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Dispatch from Donbas. The closer to the border, the less fear

For those people who live in Donbas, the war has been taking place already for eight years now. They have learnt to live with it, even if not everybody has managed to rid themselves of the trauma since 2014.

February 15, 2022 - Iwona Reichardt - Hot TopicsIssue 1-2 2022Magazine

A ruined house in a village located along the contact line in eastern Ukraine. A grim reminder of the 2014 war. Photo: Iwona Reichardt

At the time when I received an invitation from the Ukrainian Academy of Press to join a group of international journalists on a tour to Donbas, Polish and foreign internet was becoming paralysed with more and more information on Vladimir Putin’ s plans, the massive build-up on the Russian-Ukrainian border and diplomatic tensions at the highest level. Specialists on the region have been living and breathing these developments 24 hours a day, as evidenced by their constant presence in traditional and social media.

The amount of information that they share with us is so vast that the so-called Average Joe has probably no choice but to get lost in figuring out who has and who will soon meet with Putin. And indeed, the list of those willing to meet with the president of the Russian Federation is long and constantly updated. The only clear piece of information that emerges from the media is that the spectre of war hangs over Ukraine.

Foreign journalist expedition

If there is war, it might not necessarily be over Ukraine, but everything will start in Ukraine. For this reason crowds of journalists, not only from Poland, are rushing to Kyiv to report first-hand on the mood and what is going on there. I was one of them. On my flight to Kyiv at the end of January 2022, I was joined by a French TV crew whom I later see reporting from the front of Hotel Ukraina, an ideal place to view the entirety of the city’s main square, the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the site of the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. For that reason the hotel is one of the main accommodations for international journalists who at such breakthrough moments as revolution or war, come to Kyiv en masse. The whole spectrum of media representatives and their cameramen fill up the hotel lobby and the breakfast bar on the second floor.

The mass presence of foreign journalists in Donbas, in the east of Ukraine, also comes up in my conversation with Piotr Andrusieczko, a Polish journalist with Gazeta Wyborcza but also contributor to New Eastern Europe whom I met in Severodonietsk, a post-industrial city which is now the acting capital of the Luhansk region. Andrusieczko, who has been covering the war since 2014 and for which he was awarded the title of Journalist of the Year in Poland, has many local contacts and a military press pass which allows him to get to the frontline. However, even for him, many meetings have been cancelled since the demand for conducting interviews with military personnel is so high. In such cases, expectedly, the biggest outlets get the priority. Nobody says no to CNN or the BBC.

The Ukrainian army and local authorities, although fully aware of the importance of media messages sent to western societies, have to first and foremost concentrate their efforts on territorial defence and local communities. They are also fully aware that unlike in the media where information about the war sells and brings huge profits to owners, it brings no material benefits to those who are on the ground. On the contrary, its outcome includes destruction and death. And the mass exodus of people.

Indeed, since 2014 around half a million people have left the Donetsk region and over 100,000 have left the territory of the Luhansk region. Many of these people will never return, even though modernisation processes are under way and speeding into high gear. They have been taking place not only thanks to the efforts of the authorities in Kyiv, but also with huge financial support from international donors. The latter have been investing not only in physical infrastructure, especially roads, but also many social, community-oriented projects. For example, in the Luhansk region alone over 11 billion hryvnias (almost 350,000 euros) have been spent on reconstruction work. With this money 460 kilometres of roads have been built, while another 560 km will be reconstructed this year. Ten schools, preschools and sport clubs have also been opened to the public. There is a swimming people and a new hospital, as well as social housing for IDPs and those who lost their homes as a result of the war.

Here there is civilisation

The first deputy head of the Luhansk Regional State Administration, Oleksiy Smirnov, boasts that thanks to these investments his region is no longer just existing but developing. Last year it even got the third position in the national ranking of the fastest developing regions in Ukraine. His story about the modernisation progress concludes with a quote of a statement that he apparently heard at the check-point and which was uttered by a person who was coming into Ukraine from the occupied territory. It went as follows: “Here there is civilisation”.

Changes for the better can indeed be spotted with the naked eye, possibly even from the Kremlin – certainly Putin does not welcome such processes. And in a modernising Ukraine, it will be much more difficult to convince Ukrainians that the eastern direction is better for them. It is clear that a pro-western thinking is now slowly starting to take root here, where the pro-Russian sentiments were always the strongest. This trend is confirmed by sociological research which shows that a large majority of the society supports Ukraine’s membership in the European Union and support for NATO is also growing.

The pro-integration – or in other words pro-Ukrainian and pro-western – message is also directed towards those who live on the occupied territories, in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics. Kyiv’s policy towards this region reveals some similarities to South Korea’s Sunshine Policy towards the North – which assumes that through positive economic and social interactions the two Korean states will become reunited. This policy of soft “attracting” to the Ukrainian state in Donetsk and Luhansk region includes, for example, provision of infrastructure services to people who live in the self-proclaimed republics, paying their pensions with money from the Ukrainian state coffer and also medical assistance at the so-called check-points where Ukraine offers free PCR tests and COVID-19 vaccines to those living in the occupied territories.

War is already here

At the time when I was leaving Ukraine I did not know whether, despite a large amount of meetings with people from different places and areas, the escalation will take place. And if yes, in what form? The question about the latter seems the most tiring to our speakers, especially when we were asking “When will the war break out?”. Obviously, they understand that this is what has been on the minds of the whole western world, from Warsaw to San Francisco. Yet, for the people who live in Donbas the war has been taking place for eight years now. They have learnt to live with it, even if not everybody has managed to rid themselves of the trauma from 2014 and despite the loud shellings that wake them up at night.

“The closer to the border, the less fear”, we were told by Oleksiy Babchenko, a defender of the Donetsk Airport in 2014 and now head of the military and civil administration in Hirske, a locality whose territory is in direct contact with the occupied territory of the Luhansk region. Indeed, when we met two teenage girls (age 13) in front of the village shop, it was clear to me that they were more excited to get their pictures published online than answer our questions as to whether their parents had already prepared everything in case of the war.  

Iwona Reichardt is the deputy editor in chief of New Eastern Europe. She participated in a special study tour to Donbas organised for international journalists by the Ukrainian Academy of Press.

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