DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine — The familiar thump! thump! thump! of shelling a few kilometers away is suddenly broken by the staccato rat-a-tat-tat-tat! of automatic gunfire. We all stop, crouch a little, and look around.
“That is a new sound,” says Arkady Nesterenko, our TV/radio journalist companion from Belarus.
We all laugh. He’s right, the gunfire is a new sound, and a troubling one. It means our 700-kilometre journey from Kyiv to this area has taken us deeper toward the fighting most of us have only seen on TV or the internet.
The five of us — two volunteers bringing supplies to Ukrainian troops, two journalists and a journalist/interpreter — are just outside this town of Debaltseve in Donetsk oblast, near the border with the region of Luhansk. Dusk is descending like a comforting quilt, obscuring the nearby tank, concrete barriers, sandbagged bunker and armed Ukrainian soldiers as they check our papers on this rural road. We have been through this many times before. But the checkpoints now are closer together, the inspections tougher, to control the movement of people and materials.
Our driver and co-leader is Sergey Golub, a 45-year-old former staff sergeant in the Soviet army. Tall, lanky and likeable, he looks like a movie star and drives like Mario Andretti. Serious about helping the soldiers, he nevertheless likes a joke. After inviting me to drive the van for a while, he quips: “We have a saying in Ukraine: the driver pays for the gas.”
Sergey and his friend Valerii, who shares the driving and owns this 2010 Opel Vivaro CDTI van, are veterans of the EuroMaidan Revoluton in Kyiv last winter, when hundreds of thousands of people demanded democracy and rule of law in Ukraine and closer ties to the European Union. A man was shot and killed beside Sergey Feb. 20, when numerous protesters fell from gunfire, believed to be from either state security personnel or Russian snipers in high-rise apartments.
The demonstrations by all ages and sectors of Ukrainian society (they were started by students) prompted former president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia, and Sergey was pleased. Like many here, he reviles the man for his corruption (padding his own pockets and those of friends and wasting public money) and for turning away from an association agreement with the European Union, seen as the lynchpin for progress in this debt-ridden state. Yanukovych was taking Ukraine closer into Moscow’s prickly embrace when the people said no.
Sergey and Valerii’s joy at his departure was short-lived, for the separatist unrest in this region began shortly after the president fled, and it soon became an armed conflict with the army. But the army here is not like Canada’s, where the government supplies most of the things a soldier needs. Here, the many volunteer battalions, and even to a degree the conscripted ones, must provide much of their own food, weapons, and clothing.
This is where Sergey, Valerii and hundreds of other brave people found a new raison d’etre: collecting, packaging and delivering tonnes of materials monthly for the soldiers at the front. These include vital medical supplies such as painkillers for local hospitals flush with the injured.
Some volunteers, like Sergey and Valerii, work on their own, establishing personal military and civilian contacts to keep the flow of supplies moving. This trip is their 14th journey east.
Others serve through established groups such as Narodnye Tyl (which roughly translated means “People’s Support”). Co-founders Roman Siuieyu and Georgi Tuka found space in Kyiv and set up an office and supply depot. It delivers three to four van or truck loads of clothing, army gear (such as five bullet-proof Kevlar helmets from a Ukrainian ex-pat in the U.S.) and medical supplies to the troops each week. About 30 volunteers serve here. Donations of money and materials come in from all over the world but mainly Europe and North America, and chiefly via Facebook. “I cannot imagine not doing this,” says Julia Goncharova, who manages the group’s medical donations and works 12-hour days. “The soldiers call us angels; they say they wouldn’t survive without us.”
Back at the checkpoint, Sergey makes his case to the soldier. “We are volunteers,” he tells the armed young man inspecting his papers as another round of thump! thump! thump! reverberates in the distance.
“Do you have any warm clothes?”
“Yes,” Sergey says, “we will get you some.”
He and Valerii go to the back of the van and dispense gloves, toques, socks – and a large warm coat. The soldier, who looks about 19, smiles in gratitude and soon three others mill about and inspect the precious winter attire. It is cold even now, in mid-October, near freezing.
The soldier says thanks, returns our papers and passports, and moves us along.
Valerii also sits up front, with little Arkady, 31, between them. He works for Belsat TV, which operates from Poland but is run by people from Belarus. In the back are myself, a Canadian freelance reporter, and my invaluable Ukrainian interpreter/fixer, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, 27, a businessman and former medical researcher and PhD student who studied in Finland before the EU cut his funding. Ievgenii got a big break there when asked to interview Finland’s foreign minister.
Valerii, a salesman and solid type who likes to smoke, cracks a joke and chuckles with the rest of them. It is too much for Ievgenii to translate every exchange, and I don’t ask for this one. Besides, the meaning is clear in any language: relief that we passed another barricade without incident and helped a few more men.
This scenario is often repeated. Only the faces change, and the circumstances.
Twenty minutes earlier we had come across a heavily damaged bridge over a railway. Somehow Sergey maneuvered the van across it, and I opened the side door and took two photos as we passed, not knowing there was a checkpoint ahead. The soldiers there were curt and suspicious, ordering us out of the van and giving Sergey a hard time over a multi-tool he carries. “It is a handy tool!” he says. “Look, we are volunteers, and these men are journalists. You can see the PRESS sign in our window.”
After some delay and hassle in the cold we are finally permitted to proceed. Valerii turns in his seat and looks at me over his left shoulder. “It is because you took pictures from the moving van,” he says.
“That is my job,” I reply. “That is why I am here.”
As darkness becomes complete, the high-beam lights of our red Opel reveal pothole after pothole. The van bounces and careers as Sergey speeds over the broken pavement. Sleep is impossible because of the rough ride.
“I know why the rebels are fighting,” I tell Ievgenii. “They want better roads.”
He smiles at the attempt at a joke. But it is only partly a joke. One of the separatists’ complaints is that the people in this region pay taxes but don’t see the benefits they desire. Bad roads, failing infrastructure, lack of other amenities – these are the things that hit home when people don’t feel part of a national fabric. When Ukraine became independent in 1991 it retained the centralized authority of the Soviet era in an effort to build a strong new state. But the cost has been dissatisfaction in some of the outlying regions, just as certain parts of Canada still complain about insufficient federal funding.
It doesn’t help that many of the people here have friends and family living across the border in nearby Russia. Propaganda from Russia says their lives would be better if they rejoined the motherland. Ukraine was once an important part of the Soviet Union, rich in coal and agricultural products, so the ties of culture, ethnicity, language and history are strong.
At 9:30 p.m. we roll into the city of Artemivsk, population 78,000. We are just north of the city of Donetsk, where fighting over control of the airport makes regular headlines.
Artemivsk is a beautiful old city, a cultural centre, I learn later on the internet. But now all I see are darkened streets, modest brick houses, bleak metal roofing glinting in the moon light. We don’t know where we will sleep, and Sergey has an idea. The hospital. It has beds and we will use five of them, in exchange for some medical supplies.
After a 30-minute wait in the regional hospital’s parking lot we are ushered inside. The four-storey building is decades old but warm. Ievgenii and I are placed in one room, with four Ukrainian soldiers, bandaged and forlorn looking. Our colleagues bunk elsewhere.
I grab the only bed with a multi-colored comforter and place my bags upon it as the soldiers, dressed in camouflage green garb, look on. Then Sergey walks in with three bottles of beer! I had joked earlier about needing a beer, as “Canadians like their beer,” I said, and Ukrainian brews are tasty and cheap.
Ievgenii declines his bottle and I pass it to the nearest soldier, who is blond and 25. He smiles as he opens it. His friends are on antibiotics and cannot drink at the moment, he says. Then he makes a toast as our bottles clink.
“To the war ending soon,” he says.
Mr. Bird is a Canadian journalist and former staff writer with the Winnipeg Free Press.