The Guns of August, the Cease-Fire of September

Is a back-to-school peace breaking out in eastern Ukraine?


PERVOMAISKE, Ukraine — On the first day of the school year in Pervomaiske, an eastern Ukrainian village some four miles from the front lines near the separatist-controlled Donetsk airport, students were dressed for the occasion: boys in smart suits and girls in white shirts, black skirts, and matching hairbands. The children and their parents walked past the birch trees surrounding the white-brick, Soviet-built, three-story schoolhouse. As they neared its entrance, they approached a mound of sand, used to fill the sandbags that protected the windows during the preceding months of shelling. Once they entered the school, the students streamed into the main hall and formed a semicircle, their doting parents shadowing them. Excitement filled the air as they waited impatiently for the school bell to ring.

For the time being, the truce that took effect on Sept. 1, the first day of school, appeared to be holding. Any pause in the fighting had seemed unlikely after the upsurge in violence in August in eastern Ukraine, which renewed fears that full-scale conflict would soon return to the region. But on Aug. 24, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko met in Berlin to reaffirm their joint support for the Minsk agreement, a plan agreed to in September 2014 to halt fighting in the east as a prerequisite to restoring normalcy. Both Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists had settled on Sept. 1 — a back-to-school cease-fire.

Civilians are cautiously optimistic that some semblance of normalcy will return to the region. On the front line, about one and a half miles from separatist-controlled Donetsk airport, Ukrainian soldiers have observed a reduction in hostilities. But they remain wary of the current lull. The silent guns have created an air of apprehension, filling the minds of many in the region with doubt.

On the first day of school, Natalia Dudareva, a 48-year-old teacher, beamed with enthusiasm. The school doors were open again after being closed for over a year. But there was still much work to be done. Months of shelling had blown the glass out of the school’s windows. As a temporary fix, the glass had been replaced with polythene sheets, which reflected a silver light in the sunshine.

“The school building is not yet ready for the autumn and winter season due to the damage caused by shelling over the past few months,” Dudareva said. “But all of the parents are pulling together resources to get the heating system going.”

Many of the parents who had gathered for the inauguration of the new school year thought that the current cease-fire would hold for only a short while — a previous cease-fire lasted only from February to May 2015, after all. “We want the cease-fire to hold, but we don’t believe it will, just as before,” said Yevgenia Anderivich, the parent of two schoolboys. “At the moment it’s been quiet….Now we are afraid of this silent period. You fear this silence and expect the worse, most of all in the evenings and at night.”

The Ukrainian government and numerous volunteer groups have helped villages like Pervomaiske get their schools up and running once again. Many schools along the front line were either destroyed or damaged during the preceding months. A recent delivery from Kiev volunteers brought blackboards, uniforms, and Ukrainian books.

On the other side of the de facto border, in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, pro-separatist authorities have revamped school syllabi, placing greater emphasis on Russian culture, language, and history and providing students with Russian diplomas. The changes are meant not only to bring the students in line with Russian educational norms, but also to make it easier for them to apply to Russian universities.

Some nine miles from the center of Donetsk sits Avdiivka, a front-line city that took heavy shelling in recent months and is now under the control of Kiev’s forces. It is also home to the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant, the largest coke producer in Ukraine before the conflict. Yuri Cherkasov, head of the city’s council and a council employee for the past 13 years, was grateful for the calm. “Thank God that [the separatists] are not shooting,” he said. “We have managed to open schools. If you compare [this] with the situation last year, none of the schools were open,” a time when the city took heavy missile and artillery fire. “We had many civilians injured and dead.”

Cherkasov thanked the government in Kiev and politicians in the Ukrainian parliament for the cease-fire, which has enabled schools to hold full-time classes and the city to restore vital services like running water, electricity, gas, and communication networks.

But though the cease-fire has brought a long-sought period of tranquility, Cherkasov said locals still feel the effects of months of shelling. “A type of psychological and emotional pressure is upon the city, and it’s not because the people here are bad or good,” he said. “It’s because they have become tired of this war. People have now become afraid of the peace and calm around the city. They hear silence and they think something will happen.”

Local resident Yevgenia Alexeivich echoed Cherkasov. “I’ve lived in Ukraine for the past 28 years. Before the conflict I had a job. I had a regular salary. I had electricity and water. It’s now quiet in the city, but who knows for how long? My parents’ house was completely destroyed, and in one second I was left with nothing.” She now rents a single-room apartment in the city center. “I don’t want the situation to get better. I just want it as it was before” the war, she said. “I don’t want to be part of the so-called People’s Republics.”

For those who have remained in the city or have recently returned, the Ukrainian government continues to provide social assistance to various groups that require financial or material aid, said city council head Yurij Cherkasov. These groups include single mothers, disabled children, Chernobyl rescue workers, and veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war.

Although things have improved since the cease-fire, not all the conditions of the Minsk agreement have been fulfilled. One such condition is full access for international monitors in separatist territories. Past cease-fires have drawn criticism for being complicated, fragile, and poorly implemented. During the recent calm, both sides have demonstrated an element of restraint, resulting in a drop in daily injuries and deaths.

Walking along front-line positions facing Donetsk airport, a deputy commander in a Ukrainian airborne unit who identified himself only as Zakh pointed out the remains of a Soviet wire-guided ground missile fired at Ukrainian positions, he claimed, on the first day of the cease-fire. All has been quiet since.

Zakh explained further that, prior to the cease-fire, separatists were firing heavy mortars and artillery on Ukrainian positions daily. When the separatists rotated positions every two weeks, it was clear who was firing. “When you had so-called separatist fighters … the shells would fly randomly all over the place. However, according to our information, when the Russians where occupying positions, the firing was precise, in a chessboard type of order. You could see professionals were operating the equipment.”

Despite the past two weeks of calm, Poroshenko said on Sept. 8 — not even a full week into the truce — that the war had not yet ended and that the country still faced the threat of a Russian military offensive. Ukrainians living in front-line towns and villages hope his message will pave the way for a more lasting peace.

Did Zakh believe the cease-fire would hold?

“You need to believe in the cease-fire. We, as soldiers, follow orders, but look at the faces of the local residents here, the people who live a few kilometers from the front line. You can see it in their eyes and faces. They are tired of this war.”

Photo credit: Aleksey Filippov/AFP

Editor’s Note: Portions of the reporting in this article were previously published on the website of Free Speech Radio News.

Filip Warwick is a freelance photojournalist currently based in Ukraine.

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