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Southern Lebanon
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I boarded a minivan for the short journey down to Sidon, Lebanon’s third city. Southern Lebanon must be one of the least secure regions in the world, repeatedly buffeted by the conflicts of its neighbours, flooded by refugees, pummelled by civil war. The threat of future conflict forever hangs over it. The most recent serious clash in Sidon was in 2013, when fighting broke out between Hezbollah and followers of a firebrand Sunni cleric, mirroring the bloody war over the border in Syria. The fighting was put down by the Lebanese army in a short conflict that killed dozens of people. Sidon has a significant Sunni majority, as well as smaller Shia Muslim and Christian populations.

Yet when I arrived, all appeared calm and normal in the bustling streets of Sidon. Once again I was struck by the resilience of the Lebanese people, who always seem to bounce back from whatever the world throws at them. Sidon’s central historical district is beautiful. The stone buildings lining the narrow streets of the Souks were in a good state of repair. Whatever damage the town had suffered, the renovation had been carried out sensitively. It might have helped that the late prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, came from Sidon. The Hariri family have continued to be powerful in Lebanese business and politics, Rafiq Hariri’s son Saad also becoming prime minister. The Hariri foundation has been actively involved in renovating Sidon.

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Sea Castle, Sidon

Among the fine old buildings of Sidon is the Khan el Franj, Khan of the French, built in the 17th century to accommodate French merchants. It is a fine example of a typical khan, a courtyard surrounded by an arched gallery. The beautiful, and wonderfully renovated Debbané Palace is as fine an example of Arab-Ottoman architecture as you could hope to find, with its arches intricately decorated with geometric patterns, and its magnificent carved wooden ceiling. The Sea Castle, built by Crusaders in the 13th Century, stands like a dreamy ruin in the bay, a wonderful backdrop for a delicious seafood lunch by the sea. But there is poverty in Sidon too. I visited another khan, tumbledown and overgrown. Yet people lived there in squalid makeshift homes with corrugated iron roofs, with rubbish strewn around.

From Sidon, I continued south to Tyre. Tyre, or Sour in Arabic, is another ancient Phoenician city, and had also seen periods of rule by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders and Ottomans. Its archaeological remains are among the most impressive in Lebanon, though not on the grand scale of Baalbek. There are two main sites, including collonaded streets, a triumphal Roman arch, an enormous hippodrome, and a necropolis with dozens of stone tombs, the finest of which have been moved to the National Museum in Beirut.

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Triumphal arch, Tyre

Like Sidon, Tyre has suffered terribly from repeated warfare. The population is predominantly Shia, with a Christian minority and a large Palestinian refugee camp. The town, together with a slice of territory in southern Lebanon, was occupied by Israel after its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and then by the Christian-dominated and Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. In 2006, Tyre again suffered serious damage during the war with Israel. The war damage in the old city centre is in places more evident than in Sidon. It was not possible to enter the sprawling Palestinian camp, but from the outside the shabby poverty of the place, with its makeshift buildings, was evident.

Yet despite its repeated trials, life has picked up in Tyre. The old town, divided between Muslim and Christian districts, bustles with life. I enjoyed drinking Turkish coffee outside a little café on the Christian side of the picturesque little harbour. Like other seafront cafés in Tyre, the interior, with its vaulted ceiling, may once have been a warehouse. I tried to ask the owners what the building had been in the past, but they replied that it had been a café. Tyre has glorious sandy beaches. Even in March I was able to enjoy swimming in the sea. There are rough-and-ready seaside restaurants, in one of which I spent a delightful sunny afternoon eating fried fish and green beans.

The Palestinian refugee camps in Tyre and elsewhere in Lebanon are long-established, with new generations born and raised in them. Now there are hundreds of thousands of new refugees from the war in Syria. Many live in rented accommodation. I was told it is often very poor and inadequate, in unfinished houses, garages and warehouses. Others live in camps made up of temporary buildings built out of thick plastic sheets spread over wooden or metal frames. They usually have concrete bases, but the facilities are very meagre. The Lebanese government does not allow anything more substantial to be built, as it does not want to acknowledge that these Syrian refugees may have any long-term, let alone permanent presence in Lebanon. It does not want them to become settled. Their reluctance is understandable. This small country has over decades accepted numbers of refugees that would horrify any European country. It has been deluged and destabilised by refugees, and driven into civil war by refugees. Amid all the controversy over refugees and asylum seekers in Europe, people might think of the enormous burden with which Lebanon has been encumbered.

I visited three of the camps, all in the restricted zone in the south of the country, close to the Israeli border. We stopped at a viewing point overlooking the border fences into Israel. UN troops from Indonesia stood around chatting to one another. Over the fences, on the Israeli side, were trimly planted fields and neat little settlements. I was told that Palestinian refugees sometimes came to this viewing point to gaze longingly at their lost land.

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Refugee camp, southern Lebanon

The camps I visited all consisted of similar plastic homes, made with materials provided by the UN. Simple outside toilets had been provided. In one smaller camp, the residents had tried to make their homes as homely as possible, planting flower and vegetable beds. A larger camp was more depressing, with piles of burnt rubbish. Disposal of rubbish was a problem, I was told. The UN was not paying for its removal, and the authorities were not taking responsibility. Hence residents were turning to bonfires. Other problems included the difficulty for children to access schools from these remote camps, given that parents could not afford transportation. We spoke with a couple of families. A lady from a village near Raqqa offered us delicious herbal tea. Even in such circumstances, norms of hospitality were observed. One of her concerns was the registration of newly born children. If they wanted them registered in Syria, someone had to make the journey back, despite the dangers.

We were invited into one of the homes. Inside it was surprisingly cosy. The home was sub-divided into different rooms. There were mats and cushions around the walls. They had a refrigerator and a television set. There was a stove with a chimney to provide warmth in winter. I was told that conditions in such temporary shelters were often better than in the rented accommodation that many other families endured. But the hopelessness of the people was depressing. Nothing to do, the lack of any future perspective either here in Lebanon or back home in Syria. This is the lot of refugees. Those that had the means might risk the journey to Europe. These people were stuck, nowhere to go, in a country that did not want them. They were not taking to boats for Europe or streaming across European borders. As a result, few people really cared about them.

Faded glory in Baalbek
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I wanted to go to Baalbek, in northern Lebanon. Some of the most impressive Roman ruins anywhere are situated there. The modern town is interesting too, a stronghold of the Shia Hezbollah party and militia. But there was a lot of discouragement. The UK Foreign Office website recommended against going there, except on essential business. Baalbek is close to the Syrian frontier, and there had been fears that the civil war there might spread across the border. The annual Baalbek cultural festival had been moved elsewhere in 2013, due to the perceived security threat, although it had subsequently returned. I had hoped to travel directly from Tripoli, over the mountains. That proved impossible, as snowfall had blocked the mountain road. So instead I travelled south, along the coast, to Beirut, and then took a minivan up to Baalbek. The road from Beirut rises steeply up over Mount Lebanon, and then follows the Bekaa Valley, actually a high plateau to the east of the Mount Lebanon range. The region had been under Syrian occupation until 2005. Now Baalbek enjoys an uneasy peace while next-door Syria burns.


Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

I arrived in Baalbek in the middle of a warm, sunny March day. Snow still capped the mountains to the west of the town. I quickly made for the Roman remains, which are indeed magnificent. The scale is astounding. The site of the Temple of Jupiter is vast, and must have awed visitors in its day. The smaller, but still immense Temple of Bacchus is much better preserved, and impresses also due to the exquisite detail of its craftmanship. I found it baffling that the Romans chose to build on such a vast scale, bigger by far than anything in Rome, and with such quality, in this of all places? What was it about this region that they felt the need to impress so?

Baalbek also boasts fine buildings of more recent provenance, including tall, square Ottoman-era buildings with high arched windows and balconies. But the greatest gem is the Palmyra Hotel. Built in the 1870s by a Greek merchant from Istanbul, The Palmyra has in its day hosted kings, presidents, writers, artists and musicians. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany visited in 1898, when he planned an excavation of the archaeological site. Other heads of state who visited included Ataturk, King Faisal of Iraq, King Abdullah I of Jordan and Charles de Gaulle. One of the staff showed me the room where de Gaulle stayed.

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Inside the Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek

Today the hotel is a shadow of what it once was. The rooms are plain, the bathrooms shabby. It is no luxury hotel. But having been left largely alone, not renovated for decades, it preserves the atmosphere, the elegance of another era. In the chilly evenings (the temperature drops significantly in Baalbek in March, given its altitude), I sat in the upstairs vestibule, outside de Gaulle’s room, surrounded by period furniture, enjoying the warmth of the oil fire that an elderly staff member lit for me. Most of the rooms were unoccupied, and few staff remain. I was mostly looked after by two elderly gentlemen who had probably been there for decades. I had initially thought they were one man, for they looked like they might have been brothers. I spoke with one of them in French, and only realised they were two different men when the other, who spoke to me in English, informed me that he could not speak French. Probably the time will come when someone will renovate the place, and turn it into the luxury hotel it could be and which probably its pedigree merits. For myself, I was very happy to have stayed there in its current, slightly shabby but enormously atmospheric state. I don’t think I have ever stayed in a more special hotel.

Baalbek is a predominantly Shia town, although there are also Sunni and Christian minorities. It had been afflicted by war. During the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Baalbek, as a Hezbollah stronghold, was bombed by the Israelis, destroying much important infrastructure. Israeli troops carried out a raid on the town, apparently in the belief that two captured Israeli soldiers were being held there.

With an election approaching, the town was filled with party political banners and flags. Hezbollah, the Party of God, is said to be dominant here, but I also saw many flags of Amal, a rival Shia outfit. Amal also formed one of the civil-war militias, but it is now in alliance with Hezbollah. Outside the entrance to the archaeological site, souvenir stalls offered Hezbollah T-shirts, featuring the Hezbollah flag, with a figure holding a rifle in the air. I chatted with a young Hezbollah-supporting shopkeeper. Times were hard, he said. Because of the conflict in Syria, few tourists were coming to Baalbek. He had been anxious about the close proximity of IS terrorists just a few kilometres away. But thankfully there had been no attacks in Baalbek.

Among the mosques in Baalbek is a relatively new Shia one, very much in the style of Hezbollah’s Iranian patron, with a wide entrance arch, and covered with blue and green tiles and Arabic calligraphy. The worrisome security situation is indicated by the metal fence surrounding the mosque, and the iron-girder tank traps. It was the only sign I saw in Baalbek that all was not quite normal. Otherwise, the atmosphere appeared reasonably relaxed. On a warm Sunday afternoon, at a park on the edge of town, people sat outside cafes and smoked hookahs, while children ate candyfloss and took rides in the toy motor cars.

That Sunday morning there was a political rally in the town, for Hezbollah and its allies. Chairs were set up before the Temple of Bacchus, surely the most dramatic backdrop for a rally I had ever seen. It was a polite affair, as people sat quietly and listened to the speeches. Particularly striking was that men and women were all jumbled up, not segregated, and that not all the women present were wearing hijab. I chatted with a couple of men who happily pointed out which parties the different banners belonged to. It all seemed very normal, apart from the backdrop, much like political rallies I have attended in many countries in Europe. The atmosphere was in stark contrast to the march I had seen in Tripoli, with its strict segregation of the sexes, the women all with billowing abayas, their faces covered.

I enjoyed my short stay in Baalbek. Everywhere I went, I was treated kindly, from the delightful staff at the Palmyra Hotel, to the pastry shopkeepers who would not accept payment for their delicious sweet cakes (I think it was normal to buy them by the dozen rather than singly). As in Beirut, I was struck by the resilience of people who have come through repeated wars, and yet carry on, surviving, and even smiling.

Tripoli, Lebanon
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Continuing my journey north along the coast, I arrived in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city. Tripoli was much less damaged during the civil war than Beirut and cities further south. But the city has continued to be troubled since the end of the war, with repeated outbreaks of violence. Tripoli is an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim city, with Christian and Alawite minorities. The repeated clashes have mostly involved the Sunni and Alawite communities, especially in two neighbouring districts of the city. The Alawites had long been marginalised and oppressed under Sunni Ottoman rule, but their position was much strengthened during the French mandate in Lebanon. During the civil war, Tripoli’s Alawites aligned with the Syrian occupiers, and fought with them against the Sunni Tawheed militia. Clashes erupted again in 2008 and in 2011, with the onset of the war in neighbouring Syria. As the Alawite-dominated Assad regime in Syria, supported by Shia Iran and the Shia Hezbollah militia from Lebanon, fought insurgencies by groups mainly drawn from Syria’s Sunni majority, there were fears that Syria’s war might spill over into Lebanon.

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Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles

Fears about Tripoli’s security have left their mark on the city. Few tourists visit. My host, a local journalist, told me that the Alawite district had been disarmed by the army, and that it was now fully under control. Indeed, I felt quite relaxed as I walked around the city. An election campaign was in full swing. Huge posters of Sunni leaders, including one of the Saudi Crown Prince, looked down on a small square on the edge of the medieval souks. After Friday prayers, a demonstration set off from the Mansouri Great Mosque. Strictly segregated between men and niqab-wearing women, their black banners with white calligraphy looked disturbingly like those of the so-called Islamic State. My host assured me that, while conservative, this group was non-violent and nothing to do with IS.

Like most towns in Lebanon, Tripoli has a rich history, with different rulers all leaving their mark. Crusaders ruled here for nearly 200 years in the 12th and 13th centuries. They built the huge Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles on a hill dominating the old town. It has been rebuilt more than once since then, and above the main entrance is an engraving from the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, who ordered its restoration in the 16th century. The medieval Souks date from the decades after Tripoli’s conquest by the Egyptian Mamluks in 1289. Like many middle eastern Souks, they are a warren of narrow streets, crowded with little shops, market sellers and eateries. Navigating was difficult. The Souks are rather shabby, and in places dilapidated, but atmospheric. But wandering the alleyways, I would suddenly find myself walking below vaulted ceilings or past the entrances of medieval mosques or madrassas.

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Mansouri Great Mosque

Most impressive is the Mansouri Mosque. Built by the Mamluks, its entrance and minaret are thought to be remnants of the earlier cathedral the Crusaders had built on the site. The minaret may have been the bell tower. Stepping through the entrance, out of the bustle of the Souks, you enter the peace of a large courtyard, with a domed fountain in the middle, where worshipers wash their feet before praying. There are several khans in the Souks area. Most interesting is the 16th century Khan as-Saboun, the Soap Khan. From the 18th century, Tripoli became known for its high-quality soap production, the centre of which was here.

Not far from the Souks is a district built during the later Ottoman period. At its centre is the clock tower, which has been renovated with Turkish help in 1992 and again in 2016. Around the square and in the streets fanning out from it are tall 19th century buildings, with ornate balconies.

One of the most beautiful buildings in Tripoli is the 14th century Taynal Mosque, a little distance away from the city centre. Built on the site of an earlier Carmelite church, it preserves part of the nave in the outer prayer hall. Recycled Egyptian columns topped by Roman capitals are incorporated into the structure. The ornate entrance to the main prayer hall, with its alternating black and white stones, typical of Tripoli, and geometric patterns, is particularly lovely.

Byblos
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A short distance north of Beirut, along the coast, is the little town of Byblos, or Jbail in Arabic. There has been a town here for at least 7,000 years, and it is often claimed that Byblos is the oldest continuously-inhabited town in the world. One after another, the great civilisations of the eastern Mediterranean have left their mark here, Phoenician, Egyptian, Persian, Hellenic, Roman, Islamic, Christian. The archaeological site next to the medieval town centre includes remnants of societies and cultures from different periods going back millennia. Some have been moved from one spot to another by archaeologists, to enable the excavation of earlier remains.

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Byblos harbour

There are royal tombs cut in vertical shafts. One of them, the 3,000 year old tomb of King Ahiram, contained a sarcophagus, now in the National Museum in Beirut, with an inscription in the ancient Phoenician alphabet. The earlier “Obelisk temple”, which was moved to enable the excavation of an even older temple underneath, contained numerous small gold-plated bronze figurines, now also in the National Museum, that are a symbol of Byblos. Nearby are the sturdy walls of a later Persian fortress. There is a Roman theatre, and the remains of a Roman fountain.

Hard as it might be to imagine, this little town was also once a favoured destination for the international jet set and their yachts. I stayed in a guesthouse attached to the Fishing Club restaurant, which gives on to the pretty little harbour. In the 1960s, the rich, the famous, the powerful and the glamorous of the world came to enjoy the hospitality of its proprietor, Pepe Abed, a tourism pioneer in Lebanon, who also owned nightclubs in Beirut and Tyre. The walls of the restaurant terrace are covered with photos of the famous guests, Brigitte Bardot, Marlon Brando and David Niven among them, as well as Vaclav Havel, Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl. Alas, since the end of the civil war, the glitterati have not returned to Byblos. In March, when I was there, the restaurant terrace and the harbour were quiet. No yachts in sight.

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Crusader castle, Byblos

Byblos’s population is predominantly Maronite Christian. The 12th century Church of St John the Baptist was built during the town’s period of Crusader rule. The Crusaders also built the impressive fortress which dominates the archaeological site, much of whose masonry came from the Roman buildings that once stood there. The ends of Roman columns can be seen sticking out from the walls.

In addition to a Shia Muslim population, there is also a small Armenian community. I visited the ‘Aram Bezikian’ museum of the orphans of the Armenian genocide, which was opened in 2015, the year of the centenary of the genocide. Among the survivors who in 1915 were marched across Anatolia and Syria, were large numbers of children separated from their families. The building in Byblos that houses the museum was one of the orphanages established to care for them. I had visited the genocide museum in Yerevan a few months earlier (see entry of 25 April 2018). Though on a smaller scale, a visit to the museum in Byblos is also a moving experience. Leading up to the entrance is a row of statues of skinny children seated on the ground, their food bowls in front of them. Inside, exhibits about the life of the Armenian community in Turkey before the genocide, and about the horror of the genocide itself, recall the museum in Yerevan. Upstairs there are exhibits about the humanitarian efforts to care for the orphans. It is estimated that there are around 150,000 Armenians in Lebanon today. There had been more, but many left during the civil war. A young man I spoke to at the museum in Byblos told me they have their own schools and churches. He could, he said, speak both Arabic and Armenian fluently, as well as English.

Resilient Beirut
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From the time I started to become aware of world affairs as a teenager in the mid-1970s, Lebanon was racked by the civil war which lasted until 1990. Even since then, devastation has repeatedly returned to the country due to persistent conflicts with Israel. And Syrian forces occupied swathes of the country until 2005. As I was growing up, Beirut seemed to be a byword for wanton destruction and never-ending hopelessness. What I knew of Lebanon was based on television news footage of the destroyed city. Yet my father, who had spent a year in Lebanon after the Second World War, reminisced about Beirut as a beautiful place.

As a young army officer, he had studied Arabic at the British school at Shemlan, in the mountains close to Beirut. It became notorious as the so-called British ‘spy school’. There may have been something in this. He, like many others who studied there, had been an intelligence officer. But the description was probably over dramatic.

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Place d'Etoile

In earlier times, Beirut had flourished as one of the great cosmopolitan trading cities of the eastern Mediterranean, along with Alexandria, Smyrna and Istanbul. Like in those other cities, different religions rubbed shoulders, Orthodox and Maronite Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze and Jews. Unlike many other such mixed cities, Beirut had not, before the civil war, had defined quarters for different communities. In the city centre, the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque and the Maronite St George Cathedral stand next to each other. Philip Mansel, in his book about the great cities of the Levant, cites the enthusiastic reports of visitors to Beirut in the years before the civil war: “Paradise! Absolute paradise!” It was known as the Paris of the Middle East.

Beirut has largely been rebuilt since the civil war. In the downtown area, new apartment buildings have sprung up, many of them luxurious. The process of rebuilding has not been without controversy. Many accused the company set up by post-civil war Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, to rebuild the city centre of profiting at the expense of the pre-war owners of the land. Much of the modern city that has risen from the ashes gives little impression of the elegant Beirut that earlier visitors had described. The downtown area, around the Place d’Etoile, with its clock tower, has been restored, a kind of declaration that Beirut is back. But it feels a little artificial and soulless. Not here the chaotic hustle and bustle one finds in the livelier districts of the city.

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Beirut Souks

The dilemmas and controversies over Beirut’s post-war reconstruction are evident in the Souks district, not far from the Place d’Etoile. The area, once the commercial heart of the city, had been ravaged by the civil war. Except for a handful of buildings, it was decided to level the whole area and build a new Souks complex, as a shopping and leisure centre. Modern and smart, its architecture may have much merit. But to me it felt rather contrived, out of context, carefully designed, but very different from the bustling, vibrant city one finds away from the downtown area. It brought to my mind the shopping malls I had visited in Dubai a few years earlier.

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The Al-Omari Mosque

At the entrance to the Souks stands a remnant of the pre-war city, a square archway, with a dome on top. A young woman in a nearby tourism office told me she thought it was the remains of a mosque. Many other religious buildings have fared better. In the redevelopment of the city, mosques and churches were more often preserved and renovated. Close by the Souks is the Al-Omari mosque. Built in the 12th century by the crusaders as the Church of St John the Baptist, it was converted into a mosque the following century by its Muslim, Mamluk rulers. The Romanesque architecture, with the apse at one end, clearly indicates its Christian origins. The Mihrab, which points the direction of prayer for Muslims, is situated halfway along the nave. Having been damaged during the war, its reconstruction was completed in 2004. On the other side of the Place d’Etoile is the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque, inaugurated ten years ago, built in the Ottoman style, with slender pointy minarets surrounding a central dome.

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The Martyrs' Monument

The Mohammed al-Amin Mosque looks onto the Martyrs’ Square, named to commemorate Lebanese Arab nationalists executed there in 1916 by the Ottoman authorities. At the square’s centre is the Martyrs’ monument. The square was on the frontline during the civil war. After the end of the war, the monument was restored, but the marks of the war damage, bullet holes in the metal figures, were deliberately retained. The square had once been a central focal point of the city, a transport hub and meeting place, with cafes and cinemas. Today it feels like an empty hole at the heart of the city. But it has also become the place for political protests, notably the massive demonstrations following the murder of Hariri, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country.

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The Holiday Inn, Beirut

War-scarred buildings remain in many parts of the city. The 25-story Holiday Inn, a pock-marked skeleton of a building, remains as a monument to the conflict while its owners squabble over what to do with it. Some other buildings have been kept as they are deliberately, as monuments. Most notable is the Barakat building, built in the 1920s by the wealthy Barakat family. During the civil war it found itself on the frontline, a sniper post at a crossroads known as the ‘intersection of death’. Although badly damaged, the building remained standing. In 2003 it was taken over by the municipality and restored. The façade, disfigured by countless bullets, was left alone, shored up by metal supports. But behind it a new building was erected. Now known as the ‘Beit Beirut’, or House of Beirut, it houses exhibitions of photographs commemorating the life of the city, and especially how it was affected by the civil war.

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Beit Beirut

Walking the streets to the south of the downtown area, one comes across fine old buildings, once the homes of wealthy commercial families, some of them war damaged, others apparently suffering more from neglect. The Ziade Palace, a 19th century mansion, looked a dark and gloomy place. A couple of ladies sitting outside an open door indicated that it was nevertheless inhabited. Occupied by different militias during the civil war, pillaged and damaged, it has been earmarked for restoration. Many such gems survive in Beirut. But surrounded by modern buildings, their context has often been lost.


Beirut survivors

Something of the former city survives and has been restored in Christian East Beirut. Tiny hole in-in-the wall cafes on the Rue Gouraud might not have changed much. But these are pockets. Nevertheless, modern Beirut has life and character. How much it has been changed by the war, I could not say. But it is a vibrant city, its streets bustling, its traffic chaotic. Areas such as the Hamra district in West Beirut, with their cafes, bars and restaurants, buzz with life. To have come through such trials and such destruction and come back with such verve is evidence of Beirut’s tremendous resilience.

Just north of Hamra, overlooking the seafront, is the American University in Beirut. A private institution founded in the 1860s, it is considered one of the finest universities in the Arab world. It boasts an impressive roll of alumni, including presidents, prime ministers and central bank governors. The university was not spared during the civil war, and in 1982 its president, Malcolm H. Kerr, a US citizen and native of Beirut, was murdered. Today, amid the noise and pollution of the city, the university campus, with its gardens and trees, is an oasis of peace and calm.

I arrived in Beirut without high expectations. I knew there was not much left of the great Levantine pre-civil war city. I was not expecting beauty. But the modern city does have much to be said for it. The divisions that once rent Beirut have been repaired to a remarkable degree. Politics may still be divided along sectarian lines, but the physical barriers that separated people during the civil war are at least no longer visible. Muslims relax in the cafes of Christian East Beirut, and Christians go out on the razzle in the lively bars of Hamra in the Muslim west. No doubt there are strains beneath the surface. Not everyone is happy. A minivan driver asked me whether Beirut was good? Yes, I asserted enthusiastically. No, he replied forcefully, Beirut is shit. Yet I found Beirut, for all its chaos and grubbiness, in many ways refreshing. Despite all the hardship and suffering of the civil war, this great, diverse, vibrant city has reasserted itself. Different from before, for sure, but a great and spirited city still.

The main divisions nowadays seem to be between wealthy and poor. There is a world of difference between the luxury apartment blocks in the downtown area, the smart streets of Verdun district, where I stayed, and the Palestinian refugee camps in the south of the city. I travelled along a main road through the Burj Barajneh camp, on the way to the airport. I couldn’t see much. Photographs show a dense jungle of makeshift concrete buildings, the narrow streets criss-crossed by tangles of wires providing jury-rigged power and telecommunications. The people there have the barest minimum of facilities. Forgotten by the world, their presence in Lebanon is accepted only grudgingly. There is wealth in Beirut. Restaurants and cafes are often startlingly expensive. But many are excluded.

Beirut’s biggest challenge remains the turbulent region it finds itself in, and cannot escape. There are still tensions in the city. The heavy presence of soldiers and armed police in the city centre, the barbed wire and roadblocks that shield the Grand Serail, the restored Ottoman-era palace that is now the government headquarters, demonstrate that. Beneath the veneer of calm and normality, fear still lurks. The implosion of Syria reminded everybody of that. Lebanese fighters have fought on different sides. The war threatened to spill over into Lebanon. Thankfully Lebanese had had enough of sectarian warfare not go down that path again. And then there is Israel. With the battle-hardened Hezbollah militia better organised and equipped than ever, another war with Israel is an ever-present risk. Destruction can some to Beirut again. In the meantime, life goes on.

The Armenian genocide memorial, Yerevan
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The trauma of the genocide against Armenians in Turkey during World War I weighs heavily on modern-day Armenia. It is a raw wound, kept open by the failure of the Turkish Republic even to acknowledge it, let alone apologise for the huge injustice heaped upon the Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. During visits to Armenia, the topic inevitably comes up. The country’s border with Turkey closed, its relations with its neighbour far from normal. The genocide is a tragic page in Armenia’s long history which it seems cannot be turned.


Genocide memorial, Yerevan

I visited the Genocide memorial and museum in Yerevan in September 2017. The memorial was completed in 1967, following a huge demonstration in Yerevan on 24 April 1965 to mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the genocide. Such outpourings of national sentiment were rarely tolerated in the Soviet Union, but this time the authorities bowed to the popular feeling. The memorial sits on a hill overlooking the city, and consists of three main elements. Along the approach to the monument is a 100-metre long wall, on which are the names of the towns and communities whose Armenians were deported and massacred. The centre of the memorial consists of 12 inward-leaning basalt slabs forming a circle, with an eternal flame in the centre, commemorating the victims of the genocide. The 12 slabs represent what Armenians consider to be their 12 lost provinces in present-day Turkey. Nearby, a 44-metre high spire symbolises the survival and rebirth of the Armenian nation, but a fissure represents the tragic disbursal of the Armenian people by the genocide.



It is a solemn and dignified memorial, a fitting monument to the tragedy of the victims. A visit to the memorial is now part of the itinerary for foreign delegations. Nearby are trees planted by foreign heads of state and dignitaries who have been there. While I was there, two groups of visitors, dressed in formal clothes, solemnly walked along the path to the memorial, before standing quietly, heads bowed, around the flame, and then leaving flowers. No words were spoken. None were needed. It is difficult adequately to express feelings about such events, not a tragedy, but the wilful destruction of a people in a land they had inhabited for millennia.

The museum was opened in 1995. A subterranean construction, it tells the story of the genocide in photographs and explanatory texts, as well as artefacts from the time. It begins with exhibits about the life of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire before the genocide, a thriving community with schools and commercial enterprises and a rich cultural life. Photographs of successful businessmen, of happy, optimistic school children. Exhibits evoke the life of those times. The label of a lemonade brand is in four languages, Turkish, Armenian, Greek and English. Postcards marking the Young Turks revolution in 1908 have inscriptions in Turkish, Armenian, Greek and French. At the time, many Armenians shared the optimism of their Turkish compatriots.

The story them moves on to earlier massacres of Armenians in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Each year, the genocide is commemorated on 24 April, because that was the day in 1915 when Armenian intellectuals and other prominent members of the community were arrested, prior to being murdered. As such it marks the beginning of the genocide. But state-sponsored terror against the Armenian community did not begin in 1915. The images of the events in 1915 and the following years tell a harrowing story. Even for people who are already well-informed about the genocide, walking through the museum, looking at the photographs, reading the accompanying texts, is deeply affecting. The pictures of wasted people, starved, in rags, hardly able to stand. Of corpses left by the side of road. Of ranks of children, orphans, having survived the death marches across Anatolia, but having lost all that they knew and loved. It cries out for atonement. But from Turkey, denial.

Nagorno-Karabakh
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I arrived in Yerevan in September 2017, in the warmth of late-summer. I had visited Armenia twice before, in 2006 and 2013. During those visits, the tragic past of the Armenian people had persistently loomed. The 1915 genocide in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, and the deep wound left by the loss of territory in eastern Turkey that Armenians consider rightly to be theirs. And the more recent tragedies in the wars over Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian-inhabited enclave seized from neighbouring Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union crumbled. This time I wanted to visit Karabakh, to try to understand better the meaning of this remote, sparsely-inhabited mountainous region for Armenians.

From Azerbaijan’s perspective, visiting Karabakh was illegal. I would be unlawfully entering Azerbaijan’s territory. When I had visited Azerbaijan in 2014, there was a question on the visa application form as to whether I had ever visited Karabakh? The answer, at the time, was no. Azerbaijan has adopted a similar policy to Georgia and Ukraine with respect to their lost territories in Abkhazia, Crimea and the rebel-territories in Donbas. While entering those territories from within Georgia or Ukraine was permissible, crossing the border from Russia was an offence. Several foreign politicians and performing artists have been banned from visiting Ukraine after they illegally entered Crimea.


Karabakh border flags

Since a referendum in February 2017, Karabakh had taken the name Artsakh, for which an ancient Armenian lineage was claimed. I joined a group of diaspora Armenians, led by an enthusiastic guide from Yerevan. Most of them had originally come from Iran or Syria, but now lived in the United States or Canada. We needed visas to enter Karabakh, but while these could be obtained at the Artsakh embassy in Yerevan, our guide picked them up for us at the foreign ministry in Stepanakert, the territory’s capital. Crossing into Karabakh, the border was marked by a sign welcoming us to the would-be state. A little further on there was a border post, with two flags flying, one of Armenia, the other of Artsakh. The Artsakh flag is the same red, blue and orange tricolour as that of Armenia, but with the addition of a jagged white line running from top to bottom. Our guide told me this symbolised that on both sides of the line, the border, were Armenian lands.

During the journey, our guide was most insistent on the name Artsakh. She fervently spoke of the determination of Armenians to hang on to what she saw as their ancestral territories. My diaspora Armenian companions responded with applause. It was not just the territory of Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh, or mountainous Karabakh, that she referred to, but to the whole territory that Armenian forces had occupied during the war of the early 1990s, including lands around the former autonomous province. The Soviet-era autonomous province did not even share a border with Armenia, and was completely surrounded by Azerbaijan. We crossed into Karabakh via the Lachin corridor, whose capture by Armenian forces during the war had established a vital territorial bridge between Armenia and Karabakh. But for our guide even all the captured territory was not enough. There was still territory that needed to be ‘liberated’ from Azerbaijani control, she asserted.


Presidential palace, Stepanakert

Ever since the war in the 1990s, there have been on-off talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan to look for a settlement of their longstanding dispute. They have never got very far. At different times, various concessions have been discussed. Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the first president of independent Armenia, advocated a phased solution, under which Armenia would hand back most of the captured territory around Karabakh, and agreement over Karabakh itself would be deferred. In return, Azerbaijani and Turkish blockades of Armenia would be lifted, aiding Armenia’s economic recovery. But Ter-Petrosyan did not manage to bring his countrymen with him, and he was ousted from power in 1998. Another idea was a mooted territorial swap, by which, in return for giving up Karabakh, Azerbaijan would receive territory in the south of Armenia, to give it a land bridge to its territory of Nakhichevan, sandwiched between Armenia and Turkey. But our guide had no such notions of compromise. Armenians were determined to hold on to all the territory.

Karabakh is a sparsely populated enclave. While the makeup of its population had fluctuated over the centuries, following its takeover by the Russian Empire from Persia early in the 19th century, its Armenian population was boosted by migrants from lands to the south that remained in Persia, while many Muslims left. By the end of the Soviet Union, the population of the enclave was around three-quarters Armenian. To this day there is much controversy over the decision in 1921 by Stalin, the Bolshevik Commissar for Nationalities, to grant Karabakh to Azerbaijan, albeit as an autonomous territory with an Armenian majority. Armenians note bitterly that the decision nearly went their way. But the Bolsheviks were swayed by their desire to establish sound relations with the new Turkish republic to hand the territory to Azerbaijan, according to the wish of Ataturk. To Armenians, this appears one more example of the Turkish determination to wipe all trace of them from their historic lands. After losing so much territory and so many people during and after the First World War, having now won the war over Karabakh in the early 1990s, they are determined to hold on to their gains.


Parliament and Union of Artsakh Freedom Fighters,
Stepanakert

Stepanakert is a small town of a little over 50,000 inhabitants, down from 70,000 before the war with Azerbaijan. It suffered severe bombardment during the war, when rockets rained down from nearby Shusha (Shushi in Armenian), which overlooks the town. The population was forced to seek shelter in basements, and many left. But there is little sign of that now. With the help of diaspora money, Stepanakert has been rebuilt. And it has been rebuilt to be a capital of a state. Karabakh may be small, with a population of around 150,000, but the presidential palace in Stepanakert might grace the capital of a large country. Across the main square is the newly built parliament building, and the headquarters of the Union of Artsakh Freedom Fighters.


'We Are Our Mountains', Stepanakert

This impressive new town centre appears to be an expression of confidence in the future of Artsakh. On the outskirts of Stepanakert stands a monument that symbolises the enduring presence of Armenians in Karabakh. Built in 1967, the ‘We Are Our Mountains’ monument, otherwise known as ‘Grandma and Grandpa’, depicts an Armenian man and woman in traditional attire. Hewn from rock, it represents the steadfastness of the Armenian people of the highlands of Karabakh.


Museum of Fallen Soldiers, Stepanakert

Stepanakert also holds reminders of the heavy price Karabakh’s Armenian population paid for their victory. The Artsakh State Museum contains artefacts going back to pre-history, as well as photographs and exhibits depicting traditional Armenian life and handicrafts. It also has displays about the recent war. Especially poignant is the Museum of Fallen Soldiers, in a modest little building tucked out of sight in a backyard close to the central square. As well as exhibits of weapons and other memorabilia, the walls of the museum are covered with photographs of the mostly young men, and a few women, who died in the fighting. But still, it is a celebration of victory. In one room there is an Azerbaijan flag on the floor, apparently captured in Shusha. It seems to invite people to trample on it.


Monument to Armenian victory

We visited Shusha the following day. A short drive up into the mountains above Stepanakert, its strategic importance is clear. Perched on a clifftop, it had repeatedly defied would-be attackers. Shusha’s origins are disputed, but in the middle of the 18th century it became the capital of the Karabakh Khanate, under Persian suzerainty. Following the region’s incorporation into the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, many Armenians settled in the town, and by the time of the Russian revolution they made up slightly over half of the inhabitants. But the town retained its importance for Azeris, and was known as a cultural centre. In the struggle for territory at the end of the First World War, the Armenians of Shusha were among the victims. In March 1920, Azerbaijani forces sacked the Armenian quarter of the town, massacring several hundred and expelling the rest. Shusha’s much diminished population (thousands of Azeris left as well) was predominantly Azeri throughout the Soviet period, an Azeri centre in mainly Armenian Karabakh. In a daring assault in May 1992, Shusha was captured by Armenian forces. We stopped on the road from Stepanakert to Shusha to see one of two tanks that the Armenian attackers used in the attack, now standing as a monument to the victory.


Shusha ruins

The Armenian capture of Shusha relieved Stepanakert from bombardment. But it also brought a new tragedy, the expulsion of the Azeri population and the widespread destruction of the once fine town. Almost all the destruction was caused after the town’s capture. It ensured that Azeris would not be able to return to their homes. I took a walk around Shusha. While there has been a lot of rebuilding, much of the town remains in ruins. The population, which had reached over 15,000, mostly Azeris, at the onset of the conflict (it had been over 40,000 before the First World War), had recovered to getting on for 5,000 by 2015, all Armenians. At a high point in the town, Ghazanchetsots Cathedral has been restored.


Shusha mosque

One of the ruined mosques in Shusha was in the process of being restored when I visited. However, this should was necessarily a portent of reconciliation with Azerbaijan. Iranian experts were invited to carry out the restoration. In his book on the Caucasus, Thomas de Waal described how Armenians and Azeris have carried their war over territory into the realms of history, as each has sought to assert prior claims. Thus nationalist Armenian historians denied the historical presence of Azerbaijan. Shia Muslims speaking the Azeri dialect of Turkish had lived in Karabakh and in Armenia for centuries, and Muslim-ruled Khanates had held sway over much of the southern Caucasus. But as the name ‘Azerbaijan’ was not commonly used until the 20th century, Armenians denied there was any Azerbaijani history in the region. Thus Armenians claimed that mosques in Shusha and in Yerevan were Persian, not Azerbaijani. Our guide told me in Shusha that Azerbaijan objected to the restoration of the mosque by Iranians, as if it were a part of the Persian rather than the Azerbaijani heritage.


Blue Mosque, Yerevan

I visited the one remaining mosque in Yerevan before my trip to Karabakh. Yerevan had been a small, predominantly Muslim town before the incorporation of the southern Caucasus into the Russian Empire. Baku and Tbilisi had both been more important Armenian population centres. Yerevan’s Blue Mosque had been built in 1765, and, following the end of the Soviet period, in the 1990s, it too was restored by Iran. Yerevan’s Iranian information centre is at the same site. As well as a religious centre, it is also an Iranian cultural centre, and offers Persian language courses.


Ruined Agdam

Another mosque that has been a subject of contention is in the ruined town of Agdam, north-east of Stepanakert. Agdam was an overwhelmingly Azeri town, situated outside of the territory of Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh. Early in the war, it had been used as a military base by the Azerbaijanis. In July 1993, Armenian forces captured it, sending the entire Azeri population fleeing eastwards. While the town was captured mostly intact, it was afterwards wrecked by people seeking booty. As in Shusha, the destruction meant that Azeris would have nothing to return to. We drove alongside the ruined town, now a ghostly place, almost no building left standing, gradually being reclaimed by nature. This was surely an uncomfortable sight for Armenians, testimony to the injustices suffered by Azeris, a challenge to the notions of Armenian triumph and righteousness. Our guide told us Agdam had been a notorious centre of criminal activity, a criminal town. Thomas de Waal described Agdam as a black-market centre. No doubt it was so. But it is a big step from that to declaring a whole town to be criminal, as if in some kind of justification for its inhabitants’ fate at the hands of Armenian conquering forces. Our guide’s characterisation of the tragedy of Agdam left a distinctly bad taste in the mouth. The mosque in Agdam is still standing. Our guide stressed that Armenians respected religious buildings, although visitors had previously reported that the building had become derelict, and that its floor had been strewn with cow dung. More recently it had been cleaned up, and Karabakh’s authorities announced it was being renovated.


Gandzasar Monastery

Christian churches have also been the subjects of fierce historical dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Azeri historians have sought to portray churches that had served the Armenian community in Azerbaijan as having been, in origin, Caucasian Albanian (see entry of 24 March 2015). The Caucasian Albanians had, before the arrival of Islam, ruled a territory that included much of present-day Azerbaijan. Little trace of them remains today. Probably many of them converted to Islam and were assimilated by the Turkic Azeris, while others who retained their Christian faith came under the sway of the Armenian Apostolic Church. But Azeris see them as part of their heritage. The Christian churches around Azerbaijan are for them Caucasian Albanian churches that had been usurped by Armenians. We visited Gandzasar monastery, north-west of Stepanakert. Monasteries are the of glories of Armenia. During this trip, I visited several in Armenia itself. Gandzasar, with the 13th century church of St John the Baptist, is a fine example, and important evidence for Armenians of their historical presence in Karabakh. In 2015, a manuscript centre was opened at Gandzasar, a museum and library containing old illuminated manuscripts and early printed books. Siting such an important cultural repository in Karabakh was another affirmation of the permanence of the Armenian presence in the region, in the past and the future.

Close to Agdam is the archaeological site of Tigranakert, which was discovered in 2005 and is in the process of being excavated. Armenians assert that this is one of four cities of that name honouring Tigran the Great, who ruled a vast Armenian empire in the 1st century BC. For Armenian nationalists, the boundaries of that empire, including swathes of today’s eastern Turkey, remain legitimate. The site of Tigranakert in the territory of Artsakh (but outside Soviet-era Nagorno-Karabakh) is an important affirmation for Armenians of their historical right to this land. Our guide thanked God that the site had been found while the territory was under Armenian control, as she was sure that if the Azeris had found it, they would have claimed an altogether different history for the town. Thus the history of archaeological sites, as that of mosques and churches, has become a tussle between competing nationalisms. Walking through the site’s museum, I could not see any concrete evidence for this being Tigranakert rather than some other town. I raised the point with one of the researchers who worked there. The answer was essentially that it made sense that this should be Tigranakert. Maybe it is. But when history is misused for modern political ends, truth is too often lost in the murk.

Karabakh, or Artsakh, remains precarious. De jure, the territory remains part of Azerbaijan. Even Armenia has not officially recognised its independence. What are the chances that a change of borders based on force and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people will be recognised? The viability of this remote land with its tiny population is open to question. Efforts have been made to boost the population. A native of Karabakh, Levon Hairapetyan, who had made a huge fortune as an energy sector tycoon in Russia, sponsored hundreds of mass-weddings in Karabakh, and became the godfather of hundreds of children in an effort to promote population growth. Hairapetyan died in a Russian prison in October 2017, shortly after my visit, where he faced charges of embezzlement. But in his native Karabakh, he was a hero. He had invested huge sums in his home village of Vank, close to Gandzasar. As we approached Karabakh, in the strategic Lachin corridor, I saw an attempt to draw Armenians to settle in the disputed territory. Newly-built houses built in rows, which our guide told me had been built for Armenian refugees from war-torn Syria. It looked a barren, lifeless place, just houses with no sign of how new settlers were supposed to make a living there.

Armenians are determined to hold on to this land, dependent on support from Yerevan and from the Armenian diaspora. After 25 years of economic blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey, they appear willing to continue to pay the price for it. Even the most reasonable, most moderate Armenians and Azeris practically never agree on Karabakh. And by no means all of them are at all reasonable or moderate. Most Armenians see little reason to compromise over a land they see as rightfully theirs. For now, they think they have won. But a small, isolated country, in a hostile region, they cannot but feel uneasy.

Travels in Southern Bessarabia
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Southern Bessarabia had fascinated me long before I ever went there. A sliver of land south-west of Odessa, sandwiched between Moldova to the north, Romania to the west, and the Black Sea to the south. Located on the Danube delta, its marshlands are among the richest wildlife havens in Europe. But Bessarabia is also notable for the diversity of its population, formed by migrations and the vicissitudes of international politics and warfare over the preceding two centuries. This piece of territory in southern Ukraine is only part of historic Bessarabia, the majority of which today forms the Republic of Moldova to the north. Southern Bessarabia is also known as Budjak, a name that derives from the Turkish word for borderland. Its character was forged in the repeated shifting of borders between the medieval principality of Moldavia, the Ottoman and Russian empires, Romania, the Soviet Union and independent Ukraine.

Southern Bessarabia is linked with the rest of Ukraine by just two roads at either end of the delta, or ‘liman’ in Russian, of the Dniester river. The route to the north passes briefly through Moldovan territory. As you leave Ukraine, if you are transiting through to southern Bessarabia and not planning to enter Moldova, you are handed a chit by a border guard, which notes the time and the number of people in the vehicle. You are then supposed to drive straight through, without stopping. When you re-enter Ukraine, the border guard checks the time on the chit to verify this. The southern route goes along the seashore, crossing a bridge over the entrance of the liman at the seaside resort of Zatoka. Neither route has a high capacity, and at Zatoka the bridge over the liman opens every so often to let ships pass, closing it to traffic for half-an-hour at a time. During the summer season, Zatoka is choked with tourists, slowing traffic on this southern route to a crawl. As a result, Southern Bessarabia feels isolated from the rest of Ukraine. The main road through the region had been notoriously bad until former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, during his controversial stint as Odessa regional governor in 2015-16, pressed for repairs. There was also talk of a new bridge across the liman, to link Odessa with Romania to the west by a new highway.

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Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi fortress, and minaret

On my first visit to Bessarabia in November 2015, I went to Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, on the western side of the liman. The town is notable for its massive fortress. There had been a fort here for centuries, a strategic hilltop position overlooking the liman. Much of what can be seen today dates from the Ottoman period, which finally ended in 1812, although Russian forces had captured the town more than once in the preceding decades. A striking memento of the Ottoman period is a minaret in the castle grounds, which once formed part of the Bayezid Veli mosque. A stone tablet nearby recalls that an Orthodox church had stood on the site before the Ottoman conquest. Today, Bilhorod-Dnistroskyi has a Ukrainian majority, but historically it was more diverse. Before the Second World War, when southern Bessarabia was part of Romania, the town contained significant Jewish and German populations, as well as Romanians (or Moldovans), Ukrainians, Russians, Bulgarians and Greeks. There is also an old Armenian church.

Bessarabia’s Jews were mostly victims of the Nazi holocaust. The Germans were deported by Stalin to Central Asia. But southern Bessarabia nevertheless retains its diversity, a fascinating patchwork of nationalities. None forms an overall majority. In some districts, such as Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi and Tatarbunary, Ukrainians predominate. Elsewhere, notably Bolhrad, it is Bulgarians. In Reni, in the far south-west, it is Moldovans. Gagauz, Orthodox Christians who speak a Turkish dialect, are also a significant presence in several areas, especially in the south-western districts of Bolhrad and Reni. Russians are found in significant numbers in several districts, including Izmail, southern Bessarabia’s most important town. There are also smaller groups. Roma are present in many areas, and often face the same kind of disadvantages and discrimination that they experience in so much of central and eastern Europe. Perhaps most surprising of all is the small Albanian community in the village of Karakurt, close to Bolhrad.

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Izmail, with statue of Suvorov

Unusually in southern Ukraine, Izmail retains its Ottoman-era name. One of the Ottoman Empire’s most important fortresses was on this site. The fort was first built in the 12th century by the Genoese, who dominated much of the trade in the Black Sea region during the golden era of the Silk Road. In the 15th century, the region was conquered by the Ottomans. The fortress at Izmail was strategically one of the most important in the Empire. Having been briefly captured by the Russians in 1770, it was heavily refortified by the Ottomans, and was supposed to be impregnable. When the great Russian general, Alexander Suvorov, attacked it again in 1790, the Sultan ordered the Ottoman defenders to stand their ground and on no account surrender. Suvorov’s successful storming of the fort in December that year is commemorated at the diorama, a three-dimensional model of the assault on the fortress. It was a terribly bloody affair, and most of the Ottoman defenders were slaughtered. Suvorov later reported that he wept following the victory.

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Izmail, surviving mosque

The diorama is located in the only surviving building from the Ottoman period, a small mosque that had stood next to the fortress wall, on the bank of the Danube. The fortress itself was later razed to the ground, and all that can be seen of its once massive fortifications are the remains of ditches that once stood before the ramparts. A statue of Suvorov on horseback stands in the town centre, and one of the town’s many well-preserved 19th-century houses contains a museum with exhibits about Suvorov, and about the great battle for the fortress.

The symbolism of statues is particularly significant in Izmail, as elsewhere in Ukraine. When I first visited the town in November 2015, a huge statue of Lenin dominated the square in front of the administration building. However, here as all over Ukraine in the coming months, in compliance with a new law requiring the removal of all symbols of Communism and Nazism, the statue was taken down. The law caused division and anguish in many places in Odessa Region, as many people mourned the removal of ‘dedushka’, ‘grandfather’ Lenin. But removing Lenin from Izmail proved tricky. The base of the statue was so solid, that when I visited in April 2016 heavy machinery had been brought in methodically to smash it. By that August, the statue had been replaced by a flowerbed, and another smaller Lenin statue had also disappeared without trace. A city government official explained that they decided it was better to erase Lenin altogether than to put up another statue in the place where he had stood.

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Izmail, with and without Lenin

Izmail is an attractive town, its old buildings in good condition, its flowerbeds well-maintained. In this it is a marked contrast to the shabbiness of Odessa. The mayor, a former KGB man, won with more than 90 per cent of the vote in local elections in 2015. Such an outlandish margin invites scepticism, yet even the mayor’s critics among journalists and NGO workers in Izmail acknowledged, when I asked them, that he did a good job, and was genuinely popular. He typifies Ukrainian politics, a chameleon who changes his party affiliation with each change of the political wind direction, and maintains his grip on power. But as an effective advocate for the town, and a successful administrator, his support remains strong. No doubt Izmail’s success is also down to the presence of money. The port is an important employer, and many locals work as sailors, a well-paid profession.

The port in the nearby town of Reni, further up the estuary, is in a less healthy state. When I visited in April 2016, the port was quiet, buildings mainly empty, equipment idle. A manager from the port told us that in Soviet times a larger part of the port’s activity was connected with Yugoslavia. For example, Soviet cars were transported along the Danube to Belgrade. But all that had come to an end. The small amount of activity at the port today is mainly grain from Moldova. The port at Reni is a beautiful spot, especially at sunset, walking along the east bank of the Danube, while the sky blazes red on the opposite, Romanian side of the river. We once had a barbecue on the river bank, grilled trout washed down with red wine from the Shabo winery, close to Zatoka, while the sun gently sank beneath the horizon.

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Reni sunset

I enjoyed Bulgarian hospitality on several occasions in Bessarabia. The region is renowned for its fine sheep’s cheese, ‘bryndza’, and for lamb, which does not generally feature prominently elsewhere in Ukrainian cooking. On a visit in November 2015 to the town of Artsyz, where Bulgarians are the most numerous ethnic group, two prominent local Bulgarians entertained us to lunch and local wine, toasting us with the words “peace to the world, and money to the Bulgarians.” It was in a way a fitting motto for Bessarabia. While war raged elsewhere in Ukraine, here the various different nationalities continued to live peacefully alongside each other, getting along with their lives. There had been attempts to stir up trouble in 2014, when nearby Odessa teetered on the brink of open conflict, its streets a battleground between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainian nationalists. Leaflets appeared; a Russian flag was painted on the road outside Bolhrad; there was online propaganda. Amid the fear that conflict engenders, scared people in multi-ethnic lands can all too easily be persuaded to draw in on themselves, to band together to confront the feared other. But it didn’t work in Bessarabia. True, most members of minority ethnic communities there did not identify with the Ukrainian nationalism that exploded into revolution in Kyiv. The sympathies of some were undoubtedly with Russia. Yet they continued to rub along together much as before.

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Footballer-builders, Artsyz

Bessarabia’s Bulgarians appeared content to be left in peace. Politically, they dominate in the areas where they are concentrated. In Artsyz, I met a local Bulgarian priest. Full of energy and enthusiasm, his big project was the construction of a large basilica, its architectural style inspired by an ancient church in Bulgaria. I visited it in November 2015. It had been under construction for four years already. He had found investors, and the basilica was being built partly by volunteers. While we were there, a football team from the nearby ethnic-Bulgarian village of Zorya were working on the site. We later heard they were champions of an amateur Ukrainian league. A few months later, in July 2016, I met this indefatigable priest again. This time his attention was focused on building a new clock tower on the town square, where until recently a statue of Lenin had stood, to mark the upcoming 200th anniversary of the town. Behind such projects lay an irresistible optimism, that despite the country’s problems, in Artsyz they could make their lives better.

Bessarabia’s Bulgarians came to the region in the early 19th century, invited by Imperial Russia to fill the empty spaces left by the Muslim population that had departed following its capture from the Ottoman Empire. In many villages, people knew exactly where in Bulgaria their ancestors had come from, which at that time was still under Ottoman rule. A local official in Zorya told me the village had been established in 1830, and had originally been called Kamchik after a river in Bulgaria from where the original inhabitants had migrated. There had already been a village on the site, but it had been abandoned by its Muslim inhabitants. At the beginning, there had been 34 families, and almost all the village’s inhabitants are descended from them. There is a small Bulgarian ethnographic museum in Zorya. The director had originally come from Russia, and had married a local man.

While Zorya’s population is almost entirely Bulgarian, its churches reflect the diverse past of the region. In addition to the Orthodox Church, there are three protestant churches. These had only appeared since the end of the Soviet Union, the museum director told me, but she thought Protestantism may have had deeper roots. Nearby Sarata had been a German-inhabited town until the Second World War, and their influence may have spread to Zorya.

The region’s Bulgarians have close connections with Bulgaria. Many villagers have Bulgarian citizenship, the local official in Zorya told me, giving them the possibility of working in the EU. Many also go to university in Bulgaria. In the village of Kubei, close to Bolhrad, I was told they have a Bulgarian-language school on Sundays. Bulgaria supplies textbooks, as well as funds for traditional costumes and musical instruments.

Holding dual nationality appeared to be a matter of pragmatism for Bessarabia’s Bulgarians. But for the Moldovans it was more controversial. Bessarabia, including present-day Moldova, had been part of Romania in the 1920s and 30s. The Romanian and Moldovan languages are virtually identical, and some in Moldova openly express hopes for reunification. Some see Romania’s offer of passports to Moldovans as an irredentist ploy to take back the territory lost in World war II. Crossing the border into Ukraine from Moldova near the town of Mayaki, an advertisement gave a phone number people could ring to enquire about Romanian citizenship. A local official in an ethnic-Moldovan village near Reni insisted that Romania’s offer was illegal, and that despite the attractions of an EU passport, local Moldovans would not sacrifice their Moldovan identity. A representative of the Moldovan community in Odessa insisted to me that Moldova had its own separate historical identity, and was worried about the influence of Romania in Moldova and in Ukrainian Bessarabia, promoting the idea that all are Romanians. But a shopkeeper in the village close to Reni expressed ambivalence as to whether they were Moldovan or Romanian. More importantly, they were poor. Many would take Romanian citizenship in order to be able to work in the EU, she said. But it was expensive, and few could afford it.

Visiting several ethnic-Gagauz villages in February and September 2016, there was plenty of discontent in evidence, as well as worry about the future. But everyone I spoke to, whether officials or members of the public, said they had no interest in any supposed Gagauz autonomy in Bessarabia, or link-up with the Gagauz autonomous republic across the border in Moldova. Bessarabia is multi-ethnic, they said, with different national groups in neighbouring villages. Such notions about Gagauz autonomy were attempts by outsiders to stir things up. Much of the discontent was economic in origin. A group of farmers in one Gagauz village told me they feared the village was dying. In Soviet times, they had produced a variety of agricultural products. But now they felt isolated from potential markets, unable to compete. People were leaving the village, many of them going abroad, to Turkey and elsewhere. Houses in the village were being abandoned.

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Bulgarian-Gagauz village of Kubei, Bolhrad district

There is pro-Russian feeling in Bessarabia, for sure, and evidence of the influence of Russian propaganda. An official in one Gagauz village told me he blamed the EU for interfering in Ukraine, and the United States for funding those behind the Maidan revolution. He said force should have been used to stop them. Either the EU should accept Ukraine as an equal partner, or let them go with Russia, he said. He believed Ukraine had been destabilised by western interference, but that the EU would not accept Ukraine, as it falls short of western standards and is too corrupt. There had been agitation in some Gagauz villages in 2014 about young men being drafted to go to fight in eastern Ukraine. An official in one village told me the military commissioner there had wisely not pressurised people to join the army. But in some villages, he told me, where the military commissioners had been more forceful, there had been conflicts. In another village, a Gagauz official told me people from that village would not go to fight in the east. They had relatives on the other side, he said, so why would they shoot at them?

In one mixed Gagauz-Bulgarian village, a school teacher acknowledged that there was pro-Russian sentiment in the village. They could not forget that two centuries earlier, Russia had given their ancestors sanctuary. But most people kept such feelings to themselves now, he said. That probably summed up the widely held view among Bulgarians and Gagauz, especially the latter. They might harbour pro-Russian feelings, and they might be antagonistic to the Maidan revolution, but as they had no possibility of influencing events, it was wisest just to keep their heads down and carry on trying to live as best they could. Thus had it ever been in Bessarabia. Borders changed, states and empires came and went, but the people who lived there had no say in the matter.

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Vilkovo

Much the same could be said for the Russian population. I visited the picturesque little town of Vilkovo three times during 2016. The majority of Vilkovo’s population are Russian Old Believers, a breakaway sect from the Russian Orthodox Church following a 17th century schism. Built on marshland on the Danube estuary, and criss-crossed by canals, Vilkovo is somewhat exaggeratedly known as the Ukrainian Venice.

On a glorious late-summer weekend that September, I took a boat trip through the canals from Vilkovo to the outer edge of the Danube littoral. Among the willow trees and the reed beds, here and there are weekend homes with jetties, moored boats, gardens with fruit trees, and men fishing. The farthest point of the delta is known as ‘Zero Kilometre’, the mouth of the Danube. A map shows how, over the decades, the ‘0 Km’ shoreline that marks the end of the delta has gradually extended out into the Black Sea, as sediment carried down the great river gradually creates new land. As the waters open up at this furthest point, a profusion of birds take advantage of the rich fishing, including swans, herons and pelicans. Later I ate a tasty meal of freshwater fish at a riverside restaurant. My evening meal was accompanied by the croaking of frogs, a particular speciality in the area of Vilkovo and nearby Kiliya. I enjoyed eating them on several occasions, especially cooked in a garlic sauce.

Persecuted in the Russian heartlands, the Old Believers had settled in the outer-reaches of the empire, in places like Bessarabia. There are three churches in Vilkovo, one of them a regular Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), and two others Old Believer. The director of the privately-owned museum in Vilkovo, not himself an Old Believer, told me the town had been established in 1746, while the region was still under Ottoman rule. It had been settled both by Russian Old Believers and by Ukrainian Cossacks from the Zaporizhian Sich, the semi-autonomous Cossack realm which many Ukrainians regard as an antecedent of the modern Ukrainian state. The Sich was dismantled on the orders of Catherine the Great in 1775 (see post of 13 September 2014). Ukrainian settlement of Bessarabia began under Ottoman rule, when the Sultan offered Cossacks from the Zaporizhian Sich refuge in his realm.

In June 2016, we visited one of the Old Believer churches in Vilkovo, and spoke with an elderly lady who was cleaning the church. The priest was not there, she said, and would soon be leaving to join his wife in Italy. They were looking for a new priest, but it was not easy. She clearly asserted that she was Russian, but said the Old Believer community had no problems with the Ukrainian inhabitants in the town. Old Believers who had been called up to go to fight in the east had refused to go she said. If everyone in Ukraine had done likewise, there would be no war, she added. A local official told us the Old Believers had preserved their religious beliefs more faithfully than other religious communities under communist rule. But struggling to replace their priests, how well they would survive the post-Soviet era is another question.

Another endangered minority in southern Bessarabia is the Albanian community. In February 2016, I visited the village of Karakurt, and met local officials and teachers from the village school. They told us the village had been founded in 1811 by migrants from a village close to Varna, on the Black Sea coast in present-day Bulgaria. They said there were around 1,300 Albanians in the village, about half of the population. As with the Bulgarians and Gagauz who came to Bessarabia at that time, they were Orthodox Christians who had accepted Russia’s invitation to settle the newly conquered lands.

The people I met were proud of their Albanian heritage, and determined to preserve it. But it was evidently challenging. Until Soviet times, they said, people did not marry out of the Albanian community. But now there were many mixed marriages, and in such marriages, the children did not generally grow up speaking their native language. The children playing on the school playground, I noted, were speaking Russian. Still, efforts were being stepped up to preserve their language. Following a visit by an Albanian-embassy official, one of the school teachers had spent a month in Tirana, learning how to teach modern, standard Albanian. Now they were planning to include the Albanian language as a subject in the curriculum of the village school. However, they acknowledged that their dialect was quite different from the standard Albanian spoken in Albania. The teacher who had visited Tirana had been inspired by her trip, but she had found it hard to understand the language spoken there. She reckoned only half of the vocabulary in their village dialect was the same as in standard Albanian. Lacking words for modern appliances and technologies, they borrowed words from Russian or Bulgarian. But, they noted, standard Albanian also included many foreign borrowings.

I wondered what chance they had of preserving their Albanian heritage among such a small population, many of whom had only a limited grasp of the language, and felt more comfortable in Russian? Not only were there many mixed marriages, but many young people were leaving for nearby towns such as Izmail and Odessa. And if they studied standard Albanian at school, what then of their unique dialect, presumably a lost remnant of the rich profusion of Albanian dialects once spoken around the Balkans, in present-day Bulgaria and Greece as well as the heartland of the language in Albania and neighbouring regions?

The hardship and dislocation that had afflicted all of Ukraine following the breakup of the Soviet Union had hit Southern Bessarabia acutely. Collective farms that had employed thousands had been replaced by modern agricultural enterprises that needed few workers. People are leaving the land, and many villages are dying. What hope then for the intricate fabric of this diverse land, if its people leave?

On top of that are the pressures to conform to the mores of the Ukrainian nation amid a determined surge to homogenise and build a more avowedly Ukrainian state. Among the multiplicity of nations of Bessarabia, Russian has long been the lingua franca. But reforms being introduced since the Maidan revolution seek to promote, even impose, Ukrainian. This policy, perhaps understandable given Russia’s assault on Ukraine since 2014, has introduced new strains. Bulgarian and Gagauz officials and teachers told me in early 2017 that they had no objections in principle to the use of Ukrainian in official documents, or to the switch to Ukrainian as the language of instruction in the region’s schools. Ukrainian is, after all, the state language. But why the rush? There were not enough teachers able to teach in Ukrainian, they said. For them Russian was already their second language, and Ukrainian their third, or even fourth. Such rapid change was simply too demanding. They expressed fears that teachers might under proposed new laws be punished for speaking to children in Russian. One teacher noted that under Romanian rule in the 1920s and ’30s, people had been punished for speaking languages other than Romanian in public. Such heavy-handed attempts to impose linguistic conformity brought back unhappy memories in multi-national Bessarabia.

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Orlivka

Southern Bessarabia’s longer-term economic prospects may be better than appear now. The marvels of the Danube delta, the profusion of wildlife, will surely bring tourists. Some already come. Danube cruises bring people down the river from Germany and Hungary. Beach resorts are popular with holidaymakers from Moldova. And the national parks of the Danube delta, around Tuzli and Vilkovo, already bring tourists. In 2016, I twice visited the picturesque ethnic-Moldovan village of Orlivka, near Reni. The energetic head of the village council had big plans for the development of tourism. He was cooperating with a town across the river, in Romania, to boost tourism. Supported by a leading member of the regional administration, a Gagauz, they were planning to establish a ferry crossing. He was pinning his hopes on ecological tourism. He planned to build bird-watching towers, and a hotel complex and sanatorium. Most exotically, he was introducing water buffalo, which, apart from being an attraction in themselves, would, by eating vegetation in the water, improve irrigation and make Orlivka’s streams and lakes cleaner. He also envisaged milk and cheese production.

Many of Bessarabia’s people stand to benefit from such enterprise. However, adaptation is proving difficult. The Tuzli Liman national park has seen violent clashes between the park authorities and local fishermen who claim their traditional rights are being trampled. The future is probably brighter than these disgruntled locals appreciate now, although it may be that not everyone will benefit equally. Southern Bessarabia’s isolation may soon come to an end. What that will do for the delicate ethnic balance of this rich and beautiful land remains to be seen.

Life in rebel Luhansk
blacksearoamer
I first visited Luhansk at the end of September 2014. Luhansk was the capital of one of the two rebel-held territories in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Although there was still artillery fire across the contact line every day, the intensive fighting of the summer had ended, and Luhansk itself was no longer a target. We had crossed the contact line at Faschivka, west of Luhansk, where, on the Ukrainian side, we met the pugnacious ‘Baloo’, the commander at the Ukrainian frontline position on the road from Debaltseve. On the other side, the opposing Cossack soldiers were amiable. They gave us apples. They called themselves Cossacks, and wore the distinctive round Cossack hats, but they were local men, several of them coal miners. Now they seemed cheerful enough. But despite their uniforms and weapons, these were not experienced soldiers. We continued into LNR-held territory. At the small town of Krasnyi Kut, we were stopped by a group of people in Cossack apparel who were initially reluctant to let us pass. One female soldier in particular was hostile and obstructive. However, once we got out of the car and started chatting with them, their reserve melted and their natural friendliness broke through. After a few minutes, we were on our way again.

Approaching Luhansk from the southwest, we stopped in the town of Lutuhyne. We had not had any lunch, and were hoping to find a shop where we could buy some food. We were also interested to see how well stocked the local shops were after the past months of warfare. Lutuhyne had been under Ukrainian-army control for several weeks in the summer, and there had been heavy fighting in the eastern outskirts of the town, as attested by the ruined buildings we saw, and the burned-out tanks strewn about. When we parked outside a shop, people quickly emerged from buildings, wanting to tell us about what they had experienced, about the conditions they lived in. We were probably the first foreigners to have visited the town since before the conflict. The local administration was functioning, they told us, but they were particularly perturbed by the suspension of banking services. They could not access their accounts, and pensioners could not receive their pensions. This was to be a persistent complaint in LNR-controlled territory in the coming months.

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Luhansk city centre

Later in the afternoon, we reached Luhansk. The first impression was of quiet. There were few vehicles on the roads, few pedestrians. The city had been emptied of much of its population. We did not intend to stay long. The days were getting shorter, and we wanted to be back across the contact line before darkness. We sped back towards Severodonetsk by the most direct route, along the main highway to Lysychansk. A couple of weeks later, this road would become impassable, as LNR forces surrounded and pushed out the Ukrainian-held checkpoints along much of its length. Brutally contested during the following weeks, it would be churned up by shellfire, strewn with debris, and in places blocked with landmines. But now it was a good, straight road. We expected to be back in time for supper. However, a Russian soldier at one of the LNR checkpoints had other ideas. Our local interpreter could tell he was Russian by his accent. But his bearing, his crisp, brusque manner told us that this was a very different type of figure to the amiable Cossacks we had met earlier in the day. This was a professional soldier. He was not impolite, but he was firm. We would not be proceeding down that road today. We could only speculate as to the reason. Normally this road was open. Perhaps they were moving military equipment, and did not want us to see it.

Now we had a choice to make. Twilight was approaching. Did we want to attempt to cross the contact line further east, across the bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska, in failing light, when miscalculations could easily be made by either side, our identity mistaken? The safest option was to return to Luhansk and spend the night there. Arriving back in Luhansk, the city was closing down. The few shops that were open were shutting for the night. With nightfall, the city was completely dark. No street lights shone, no lights emanated from the buildings lining the ghostly streets. There was hardly a soul about.

We looked for a hotel. At one, we were told they could provide us with a meal, but that there was neither electricity nor water. Another said they could not provide food, but that they did have water, albeit cold water. They had a generator which they could turn on for a while, giving us some light. We decided that having water was the winning argument, and stayed there. In normal times, this was supposed to be the best hotel in Luhansk. We had heard that so-called “little green men”, Russian soldiers without their insignia who had first appeared during the crisis in Crimea earlier in the year, were staying at this hotel, as well as a handful of foreign journalists.

I was very much interested as to what we were going to do about food. In principle, I knew that, when travelling in a place under such conditions, it was wise to be prepared for any eventuality, and to have a small stock of food in my grab bag. I had not heeded this advice, except for a small snack bar. Thankfully I did have plenty of bottled water. But a Bulgarian ex-soldier among our number told us not to worry. We would have food. I was wondering where this food was going to come from? There were no restaurants open in the city, we were told. But as we sat down and began to light candles in the hotel lobby, our Bulgarian friend opened his rucksack. It seemed like the feeding of the 5,000. There were biscuits and sausages, and, the final triumph, a bottle of home-made Bulgarian grape brandy, made from grapes pressed by his wife’s own feet. And there was music as well, from his portable system. As promised, the lighting came on for a little while. But we enjoyed our impromptu little candle-lit party. The hotel rooms were comfortable, notwithstanding the cold water.


After the fire: Luhansk market place

The next morning, we set out to have a look around Luhansk. It was a sunny day in early autumn, and the town looked less bleak than the previous night. In the centre, guards stood outside the regional administration building, now the centre of the LNR government. The building, and many surrounding it, had been damaged, pockmarked by shrapnel. In June, a government air strike had damaged the building and killed several people. Much of the nearby market had been wrecked by fire in one of the attacks, rows of metal stores charred and twisted by the blaze. Yet part of the market was open, and the hardy Luhansk residents who had remained in the city pottered among its sparsely supplied stalls, buying essentials. Though the town’s restaurants and cafes, deprived of their power supply, were still shut, in the market were a couple of stores selling shaslik grilled on open fires. A couple of them also sold beakers of instant coffee. Life was starting to pick up in the war-torn city.

By the time I next visited Luhansk about a month later, at the beginning of November 2014, the situation had considerably improved. The water supply had been reconnected, and there was electricity much of the time. Shops and the city market which had been poorly supplied a month earlier, were now well stocked. Food products, we were told, were being supplied from a variety of sources, including from other parts of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government had not yet imposed its economic blockade on the rebel-held areas. Many restaurants and cafes had reopened. I ate several times at a very good city-centre restaurant, serving traditional Ukrainian fare. It was a favourite haunt for foreign journalists and for LNR officials. I especially liked the Cossack Borsch, a thick soup served with garlic-rolls and salo, a tasty pork-lard paste. In daytime, the streets were busy, with plenty of traffic on the roads. But at night the city was still dark and largely unlit. Few people were to be found out and about. The walk along unlit streets from the hotel to the restaurant was a slightly nervous experience, my pulse rate rising a little each time a figure emerged from the shadows.

Some of the people who had left the city at the height of the conflict were returning. A city education official told us that while most schools had opened late for the start of the new school year, by October most were open. Shell damage was being repaired, and the numbers of pupils attending were picking up. A semblance of normality was returning. Traffic police were working at some of the main intersections.

Shelling could frequently be heard in the distance. The city was only 15 or so kilometres from the frontline. But the town itself had not been targeted for some time. During the conflict in the summer, Ukrainian forces had come close to the city. One local told me Ukrainian troops had even been seen in the outskirts. He could not understand, he sighed regretfully, why they had not simply taken the city. If Luhansk had been retaken for Ukraine, it would have dealt a severe blow to the rebels, he said. Not all Luhansk’s residents were happy to see their city under rebel control.

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Election poster: The ruling triumvirate

But now that the period of intensive fighting was over, and that the Ukrainian forces had been pushed back, the LNR authorities were setting about establishing the institutions of their putative state. On 2 November, elections had been held. They were, of course, a sham. There was no genuine political competition. The trappings of an election were there, including campaign posters. But the LNR leaders were simply confirmed in office. Prominent individuals were included on the lists that notionally contested the election. One who had been put on the list of the head of the LNR, Igor Plotnitsky, and whose picture was on campaign posters in the town, told me she had not sought to be included, but had been approached. Nevertheless, she said she was now a ‘separatist’. Some told me that the turnout had been significant, as evidenced by the long queues at polling stations. But the explanation for that was straightforward. As an LNR minister told me, many fewer polling stations had opened than had been the case in Ukrainian elections.

For many officials, the new reality presented an acute dilemma. I spoke with one local official who found himself in an impossible position. Whatever he did, he told me, he would be condemned by one side or the other. He had been appointed under Ukrainian law, but now the reality was that others were in control. He told me he felt afraid for his own safety. He had reason to be afraid. In rebel-held territory, during the summer and autumn of 2014, people had been disappearing, nobody knew where, or who had taken them. Many were held in basements, without any process or accountability, their families not knowing what had become of them. If this official were suspected of being loyal to Ukraine, that could be what awaited him. Yet if he stayed in his place, and continued carrying out his functions, many on the Ukrainian side could regard him as a traitor. There was little appreciation or sympathy for the dilemmas such people faced. After all, many officials had left rebel territory and moved to the government-held side. What else could it mean if someone chose to stay put? This was a man approaching retirement. Throughout his career he had always done what was expected of him. He had towed the party line, whether that was the Communist Party or the Party of Regions of ousted President Yanukovich. Now there were competing demands for his loyalty, and he was in an unimaginably uncomfortable position. He asked us not to visit him again. While he was happy we were there, and he was sure we were nice people, he was afraid that his talking to us might be misconstrued.

Such dilemmas faced many others, torn between what they felt was their duty to continue to ensure the provision of services to the population and the anxiety that in Ukraine they would be condemned. The water supply was a critical problem for the city, and even more so for many other parts of LNR-controlled territory. Pumping stations and pipelines had been damaged, and an already decrepit infrastructure was collapsing altogether in some areas. The LNR’s particular problem was that while most of the water supply came from government-held areas, the majority of the region’s population were in rebel-held territory. Water supplies to rebel-held towns were drastically cut. During 2015, hundreds of thousands had no mains water supply at all for extended periods. The authorities on the Ukrainian-controlled side used their control of the water supply as a weapon.

I met the director of the public water company in Luhansk a couple of times. He saw himself as responsible for the water supply for the whole region, on both sides of the contact line. He tried to maintain contacts with officials on the government-controlled side. There was a degree of cooperation to maintain essential infrastructure, including the water supply and electric power cables. Local cease-fires were agreed to enable repair work. But it was limited. The water supply company director was treading a fine line. The last I heard of him, he had crossed into government-held territory, and had promptly been arrested.

The Ukrainian authorities took an increasingly harsh attitude towards the civilian population in rebel-held territory. Towards the end of 2014, they began to implement an economic blockade. Not only were pensions no longer paid, but traffic across the contact line was drastically restricted. This caused unbearable strains for many people. Families found themselves cut off from each other. Pensioners who had been able to cross the contact line to draw their pensions were now stuck. The blockade also brought shortages of many goods. In the early weeks of 2015, Ukrainian products gradually disappeared from shops in Luhansk. Prices soared, often double or more the prices of the same products on the government-controlled side. Some people went hungry. Medicines were not supposed to be included in the blockade, but too often they could not be found. I brought drugs across the contact line for one elderly woman with an ailing heart. A local official told me, his face racked with pain and sadness, that his mother was dying of cancer, and the medicines she needed were not available.

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Rally in Luhansk

At the end of December 2014, I attended a rally in central Luhansk, a protest against the blockade. It was in a city centre square, next to the war memorial and the eternal flame. Flanking the square are two First World War vintage tanks, abandoned by the British force that had intervened on the side of the Whites in the revolutionary war. It was a largish crowd for Luhansk, up to 3,000 people, I estimated. They waved flags of the LNR and of Plotnitsky’s ‘Peace for Luhansk’ party. One could suppose that many of those present were state-sector workers who had been told to attend. Speakers included the leading triumvirate of the LNR, Plotnitsky, the prime minister, Gennadiy Tsipkalov, and the speaker of the LNR parliament, Aleksey Karyakin, as well as the mayor of Luhansk and representatives of veterans’ and women’s organisations. There was much emotive language, accusing the Ukrainian authorities of genocide and of a new ‘holodomor’, a reference to the mass starvation in Ukraine in the 1930s. The non-payment of pensions was raised time and again. While people were not being paid the pensions they had earned, money was instead being spent on arms to attack them. One speaker said that if the Ukrainian government considered Luhansk region to be part of Ukraine, it should pay people their pensions. But if not, it should say so plainly.

Anger at the Ukrainian authorities was widespread, even among people who did not support separation from Ukraine. How could our president do this to us, I heard time and again? There may have been a certain logic to the blockade. The territory was out of the government’s control, and, Moscow’s denials notwithstanding, ultimately controlled by Russia. For Kyiv, this was occupied territory, and it was the occupying power, Russia, that was obliged to provide for the population. But the Ukrainian government’s approach did nothing to encourage people to see for themselves a future in Ukraine. For many people in rebel-held territory, the situation seemed clear. Ukraine had abandoned them, denied them their salaries and pensions, blockaded them, shelled them. For some, the realisation of their situation was tinged with sadness. I asked a villager close to Luhansk whether she could see a future within Ukraine? She replied that unfortunately she thought people in the rest of Ukraine had a negative attitude to the people of Donbas now.

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Christmas in Luhansk

Yet amid the hardship, the city authorities tried to restore a semblance of normality. As 2014 came to an end, Christmas lights were hung in the city centre, and a large Christmas tree was raised in a central square, in front of the statue of Lenin. Children played, and little electric toy cars were hired out for them to ride in. And then, perhaps the most important symbol of normal life returning, the city centre’s street lights were switched back on for New Year. A stage was erected in the city centre, and there was a pop concert. Celebrating New Year in our hotel, not far from the city centre, we listened to the fireworks. Not shells that evening, but fireworks.

Early in 2015, the sense of returning normality was for a few weeks broken. Our movements were restricted. We were mostly not allowed to leave the city, and when we were, it was only under strict coordination with the LNR authorities. We had a fairly good idea what was happening. Things were being moved along the roads of the LNR that we were not supposed to see. In the second half of January, the shelling started to pick up along the contact line. Thankfully it was mostly not aimed at Luhansk itself, although one shell did fall less than a kilometre from our hotel. The boom boom boom of shells, and the whoosh of rocket launches punctuated the nights, disturbing my sleep. To the west of us, a battle was going on for the strategic town of Debaltseve, which would fall to the Russian-backed rebels in February.

The fall of Debaltseve was a severe blow to Ukraine. Once again, the inability of its army to withstand a determined offensive by the Russian-backed rebel forces had been demonstrated. In the aftermath, an uneasy normality resumed in Luhansk. Shelling continued up and down the frontline. But life in the city carried on. The shops, denuded of many products due to the Ukrainian blockade for several weeks, were gradually restocked with Russian replacements. More restaurants opened. Public sector salaries began to be paid, as well as pensions. They were low, lower than in government-held territory, but it made things easier. They were paid in Roubles, indicating where the money was coming from. The Rouble was now introduced as an official currency, along with the Ukrainian Hryvnia, the US Dollar and the Euro. In practice, the Rouble quickly supplanted the Hryvnia as the main currency, unsurprisingly given that people were being paid in Roubles.

Strolling through the bustling streets of central Luhansk that spring and summer, life could almost have been normal. Students crowded around the university during breaks from their lessons. The American-style diner was full of youngsters enjoying burgers, pizzas and Tex-Mex. Smart cafes served capuchinos and delicious cakes and pastries. On my last weekend before leaving Luhansk in September 2015, there was a fair in the city centre. Folklore dance groups from around the LNR performed. Stalls sold local products. One had been set up by the town’s Greek community. Youngsters posed in front of a newly-erected sign saying ‘I love Luhansk’. Plotnitsky paid a visit, inspecting the stalls, chatting amiably. It was a sunny day, and the atmosphere was festive.

Yet all was not normal in Luhansk. While city life may have appeared normal on the surface, many faced severe hardship, deprived of earnings, facing high prices in the shops, dependent on humanitarian assistance. Only a few kilometres away, across the contact line, for all Ukraine’s chronic problems and its crumpled economy, conditions were nevertheless incomparably better than in rebel-held territory. Whatever the show of normality and optimism put on by the rebel authorities, Luhansk existed in a kind of limbo. Locals again and again expressed disbelief about the region’s long-term separation from Ukraine. One local journalist told me there had been a lot of excitement in the spring of 2014, that many thought they would soon, like the people of Crimea, enjoy Russian-level salaries and pensions, higher than in Ukraine. But it had not happened. A year later, many had concluded that Russia did not want them, and that all the pain and suffering was for nothing.

Along the frontline in Donbas
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I arrived in Severodonetsk on a sunny afternoon in September 2014. We drove through broad tree-lined avenues somewhat overgrown with greenery, unkempt, the trees partially obscuring the shabby, decaying Soviet-era apartment buildings. Only at the central square, dominated by the large, neo-classical House of Culture, was there much sign of life; a market and some fairground games. It was not long after the signing of the first Minsk peace agreement that was supposed to have brought an end to the intense fighting over the summer. Severodonetsk had been under the control of pro-Russian rebels. Local self-proclaimed Cossacks had abducted four international monitors there at the end of May, and held them as their ‘guests’ for a month. But at the end of July, Ukrainian forces, temporarily in the ascendency, had swept into Severodonetsk, and then pushed further south, across the Severny Donets River to Lysychansk, Popasna and Hirske.

The rapid success with which Ukrainian forces carved up the rebel territories in Luhansk and Donetsk regions during the summer of 2014 had not lasted long. During August, Russian troops and armour poured into Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region to rescue their rebel clients. The Ukrainian forces were pushed back from much of the territory they had retaken over the preceding weeks around Luhansk and Donetsk. With Russian support, the rebels seized new territory in the south of Donetsk region, on the Sea of Azov, threatening the important city of Mariupol. But further north, the Ukrainians held the territory they had taken, including Severodonetsk.

Severodonetsk had few scars from the fighting. A bridge had been wrecked, and one wing of the hotel where we stayed had a gaping shell hole. But the town was relatively unscathed, and life appeared generally pretty normal. Restaurants were open, and the large central market was bustling and well stocked with all manner of goods.


Peace protest, Severodonetsk, September 2014

On my second day, I went along to a peace rally on the main square. A couple of hundred people had showed up, the majority of them women. There was much waving of Ukrainian flags, and several of the younger people had painted the blue and yellow Ukrainian colours on their faces. There were shouts of ‘Glory to Ukraine’, ‘Glory to the Heroes’, and ‘Heroes never die’. After a minute’s silence for the fallen, the Ukrainian national anthem was sung. One group of young men shouted more belligerently, including some colourful language against the Russian president, Putin. But for the most part it was good natured. One speaker called on those present to remember their brothers in Russia who were also demonstrating for peace that day. But it was clear, this space was owned by the Ukrainian patriots. The town was firmly under Ukrainian control.

By no means all the population felt that way. Many had voted in the unrecognised May 2014 referendum on separation from Ukraine. Few in this region had supported the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv a few months earlier that had brought down the pro-Russian Yanukovich government. Mistrust and resentment towards the new Kyiv authorities was widespread, if mostly kept buttoned up in public. The surface was calm in Severodonetsk that autumn, but beneath the façade tension was palpable.

A few evenings later I saw an illustration of the divisions in the town at, of all places, a Karaoke bar. Among the Russian pop tunes, some of those present also chose patriotic songs, some of them Ukrainian, others Russian. Some sang with enthusiasm a patriotic Russian song, with the words adjusted to be about Ukrainian heroes, not Russian. There was to-ing and fro-ing between the supporters of the two sides. Then someone chose the Ukrainian national anthem. Some stood up and sang with gusto, hands on hearts. Others stayed stony-faced in their seats.

In towns around the region, on the Ukrainian government-controlled side, Ukrainian flags flew. Fences were painted in Ukrainian colours. On the surface, there was no sign of dissent. Some, for sure, were committed to the Ukrainian cause, without reservations. In a garage in Severodonetsk where I went for car repairs was a poster of Putin in front of a Russian flag, redesigned to include a swastika in the middle, with the words ‘Putin Khuilo’ (‘Putin dickhead’), a favourite slogan popularised by Ukrainian football fans.

But every now and then the uncertainty and ambiguity felt by many about the conflict became apparent. There was the lady in Hirske, a village close to the frontline that from time to time came under shelling. Complaining about delays in the payment of salaries, she pointed out that the Ukrainian flag flew in the village. They would be Ukrainian patriots, she said, but the Ukrainian state should take care of them, and pay their salaries. Her loyalty appeared distinctly conditional. On a later occasion in Hirske, an old lady at a bus stop quietly, nervously, told us that she was for the rebel LNR, the Luhansk People’s Republic. Ukrainian forces, she told us, were firing artillery pieces from the village. Hirske had been under rebel control in the summer. A young man told us he had been with the rebels, manning a checkpoint, gun in hand. Now he was nervous. He had lost his passport, but did not dare leave the village to apply for a new one, as that would mean crossing Ukrainian army checkpoints, whose personnel had lists of people who had been with the rebels, and who should be detained.


Lysychansk, October 2014

Nearby Lysychansk, a largish town of over 100,000 people, bore some scars from the conflict. An apartment block on the southern outskirts of town had been hit, the walls blasted away and the rooms on several floors blackened by fire and exposed to the elements. But in the town centre, life went on much as normal, the market bustled, pizzarias were packed with customers. But people were divided in Lysychansk. That autumn, pro-Ukrainian civil-society activists told us they were not satisfied with the town council, whose members they believed were tainted by having cooperated with the rebels when they controlled the town. At that same meeting, one lady expressed a different view, saying most people in the region felt close to Russia, did not trust the current Ukrainian authorities, and did not want to be imposed upon by western Ukraine. Nevertheless, she objected strongly when the pro-Maidan activists accused her of being a separatist. She was not for separation from Ukraine, she insisted, before storming off angrily.

The following May in Lysyschansk, a vote was held in the city council on declaring Russia an external aggressor, and the LNR and DNR (the rebel para-state in Donetsk region) terrorist organisations. This was one of several such votes in town councils in the region around that time, part of a concerted effort to force local politicians off the fence, to declare themselves unambiguously for the Ukrainian side. The vote failed to pass, many of the councillors feeling uncomfortable about being forced into taking such a stand. Amid the shifting sands and shifting frontlines in Luhansk region, on the fence was for many the safest place to be. During the council session, civil-society activists gathered outside, holding Ukrainian flags. Some of them brought a rubbish bin, with the word ‘lustration’ written on it, threatening to throw some of the councillors in. The previous autumn there had been a spate of such attacks elsewhere in Ukraine, carried out by far-right activists. In a divided region such as Luhansk, such threats could only exacerbate tensions. But in the event the threat was not carried out.

On the Ukrainian-government controlled side of the frontline it was rare to find people who would openly express support for the rebels. But dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian military was widespread. My first visit to the frontline, in September 2014, was to the small government-controlled town of Stanytsia Luhanska, less than 20 kilometres from Luhansk, on the north side of the Severny Donets river. We went to the last Ukrainian army position before the bridge across the river. Around the checkpoint was a scene of devastation, houses smashed, their roofs staved in by shells. To one side of the checkpoint was a wrecked car. A couple of civilians had been killed there a few days before, when the car had driven over a landmine. There were mines along the grass verges, in front of people’s houses. Desperate elderly people came to talk to us. Why, they pleaded, did the army have to put its checkpoint in a built-up area, a target for the other side, just across the bridge? Prodded by us, the checkpoint commander had detailed some of his men to help repair damaged roofs. He seemed to get the point. The soldiers were not winning the hearts of these people. But he was powerless to do anything about the position of the checkpoint.

A couple of days later, I visited Trokhizbenka, a frontline village on the Ukrainian side of the Severny Donets river. We visited a couple of the frontline positions. At one of them, the soldiers invited us to share their lunch. Welcome to our kitchen, said one of the soldiers ironically, as he led us to a patch of damp grass next to an open fire. But the food was quite palatable.

Nearby one of the checkpoints, out of earshot of the soldiers, I approached a couple of elderly men who were carrying out some work on a damaged tree. How were things in the village, I asked? They replied nervously, speaking quietly. It appeared that something was troubling them. Something was not right. The secretary of the village council had been abducted by soldiers, they told me. They did not know which soldiers, or where she was being held. They suggested that we talk to the village priest. We went back into the centre of the village, where we came across the priest walking hurriedly towards his church. A small, middle aged man with a flowing robe and a long, sparse beard, he was evidently distressed. Not only the secretary of the village council, but the previous council head had also been taken, he said. He did not know which military unit was responsible, but he believed they might be held at the school on the outskirts of the village. So we made our way there.

Reaching the school, we were greeted by members of the Aidar Battalion, a notorious volunteer unit whose reputation was already well known. Amnesty International had published a report about them. Widespread stories told of their looting of homes and stealing of vehicles. This was my first encounter with them. In appearance, they struck me more as pirates than as soldiers. Unkempt, in a motley variety of uniforms, there was no sign of military bearing or discipline. They seemed suspicious of us, but their commander offered us tea and a tour of the school which they had taken over as their barracks. The place was a mess. But there was no sign of any detained persons there. No, he did not know anything about the abducted council members, the commander assured us. We exchanged telephone numbers, and told him we would follow up on what had happened to the missing councillors. If he did in fact know something about them, I wanted him to know that we would not let the matter rest. As we were driving away from the village, surprise, surprise, we received a phone call from the commander. The two councillors had been located. They would be freed. But it was nothing to do with him, he again repeated.

We returned to the village the next day. The council secretary had been released. Enormously grateful, she told us she and her fellow abductee had been held in a tent, in a field, but that he had been taken away, she knew not where. The village priest thanked us profusely, and blessed us for our efforts. But the wife of the still not released former council head was beside herself with worry for her husband. This was the reality of families living in the conflict zone. The small personal tragedies that are rarely told, which only affect those most directly involved. Thankfully, the next day we were told the remaining abductee was also released. The reasons were unclear. Perhaps it was because the council secretary had demanded that the school be returned to its intended purpose. It seemed she had also been under suspicion for having helped some soldiers who had deserted. She maintained she had merely given them directions, when asked.


Trokhizbenka bridge, April 2015

This was not the end of Trokhizbenka’s anguish. Visiting the village a few months later, there were several shell-damaged homes. Local people told us they had for a time been without electricity or water. Many of the locals worked across the river, at the hospital in Slovyanoserbsk, in LNR-controlled territory. As the frontline hardened under the government blockade, crossing the river became more difficult, so that many were no longer able to get to work. Tragically, we heard of at least one case of a man dying because he could not get to the hospital. In April 2015, I crossed the bridge. Broken at both ends, it was passable only on foot, and even then, avoiding getting wet involved precariously balancing along the side rail, the tarmac being inundated by the flow of the river.

Not long afterwards, we met an Aidar Battalion unit at Shchastya, another small frontline town. They were setting off down to the front, close to the bridge that crosses the river into LNR-controlled territory. It was an extraordinary sight. Many of them were drunk, possibly high on drugs in some cases. They were shouting and roaring. I spoke to one who was eating a pie as he bellowed at me, spitting food and boasting about how they would slaughter the separatists. We don’t take prisoners said another, we kill them all. One of them told me they were taking some new recruits down to the frontline for the first time. We don’t train them, he said, we just take them to the front and they learn under fire. This was not an army. This was a gang of cutthroats. I think it was questionable how much real fighting these Aidar volunteers did. The serious, sober, regular Ukrainian soldiers we met at so many other frontline positions were quite different.

Later, on the other side of the contact line, I met civilians who spoke of their experience when their town or village was under Ukrainian control in the summer weeks of 2014, before Russian forces rolled the Ukrainian military back. The outskirts of Lutuhyne, southwest of Luhansk, had seen heavy fighting. The first time I went there, in September 2014, at one crossroads on the edge of the town, there were burnt-out tanks strewn about, and buildings had been reduced to charred ruins. People told us that when the town had been under Ukrainian control, regular Ukrainian soldiers had behaved professionally, correctly. But the Aidar Battalion were just thieves and bandits. I heard a similar account from inhabitants of the village of Novosvitlivka, southeast of Luhansk, when I visited in December 2014. The village had also seen heavy fighting. This was as close as Ukrainian forces had got to Luhansk from that direction. It had sustained heavy damage. Destroyed tanks littered the village, among the ruined buildings. The House of Culture was wrecked, as were the village shops. Picturesquely, one destroyed tank on the main road bypassing the village had been decorated with flowers. Here too, locals contrasted the professional conduct of regular Ukrainian soldiers with the thuggery and thieving of the Aidar Battalion.


Novosvitlivka, December 2014

We repeatedly faced the shame of being confronted with people facing appalling suffering, about which we could do next to nothing. There was the old lady I met in Popasna in autumn 2014, on the government-controlled side of the frontline. She stood in front of her house which had been demolished by a rocket the previous day. She herself was slightly hurt, her face bandaged, but her husband had been badly injured, and was in hospital. From a brief conversation with her son, I understood the man’s chances of surviving were poor. The old woman was distraught, bewildered, not knowing what to do with herself. Her world had been destroyed in one cruel moment, and she seemed utterly uncomprehending.

Across the frontline, in LNR territory, only five kilometres or so from Popasna, is the town of Pervomaisk. Visiting there for the first time in January 2015, the scenes of destruction were shocking, much worse than anything I had seen in government-controlled territory. From Popasna, I had several times listened to the outgoing shelling from government-held positions towards Pervomaisk, so I was not surprised. Much like Severodonetsk, Pervomaisk is a rather charmless Soviet-era town of apartment blocks. Most of them had suffered shell damage. A collection of shell cases had been heaped up in front of the statue of Lenin, in the town square. The acting mayor of the town, dressed in military fatigues and a Cossack fur hat, took us to a basement where several families had been living for six months already. It was like the basement of an industrial building, with a concrete floor, and pipes along the walls. Beds were placed around the walls. There was no water here, or toilet facilities. For that, people had to go out into the snow. But there were makeshift wood stoves, for cooking and to provide heat. The conditions were desperate, yet mothers played with their children, attempting some semblance of normality.


Pervomaisk, February 2015

This was the sad fate of towns and villages that found themselves close to the frontline, a matter of chance that put them in the wrong place. Five kilometres away, they might have been unscathed. In October 2014, I twice visited the village of Krymske, just south of the Severny Donets river. In the initial weeks after the September Minsk agreement, the frontline was fuzzy and undefined in this area. A number of villages off the main roads had so far been bypassed by the fighting. Ukrainian forces held much of the main road from Lysychansk down towards Luhansk, but the villages to the north of the road, towards the Severny Donets, had largely been ignored. Then suddenly the LNR Cossacks started surrounding the exposed Ukrainian checkpoints along the road, forcing them back westwards. In response, the Ukrainian forces moved to take the high ground above the road, to the south of the river. I went to Krymske the day after the Ukrainian army took control. The village had until then been quite peaceful. Locals told me only a few LNR soldiers had been there, and they had stayed at the eastern end of the village. Now the Ukrainian army had arrived, the authorities moved quickly to show they were in control. The regional governor came in person to deliver pensions, which had not been paid the past few months. But people were nervous. The local water pump had been hit by a shell, cutting the water supply. Having been largely forgotten by the competing armies during the summer fighting, Krymske had now caught their attention. Now it was on the frontline, and its people’s problems were just beginning.

What a tragedy. Visiting Krymske for the second time in late-October 2014, there was a sense of foreboding about what was to come. I did not visit Krymske again, but I heard from others that the village was badly damaged by shelling over the following months, and that much of the population abandoned it. The following summer, in 2015, I visited the nearby village of Sokilnyky, three kilometres east of Krymske, which was under LNR control. On the same day that Ukrainian forces had taken control of Krymske, they had also entered Sokilnyky, but for some reason that I had never discovered, they had not stayed there, but had returned to Krymske. During my second visit to Krymske, in October 2014, local people had told me, nervously, that Ukrainian national guardsmen had murdered two villagers in Sokilnyky. This only fuelled the sense of apprehension in the village.

Now finding itself on the frontline, Sokilnyky suffered the same fate as Krymske, if anything worse. Two neighbouring villages, closely connected, whose people knew each other, now found themselves by sheer chance on opposite sides of the frontline, playing host to the soldiers who would lob shells at each other in a senseless battle in which the civilians came off worst. Arriving in Sokilnyky that summer in 2015, I found a scene of desolation. Every house had been hit at least once, some of them two or three times. Almost no one was left, just a couple of determined hold-outs among the inhabitants had stayed on to brave this misery. Otherwise, the only residents now were LNR soldiers. We drank tea with them in the yard of one of the broken-down houses. There were a couple of women who were cooking for them, and doing other chores. They too were rotated in and out, doing their bit for the LNR.


Donetski, March 2015

Further west, just to the south of the main road, was the small town of Donetski. I visited in March 2015. Occupied by LNR soldiers, the closest Ukrainian army position was close-by, on the by now ravaged main road. The road, which I had sped along from Luhansk to Lysychansk the previous autumn, was now impassable, pitted by shells and strewn with debris. Donetski was in a sorry state. Battered by shells, without electricity, heating or food supplies, most of its people had left. The few hundred remaining were living in desperate conditions, but spoke cheerfully with us nonetheless. They had recently received the first delivery of food and medical supplies from the Red Cross. Without power for their cookers, people had made little stoves out of bricks outside their apartment blocks. Metal pipes emerged from the windows of one of the blocks, makeshift chimneys from wood stoves inside. These were rooms taken over by LNR soldiers, I was told. The town had been largely abandoned. Yet at the entrances of some of the buildings residents had written defiantly, ‘Мы Живём’ (‘We Live’).

In late-January 2015, just as the second Minsk peace agreement was being negotiated, DNR and LNR forces, backed up by their Russian patrons, made a push for the town of Debaltseve, in Donetsk region, close to the boundary with Luhansk region. Debaltseve was in a salient, surrounded on three sides by rebel-held territory, that had remained in Ukrainian hands since the summer of 2014. This little piece of Ukrainian-held territory was coveted by the rebels for, among other reasons, the railway line that passed through it. They were determined to get their hands on it before the peace agreement went into effect.

I had passed through Debaltseve many times during the autumn and winter of 2014, on my way to the little town of Faschivka. I met and chatted with the soldiers on both sides of the frontline. The first time, at the end of September 2014, we talked with the commander of the Ukrainian frontline position, to the sound of the regular boom boom of shells being fired at positions three or four kilometres either side of us. A larger-than-life bear of a man, nicknamed Baloo, he railed against the rebels and the international community in equal measure. A couple of weeks later, we learned that he had been killed in a skirmish during a reconnaissance operation. The commander on the other side told us they had temporarily buried Baloo, and were waiting for the arrangements to be made for the body to be taken across to the government-held side. He had received several phone calls from Baloo’s widow, he told us, desperate to receive the body of her husband. He said he felt huge sympathy for her, but until the necessary arrangements were made, there was nothing he could do.

At some places along the contact line, opposing commanders were in contact with each other. Ukrainian commanders were sometimes nervous about this, fearing they might be accused by their own side of treachery. But it was mainly for practical reasons, to avoid needless deaths or injuries due to mistakes or misunderstandings. One LNR commander told us that, if ordered, he was fully prepared to advance against the enemy. But in the meantime, while they were in static positions, there was no sense in putting lives at risk for nothing. I knew of at least one place where opposing commanders met for tea in no-man’s land. But the Cossack commander at Fashchivka told us he did not want to have direct contact with his opposite number. If he was ordered to attack, he would do so without question, and he did not wish to have to kill people he knew personally.

Crossing the frontline at Fashchivka in January 2015, we stopped to talk with the soldiers at the last Ukrainian position. There was a howling snow storm, the wind blowing the snow horizontally at us. It was almost impossible to talk. So the commander invited us into their dugout for tea. Inside it was warm and cosy. A wood stove burned. A makeshift table and benches had been set up. Further back were sleeping bags. Food was produced, soused herrings and ‘salo’ (strips of cured pork fat, a Ukrainian favourite), and then vodka. The food had been brought to them by local women, doing their bit to help Ukraine’s soldiers. Amid this happy little party, unbeknownst to us at the time, the days of this frontline position were numbered.


Road from Debaltseve, April 2015

In the fortnight or so leading up to the assault on Debaltseve, roads through much of LNR territory were closed to us. Of course, they were moving weapons up to the frontline, and did not want outsiders to see. One local Cossack commander told us he had received new consignments of weapons. Something was brewing. As the offensive got underway, the shelling picked up all along the front. In Luhansk, the noise was with us much of the time. Our sleep was disturbed. A few weeks after Debaltseve fell, in April 2015, I went back to Fashchivka. All was quiet now. The frontline Ukrainian position where we had enjoyed vodka and salo a few weeks before was now abandoned. The trees around about were badly damaged, branches stripped off, a sign of the intensity of the shelling. I wondered what had become of the men who had played host to us that cold January day, who I had met on so many occasions?

We visited the nearby village of Chornukhyne, which had now changed hands twice during the conflict. Like Debaltseve, during the summer of 2014 it had been in rebel hands for about three months, before being taken by Ukrainian forces in July. I had tried to go there in the autumn of 2014, but Ukrainian soldiers told us not to. It was too dangerous, they said. But now, the following spring, all was quiet in Chornukhyne. Much of the village was little damaged. This was a surprise to me, having heard the sound of shellfire from the direction of Chornukhyne during earlier visits to the front at Fashchivka. But on one side of the town, in the direction of Debaltseve, we drove down a long street, the length of which houses had been smashed. A burned out tractor and bits of a destroyed tank were strewn about. Local officials spoke with us, cautiously, pointedly referring to the recent ‘liberation’ of the village. In a village that kept changing hands, had these men changed their hats each time? These were the dilemmas facing so many in these frontline areas, trying to adapt to the changing winds, not knowing what was the safest course to follow.


Chornukhyne, April 2015

While chatting with an LNR Cossack soldier in Chornukhyne, we saw a young woman being led to their base by two soldiers. We asked him what it was about? Nothing to be concerned about, he said, just a whore who had been selling herself to the Ukrainian soldiers when the area had been under government control. My stomach immediately felt sick. I had seen at the Ukrainian position at Fashchivka that local women had helped the soldiers, bringing them food. Was this one such woman, someone who had wanted to do her bit for Ukraine by helping the soldiers? I could not be sure, but I doubted very much the slur that this vulgar soldier had cast against this woman, nervously being taken into custody. She was a married woman, the soldier acknowledged. Was this the fate of anyone who committed to the wrong side in the shifting sands of the war? The soldier assured us there was nothing to worry about. She would be questioned, that was all. I was not much reassured. We wanted to talk to her, but were rebuffed. We took the soldier’s phone number, and told him we would phone him the next day, to enquire what had happened with this woman, and that we would follow up on her case. The next day, he informed us that she had been released. This one woman had perhaps been more fortunate than some in that her detention had been observed by visiting foreigners. Who knows how many others were less lucky in those anxious places caught up in the ambiguity of a civil conflict?

The conflict damaged peoples’ lives, even when they did not live close to the frontline, their homes at risk of shellfire, their lives at risk. Families were divided. In the summer of 2014, hundreds of thousands had left rebel-held areas, whether for Ukrainian government-held territory, or for Russia. Many returned in the immediate aftermath of the intense fighting that summer, but not all. When I first arrived in the region, in the autumn of 2014, traffic passed to and fro across the contact line without much hindrance. Papers were checked, but mostly people were just allowed to pass. A Ukrainian soldier at Stanytsia Luhanska told me the document checks were about looking for people who had taken part in rebel activities, who should be detained, but that otherwise people were free to pass. That all changed at the end of the year, when the Ukrainian government imposed an economic blockade.

One result was that economic and social conditions in rebel-held areas quickly deteriorated. Since the summer, the Ukrainian banking system had ceased to function in rebel territory. People in rebel-controlled areas working for Ukrainian enterprises could no longer withdraw their salaries. Now all public officials in rebel areas were ordered to leave their posts. They were not to work for the rebel-held administration. This posed an acute dilemma to some, for example those working in the emergency services, having to choose between loyalty to Ukraine and the duty that many of them perceived to continue to provide vital services to the population. One striking example of the consequences was that prison officers were required by Kyiv to move to government-held territory, an impractical undertaking given that it would have meant transporting large numbers of convicted criminals across the frontline to prisons on the government-held side. For those public officials who chose to remain at their posts and in their homes, be they local government workers, teachers or hospital workers, Kyiv’s approach meant that they would no longer receive their salaries.

One group particularly harshly affected was pensioners, who would no longer be able to receive their state pensions. Some could get around this by registering their place of residence with relatives in government-held territory. But even for them, there was still the practical difficulty of actually collecting their pensions. If they still lived in rebel-controlled territory, they had either to cross to the government-controlled side themselves, or get someone else to do it for them. This problem presented a business opportunity to agents who would, for a fee, cross into government-held territory, most often via Russia, with piles of pensioners’ bank cards, and then bring back the cash to the needy elderly people. I often spoke to elderly people in rebel territory in the early months of 2015 whose distress at being left without means of providing for themselves was matched by their anger at being denied the pensions which they had worked their whole lives to earn. They complained that agents found at the border crossing with the bank cards of multiple people sometimes had them all confiscated by border guards, thus denying pensioners their last chance of receiving their entitlements.

And just as people were left without salaries or pensions, the economic blockade delivered another blow, as Ukrainian products disappeared from the shelves in the early weeks of 2015. After a period of shortages of many goods, Russian products started to appear in their place. But prices were significantly higher. Gradually some Ukrainian products started to reappear, thanks to smuggling across the frontline, but still the prices were higher. People were hit from two sides at once. Their earnings taken away, and prices increased. Teachers told us of school children being faint due to hunger.

A lifeline was provided for many by humanitarian assistance. The regular arrival of humanitarian convoys from Russia was highly controversial for Ukraine from the outset, amid accusations that military equipment may also have been brought in. Yet for thousands such assistance was a means of survival. In towns around the LNR, the Cossacks and local authorities established canteens at which people could receive free meals. Volunteers took food to elderly people unable to come to the towns. Further humanitarian supplies came from a foundation established by Ukraine’s most famous oligarch, Reinat Akhmetov, especially in towns where his enterprises were key employers. I visited a warehouse in Sverdlovsk, stacked high with food packages supplied by Akhmetov, awaiting distribution.

The blockade made crossing the contact line considerably more difficult for ordinary people. The Ukrainian authorities instituted a system whereby people could apply for special passes to cross the frontline. But they had to be in government-held territory in order to make the application, an obvious difficulty for those in rebel territory. Some living close to the contact line, who knew the local footpaths, managed to cross back and forwards unobtrusively. I once spoke with a woman in Hirske who was returning to her home in Pervomaisk after a short visit to relatives on the government-held side. It was such a short distance, just a few kilometres. But now it was difficult she said, especially for her small children. She would take a marshrutka (minibus) part of the way, but then she would have to walk across the frontline.

Further west, in Donestk region, there was an official crossing point close to Artemivsk, where vehicles lined for several kilometres to cross the contact line. I visited this crossing point just once. People waited all day, uncertain whether they would reach the front of the queue. For many, travelling between rebel and government-held areas via Russia was a simpler option.


Stanytsia Luhanska bridge, May 2015

On one occasion, in February 2015, close to the contact line at Pervomaisk, we saw a car hurriedly turning off a track onto the main road. Its boot was open, with great bundles of flowers inside. Perhaps he was planning to sell them on Valentine’s Day. But for most, crossing by car was no longer an option. The bridges across the Severny Donets River were either closed or wrecked. The bridge at Stanytsia Luhanska was first damaged, and then wrecked completely. Some wooden ramps were put in place making passage on foot possible, but for vehicles it was now closed. I visited the bridge from both sides in those early months of 2015. Crowds of desperate people waited for hours in the hope of being allowed across by the Ukrainian soldiers guarding the northern end. Sometimes they were lucky. It seemed random. An elderly lady I once encountered on the LNR side told me she would wait until the end of the day, when most people had given up and left. Sometimes the Ukrainian soldiers would let a few people pass then.

Among these crowds at the bridge, there were often pitiful stories, of divided families, personal tragedies. There was the man who wanted to cross into government-held territory to register the death of his father. This was a problem for many, as legal documents issued in rebel-held territory were not considered valid by the Ukrainian authorities. Births, marriages, deaths, property transactions all needed to be registered on the government-controlled side in order to be recognised. The recently bereaved man had explained his predicament to the Ukrainian soldiers, but had they had remained implacable. He could not pass. This was the heartlessness of the war, which bore down so unnecessarily on so many people.

That people would endure such obstacles in order to ensure that important events such as births and deaths were properly registered under Ukrainian law indicated that for many in rebel territory there was no belief, no expectation that their long-term future would be outside of Ukraine. Indeed, I heard such scepticism again and again. More than once, when listening to people complaining about the actions of “our president”, I asked them which president did they mean, Ukrainian President Poroshenko or the head of the LNR, Igor Plotnitsky? Typically, they would look bewildered. Poroshenko, of course. That many young people went to government-controlled territory for the final year of their schooling was another indication. In order to continue their education in Ukraine, they needed Ukrainian-issued school certificates.

And then there were the people who quietly acknowledged that they were for Ukraine. This was a sentiment that could not be expressed openly, but the longer I stayed in LNR territory, the more I heard it. Chatting with locals in a frontline village at the beginning of 2015, two men, waiting until they were out of earshot of others, whispered “we are for Ukraine”. Smiles broadened on their faces after they had said it, as if in sheer pleasure at being thus able to unburden their hearts of their true feelings about the conflict. Then there was the lady in a House of Culture who told us she was for Ukraine. I asked her whether there were many in her town who felt that way. Everybody who works here does, she replied. And there was the café where, following the capture of Debaltseve by rebel forces, I was asked anxiously whether it was true that the town had fallen. When I confirmed that it was, staff and customers alike were crestfallen. Here, it turned out, was a little meeting place where supporters of Ukraine came together.

The conflict in Donbas was full of ambiguities, and presented many of its people with impossible dilemmas. Most did not like the Euromaidan, and did not support the authorities in Kyiv that had taken power. Time and again people told me that when they had voted in the referendum in May 2014, they had wanted to make their voices heard, to register their opposition to what had happened in Kyiv. They had not voted for war. Most rejected the name ‘separatist’ that had been hurled at them, and even more so that they were ‘terrorists’. A young journalist from Luhansk who had moved to the government-controlled side told me that many in the spring of 2014 had been excited about the prospect of breaking with Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea, they thought they too could have higher Russian salaries and pensions. But after the outbreak of war, many were now regretful. The old ladies I spoke to in one village near Luhansk at the beginning of 2015 told me they did not expect to separate from Ukraine. Perhaps the special autonomy envisaged in the Minsk peace plan would be the best solution.

Now the people of Donbas found themselves caught up in a tragedy that few had wanted, thousands killed, lives ruined, families divided, and the economy in tatters. It was not what they had wanted, of course. But this is where the failure to find a common understanding of where post-Soviet Ukraine was heading had brought this country. Ever since independence more than 20 years before, this diverse, divided land had failed to agree even on the most fundamental questions of what kind of country Ukraine should be, whether part of Europe or continuing in the Russian orbit. In the end it was a failure of their leaders, but it was the people who suffered.