“We Call Landmines Potatoes”: Inside East Ukraine’s Precarious “Bread Ceasefire”
12 August, 2017

Halt the fighting and help the farmers harvest their crops — that was the idea behind eastern Ukraine’s so called “bread ceasefire,” negotiated on June 24th in Minsk.

But, in practice, it has proven more difficult than expected. The soldiers in this region have their own rules, say villagers from Kodema in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.  

For the Dynasty agricultural base — across the front line from the occupied village of Horlivka — that means every day is a struggle.

The Dynasty farm had been working for twenty years. But then, in 2014, it closed after its owner, Vadym Kaplya, fled to Kyiv to hide out from separatist leader Igor Bezler’s fighters. The fighters broke into Dynasty’s sheds, stole the equipment, and either sold it for scrap or left it in fields.

(Igor Bezler, known by his nom de guerre “Bes” — or “Devil” in Russian — is Horlivka’s ex-commandant. He was forcibly “retired” in 2014.)

Three years after the start of the war in east Ukraine, Dynasty has now returned to life. Farmers and agronomists have gotten used to working next to soldiers in constantly dangerous conditions. A grim sense of humor has taken hold as employees dodge landmines to harvest wheat.

The “bread ceasefire” has now ended. Hromadske takes a look at what it was like for Dynasty’s farmers.

Wartime Agriculture

In Vadym Kaplya’s office, a monitor displays the view from the farm’s security cameras. There is also a map on screen.

“These are our fields, but these are the defense structures and trenches of the soldiers,” Kaplya says, pointing to different parts of the display. “Today, we are not even at the first line of defense, but a year ago we were in the [demilitarized] ‘grey zone.’”

“A little bit further on, those are also our fields, but those over there are territories under separatist control,” he continues. “We can’t get there.”

Photo credit: Mykola Dondiuk, Hromadske

Before the war, Kaplya owned 10 thousand hectares of land. Now, he has just 4,500 —  the rest have been seized by soldiers of the unrecognized DPR. A demarcation line now runs through the fields.

“Our guys” — Ukrainian soldiers — “were attacking Horlivka, but after the Minsk agreements this territory became uncontrolled,” he says. “Not just the fields, the equipment, too. They must have already sold it for scrap. They sell everything, even rails.”

“Imagine, an elderly woman decides to go to the market, but there’s no tram, because they’ve sold all the rails for scrap,” Kaplya adds, describing the type of situation locals encounter here.

For this area of Donetsk region, the sunflower has always been a critical crop. But farmers also cultivate wheat, millet, soy and sorghum.

Meanwhile, on the occupied territories, the situation is a bit different. Hromadske asked Kaplya what the DPR grows across the dividing line. His answer was categorical.

“Ragweed and other weeds. What else could be planted there?” Kaplya says. “It’s clearly visible that there is nothing there.”

Kaplya even received a job offer from the DPR. The separatists wanted him to “sow, plow, but not to take away the crops, to leave them there...How could I agree [to that]?”

Photo credit: Mykola Dondiuk, Hromadske

But not everyone is so averse to working for the other side. Kaplya recounts how one man comes from Horlivka to work for him seasonally. The seasonal worker says that everything is good in the DPR and the “republic” is prospering. So why is he coming “to Ukraine?” Because there’s no work in the DPR.

Four former employees of Dynasty have also gone in the opposite direction and moved to the DPR.

“One ran off and left the tractor in the field. He was in a hurry to ‘protect the motherland,’” Kaplya says with a chuckle.

Another man who joined the DPR used to take cattle out to pasture for Kaplya. “I even bought him a horse. Now he serves in the special forces of the so-called DPR, in the main assault brigade in Horlivka,” the farmer says.

Despite the perilous situation, Vadym Kaplya tries to stay in good spirits. He loves to joke and talk about the farm. It was founded by his father, and his mother named it "Dynasty" after the American soap opera, which was quite popular in Ukraine. Now Kaplya is working in the family Dynasty together with his brother.

"We have always been pro-Ukrainian here. Can you see the flagpole over there? We always had the Ukrainian flag flying there, and the wall was painted yellow and blue,” he says.

“The wall was visible from airplanes and from Horlivka. But we had to paint it over, otherwise it would have been like a red handkerchief for a bull. Who knows what would have happened to us had we not repainted it…"

Photo credit: Mykola Dondiuk, Hromadske

“Potatoes” and “Toys”

Dynasty has no shortage of equipment — modern combine harvesters, grain dryers, tractors. But a broken tractor stands at the farm’s entrance. In 2015, it ran over a mine in the fields. The driver survived, but sustained a concussion. Since that time, he hasn’t driven combines, only cars.

"The combine is, first and foremost, a reminder for those who work here,” Kaplya says. “We are constantly warning people not to go wherever they want, into the bushes."

“After the explosions, it isn’t easy to quickly return to your old self and take up work again,” he says. “People are afraid and they do not go to work. A week or two has to pass, but the wheat won’t wait. Only the salary motivates the employees.”

Dynasty machinery has come into contact with mines three times since the beginning of the military conflict. The last time was in 2015. The owner consulted with engineers, who looked over the farm. But they were in no hurry to demine the territory. First of all, there was not enough distance between the farm and the soldiers — they needed a minimum of 15 kilometers for safety. Second, there were no markings or maps indicating where the territory had been mined:

"They planted mines in the field with machines that usually plant potatoes. There are thousands of them,” says the farmer. “We call them ‘potatoes’ or ‘toys.’ We say amongst ourselves, ‘There’s a potato over there, don’t go there. And over there you’ve got some toys, you can’t go there either.’"

Mines have even been planted practically right behind Dynasty’s fence. Across from the farm is a field of sunflowers. There are three rows of concrete pillars in that field. Below the pillars are anti-tank mines. The barbed wire is practically invisible, as it has been overgrown by grass. Locals know that they can’t walk there.

Although the land is the property of the farmers, on occasion soldiers do not let them enter their fields.

"We’re negotiating with them, it would seem that we’ve agreed on everything, and then we go and plant something. But then a rotation happens and we have to start negotiations from scratch,” says Kaplya.

Everyone Eats The Bread; No One Thinks About The Wheat

The daily wheat harvest begins at 7 a.m. — and only when the soldiers allow it. Once the sun sets, the soldiers start shooting, despite the “bread ceasefire.”

The farmers have tried negotiating with them, but have seen little success.

“It’s impossible to come to an agreement. ‘You have your own system, we have ours.’ — that’s what their answer is. Sometimes they make concessions, of course, but generally it’s impossible to agree. No one cares about this bread, everyone eats it, but everyone is indifferent," says Dynasty’s chief agronomist, Viktor.

Photo credit: Mykola Dondiuk, Hromadske

Occupied Horlivka is only 15 kilometers away from here. From a hill, one can see the pipes of the Horlivka factories: "It's already the so-called DPR right there, a little bit closer there are our people, and from time to time they are shooting at one another," Kaplya says.

The shootouts often lead to fires in the fields, which result in additional losses for the farmers.

According to the State Emergency Service, 7,000 square kilometers of fields are mined in the eastern Donbas region. Since the beginning of the hostilities, 20 thousand hectares have been de-mined. But no one has removed the mines near the demarcation line. As a result, people must still keep their distance from it.

Photo credit: Mykola Dondiuk, Hromadske

A year of the war, means 10 years spent de-mining the post-war territories, according to researchers from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian De-mining. But this is only under the condition that all the mined areas are marked and mapped. In eastern Ukraine, that does not exist right now.

Meanwhile, according to the OSCE, 58 civilians came into contact with mines and unexploded ordnance in the last year. Sixteen of them were killed.

In spite of this, Kaplya does not complain. Mostly, he just wants the government to lower the land tax — especially if he can’t grow anything on much of his farm because of the soldiers. Beyond that, life in Dynasty carries on.

“People get used to everything,” he says.

/by Anna Tokhmakchi