"We had WiFi and television. Now it's all been blown up."


How does a war start? In a present day European country?

It is just a normal day, the children are at school, you are sitting in your living room, surfing the internet – and suddenly you hear gunshots outside in the street. Grenades land in your garden.

Your neighbourhood is in ruins, people are living in underground bunkers and hatred is spreading.

Life as you know it is over.

Expressen in Ukraine

It is a two-hour flight from Stockholm to the First World War. That is what it looks like along the front line of eastern Ukraine.

For the next five days, Expressen's Magda Gad and Christoffer Hjalmarsson will be reporting from both sides of the front in Europe's forgotten war.

 

At first we thought it was thunder. Who could have imagined that they would kill civilians?

You can find them in every neighbourhood. Tears for the life that no longer exists.

I see them in the bunker near the front line in Donetsk. The further I get down the stone steps, the damper and colder it gets. I am struck by a smell of wet cement and rotten food.

Hidden behind the bank vault-like doors is an entire world. A world of people who are living as though they were buried alive. They are sitting on bunkhouse beds surrounded by the few things they managed to take with them – a yellow hairbrush, a book on feng shui, a photo of a grandchild – with lonely shoulders and tears that flow for the life that no longer exists.

They are hiding behind a door on the fifth floor of a stairwell in a burned-out apartment, where a man is trying to mop up his tears as well as his floor after a grenade came through his roof. The tears and the water continue to flow and neither of them can be stopped.

Sometimes I come across them in the street. A young woman leaving a shop in the small town of Uglegorsk, east of Donetsk, with a half empty shopping bag in her hand.

The number 21 bus drives by, filled with semi-glazed eyes looking out over a town centre building that was once a soft yellow colour with white balconies and arched windows. Today it is a miserable sight of iron rods, demolished concrete and a gaping hole in the middle, like a cleft palate.

Once the bus has creaked round the corner, the woman stops. She hesitates, in her shabby black wedges. But then approaches me and whispers,

"We have to pay the rent, even though no one mends our apartments. No one is helping us. Not the government, no organisation, no one."

The child who should have an entire life ahead, wells up with tears and talks about the life that no longer exists.

"My mummy was killed. I'm just trying to survive."

It took a year of fighting and thousands of deaths to move the front from here to there, a stretch that is an hour's drive.

A town for the dead. That is what they have called Uglegorsk. Fighters from both sides have at different times had barricades here. The town has also been hit by Grad rockets from Debaltseve – one of the biggest theatres of war. People were screaming that it was genocide, that there were children there and that they could not escape.

A town for the dead. That is what they have called Uglegorsk. Fighters from both sides have at different times had barricades here.
  • A town for the dead. That is what they have called Uglegorsk. Fighters from both sides have at different times had barricades here.
  • Bombed out three-storey building in the middle of Uglegorsk. This building was occupied and used as a tactical position by both the Ukrainian army and the DPR, depending on where the front was at the time.
  • Shattered bridge over a railway in Uglegorsk. On the other side of the bridge is the wreckage of a petrol station.

The bridge over the railway that leads east towards Debaltseve hangs dejectedly with one end just below the bracket. At the other end of the bridge is the wreckage of a petrol station. Corrugated metal sways back and forth, like wings above red metal pillars and empty pumps.

This used to be where the front was, but it has now been moved west towards Horlivka, level with Donetsk. It took a year of fighting and thousands of deaths to move the front from here to there, a stretch that is an hour's drive.

In the village of Nikishyne, south of Debaltseve, the houses are like corpses. Like piles of bones that no one has managed to bury yet.

Four children are playing outside the red and white shell that was once the library, some of the few children left in the village.

Children are playing outside the red and white shell that was once the library, some of the few left in the village. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

Their school was bombed and the bus that can take them to the neighbouring village does run today.

At first we thought it was thunder. Who could have imagined that they would kill civilians?

On Peace Road in Nikishyne, adjacent to the village school, Lubov opens a green metal gate that is perforated with rusty bullet holes. It leads to what was once her home.

She stretches out a determined arm towards an empty space, "That's where the garage was."

I follow the arm and see nothing but gravel. Gravel, bits of brick and the tail fin of a grenade. Tail fins that whistle through the air on their way to destruction.

Lubov leans down and picks up the tail of an RPG-26, a 3 kg rocket-propelled grenade that is designed to take out military armoured vehicles.

"Yes, there were a lot of these that landed in my garden," she laughs despairingly.

Lubov leans down and picks up the tail of an RPG-26, a 3 kg rocket-propelled grenade: "Yes, there were a lot of these that landed in my garden" she says.
  • Lubov leans down and picks up the tail of an RPG-26, a 3 kg rocket-propelled grenade: "Yes, there were a lot of these that landed in my garden" she says.
  • Lubov opens a green metal gate that is perforated with rusty bullet holes. It leads to what was once her home.
  • In one of the corners of Lubov's courtyard are some half-demolished brick walls. That was her living room.

When, in September 2015, Lubov heard that her village was to be evacuated, all she took with her were her identification documents and the clothes she was wearing. A pair of yellow sweatpants – the same ones she is walking around in now.

The government said that the villagers would be able to move back home in two weeks.

95% of them have still not been able to return.

They have nothing to come back to. 

At first we thought it was thunder. Who could have imagined that they would kill civilians?

In one of the corners of Lubov's courtyard are some half-demolished brick walls.

That was her living room.

I peek inside – there's nothing there.

She takes a few heavy strides in her animal print wellies. Her short, red hair pokes out from under her black woollen hat with bows on. Her face is soft yet determined. She has a dimple on her chin. She furrows her 50-year-old eyebrows, looks at the bricks and, in the midst of all her grief and almost with a hint of surprise, says, "We had WiFi."

"You had WiFi?" I repeat aloud, surprised.

"We had everything. WiFi, television, computer, bathroom, washing machine, kitchen with all the appliances. Now it's all been blown up."

It was just a normal day. The children were at school next door. They were sitting in the living room, surfing the internet. When all of a sudden they heard gunshots in the street outside.

Grenades started landing in the garden.

Life as they knew it was over.

"I don't understand why they hate us so much. They fired a Grad rocket into my house. Why should I love them?"

Lubov's parents come from western Ukraine and moved here to the east. I wonder whether she wants to belong to the Ukraine of her childhood.

"No, no. You can see what that looks like for yourself. I have lost my home, I have lost everything. Why should I be with them? The Ukrainian army shot at the school and hit my house. They shot the school, my house, the whole village to pieces."

There are different versions of what happened in Nikishyne, depending on which reports you read. It was during a time when there were both national and international soldiers in the region.

"Why did the Ukrainian army shoot at you?" I ask Lubov, to hear her version.

"I don't know. There's just peaceful villagers here, no soldiers. I don't understand why they hate us so much. They fired a Grad rocket into my house. Why should I love them? They aren't going to give us our houses back. This is just politics to them."

She holds her head high, a head that has decided not to give up, and shows me out through her gate, onto Peace Road, which has been obliterated by war.

At first we thought it was thunder. Who could have imagined that they would kill civilians?

The sunflower crops south of Nikishyne droop. Everything is deserted. In the fields and ditches there are memorial stones to the dead. In some places the road has collapsed.

It feels like taking a journey into emptiness.

At the end of the cross are rows of teddy bears with candles in front of them. A cross raised for the 298 war crime victims.

Things were not empty here in July 2014. Strewn across the fields were bloody body parts. Men's arms, women's legs, children's hands. Bags filled with holiday clothes. Football boots with feet in. Cuddly toys, for comfort on the plane.

At the crash site of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in Grabovo, a rugged man is leaning against a car, smoking, with his legs crossed. Russian cigarettes, which he does not like. He does not like the Russian beer either. He does like his Ukrainian passport though. But there is not much here that is Ukrainian any more.

The rugged man has his hood up, his eyes fixed on the cross going in to the field. The cross that reminds him of the 298 war crime victims.

At the crash site of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in Grabovo.
  • At the crash site of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in Grabovo.
  • Memorial stones at the crash site.
  • At the end of the cross are rows of teddy bears with candles in front of them.

At the end of the cross are rows of teddy bears with candles in front of them.

At first he does not want to talk. The rugged man.

Dare not talk. Says he could get killed if he talks.

Then he cannot stop talking.

About how he saw the anti-aircraft missile, a Buk missile system, being transported on a truck. As he recalls, it was a white Volvo, on the morning of the 17th July.

About the horrific sounds and the black smoke in the afternoon.

At the crash site of MH17. Photo: Zykina / Epa / Tt Alyona

About the body parts.

"Who shot the plane down?" I ask.

He answers just as plainly, "It was the Russians. There were Russians here then, they paraded through the main street here in the village every day and they had guns and Grad rockets with them. They hid inside private houses and went out and shot, and we saw them. They acted as though this was their home."

His immediate thought was that they shot the plane down by accident.

"They thought it was military. The Ukrainian army had planes here then, to defend their country. A Ukrainian military plane had been shot down a few weeks earlier, so we laughed at first and said, 'Oh well, another one.' Then we saw it was a civilian plane."

"We've always spoken both Russian and Ukrainian and understood each other. Everything started when the Russian troops arrived."

At first we thought it was thunder. Who could have imagined that they would kill civilians?

He shudders and pulls his hood up even further.

"Are there still Russian soldiers here?"

"Yes, but closer to the front. There's a command group from Russia there."

He stubs out the Russian cigarette that he does not like.

"Is this a war between eastern and western Ukraine, or between Russia and Ukraine?"

"It's a war between Russia and Ukraine. We had no problems here before. We've always spoken both Russian and Ukrainian and understood each other. Everything started when the Russian troops arrived."

There are sounds of war in the background, but Lydia does not have the energy to care any more.

You can find them in every neighbourhood. Tears for the life that no longer exists.

In a residential area near the front line in Donetsk, 73-year-old Lydia holds them in as she leans on her walking stick for support, in her blue quilted coat and high boots. There are sounds of war in the background, but Lydia does not have the energy to care any more. Does not have the energy to cry more or run down into basements.

"Can you imagine? I just walk around and hear this. I'm used to it. If I die, then it's fate."

"Aren't you scared? Don't you want to move?"

"Of course, I'm very scared. But what am I supposed to do? I have nowhere to run to. I live here, I remain here. This is my home."

The women that live next door, Maria and Nadezjda, tidy the flowerbeds as if everything was normal. The dogs bark and roll onto their backs as if everything was normal.

Nothing is normal.

Front doors have been blown off, windows are cracked, apartments have been transformed into furnaces. In one is a lonely little chair, in another only the fridge is recognisable.

A man in long johns, who is trying to repair a window, approaches agitatedly and stands so close to me that I can smell his angry breath, "Your country is supporting this! They give money to the Ukrainian army, who is bombing us! So we have to repair it, and then they bomb us again."

He spits, and then continues, "Many, many have died! Do we go to Kiev and bomb their houses? No, we don't! But they come here and bomb our houses!"

At first we thought it was thunder. Who could have imagined that they would kill civilians?

Nadeszjda stretches from the flowerbed, in her stylish silver scarf, and gesticulates with her arms, "Disaster, boom boom."

Konstantin sits on a bench, with his skinny, crooked body, and nods to himself. He knows what 'boom boom' means – he has been hit by shrapnel three times during the war and still has bits of metal in his neck and back, and in one of his legs.

He is wearing a woollen hat indoors. The cold wind blows straight in to the burned out apartment.

On the fifth floor above the bench that Konstantin in sitting on, Leonid is crying behind his door. He cries and tries to mop up his tears as well as his floor, but he cannot. He covers his eyes with the palms of his hands, but the tears flow through them. He mops the floor with a cloth, which he then wrings out into a bucket, but more water just keeps coming in.

Leonid got a grenade through his roof and lost his wife.

Sobbing, he wrings the cloth out again, "You can't live like this."

Leonid got a grenade through his roof and lost his wife: "You can't live like this." Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

He is wearing a woollen hat indoors. The cold wind blows straight in to the burned out apartment. He has covered the holes in the outer walls with planks and plastic sheeting, but it is not properly sealed.

"No one could have imagined this... No one believes that there'll be a war," he cries and covers his eyes with his hands again.

His hands are soaked in tears again. I ask him what he thinks about the future.
"I get a headache and just keep crying. I don't know what's best for the people and what this country should be called in future. I just want the days I've got left until I die to be peaceful."

His watch and glasses are on a bedside table in the bedroom.

A reminder of the life that no longer exists.

"Soon we will be buried in the cemetery, but they've bombed the cemetery too."

Lydia, Nadezjda and Maria, these women are trying to hang on to the life that no longer exist. That is why they are tidying the flowerbeds.

Maria, who has a purple scarf twisted around her platinum blonde hair like a turban, jokes and says that during these two years of war they have aged and stopped washing their faces and forgotten both their names and how old they are, but when the war ends, they will be beautiful and young again and marry and be in love.

Lydia, Nadezjda and Maria, these women are trying to hang on to the life that no longer exist. That is why they are tidying the flowerbeds.
  • Lydia, Nadezjda and Maria, these women are trying to hang on to the life that no longer exist. That is why they are tidying the flowerbeds.
  • Nadezjda shows us round bombed out apartments in the residential area.
  • Front doors have been blown off, windows are cracked, apartments have been transformed into furnaces. In one is a lonely little chair, in another only the fridge is recognisable.

She dances a few steps to the sound of explosions from the front.

But she turns serious again just as quickly and purses her pink lipsticked mouth,

"Everyone knows who did this to us. It was Kiev. And if someone can point out exactly which people it was, then we could kill them. We had everything here, we had our homes, our children, our families. Soon we will be buried in the cemetery, but they've bombed the cemetery too."

Maria feels uncertain about who it is that is bombing the front now. If she watches local television, they say it is the Ukrainian army, and if she watches Ukrainian television they say it is the Russian-financed militia here in Donetsk.

Lydia used to be teacher. She describes the war as a political struggle between western and eastern Ukraine.

"We only want one thing and we only wanted one thing before. To speak Russian and have our freedom. And then they came along and bombed right into my house."

"Becoming such good friends as we used to be? The losses we have suffered are too great for everything to be as it once was."

The latest Minsk Protocol states that the Ukrainian army should withdraw heavy artillery from the front line, that the regions the government has lost control of should be autonomous, that the Russian language should be accepted and that the militia who are fighting in the area should be given amnesty.

One interpretation of the protocol is that it is controlled by Putin and that he wants to force Kiev into making concessions and maintain chaos in eastern Ukraine. If Ukraine becomes federal, with autonomy in the east, where a lot of ethnic Russians and Russian sympathisers live, he may continue to have an influence in Ukraine.

I wonder whether Lydia would consider such a solution, to become one country again.

"Perhaps, but only if we are awarded autonomy. But becoming such good friends as we used to be? The losses we have suffered are too great for everything to be as it once was. A lot of children have died. How can you be friends with people who shoot children?"

She tells us in detail how the Ukrainian army arrived in helicopters on 26 May 2014, during the first battle of the Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport.

"The helicopters flew right here. They shot and hit everyone, everywhere." At first we thought it was thunder.
At first we thought it was thunder. Who could have imagined that they would kill civilians?

"They began by shooting children and then they hit a woman in the eye, from the helicopter. A woman is walking along, suddenly a helicopter arrives, she is shot in the eye and falls to the ground."

From her description it sounds like she was hit by shrapnel, as she would have been hit more than in just her eye if the helicopter fire had been aimed at her. Lydia is still shocked about what happened.

"What can I feel after that? It's just awful. Who could have imagined that this would happen, now, in the 2000s, killing children and civilians? And even worse, it was our own brothers! They thought that we were all separatists. That everyone, even old ladies, bore arms."

She interrupts herself.

"Yes, I have a weapon. My walking stick here."

"This is just about politics, not about the people. It wasn't children and mothers who started this war."

You can find them in every neighbourhood. Tears for the life that no longer exists.

More than 200,000 children – here on the eastern side of the front alone – have been traumatised and need psychosocial support.

Four-year-old Evelina has two blonde pigtails on top of her head, one scrunchie is pink, the other is green. She is wearing green and pink knee socks.

She is trying to reach a comic on the shelf.

I walk up to the little girl, "Do you want some help?"

"No, I can manage! I'm not that little, I'm a big girl now."

When she hears a noise, she recoils and runs into the bedroom. Her paternal grandmother pulls her up onto her knee.

"It's like this, every time she hears a noise she throws herself to the ground. She used to be a very happy, huggy girl, but it was very hard for her to live in the bunker."

At first we thought it was thunder. Who could have imagined that they would kill civilians?

Evelina lived in an underground bunker for a year and a half. Today her parents, both in their early twenties, have managed to get hold of a sublet apartment in the miners' district.

Four-year-old Evelina lived in an underground bunker for a year and a half. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

Grandma holds onto Evelina with a proud arm, "When the bombs fell she was very scared, running around crying and screaming. But after the bombings, she was the one going around trying to comfort and help everyone in the bunker, despite her being the youngest."

Evelina's mother Kristina, who is dressed in a turquoise sweatshirt dress with a panda on it, just wants the war to end. She believes they can be friends with the people on the other side.

"This is just about politics, not about the people. It wasn't children and mothers who started this war."

Her husband Vova pipes up. He does not agree at all, "It's easy to understand that we can't be friends, because even people who are related but who live in different places in Ukraine are really angry with each other. And on Ukrainian television they're saying that we're separatists and terrorists."

"Are you prepared to fight yourself?"

"Yes, I've been ready for two years and if this keeps up, I can take up arms."

Hidden behind the bank vault-like doors is an entire world. A world of people who are living as though they were buried alive.

You cannot see the entrance down in to the bunker. It just looks like a corrugated metal shed among some black branches and a washing line, out in the middle of nowhere.

Hidden inside the metal shed is a stairway.

The further I get down the stone steps, the damper and colder it gets. I am struck by a smell of wet cement and rotten food.

Hidden behind the bank vault-like doors is an entire world. A world of people who are living as though they were buried alive. They are sitting on bunkhouse beds surrounded by the few things they managed to take with them – a yellow hairbrush, a book on feng shui, a photo of a grandchild – with lonely shoulders and tears that flow for the life that no longer exists.

Some were general traders, most worked in a nearby mine, a lot of them have relatives in Russia. When the region was industrialised during the Soviet era, workers arrived from throughout the Soviet Union. Workers who feel that a lot of people in the west looked down on them, looked down on them because they are not interested in the EU, but would rather just have their jobs in the mine back.

You cannot see the entrance down in to the bunker. It just looks like a corrugated metal shed among some black branches. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

In this war they have become cannon fodder in a geopolitical game. Cannon fodder together with the other 4.5 million internally displaced people, the more than 3 million people who live along the front, the 1.3 million people who have moved abroad, the almost 20,000 who have been seriously injured and the almost 10,000 people who have died.

A lone woman is hunched over, doing the dishes down in the bunker. She is wearing a striped apron and is pouring water out of a bottle into a metal bowl that she has placed onto a pink floral tablecloth.

A lone woman stands hunched over the washing up, down in the bunker. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

When she has finished washing up, she picks up an extension lead from her bunk and starts coiling it up the way my mother usually does with the cables at her house in the country.

A lone woman sits on a bunk, dangling her legs. She will be thinking about her grandchild who was born during the war but who she has never seen and starts to cry, tears over the life that no longer exists.

A lone man stands there, pouring buckwheat into a saucepan and stirring the pot. I ask him how he feels. He sits down and, after a while, manages to say, "How do you think I feel? I've lost my entire family. How do you think that feels? I'm alone in the world."

A lone woman sits, pear-shaped, on her bunk. When I ask which her most treasured possession is, she shrugs her shoulders, "None of them."

Then she picks up a book about feng shui.

"I like this."

"It would be good if Putin could come here with his troops, like in Syria. This war would end then."

 

Her name is Oksana and she has lived here for more than a year and a half. She says that this is the oligarchs' war. I wonder what she means by that.

Oksana has lived in the bunker for more than a year and a half. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

"It is the oligarchs who are financing the war. That's why we call it the oligarchs' war."

A woman in a green dress agrees and suggests a solution, "It would be good if Putin could come here with his troops, like in Syria. This war would end then. On the western side there are groups like the fascist Right Sector that the president doesn't have control over. They must be stopped."

I look around, at the solitary people living as though they were buried alive, and ask Oksana, "What is the most important thing in life?"

She breaks out into a big smile, "Life. Life! We have run about beneath grenades. So we know what it is. What the most important thing is. It's life."

Outside are the sounds of shellfire. It was shellfire that turned her house to ashes.

At first we thought it was thunder. Who could have imagined that they would kill civilians?

 

Translator: Laura Åkerblom