We are in a small Donbass village situated between Gorlovka and Zhdanovka; the place is grim, the roads are full of potholes, a Lada [brand of Russian cars –trans.] approaches dragging a trailer with two punctured wheels making strange soft sound as there is no asphalt on roads in the village. Warmer weather has turned the place into a cesspool by which small poor and quirky houses are aligned. It is, nevertheless, still Donbass, that is the wealthy capital of Donetsk with its monuments, theatres and universities and this village clinging on a hillside. Only the sun of a late cold day mitigates this impression.
Natalia opens the door of her very modest house. She may be 35 years old, a simple woman. She was a waitress in her husband’s cafe in the nearby town of Zhdanovka. An establishment was built up as the result of hard work for a quiet life with a seven year old child. It will be two years soon since. And then the Maïdan had happened. Natalia says :”I didn’t pay a lot of attention, as we were engaged at work, but it was unquiet and my 40 year old husband was increasingly angry about what was happening in Ukraine. He was one of the first to participate in out of working hours rallies against the Maidan; it was in February of 2014 and gradually he became involved more and more. I was scared and I told him that I thought it was dangerous, that he was a father; but he thought that the most important thing was to defend our land, our freedoms. I can’t say that it had not been right, but I was afraid for us and for him, and I felt that something terrible was going to happen”.
As she continues her story, I feel her emotions and also her difficulties to express herself. She does not dare to look at me and concentrated at Yevgeny, a union member who takes care of the wounded soldiers, war widows and families of the soldiers. Her husband joined the insurgents among the first, they had initially no weapons. Yevgeny says :”We had no weapons, but in front of us, we knew, there were Ukrainian army conscripts – all young people, not motivated and not knowing what they were doing here. So it was not difficult to disarm many of them, to seize their weapons, to gather all we were able to find in our surroundings. That was how we started to defend ourselves. We had nothing but faith in our just cause and we were not afraid, perhaps we would have had to be. But, when you know that what you are doing is just, you do not think about the danger”.
The Natalia’s husband among other local insurgents took part in the battle of Zhdanovka as Ukrainian forces plunged into Donbass; the special battalions of neo-Nazis were strengthen quickly and fights were becoming tougher day by day. The city was taken by the Ukrainians, he and his comrades then dug trenches and built positions around, they wanted to retake the city soon. He was killed in one day in July by an artillery shell, leaving a widow and an orphan. Yevgeny continues :”So many of my comrades are dead. I feel now I have to help their families. I had to tell them about deaths of their sons or husbands or fathers, I saw their tears. I live now with this question: “Why was not it me too?” I hope that I will not survive this war, because, otherwise, for the rest of my life I will have to face these women and these families, and in their eyes I would always see the question of why I was not killed as theirs”. This statement is terrible, I don’t know what to tell back to this courageous man, a former building contractor, I read in his blue eyes both pain and also belief, as he remains, of course, convinced that they had to defend their freedom.
Natalia did not walk away until I passed her some money, about 10 000 roubles, – from the sum I was trusted by my French network before I left and which, month after month, I distributed elsewhere I felt it was necessary. Natalia is not receiving any help, her husband was killed while there was not any military structure in place. He is not until now considered as KIA, he is still one of the many anonymous victims of the war – the forgotten. The activities are underway, but the case is long: there should be witnesses, certificates, documents while majority of his volunteer unit are dead. She does not fit into any category, however, she receives invaluable help from the Russian Federation – a little bit more money. However, that is the neighbours and people like Yevgeny who help the most. Without any income, with a child, without a job, she survives in this forgotten by God place. Yevgeny tells me then that there are many others in Donbass… I shudder at the thought how many of them should be.
When I tell her the sum I am going to give her, Natalia collapses crying. Yevgeny tells me he only twice saw her crying: the day he told her about the death of her husband and today. That was not so much about the money, but above all because the desperate situation in which she struggles with her child, who is sick. She does not let us approach him, at least for the moment. I very well understand her embarrassment. As were leaving the place, I was unable to find any comforting words to say to her, so I extended the arms and we hugged. I was unable to act differently on our departure. How could I alleviate her pain? How could I wish her happiness?
On our way back we stopped. It was, not far from the village of Rozovka, the grave of another volunteer. When an insurgent was killed his comrades built him a monument near the trenches where he perished. There is another grave in the village. A soldier rests in the middle of the village, in the central square, a fresh wreath adorns his grave: there is only a cross, not even a stone or a burial mound. That’s what Ukrainian aggression left after. They broke into bringing misery and deaths to people who wanted and who still want to be free.
Laurent Brayard for DONi.Press