"We've been bombed, we've lived in basements, our buildings are in ruins."


I enter the war via a petrol station. I show my passport to a man in a hotdog kiosk. Armed men search the vehicle. Beyond the petrol station is Europe's new self-proclaimed republic – where special forces soldiers smash glass bottles against their foreheads, children carry ammunition crates around to the sound of Russian folk music and a middle-aged woman yells out that she loves Putin.

Call Basurin.

My driver is tall, slender and dressed in black. He is wearing black, fingerless driving gloves.

His back is straight and his eyes are vigilant as he accelerates until the rev counter won't go any higher. His slightly upturned lips reveal that his vigilance is not anxiousness, but that he is in fact rather enjoying the challenge.

Otherwise he would have chosen a different route.

Sometimes we drive on the left, sometimes the right. I do not know why and it does not feel like the right time to ask. The only traffic we encounter is a military truck.

We have left the main road and are now driving south towards Donetsk – along the front.

A forest unfolds to our right, that is where the Ukrainian army are positioned. To the left are the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's positions.

"There was shelling here yesterday and the day before, which is why people are avoiding this road today," Driving Gloves informs me.

His expression remains the same. As if he were telling me that it has been snowing for a few days.

Some people still live here – a small number of pensioners who are waiting for death in the comfort of their own homes.

We have passed through roadblock after roadblock, to get from the west to the eastern side of the front; I cannot even remember how many.

I remember the scenes.

Yellow and blue flags flapping in the icy wind, atop bunkers made from concrete blocks and sandbags. A soldier from the Ukrainian army with his finger on the trigger. The weary faces of soldiers and civilians.

Two or three kilometre long traffic queues. Entire families squeezed into Ladas that would never pass an MOT and barely even be of interest to a scrapyard.

Mirrors on long metal rods being poked under vehicles. Identification documents passing in and out of windows. Bags being searched.

The really poor, who have no form of transportation, shivering in rows. People who have collected their medication or pension, or who have been to visit a relative.

The fear of not getting through the roadblock and having to sleep rough.

Anger escalating into fists or knives, when someone tries to jump the queue.

The desperation that grows as nightfall approaches. 

Call Basurin.

At the final government-controlled roadblock I got an exit stamp in my passport.

After that we drove into no man's land.

We saw no one. But some people do still live here – a small number of pensioners without the energy to flee, who are living off their farms and waiting for death in the comfort of their own homes.

The self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's first roadblock is located in what was once a petrol station. I am instructed to show my passport to someone in a hotdog kiosk. I do not get an entry stamp – where I have been since I left the last Ukrainian roadblock will always be a mystery. 

Call Basurin.

"No guns?" asked the man going through my bag.

He continued,

"Because everything else you need is here – bulletproof vests and helmets!"

It is unclear whether he felt the lack of weapons was a good or a bad thing.

The streets were smoother on the other side of the front. The fighters maintain them, as they rely on being able to drive fast on them.

"Corruption," Driving Gloves mumbles, meaning that some Kiev streets are in worse condition despite taxes flooding in to the government from this industrial region.

"So it's better in the war zone than the peace zone?" I ask, having not yet seen the war.

"No! But if you're a driver... Yes!"

"It was raided last time and a bloke was shot in the restaurant. FYI."

When we park in Donetsk and I check into my hotel, I begin to doubt whether I really have arrived at a war. The receptionist asks me for my signature and informs me, with a smile, that only Roubles are accepted here, no Ukrainian currency and no credit cards.

The wall clock shows Moscow time. In the restaurant, blonde women with flowing locks and perfectly manicured nails dazzle in their tight dresses and stilettos next to men in jeans and leather jackets. They eat oysters, smoke luminous green shishas, drink vodka and then attempt to sing karaoke.

A waiter with a crisp, white linen napkin over his arm rolls out a silver trolley and flambés a desert.

The décor is leather and red, the furniture is sturdy and there is a disco ball hanging from the ceiling.

The spa takes up three floors. It has a gym with a personal trainer, a yoga room, a martial arts room, a large pool for exercising and a smaller pool, in which an infant swim class is taking place. Mothers clutching tiny feet and laughing, clearly infatuated.
Taking the lift to my room has never felt more surreal – holding a helmet in one hand and a bulletproof vest in the other.

My mobile phone beeps and I receive a message from a colleague who has stayed at the same hotel several times. "It was raided last time and a bloke was shot in the restaurant. FYI."

That night I wake to the sound of muted explosions and get up and open the curtains.
I stand there, holding onto the windowsill as if to check that it is real, wondering what I will see when it gets light.

On the third attempt he manages to smash both the bottle and his temple, and he has to be taken off in an ambulance.

I see a very short man. He is wearing a perfectly ironed uniform, a peaked cap and shiny shoes that tap noisily against the tarmac. His arms and legs swing enthusiastically as he marches into Railway Station Square.

He is the General.

Behind him are six standard bearers wearing black overcoats and about a hundred young soldiers.

They form a line and the standard bearers at the far left raise the red, black and blue flag with the two-headed eagle; behind them is a panoramic backdrop of bare trees and dull tower blocks.

Music starts pumping out of the speakers next to the stage, upon which a five-foot general has carefully positioned himself so he is perfectly framed between the "New Russia" banners. Dramatic military beats gradually turn into the theme tune for the Mortal Kombat computer game.

They form a line and the standard bearers at the far left raise the red, black and blue flag with the two-headed eagle.
  • They form a line and the standard bearers at the far left raise the red, black and blue flag with the two-headed eagle.
  • Music starts pumping out of the speakers next to the stage, upon which a five-foot general has carefully positioned himself so he is perfectly framed between the "New Russia" banners.
  • This display is showcasing a new Spetsnaz – a special military unit comprised of  men from Europe's new breakaway state.

The men dressed in green who left the square in a jog have now returned in Jeeps, bearing weapons. They fire off blank rounds, throw firecrackers and smoke flares, intercept knife attacks, try to overpower each other and engage in hand-to-hand combat.

They round it all off by smashing glass bottles against their foreheads and smashing roof tiles as if they were on fire with their bare hands.

One of the men fails to smash his glass bottle after the first and the second attempt. On the third attempt he manages to smash both the bottle and his temple. There is blood running down half his face and he has to be taken off in an ambulance.

This display is showcasing a new Spetsnaz – a special military unit comprised of men from Europe's new breakaway state.

There are a few locals standing around the square.

It feels as if I have stumbled into a theatre. Where I am the only person who is not an actor.

Call Basurin.

It feels as if I have stumbled into a theatre. Where I am the only person who is not an actor.
  • It feels as if I have stumbled into a theatre. Where I am the only person who is not an actor.
  • They fire off blank rounds, throw firecrackers and smoke flares, intercept knife attacks, try to overpower each other and engage in hand-to-hand combat.

That is what I have to do to get backstage. To join the fighters on the front. To see who it is that is fighting, their nationalities, if they are volunteers or regular troops and, in which case, if they are locals or Russians.

Eduard Basurin is the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's Defence Minister and I need him to personally issue me with a permit. Not the written one I have already received from him on paper. That is no more than a piece of paper.

Every day Basurin replies, "Call tomorrow."

When the war broke out it was like Dodge City on the eastern side of the front; journalists could shuttle back and forth between the fighting and the morgues. But now there is a new government and official organisation running everything.
In recent months, a lot of western journalists have been locked out by simply not being permitted to enter the eastern side.

On either side of the front, people are suspicious of the western and eastern media respectively, and feel that everything being written about the war is propaganda.

Two years ago there was no front, there were no roadblocks and there was no war to write about.

Back then there was just Ukraine.

But new borders were drawn up in April 2014. Two republics were proclaimed in the eastern part of the country: Donetsk and Luhansk.

In the self-proclaimed republics, supporters of the split demonstrated against the new government in Kiev. They felt that the violent protests on Independence Square that winter were not a libertarian revolution, but rather a coup d'état – in which President Yanukovych and the old government, who had favoured business ties with the east, was overthrown. They wanted to protect the former order and saw the events at Independence Square as a threat to stability and to the many ethnic Russians living in the east.

The protesters held speeches about eastern Ukraine joining Russia. When that did not get a response, they instead started to use the term New Russia – the area that was conquered by the Soviet Union during the 18th and 19th centuries and which stretches southwards along the coast, down towards Odessa and Crimea. The idea was to redraw the map, so that Russia could be connected to the already annexed Crimea.

The government in Kiev decided to crush the resistance in the east with an "anti-terror operation".

Troops were dispatched to the front.

The war had begun.

Europe wound up in the middle of the worst conflict since the start of the First World War.

Whether everything that happened was caused by tensions between the various national groups that had finally boiled over, or whether Putin was the evil chef stirring things up, or whether it was the EU's alliance with Obama, or whether it was Ukraine's oligarchs, is also a bone of contention.

The borderland country of Ukraine has been torn between forming either a western or an eastern alliance, and when the EU and Russia both reached out with proposed treaties at the same time, internal conflicts began to erupt.

Soldier at the frontline in eastern Ukraine.. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

When the pro-Russian president Yanukovych was ousted after Maidan and the new Western-friendly administration in Kiev installed, Russia responded by seizing Crimea, hosting its naval base in Sevastopol.

Putin said afterwards, "We do not want to see any Nato ships in Sevastopol, the city of the Russian glory. That risk was real after the Maidan events, which is why we recaptured Crimea."

Russia was keen to keep Ukraine out of the EU as well as NATO and Europe ended up in a mess reminiscent of the situation before the First World War. But the difference is that now there are nuclear weapons – as well as online information warfare.

It looks just like the First World War. I convince Driving Gloves to take me to the front line without a permit. It is muddy, cold and grey and I almost get hit in the head by a grenade. The fighters are local men from Donetsk who say that they are fighting the fascists on the other side. Yet they themselves have a photograph of Stalin.

The apartment blocks at the front are in ruins. Many have fled. There are 4.5 million IDP (internally displaced people) refugees. Some live in bomb shelters. Others try to live in places with hardly any floors or ceilings. The electricity and water comes and goes, the heating pipes and windows are broken.

People are crying in apartments that have exploded. When did life become an inferno. Who is going to bring food or fix the buildings?

Call Basurin.

”We've been bombed, we've lived in basements, our buildings are in ruins. But this is my home."

Lydia, who is 73 and uses a walking stick, makes it into the City Hall to ask if any help has arrived. She has heard that help is supposed to have come from the Czech Republic.

It has not.

She points her walking stick towards the city centre streets, "Only young people can survive here, for us old people there's nothing."

If Lydia wants to collect her pension, she has to pass through all of the roadblocks and get to the western side of the front. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

The shops and cafés that are open are local. The food comes from Russia. All of the western companies, like Zara and McDonalds, have been shut down, the doors have been boarded up and the premises emptied – they are not allowed to operate in what is considered to be occupied territory.

Some people have switched their number plates to DPR (Donetsk People's Republic) plates instead of UA (Ukraine) plates, but they are not recognised at either the Russian or the Ukrainian-controlled borders.

There is no banking system and you cannot withdraw any money from an ATM.

If Lydia wants to collect her pension, she has to pass through all of the roadblocks and get to the western side of the front. It can take eight hours there and eight hours back.

The fear of not getting through the roadblock and having to sleep rough.

Anger escalating into fists or knives, when someone tries to jump the queue.

The desperation that grows as nightfall approaches.

The 73-year old tells me, "You've got a dangerous job."

"You've got a dangerous life; you live at the front!" I blurt out.

"Yes, it's dangerous. We've been bombed, we've lived in basements, our buildings are in ruins."

She leans on her walking stick for support as she descends the City Hall steps,
"But this is my home."

Children, who have lost their parents in the war, are holding grenade launchers and pistols.

In the middle of the courtyard stands a plump, middle-aged woman with blonde hair. Around her are tracked IFVs (infantry fighting vehicles), armoured vehicles and tables covered in weapons.

"Thank God for Putin!" the woman yells.

She takes her passport out of a shabby coat pocket and kisses it.

"Mother Russia!"

A leaflet with the flag of the Donetsk People's Republic printed on it has been folded around the passport like a cover. She unfolds the paper slightly and shows that underneath the red, black and blue colours is the Ukrainian coat of arms, the diving falcon that looks like a trident. She quickly folds the paper back again.

"This was Ukrainian, now it's the Donetsk People's Republic! Putin has saved us. I love Putin," she shouts with delight.

Children clamber over the military vehicles. Two girls atop a tracked IFV are holding each other, one of them raises an arm up in the air as if in victory. The other is wearing a pale blue quilted jacket.

The woman nods to the girl in blue and lowers her voice, "She's eight years old and has no parents. Her mother was a sniper and got killed. She's never had a father."
The eight-year-old climbs down off the IFV and walks over to one of the weapon tables. A soldier helps her to test a Steyr with a telescopic sight – an expensive Austrian sniper rifle used by some of the more fastidious soldiers in the Russian special forces. Other children, who have also lost their parents in the war, are holding grenade launchers and pistols.

The eight-year-old climbs down off the IFV and walks over to one of the weapon tables. A soldier helps her to test a Steyr with a telescopic sight.
  • The eight-year-old climbs down off the IFV and walks over to one of the weapon tables. A soldier helps her to test a Steyr with a telescopic sight.
  • In the middle of the courtyard stands tracked IFVs (infantry fighting vehicles), armoured vehicles and tables covered in weapons.
  • Other children, who have also lost their parents in the war, are holding grenade launchers and pistols.

It is Russian public holiday; they are celebrating the start of the Red Army in 1918. This public holiday used to be celebrated throughout Ukraine, but this year it is only being celebrated in the self-proclaimed republics.
West of the front, they have torn down the Lenin statues and cancelled the public holiday.

In a press release from the City Hall they declared that there will be major celebrations and a parade through the city, but the only official celebration is the one in this courtyard, which is being guarded by men wearing helmets and holding assault rifles.

I turn to the rotund woman, "Why do you love Putin?"

She raises her arms and throws back her head as if it is a stupid question.

"Ukraine is all terrorists and fascists. What would we have done without Putin?"

"Why is Ukraine all terrorists and fascists?" I wonder and move closer.

"I saw Ukrainian soldiers shoot people, normal people, in the middle of a residential area. I saw it from my apartment. I went out and tried to put a stop to it, but I was taken as a prisoner of war. The Ukrainian army held me in the woods for a month."

The woman shoves both hands into her pockets and hunches her shoulders.

"What was it like?"

"It was horrible! Horrible!"

She goes quiet and listens. Fighting can be heard in the distance.

Families have been torn apart. A father might support one side, his son the other.

I need a permit to visit the front. 

Call Basurin.

He replies, "Call tomorrow."

Evening falls and they are serving free whisky in the hotel restaurant, as it is a public holiday. I order gravlax, watch the well manicured women and leather jacket men with fascination, down the whisky and go to to bed before they start their drunken karaoke again.

The upper classes dine in hotels. While more than three million people along the front line are in need of assistance.

According to the UN, a lot of people experience feelings of abandonment, isolation and horror. People are being arrested, interrogated, tortured. The lack of legal certainty is particularly worrying on the eastern side, but it should be stressed that the Security Service of Ukraine is also committing the same type of abuse on the western side.

Fighters from both sides tell me about war crimes against soldiers who have been taken captive – cigarettes being stubbed out on skin, skin being shredded with a knife and ears and genitals being chopped off.

I ask Driving Gloves if he knows of anyone who supports the people fighting on the western side, but who lives on the eastern side.

He shakes his head.

"There probably aren't any left. The ones I know about have changed their minds."

Others have been silenced. Families have been torn apart. A father might support one side, his son the other. Former neighbours shooting at each other.
In a coffee bar in the city, where every cappuccino takes a painstakingly long time to arrive – the freshly ground beans are carefully pressed up into the machine, the steamed milk is slowly poured on top, it is gently topped with powdered cinnamon or cardamom – there is a sign hanging next to the cash register that reads "We don't have WiFi – talk to each other!"

Perhaps the reason for this war is simpler than you think.

Perhaps it is hanging in a coffee bar.

Several people cite the Odessa Massacre as the reason for taking up arms and starting to fight on the eastern side of the front.

Call Basurin.

On a cold, damp day, the City Hall announces that a completely new public holiday is being introduced in the republic – a traditional Russian celebration, more or less like the Swedish midsummer, but to celebrate the departure of winter and the arrival of spring.

A woman wearing a national costume walks around a community centre, humming happily, as she wipes down ammunition crates. The boys are wearing jester hats. The girls are having their hair braided. Biscuits, cake and pancakes with jam are being served.

Veterans hobble around on crutches with only one leg intact. A mother has made a uniform for her two-year-old, who is sitting ceremoniously on her lap. The little uniform is green, with a Russian flag and the words "Russia" on an emblem on one arm.

On a cold, damp day, the City Hall announces that a completely new public holiday is being introduced in the republic – a traditional Russian celebration.
  • On a cold, damp day, the City Hall announces that a completely new public holiday is being introduced in the republic – a traditional Russian celebration.
  • A mother has made a uniform for her two-year-old, who is sitting ceremoniously on her lap.
  • The little uniform is green, with a Russian flag and the words "Russia" on an emblem on one arm.
  • The boys are wearing jester hats. The girls are having their hair braided.

Several people are wearing the black and orange Ribbon of Saint George. It stems from the Soviet Union's struggle against Nazi Germany and has become an emblem for anti-Maidan activists and protesters of the new government.

The ribbon is also used in remembrance of recent victims.

In May 2014, there was a clash between pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan groups in the coastal city of Odessa. Ultra-nationalists from the Right Sector in the west had come to the southeast to demonstrate on the streets of Odessa together with football hooligans.
The demonstrators were then attacked by ethnic Russian protesters, who were subsequently chased into the local Trade Union building by the nationalists.
The building caught fire, as a result of the petrol bombs, and 42 people were killed – they were either trapped inside the burning building or were shot when they tried to jump out. The nationalists chanted, "Burn Colorado, burn." There is a black and orange beetle called the Colorado potato beetle and this reference is used to liken anyone wearing the black and orange ribbon to an insect.

The Trade Union building in Odessa caught fire, as a result of the petrol bombs, and 42 people were killed. Photo: REUTERS/Yevgeny Volokin

Several people cite it as the reason for taking up arms and starting to fight on the eastern side of the front.

In the community centre in Donetsk, children are carrying out ammunition crates to the sound of Russian music. The crates are used as supports for the "who can saw fastest" competition.

There is a weightlifting competition, a tug of war and circle dancing. Macho muscles are flexed, there is grunting and faces turn red. The boys fight each other with sandbags and the girls throw feathers.

No one I talk to wants to be part of Ukraine any more.

There is only one person who says otherwise.

Basurin.

Eduard Basurin is the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic's Defence Minister. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

I eventually interview him at the City Hall. When asked what will happen to the Donetsk People's Republic in the future, he replies that somehow or another the eastern region will become part of – Ukraine.

When I leave the City Hall, with my watch set to Moscow time and with Russian Roubles in my pocket, and look up at the façade from which the Ukrainian coat of arms has been torn down, I no longer know what is the truth and what is theatrics.

I get into the car and ask Driving Gloves to take us to the hazy front line. He flicks the cigarette he had been smoking to suppress the boredom out of the window, straightens his back as if newly energized and revs the car into action. 

Call Basurin.

 

Translator: Laura Åkerblom