchane consists of a cluster of clapboard cottages with thin tin roofs. Today, they house twenty people. Before the war started, more people lived in this area, but not permanently. The area is a nature reserve where the government used to allocate summer cottages to academics, scientists, and clerks. Then, in 2014, the war started. People in Luhansk with cottages here moved in and never left.

Pishchane lacks virtually everything: shops, medical services, a good road to civilization. Soldiers guard both sides of the barrier. There is also an old Niva car. To get to the village you can either ride in the Niva or take a military UAZ truck.

“Guys, I’m waiting for you,” the driver of Niva says throwing the car keys and climbing into the boot. “I can go like this, the local 'fascists' know me around here,” he jokes.The soldier smiles and raises the barrier, letting the car through.

Valentyna (center) is trying to renew her pension after she failed a migrant inspection due to being away and undergoing a treatment at a hospital in Luhansk. Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

Pishchane’s only street is lined with cottages. Pitch black smoke rises from some of the homes’ chimneys. But almost all the residents are waiting in the shabby square used for local meetings.

“First they said 1 o’clock, and then they changed it to 2, then 3. But it’s seven now, and I’m sober,” Sasha complains. He says he wanted to socialize so badly, that he even skipped lunch. The square is noisy: everyone is complaining about something.

Migrant checks

With no stores and not jobs, life in Pishchane is not easy. Some of the luckier residents receive pensionss, but even these are far from reliable.

“I didn’t receive mine for a long time,” Valentyna tells Hromadske. “I went to Luhansk where I came down with pneumonia and ended up in the hospital.  [To get my pension] I would have had to cross the border so that the inspectors would find me at the address where I’m registered at as an IDP [internally displaced person]. But I was sick and I didn’t. So no more pension for me.”

Vira Chyzh (central front) is a doctor of science. Before war she taught economic at Luhansk’s Volodymyr Dahl East Ukrainian National University. Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

Valentyna says she is trying to renew the pension, but has been told she won’t receive anything sooner than three months from now: “I don’t even know whether they will reimburse the [previous pensions]. They haven’t yet.”

All the retirees are scared of the inspections. Since you cannot be registered as an IDP in this village, you have to ask your friends who reside in other towns to register you there. But if the inspectors don’t find you at that address, they’ll strip you of your pension.

“My husband and I registered as migrants in Novopskov, because when the war started, the pension fund stopped working in Stanytsia. We live here, but there is no local government in Pishchane,” says university lecturer Vira Chyzh, who used to work at the Volodymyr Dahl East Ukrainian National University in Luhansk. “We registered where we could.”

In winter these cottage houses face a heating problem. Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

She says that every inspection feels like walking a minefield:“What’s the problem? I live and work in Ukraine, I pay my taxes, and I’m not hiding from anyone...I have a Ukrainian passport like everyone else, but I feel like a second class citizen.”

Chyzh says that the hardest thing is heating these houses — they were not built to occupied in the winter.

In winter these cottage houses face a heating problem. Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

“The Red Cross helped us with coal and logs, and that saved us,” Chyzh says. “It’s tough to survive [in these conditions]. There is no medical infrastructure, no shops, there isn’t even first aid. What’s more, there aren’t any roads...”

“The closest village is 6 kilometers away by foot. The forest is full of mines, so you can’t take that route. We walk to the neighboring village, Nyzhnioteple where there’s a market every Monday.”

Another local, Serhiy, says he remembers the time when the Red Cross brought some logs: “Their truck got stuck. So the guys and I took some handsaws and started chopping down trees! That’s how we helped them get through the forest. They unloaded the coal and we started collecting it.”

Serhiy (right) managed to leave the village to go to an emergency room in Petropavlivka when he injured his finger with a handsaw. Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

“It wasn’t coal, it was just dust,” Valentyna complains. “You put it into the fireplace but it’s just soot, so you have to keep cleaning the pipe. And after cleaning it thrice a day, you lose the motivation to do it again.”

Serhiy says he cut off a part of his finger when he chopped the trees. “The village is closed, so we jumped into the Niva and went to the emergency room in Petropavlivsk,” he says. “They sewed the finger back, now it’s good as new.”

“When I chopped mine off, I didn’t go anywhere,” another guy says, showing his injured finger, “Look, it’s crooked like the pine trees in our forest.”

The big fire

Pishchane also faces other challenges. Sometimes the surrounding environment — and conflict — can be the village’s worst enemy. Earlier this year, dried grass in the woods caught fire. Soon the neighboring town of Malynivka was buring. Within 24 hours, on August 22, the fire also reached Pishchane.

“We didn’t sleep for almost 4 days,” resident Nina Solomakhina recalls. “The firefighters slept in the forest, where we brought them water and food. There was a tractor driver who saved us all. He surprised us with the tricks he did on his tractor, plowing through the ground, which helped to isolate the village from the fire…If it wasn’t for him, we would have all burnt to death.”

There is no medical aid, no shops and no roads in Pishchane. The closest village is 6 km away (the lady on the left on the bottom photo is the oldest resident.) Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

The village was untouched by the fire itself. But the surrounding forest is full of mines. What happened next was predictable, but resembled “the apocalypse,” according to Valentyna.

“There are explosive tripwires, anti-tank and anti-personnel mines in the forest. It took us two days to put out that wall of fire,” she says. “All the hares, foxes and stags fled the forest. We were so desperate we climbed up the roof and watched the fire from there. And then all the mines and tripwires started exploding. The forest is on fire, the mines are exploding — and there’s us on the roof, in the middle of it all. Then a heavy rain starts and puts out the fire. So, on that night, we finally got some sleep.”

Despite the war, the flames, and the explosions, some people still use Pishchane as a vacation home.

“There are a couple of them here, they’re from Luhansk. Liusia and Vitya, they come on weekends,” resident Vova says. “When the fire was finally put out, I went to the market. I saw Vitya there and he told me they’ve been here for three days already. So I thought to myself: We did not sleep for three days trying to put out the fire and you, moron, have been inside your house all this time?”

“I just wanted to tie a rope around his neck and drag him across the village. But my wife stopped me,” Vova adds.

Living in isolation

How do the people of Pishchane manage to get by, isolated from the outside world with limited access to groceries and first aid? They say they have grown used to relying only on themselves.

“We help each other. We get the flour and bake bread for everyone. Once a week, we make one shopping list for everyone and someone will go to the market and then distribute [the groceries],” Solomakhina says.

In the winter, the soldiers told the locals they cannot leave the village.

Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

“The soldier boys, they’ve been living here since December,” Nina recalls. “We gave them the lists of everyone who lives here and a list of cars — there are only six of them. But they closed us in back in January. They put up a barrier and barbed wire. And that’s it — we can’t leave [the village] anymore. We asked them to give us 24 hours to we resolve this issue — and we resolved it.”

The locals know the soldiers by name and the soldiers know all the locals. Thanks to the soldiers’ presence, the Russia-backed separatists stopped attacking Pishchane. The last separatist they saw was last spring — he was across the river. The number of robberies has fallen too. Now the locals only dream of food, logs, and a good road.

Photo credit: Yevhen Spirin

“We wish there was a road to Kondrashivka. And it’s only 12 kilometers to Stanytsia. Then, we would be able to go to the market or claim our pensions. But while we’re waiting for a road, we won’t give up. We will eat turnips or start cultivating sunchokes if we have to. Even if everyone rejects us, we will live and won’t abandon anyone — whatever happens,” Nina says, as she prepares to leave.

She needs to make a shopping list. Tomorrow, a car is departing for the market.

/Written by Yevhen Spirin

/Translated by Maria Romanenko and Eilish Hart