Life on the frontline of the Ukraine conflict

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January 14, 2015 by Bill Johnson


83fd22d2-c2d4-41fa-8d29-bdb4cf54e4d8-2060x1236Mykhaylo Vasilyev is retired and lives in Luhansk
Luhansk used to be poetically called ‘the city of fountains and roses’. Now it is the city of downcast faces. Sad, downcast, emaciated. And very tired – tired of having no money, mass unemployment, poverty and damaged homes, constant problems with electricity, water, heating, and telephones. But most of all, tired from the loss of hope.

Gloomy people are very cautiously buying groceries. And gloomy clerks are sympathetically measuring out 50g of cheese or liverwurst, packing two or three cracked eggs into a plastic bag (they are cheaper and so in great demand), or weighing out a single frozen chicken wing.

They categorically refuse to accept change. Change has become the subject of fierce arguments. A cashier in one downtown grocery angrily said they have several hundred thousand hryvnyas in change in their basement and they can’t get rid of it.

A smile in Luhansk has become a rare thing, like a dandelion in winter

The same is true of the 100 hryvnya (£4.16) notes with the little portrait of Taras Shevchenko that were given to many pensioners on the eve of the “elections” in the “Luhansk People’s Republic”. They, it is said, are no longer valid, banks don’t take them. And so stores and traders don’t either. Retirees are unhappy, upset. They swear a lot, but they don’t threaten to file a complaint. There is no one and nowhere to complain to.

Not a single bank in Luhansk is open for business. Recently the last Sberbank offices shut their doors. There are long lines at the bank machines despite the cold.

Now lines are forming at internet providers. The infrastructure is damaged and express connections are going for 150 hyrvnyas, which not everyone can afford. A window on the world has closed, one that enabled people to watch Ukrainian television. In Luhansk, they only broadcast Russian, Crimean, and Belarusian television. A door has closed to a world in which heroes are called heroes, terrorists are called terrorists, mercenaries are called mercenaries, and occupiers are called occupiers. And the latter are not portrayed as angels with shining halos.

Many Luhansk residents who were formerly quite chatty have turned to silence

After 4pm, it is better not to leave your home unless you have to. Offices and businesses unofficially close even around lunch time. Grocery stores that formerly were open around the clock, close at 5pm. Why should they stay open when there are no customers? Even in the daytime, there aren’t many. As evening comes, it is scary to walk down the dark, deserted streets.

The faces of the pensioners are particularly gloomy. At 6am, in the dark and the cold, they are trying to cram themselves into packed buses to go to Lisichansk or Starobelsk to collect their pensions. One of my neighbours has already traveled to Izyum four times, but still hasn’t got his pension – some sort of issue with his documents. But he doesn’t complain and maintains a gloomy silence. When I ask him about it, he turns and walks away.

Complaining is not allowed these days. And in general many Luhansk residents who were formerly quite chatty have turned to silence. They might comment on the weather, but no one is speaking about politics, about the economy, about the state of affairs in the city. Even within the circle of their old friends or former colleagues. Who knows? A word is not a swallow that will fly away – many people are recalling 1937 and the black vans that collected the condemned. Shadows, they say, come at midnight.

In short, Luhansk, under the LPR, has become a city of downcast faces. How long must a person live in peace before that expression is washed away? And does it wash away entirely?

Read more: Life on the frontline of the Ukraine conflict

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