The mood around Donetsk
In the last few weeks there has been so much media pressure, it has made us all a bit hysterical. More nervous. I keep hearing the same question: ”What is the mood out there?” Especially on the front line.
Fighting broke out here in the summer of 2014. Real tank battles. Then Ukrainian soldiers liberated a village and the frontline moved to Pisky (15 km north-west of Donetsk) and Donetsk Airport. The village turned into a vital logistics base, inhabited by a number of ever-changing military units throughout the war.
The village lives its odd life, squeezed between a war raging a 15 minute-drive away and a peaceful daily routine. Military personnel, living in abandoned summer cottages, greet locals at the village shop. Everyone knows each other, everyone lives next door to each other, everyone is a hostage to this war. The war seems to have moved beyond the Donetsk ring road, but it is clear that it will come back again in the event of an escalation. But for now the village is a place for meeting and rest. Volunteers, journalists, volunteers, and artists feel it’s their duty to pop in, chat with the locals, and share the latest news.
And, first and foremost, to ask them questions. Many people still cherish the illusion that you can actually see the war, that closer to the frontline it becomes more visible and understandable. Bloody traces left by battles around Donetsk are indeed more visible, but it is hopeless to understand the war. There is no universal truth of what is actually going on, what people think and what they believe.
There is no such universal truth. There are thousands of separate perspectives, voices, personalities and stories bizarrely entangled together and floating in the air around the frontline. All these attempts to come here and finally see and understand are simply futile. You will end up feeling more calm, and confident that there is no need to panic. But it is not a good idea to relax, either.
This wish to come to the frontline and check that it is sturdy and reliable is actually quite understandable. In the last few weeks we have been flooded with the pressure of information, masses of news stories, peremptory expert opinions, and ambiguous statements by Ukrainian and foreign politicians. We have all grown more hysterical. And definitely more nervous. People keep asking the same question over and over, “What is the mood out there?”
So, you came here to the outskirts of Donetsk and you cannot help but try to figure out “What is the mood out here?” The rest is a matter of interpretation. There is something here for everyone to see, there are those who return home feeling more optimistic, those who give in to wishful thinking, those who end up with more questions than answers. Where would a person manifest this mood? At the supermarket, on the street, on public transport?
You do not shout about war for fear that it may overhear you.
At a supermarket in Avdiyivka (13 kilometers north of Donetsk), customers are chatting between themselves about the weather and food prices. They are not talking about (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. You may suspect that nobody dares to speak up out of fear. However, I think it is a lot simpler than that. The physical presence of war, its proximity, its visibility affect your language and behavior.
It does not really make sense to get hysterical in the eighth year of war. At first glance, this Donbas winter is no different from the previous one. The same examination of documents at checkpoints, the same soldiers in the streets hurrying about their business, the same children coming back from school, and the same twilight rapidly descending on the outskirts.
The war is so close you can sometimes overhear it. Although western journalists have only become aware of the war, it does not mean the people in Donbas have ever forgotten it. It has been next to them all this time. It has been going for too long. Everyone has had enough time to make up their minds whether to leave or to stay here. It is hardly going to change just because the war is all over the news right now. That is the mood.
In the evening, we were hanging out with some Ukrainian service members. Soldiers were popping in and out, mostly joking and chatting about New Year’s Eve celebrations. A friend of mine, who is a volunteer, was showing me the texts he was sending to his girlfriend. “How poetic,” I commented appreciatively. “I might make a book out of them some day,” he replied thoughtfully.
Sometime during the night, a group of volunteers from Western Ukraine arrived and brought lots of different kinds of food. My friend hid his phone and went to give them unloading instructions. The volunteers had just come a long way, they sounded excited and noisy. Unlike the soldiers, the volunteers talked about tactics and strategy, what needed to be done and how. They obviously struggled to grasp the local mood, so they shouted and asked the soldiers questions. But it was getting late, so everyone peacefully went to bed.
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