KIEV — The war in eastern Ukraine, which began two years ago, has largely faded from the world's headlines. But the fighting rages on, with an estimated 10,000 people killed so far, and another 2 million who have fled their homes in the conflict pitting the Ukrainian government against Russian-backed separatists.
Artem, a Ukrainian businessman of Armenian origins, says he's confident that Ukraine will be able to recapture the rebel-held regions of Donetsk and Luhansk — and maybe even Crimea, annexed by Russia two years ago. "It's possible to defeat an army, but not a people. This is why Russia will never beat us," he declares.
Artem owns a warehouse in Yahotyn, a town 500 kilometers to the east of Kiev and a frequent stop for convoys heading to the front. "Around 120 pass by every month," he says.
The convoys carry all kinds of goods eastwards from the capital, including food, clothes, and medicine. Aid arrives from all over the world, slowly trickling into Kiev where it's sorted by volunteers on marshrutkas, local minibus taxis that transport the goods to their destination.
With a reporter riding along, Yuri Moskalenko has filled his Volkswagen car with cases of homemade Kalashnikov silencers and jars of salo, a type of salted pig fat high in nutrients that can also be used to grease tracks. Yuri alternates at the steering wheel with Yulia Zabrova. Inseparable from her guitar, Yulia plays Ukrainian patriotic songs for people all along the front, from muddy trenches to hospitals and makeshift shelters.
The convoy travels non-stop for eleven hours before checkpoints begin to appear, marking the beginning of the rebel-held region of Donbass. Motorists slow down as they approach, shouting "Slavic Ukraine, glory to Ukraine!" at the soldiers manning the checkpoint, who promptly lower their guns and let the cars through.
Dodging bomb craters, land mines, and burned-out cars, the convoy arrives at Luhansk to distribute food and medicine to the 93rd battalion. Then it's off to the hills near the city of Debaltseve — captured by rebels last year in a battle that cost almost 2,000 lives — where supplies are distributed to the troops. Abandoned villages dominate the landscape as soldiers dig new trenches and collect wood to keep warm in the coming winter months.
In Shakta Butovka, Ukrainian soldiers live in a crumbling power plant, hiding behind the few pillars left standing for cover. Igor, a young volunteer, left his family in St. Petersburg in Russia to enlist in the Ukrainian army. "When Russia attacked its brother I had no choice, I came to defend Ukraine," he says. He says he's hardly the only Russian to fight on the opposite side. "This war will be a long one because it was wrong to deal with the terrorists," he says.
Fighters come from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and further afield. "There are no party, ideological, or religious divisions between us," says Marina Danilova of Pomaigitie Armja, a group that supports soldiers. "We're all defending Ukraine side-by-side, soldiers and civilians alike. Everyone does what they can, that's the spirit of Maidan," she says, referring to the Kiev revolution that unseated former President Viktor Yanukovych before the war began.
Rebel artillery shells have laid waste to the outskirts of Avdiivka, sparing only an industrial complex owned by a pro-Russian oligarch from Donetsk. Further north in Sloviansk, which endured three months of rebel occupation twp years ago, the enormous Lenin statue dominating the town square has been replaced with the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and recently opened bars and restaurants breathe new life into the city center. But rampant inflation has created long lines at cash machines, where citizens can, at most, withdraw the equivalent of $16 a day.
The mood darkens in Kurakhove, a strategic city with a coal plant that provides energy to the rebels. There are no Ukrainian flags in the streets here, where relations between Ukrainian and Russian-speakers are at a low. Despite the tensions, Kurakhove's position at the gates of rebel territory has made it an attractive destination for hundreds of rebel fighters seeking supplies across the would-be "border." The desperation for much-needed supplies in the east has created a thriving black market here, primarily in weapons and narcotics.
Taking a break near Stachanov — Photo: Roberto Travan/La Stampa
In the Donetsk suburb of Marinka, commander Vyacheslav Vlasenko eyes his target. "We could take the city in four days but Kiev won't make a decision," he says. Retaking Donetsk while keeping its 1.5 million residents safe will not be an easy task. His men dig trenches lining the stream that surrounds the town to defend themselves from sneak attacks at night and rebel snipers.
Volunteers continue to aid people living near the conflict zone. In Opytne, Baba Raya and her husband refuse to leave their home even after it was hit twice by the rebels. "This is our land, the heart of our existence and our family," she says. In Zaytsevo, volunteers use four-wheel-drive vehicles to reach soldiers and residents scattered in the buffer zone that separates it from rebel-held Gorlivka.
Vasili Budjk, a former officer for the Ukrainian army, was captured and held by the rebels. "They tortured me for three months but I didn't break," he says, a brand new AK-47 slung over his shoulder. "This is a dirty war but we'll win it."
Though he was set free in a prisoner exchange, some of his men were executed, and he became a national hero upon his release. Now he works as a high-level negotiator for the Defense ministry in Sloviansk to recover his countrymen still held by rebels.
"We will bring them all back," says Vasili. "No one will be abandoned: this is the spirit of Maidan."