"Some say that we've fought for long enough now. How can they say that?"


Standing on a mound of soil is a girl who wants to be with her daddy. The daddy is under the mound of soil. Bodies have been found in basements, people are talking about an apocalypse and mothers have taken up arms.

As night falls I head out to the eastern front, where shellfire lights up the sky above and shakes the ground below. There is a war going on in Europe. A war that is being permitted to go on in silence.

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.

 

"Daddy, I want to be with you. Can I come over to you?"

Afterwards, it is the silence I remember. The silent figure of girl on a mound of soil.

The four red carnations in her hand.

Diana wonders when her daddy is coming home, or if she can come to where he is. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

The silent skeleton streets at the front.

Burnt out façades, twisted steel that can no longer support anything, gaping windows like hungry mouths with teeth of broken glass.

The silent nine-storey building. Shadows moving about inside and the sound of footsteps in a stairwell where footsteps should not be heard. Black combat boots stepping through the doorway of a building where people no longer live.

One of the men holds up an assault rifle. The second one sucks in his cheeks and blows grey cigarette smoke out into the even greyer air. The third one has about as much charisma as the barrel of a gun.

Gun Barrel wants to see papers, permits. His woollen hat is pulled down all the way to the whites of his eyes.

Just as I hand over my press pass, which in military zones is worth less than cheap tobacco, and he seems unsure about what to do with a western journalist standing on the eastern front, right next to his position, a rattling noise kicks off behind the building.

Automatic gunfire. A few louder explosions.

Perhaps it is the silence I remember because of what happened next.

Someone yelling "missile" and "down". When I finally get my legs into action, I run into the nearest ruin.

The unrelenting sound of destruction. The whistle of a falling grenade.

Someone yelling "missile" and "down". When I finally get my legs into action, I run into the nearest ruin. A hand grabs my waist and pushes me to my knees.

In the adrenaline residue, Gun Barrel no longer cares about any papers. We stand up, brush the dust off and smooth out our tense faces.

"You've just witnessed a ceasefire. That happens four times a day. That was an 80 millimetre, they shoot at us with 120 millimetres too," he says excitedly, referring to the Ukrainian army, who are positioned just over a kilometre to the northwest.

"I look at the gun strapped to his leg – it can kill and it is loaded with 9 mm bullets" writes Magda Gad.
  • "I look at the gun strapped to his leg – it can kill and it is loaded with 9 mm bullets" writes Magda Gad.
  • The silent nine-storey building. Shadows moving about inside and the sound of footsteps in a stairwell where footsteps should not be heard.

I look at the gun strapped to his leg – it can kill and it is loaded with 9 mm bullets. So what must an 82 mm or more be capable of?

He introduces himself with the weathered fist that had just pushed me into the gravel, "Andrey, but they call me Brooklyn."

I prod his green and beige uniform with a knuckle, "No vest, Brooklyn?"

His eyeballs smirk from behind his beanie. He points at his round stomach, "You're better off without a vest, that way the bullet can go straight through without getting stuck."

Another man, who has been standing quietly at a distance until now, interjects calmly, "Helmets... you only need them after the battle, to put all the bits of brain in one place."

Gallows humour helps us to forget briefly.

Forget the whistle of destruction.

She is still waiting for him. That is what she wrote in her letters to the father who will never read them.

The girl on the mound of soil cannot forget. Her feet face inwards, she places four red carnations and a bag of sweets on the cracked earth and just stands there with a lost look on her face.

Where do you go in a world you no longer recognise?

In the car on the way over here she held the carnations loosely by their stalks, as if to work out if they really exist.

If this world really exists.

Vitali died in the Battle of Debaltseve, 32 years old. His widow Natasha and daughter Diana, 10, at the cemetery on the outskirts of Donetsk, where the girl has laid four red carnations and a bag of sweets on the cracked earth. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

The wooden cross that has been stuck into the mound of soil is split at the top; it cracked when bombs fell near the cemetery.

She is still waiting for him. That is what she wrote in her letters to the father who will never read them. 

"Daddy, I want to be with you. Can I come over to you?"
She wonders when he is coming home, or if she can come to where he is.

The afternoon descends upon the graves and the cold, damp air creeps in under the girl's pink quilted jacket, as explosions from the front start to rumble like thunder across the ashen sky.

Ten-year-old Diana stands motionless, with pale skin and a body that screams of silence.

Screams for her father, Vitali, who was buried after he died in the Battle of Debaltseve, 32 years old.

”Russian special forces fought in Debaltseve and Ilovaisk. It was a bloodbath, a massacre.”

 

"To understand, you have to know what happened in Debaltseve."

That is what people who want to tell me about the war say, and compare it with Chechnya, the madhouse and the apocalypse. Vitali worked in a coal mine near the railway city, which was a strategic hub for freight traffic in eastern Ukraine. When fighting escalated, he and several of his workmates chose to take up arms against the government troops, who they felt were threatening their jobs and homes.

Both because it was raining grenades and because the industrial workers to the east, who depended on trade with Russia, were worried that the new government's west-oriented politics would leave them unemployed.

It ended up with Vitali getting a bullet in his stomach two days after the final ceasefire was signed in Minsk, and laying in a filthy battlefield, losing blood for an hour until his life was over.

The Battle of Debaltseve ended with the government troops losing control of the city and not being ordered to retreat until they were surrounded like lambs to the slaughter. For the Ukrainian government, it was like losing a Stalingrad.

Afterwards, Russian state-owned television showed local fighters in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, workers like Vitali, raising their arms in victory.

The fact that it was actually regular Russian troops who had gone in and determined the outcome – and continued fighting even after the ceasefire had been signed – is not denied by that many, other than propagandist Putin.

But one of the people who has seen behind the smokescreen believes that even the west's portrayal of a Russian invasion is propaganda.

"Russian special forces fought in Debaltseve and Ilovaisk. It was a bloodbath, a massacre. They hung Ukrainian soldiers across power lines and shot out an entire convoy that was retreating from Ilovaisk, killing almost a thousand people. Otherwise, from what I've seen, it's locals and volunteers who have been doing the fighting," says the man who has covered both sides of the front since war broke out.

Personally, I see new realities every time I turn around – truths and lies, mingled and refracted like light through a prism.

One simple truth is that people die.

In Debaltseve, almost 400 fighters died.

More than 500 civilian bodies were found in houses and basements.

People who had once lived together in peace, never imagining for a second that a war might break out.

She tries to keep her tears right where she has had them locked up, but cannot.

The silent girl descends from the mound of soil with a heavy head. Her curly, brown hair pokes out from underneath her white knitted hat in a ponytail that hangs across one shoulder.

It is when they hug each other that it all falls apart. Diana's tears come first. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

She walks with inturned steps and stops by the withered grass where her mother is standing, smoking vigorously. Diana folds her soft hands around her mother Natasha's barren waist, her gaze not faltering from the carnations and the dry earth. 

"Daddy, I want to come with you. Can I come over to you?"

It is when they hug each other that it all falls apart. Diana's tears come first. Natasha tries to keep hers right where she has had them locked up, but cannot and her black-framed eyes start to overflow.

Diana's mother is a terrorist. That is what the 28-year-old widow says once she has wiped her tear-stained, runny nose onto the palm of her hand.

"I'm a terrorist!"

"Everything happened so fast. I got a Kalashnikov and went down into a basement and fired it off to teach myself.”

 

When she walked into the flower shop in her skinny jeans to buy carnations, she told me that she has not been able to visit her own father's grave for two years.

Now she explains why – she is not allowed. His grave is located in the state-controlled area of Ukraine, and the Security Service of Ukraine have labelled her a terrorist.

Her husband was not the first one to pick up a weapon, it was her.

"Everything happened so fast. I got a Kalashnikov and went down into a basement and fired it off to teach myself. I almost went deaf."

Natasha was good at it. A couple of twin sisters she knows became snipers. I look at her in amazement, "But why did you want to fight?"

She lights up a new cigarette.

"I had no choice. There was just more and more fighting each day. Every day I got more and more scared. I was born here; this is my country. I couldn't just sit at home and not do anything. I didn't go to them, they came to us."

Along the edge of her hand is a tattoo in English that reads "It's my life."

It was a hard one – her life. The first time she lay in a trench, she was so scared that she got a spade and dug herself even deeper into the mud. Some days it was -26°C.

Just like many other female soldiers, she got a uterine infection that rendered her infertile.

The nights were the worst.

"I had nightmares about the fighting. So did my husband."

They woke up in a sweat, haunted by memories of the front, of being shot at and of shooting.

Pulling the trigger has never been easy for Natasha. She talks about it with unusual candour.

"This war is morally difficult, because I understand that the people on the other side haven't chosen to go out and shoot at us. They've been ordered to do it by the army."

When she received the call that her husband had been killed, she went out of her mind.

"Diana was with her paternal grandmother at the time. I was pacing around at home on my own, waiting for his body for two days.

Now it's under that pile of soil." She takes a deep breath, but it catches in her throat.
"If only I knew why he had to die. I thought we'd grow old together. Diana was Daddy's girl. She loved him so much and can't understand that he's gone. Now I just feel empty and sad. It hurts and it's hard to live without him." 

"Daddy, I want to come with you. Can I come over to you?"

Natasha, who lives in a small town outside Donetsk, no longer wants to belong to Ukraine. She does not feel that the new government project to establish closer ties with Europe has anything to do with her, and instead wants the eastern coal and steel belt, where a lot of ethnic Russians live, to belong to Russia.

She has family in Russia and tells me, unreservedly, that her commanding officer was Russian.

"Do you want to fight again?"

"No. No! I just want to wake up in the morning and hear silence."

A projectile comes flying towards them and hits the other man, who dies instantly.

Silence drifts about between the concrete, bullet hole-riddled pillars, torn-down ventilation pipes, soaked insulation material, fierce railings and piles of corrugated metal.

That is his nom de guerre: Silence.

All that remains of what, just a few years ago, was a modern, newly rebuilt airport are ruins. "Does this look like a ceasefire?" asks the solider whose nom de guerre is Silence.
  • All that remains of what, just a few years ago, was a modern, newly rebuilt airport are ruins. "Does this look like a ceasefire?" asks the solider whose nom de guerre is Silence.
  • ”I make sure I place my footsteps close to his so I don't step on any mines, as we walk through the wreckage of Donetsk International Airport” writes Magda Gad.
  • Inside the terminal is a Tourist Information sign, there is water dripping from rusty metal debris and there is a sad office chair all alone in a puddle of mud.

His face is hidden behind both a black balaclava and the hood of a camouflage jacket. It looks like he has a nice bone structure beneath his disguise.

The sniper rifle hanging from a strap across his shoulder is old and bulky, almost as tall as Silence himself; the butt of the rifle is level with his knees and the muzzle is up by his head.

I make sure I place my footsteps close to his so I don't step on any mines, as we walk through the wreckage of Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport, named after the composer of Peter and the Wolf. It was lavishly rebuilt as part of the preparations for the 2012 UEFA European Championships and apartments in the surrounding area rose in popularity as a result.

The people who bought them no longer have a place to live.

Inside the terminal is a Tourist Information sign, there is water dripping from rusty metal debris and there is a sad office chair all alone in a puddle of mud.

Silence shows me a video on his mobile phone. He and another young man in camouflage are lying next to each other somewhere in the airport area, when a projectile comes flying towards them and hits the other man, who dies instantly.

The slender facial features look down at the phone and then look up at me and ask, "Does this look like a ceasefire?"

I look at him and think that he does not look like a ceasefire, and respond by asking, "Are you prepared to die for this war?"

It takes a while for him to answer.

"No, but I am prepared to give my life for this war."

Back then: The French national football team at Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport during the 2012 UEFA European Championships.
  • Back then: The French national football team at Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport during the 2012 UEFA European Championships.
  • The airport today: Silence drifts about between the concrete, bullet hole-riddled pillars, torn-down ventilation pipes, soaked insulation material, fierce railings and piles of corrugated metal.

He is a 25-year-old Ukrainian from Donetsk who says he is fighting for his family and for everyone who lives here in the self-proclaimed republic.

"Some say that we've fought for long enough now. How can they say that? One of our soldiers carried a four-year-old girl who died in his arms. How can we have fought enough?"

The airport was, just like Debaltseve, a devastating loss for the government troops, who were forced out of here in January 2015. Today their positions are 1.2 km away.

Both sides are still shooting at each other.

Silence and the other men have ways of shutting off their feelings.

"We don't call each other friends, we say comrades, because it's so hard to lose your friends."

"How many have you lost?"

"Many, many." 

"Daddy, I want to come with you. Can I come over to you?"
He grabs my arm in frustration, "Three of our local guys were killed recently and the Security Service of Ukraine wrote on the internet that they were Russian. They lie. They don't want the west to find out the truth."

"What do you want? Do you want this to be part of Ukraine or Russia in future?"

"I just want there to be peace."

Silence lowers his voice, "I'm afraid to look at myself in the mirror."

He gestures towards his long rifle.

"Me, with a weapon, who have I become?"

If you do not have your own satellite dish on this side of the front, then you can only get Russian television.

The distant rattling of gunfire begins again and we retreat from the terminal into the old car park building. Bombed out cars are still parked in their spaces, like emaciated carcasses. In a corner, a handful of men have lit a fire and are huddled together in a mass of ingrained sweat, guns, ammunition, blankets, sandbags, jars of pickle, a packet of butter, oil, salt, chocolate, a container of water, used cutlery and cups on a wooden table, helmets on hooks and a portrait of Felix Dzerzhinsky.

"Iron Felix" Dzerzhinsky, as he was known for his Communist zeal, founded Cheka, the Soviet secret police (later the KGB), and was its director up until 1919.

One of the fighters has a picture of Stalin on his windscreen.

The biggest of the men, Alexander, squeezes my hand so hard I think something might break and points to his hat, "Bulletproof." I'm not sure whether he means his head or his hat.

Later, as we are driving along the front, he looks out at the devastation and says, just as firmly, "American democracy."

His jaws and chin are like blocks of granite.

Satellite dishes still hang from some of the crumbling buildings. If you do not have your own satellite dish on this side of the front, then you can only get Russian television.

Alexander nods and agrees that it is a problem, "It is very difficult to get accurate information about this war."

I nod along, with my slightly less impressive neck.

Not far from here, people are clinking wine glasses as normal and keeping quiet about this war. As someone back home said, "Ukraine, you don't hear about that these days. Aren't things stable there now?" A war that is going on in Europe. A frozen war in the borderlands between east and west. Between two world powers with nuclear weapons.

The convent is riddled with holes, big and small. A broken cross leans against one of the walls.

The women at the Iversky convent are not keeping quiet. They are praying to God. On the front line.

You can see the airport stretching out to the west from the convent steps. Outside, in the cloister, you can hear a combination of birdsong, gentle songs of praise and gunfire.

The women at the Iversky convent pray to God. Two grenades went off in the convent's cloister a few days ago, and there are land mines in the ground between the graves. Photo: Christoffer Hjalmarsson

The chandelier no longer hangs from a ceiling, but rather from a web of rafters.

To protect themselves, these women have erected a sheet of plywood and some plastic sheeting around the place where they sing and pray.

It will not protect them from anything other than rain.

"I'm not scared. I believe in God. I can pray anywhere," says a woman walking towards the convent cemetery with a bunch of flowers.

Where two grenades went off a few days ago, and where land mines have been laid in the ground between the graves.

The convent is riddled with holes, big and small. A broken cross leans against one of the walls. Like the cross on Diana's father's grave.

"Daddy, I want to come with you. Can I come over to you?"

"I'm not scared. I believe in God. I can pray anywhere," says a woman walking towards the convent cemetery with a bunch of flowers.
  • "I'm not scared. I believe in God. I can pray anywhere," says a woman walking towards the convent cemetery with a bunch of flowers.
  • The convent is riddled with holes, big and small. A broken cross leans against one of the walls. Like the cross on Diana's father's grave.
  • Outside, in the cloister, you can hear a combination of birdsong, gentle songs of praise and gunfire.

”The first time I fought, I was terrified. I huddled up under a tree.”

 "If you hear the whistling, you're okay. If you don't hear it, you're dead!"

Brooklyn, or Andrey and he's called, chuckles heartily with his cold, blue, gun barrel eyes and clucking cheeks. Andrey, who pushed me down into the gravel outside the nine-storey building where the whistling devastation broke the silence.

People who live near the hostilities often tell stories that make them laugh. Like the one about the time when, just after the war had broken out, a few men were driving along in a car, listening to music, and the driver said to the others, "Hey guys, there must be something wrong with the bass, it's really loud." Pause for effect. "It wasn't the bass."

Andrey has time off from the front today and is relaxing on a sofa in a restaurant in central Donetsk. It has got WiFi, sushi, steak, chocolate desserts and pop music. The espresso machine hisses from behind the bar and everything looks normal. But it is not. There is no banking system in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and you cannot pay by card. Only Russian Roubles. And they do not keep Ukrainian time either, they are on Moscow time – an hour ahead.

Once Andrey has told all his jokes, his rounded cheeks become serious, "The first time I fought, I was terrified. I huddled up under a tree."

He has a rough scar on the bridge of his nose and two stars on his military green epaulettes. He is in the Vostok Battalion, which is led by Alexander Khodakovsky, a big shot who defected from the Security Service of Ukraine, who once said, "Everyone understands that this is a war between Russia and America, and we must be on one side or the other."

Vostok is described as consisting of former Ukrainian special forces, Caucasians, Chechens and Russians, in addition to the many locals, like Andrey. There has also been speculation that the battalion is financed by Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Achmetov, a businessman from Donetsk and the 92nd richest person in the world according to Forbes, and that it has connections with Russia's GRU intelligence agency.

”If I start talking about this too much, everything will come flooding back and I'll have to go to the psychologist.”

There have been similar speculations on the other side of the front - that they are an international composite, that American mercenaries from Blackwater are involved and that they are supported by everything from businessmen to western intelligence agencies.

When I try to find out who is actually fighting, how they are financed and who stands to gain from the war, it feels like I've jumped through the ice into a frozen lake and cannot find my way out.

But for Andrey it is clear who he is fighting, "Fascists, nationalists and evil people. People who turn up on my land with weapons."

"Is the Ukrainian army the same thing as fascists?" I wonder.

"Not all of them are fascists or Nazis, a lot of them have been called up. They haven't chosen to join the army themselves – they'd be sent to jail if they refused. I understand them, but when they're on the front line holding weapons, then they're my enemies. They see us as their slaves too, but this is my land. I was born here and I will protect my family from these people."

Slaves, or "Sovoks" in Ukrainian, is a derogatory term used to describe the old Soviet factory workers.

His mother is Russian and his father is Ukrainian. He wants to remain here in Donetsk, but no longer wants to be part of Ukraine.

Memories of the pain between his legs and under his nails still haunt him.

Andrey was a prisoner of war on the Ukrainian side and was tortured.

"A lot of soldiers who were captured have "post traumatic stress disorder" and if I start talking about this with you too much, everything will come flooding back and I'll have to go to the psychologist," he manages to say in a strained voice.

Earlier, during our adrenaline rush at the front, he told me about how he was kicked in the testicles and had needles jammed under his nails. Now, without the adrenaline, it is too much for him.

Nevertheless, he shows me a video in which images flash by – the palm of a hand with branding marks on it and an arm embellished with letters that have been carved in with a knife.

The sky lights up, gunfire flies across it and the ground shakes.

The sorrow that occurs in war, the world you no longer recognise, the fear, the hate, the red carnations and the girl on the mound of soil, do not flash by quite as quickly.

Andrey calls me one evening and tells me that there has been a Grad rocket attack on the airport. Artillery that indiscriminately wipes out buildings, roads, people. That leaves behind burnt out façades, twisted steel and gaping windows like hungry mouths with teeth of broken glass.

The sky is pitch black as we approach. I have brought Ivan with me, the only person who does not think he has already used up all of his nine lives.

We stop a short distance from the front line and I stand under a canopy by a deserted building. A car approaches, rap music pounding loudly despite the windows being closed. "Hey guys, there must be something wrong with the bass."

There is nothing wrong with the bass.

The sky lights up, gunfire flies across it and the ground shakes. Afterwards there is a smell of gunpowder. That is not the smell of a ceasefire.

"Ukraine, you don't hear about that these days. Are things stable there now?"

When we return to Donetsk, the streets are deserted. There is a nighttime curfew. Ivan notes, cynically, "The good thing about curfews is that you can do whatever you want; transport weapons and men without anyone seeing."

Several people have said that things are escalating. Ivan shrugs his shoulders. The world stopped listening a long time ago.

"Time will tell," I say.

"The autopsy will tell," says Ivan.

"Daddy, I want to come with you. Can I come over to you?"

Translator: Laura Åkerblom