An Italian journalist is confronted by civilian suffering in war-struck East Ukraine town
- "Europe arms the Ukrainian Army that is bombing us. Why? We, too, were Ukrainians."
- "A mother lived there with her three kids... There's nothing left of her or her children."
- "They've got swastikas on their uniform. How is it possible that Europe supports them?"
On the edge of the street, areas of dirty snow compete for space with craters blackened from the explosions.
"Pervomaisk," the First of May, is written on a sign, but it, too, is riddled with shrapnel from howitzers at the entrance of this town a few kilometers from Lugansk, the capital of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Lugansk, in the Russian-speaking region of Donbass. We stopped in a piazza circled by seven or eight story, square, Soviet style, apartment buildings.
Their monotonous geometry is shattered, disrupted by outpourings of masonry like lava flows. One of the breaches is so big you see the other side of the building, a wall burned by fire, now the color of an overcast sky.
"A mother lived there with her three kids..."
Four middle-aged women come up, wrapped up against the cold.
"There's nothing left of her or her children. The explosion blew everything to bits," one of them, Irina, says, pointing to the gaping hole.
She relates this without her expression revealing any emotion. Grief, pain, fear - maybe all her emotions have been burned, reduced into rubble like the city she continues to live in.
Before the war, there were 25,000 inhabitants; now there are less than 8,000. Most have fled into Russia. There is no electricity, no running water. The power plants, the water treatment plants, all destroyed by the bombardment.
"But why don't you go, why don't you flee?"
Irina shakes her head, resigned, obstinate.
"This is our land."
-"But how can you survive here?"
"The Cossacks bring us food when they have any. When they don't have enough, they scant their own, for us. All this area is defended by the Cossack National Guard of the Don.
"Only they think of us. Europe arms the Ukrainian Army that is bombing us. Why? We, too, were Ukrainians."
The rattle and rumble of an engine interrupts Irina's outburst. An old and battered pickup truck comes into the courtyard making its way slalomwise around burned-out cars, piles of trash, and piles of rubble. As if drawn by a lure, other groups of women come out from the half-ruined buildings holding baskets of bottles and canteens. The pickup stops. On the door, hand painted, is a red star and a peace sign.
The driver is an aged man. Gaunt, with the face framed by a long white beard, on his hat, there is a medal of the Red Army from the Second World War. He greets the women and helps them fill bottles and canteens with drinkable water from the plastic cistern mounted on the bed of the pickup.
The first line of the front is just on the other side of these buildings. A woman pushing a baby stroller with a baby in it crosses the cratered street about 50 meters from a trench protected by tree trunks, sandbags, and a position reinforced with wooden beams. There is a machine gun sticking out of it. It is the most advanced outpost of Pervomaisk, and it is manned by an armed Cossack.
Sheltered by a bombed house, there is a gazebo of plastic, below it, a bit of wood burns in a rusty barrel. It's Roman's turn to warm himself up. He extends his hands, numb from the cold, to the chance brazier, enjoying a bit of warmth and silence.
"It's been quiet for three days," he says, and the hint of a smile shows through his thin blond beard that covers his cheeks. "After 32 days of being under constant artillery fire." Roman is 28, but looks younger, despite the dark circles of weariness about the eyes, and the camouflage he wears, the Kalashnikov slung over the shoulder.
He doesn't know how long the quiet will last, he doesn't know how much longer the war will last.
"We want peace, but on our bit of land. Becoming part of Ukraine again is no longer a possibility.
The Army of Ukraine has fired on their own people.
There's nothing for us but to resist to the end."
It is the Resistance Roman is talking about. "Against the Nazis over there..." He points with his arm to the line of the front.
"Over there, it's the Azov Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard.
They've got swastikas on their uniform.
How is it possible that Europe supports them?"
Azov, Aidar, Donbass-Dnepr, Dnepr One, Dnepr Two - battalions composed of extreme right volunteers integrated into the regulars of Ukraine, and financed, like the neo-nazi group Pravij Sektor [Right Sector] by the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, the extremely rich and powerful governor of the Dnepropetrovsk region, who, in addition to his Ukrainian passport, has Cypriot and Israeli passports.
Roman smiles again saluting us with a raised fist. "No Pasaran!" - the salute of the Republicans of Spain, which, among the Cossacks, has gained a new life, and a new context and has become common.
"No Pasaran," - Roman repeats, as if to reassure us, too. ЛЮДЫ [lyudi] written in big letters in white paint, a word, which in Russian means "People," is written repeatedly on homes and schools, a sign that civilians, non-combatants, are there - in an attempt at protection from fire and bombardment.
We see it again on the wall of a burned out house as we leave Pervomaisk to continue our voyage through the destruction towards Novosvietlavka, on the way that leads to the old airport. ЛЮДЫ, people. And it is against people, civilians, that this war seems to get carried on non-stop.
We left Lugansk, went through Stakanov, Pervomaisk, and everywhere we saw schools, hospitals, factories, power plants, water pumping stations, all destroyed. Not to see a planned program of ethnic cleansing is impossible. The intent to force the People that live and survive in the region to abandon it and take refuge in Russia, leaving behind them scorched earth.
SCORCHED EARTH is what's left of Novosvietlavka. Burned, like all the huts that composed it.
The aqueduct, the House of Culture, the church, the school. On the ruins of the school, near the carcass of a yellow school bus riddled with bullets, stood the remains of a large sign, with pictures of happy boys and girls under the legend "These years of school are the most beautiful years."
Words that sound dramatically ironic in this setting. Also the hospital has been reduced to a pile of rubble. Vladimir Nikolai Svarievski, deputy mayor, tries to compose himself, apparently ashamed, though it wasn't he that was responsible for the devastation. But he gives up the attempt and his eyes fill with tears, his mouth fills with the words of an account of the horror that seems to have no thought of coming to an end.
"The militia of the Aidar battalion came through here. Lootings, shootings, mass graves, corpses desecrated."
Few inhabitants are left in Novosvetlovka. There is an old man.
"I took refuge in a basement. Four days I hid in the dark without food and water."
There, a small group of kids by a burned-out tank wait for a bus that will take them to a school ten kilometers away. "Our school was the biggest, most beautiful," says one of them.
And there are packs of dogs. "Watch out. They are dangerous." The old man puts us on our guard. Hunger. The shock of the explosions has made them feral; they've become like beasts. They attack people. Beasts.