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Ukraine Diaries: Donbas, where volunteers pray that fate will spare them

30 Jun 2022

Photo provided by the author.

In his Ukraine Diaries, researcher Romain Huët chronicles the way war has changed the daily lives of an entire population. After reporting for The Conversation from the field in April and May 2022, he now provides us with a first-hand look at the conflict. This entry is the last in the diary series.


1 May 2022, Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk.

Leaving Kharkiv was a painful and trying experience. I had built a rapport with many of the volunteers. The act of leaving and the discomfort that comes with it reveals the asymmetrical relationship between the observer and the volunteers. They stay, whereas I am free to move on, having spent only a short time in their lives.

After our goodbyes and our promises to keep in touch no matter what, I travel to two other volunteer centres in the Donbas that serve the cities of Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk. The military situation here is much worse than in Kharkiv. Russian forces have surrounded the city and the fighting is particularly fierce. Each day, there are fears that the enemy will push forward enough to capture both cities.

In the thick of the conflict

As in Kharkiv, the volunteer centre provides humanitarian aid to the towns and villages caught in the clashes. It is also responsible for evacuating the last war-weary inhabitants who are reluctantly leaving their homes and livelihood behind.

This week, I have been helping the volunteers in their missions. Every day is more or less the same. At 7 a.m., volunteers from all of Kramatorsk come out to their ‘base’ in the suburbs. To access it, one must drive along a badly damaged road, practically crawling for the last 200 metres as one swerves between the various obstacles on one’s path.

The base – a huge disused sawmill – is an unsettling sight to behold. The factory looks like it was abandoned years ago. Stacks of wood and machinery litter the floor.

In front of the old sawmill-turned-volunteer base. Romain Huët, Fourni par l'auteur

When I arrive, most of the volunteers have already made their way here by minibus or in their own cars. They queue up in front of a makeshift petrol station consisting of two tanks containing a few hundred litres of fuel each.

The volunteers repeat the routine every morning, parking in front of the tanks to fill up their vehicles for the day’s journey. The tanks are stocked up on a provisional, daily basis. The rest of the fuel sits in a massive storage building, which serves as a goods warehouse and loading area. Inside, cardboard boxes are arranged haphazardly, most of them filled with basic necessities supplied by European NGOs. There are also all sorts of sweets and juices with unusual flavours and colours.

Inside the storage building. Romain Huët, Fourni par l'auteur

Not far off, Ukrainian tanks hide from sight. Although we can’t see them, we regularly hear them shoot. Their presence unnerves me, as they make the base a potential target. Others don’t share my concern, however. The volunteers don’t seem to care about the reality on the frontline, military positions or the situation at large. Fed up and saturated with the ever-changing news, they simply accept this new reality and get on with it. They speak of the military situation only in very broad terms.

When missiles start raining from the sky

I’m embedded with Vadim for the day. We’re going to deliver packages to Severodonetsk, a city that would usually be a two hours’ drive away. It has been under siege for several weeks. After that, we will attempt to evacuate civilians from the surrounding villages.

We will be driving an old minibus donated to the centre by a Polish NGO. Its seats have been removed to make more room. Vadim, a slightly portly man of about forty with a cheerful face, seldom speaks; when he chooses to do so, he never raises his voice. He’s not the type of guy to cause trouble. He gets the job done without making a fuss. In all our chats, he has never gone into details about his old life, perhaps because he thinks it isn’t relevant to what’s going on now. He was introduced to me as a formidable driver, the best of the best. I understood this to mean that his missions would take him to all the difficult-to-access areas.

Vadim driving the minibus. Romain Huët, Fourni par l'auteur

Before we return to the base, Vadim drops me off outside one of the rare open supermarkets to stock up on cigarettes. It’s not always possible to find them. Many cities have been hit with goods shortages, and basic necessities are not exactly supplied equally. Some might consider cigarettes to be a completely unessential consumer product. But in this time of war the volunteers I’ve met have all been chain-smoking to kill time or to calm their nerves in critical situations. In the shop, I hesitate over whether to get myself a take-away coffee. I usually go for an “Americano”. On the whole, the coffee here doesn’t exactly have the best flavour, but at least it keeps you awake after restless nights filled with explosions and sirens. There are a few people in front of me in the queue. We decide not to wait any longer – we’re in a hurry.

Getting back to the factory is an ordeal because of the terrible state of the road. Making constant stops and starts, Vadim drives slowly across the bumpy surface, taking particular care with the train tracks that could damage the vehicle’s shock absorbers – we don’t want to end up stuck on one of them. The old minibus rocks from side to side under the strain of countless past repairs. Vadim patiently weaves his way forward, on the lookout for patches of road that can support the vehicle’s wheels.

We arrive at the factory and exit the vehicle. As always, we shake a few hands as we wait to fill up. I light a cigarette. At that very moment, we are shaken by a huge blast. The boom is deafening. It causes us to instinctively duck down. The missile has exploded just 200 metres from our position, hitting the potholed road that we crossed just three minutes earlier. A giant cloud of black smoke and debris billows up into the air. Everyone is terrified. “Fuck, that was a close one,” one of the volunteers says. We keep our eyes on the sky in case we see another missile falling on us. The bombs fall so fast that you barely have the time to watch yourself die.

Tapping Vadim’s shoulder, I point toward a second missile falling from the sky. It lands at around the same place as the first. Whether due to the noise or to my stupor in the face of these death machines, I am unable to tear my eyes away from the missile as it follows its trajectory from sky to ground. First, we see more black smoke filled with endless dirt and debris, forming an enormous mushroom cloud of death that floods the sky. Then, we hear the explosion piercing through the air. We run for cover behind a pile of wooden planks all cut up and stacked together – a makeshift shelter to protect from shrapnel. And when you see the sharp steel shards contained in these missiles, you realise that these planks can come in quite handy.

Everything happens so quickly and suddenly that there’s no point in trying to resist the panic. We are overcome with a slew of conflicting feelings; disbelief mixes with a keen sense of present danger. We stare at the sky, and then look all around for possible hiding spots.

Fear and dread are palpable, but expressed by no one. They take hold of our bodies and our innermost thoughts, repeating over and over that something even more horrific might happen. But we must keep these feelings to ourselves.

A few seconds after the explosion. The sign on the minibus says ‘Free Evacuations’. Romain Huët, Fourni par l'auteur

Photographing the destruction as it happens

Right after the explosion, some are taking photographs of the smoke swirling up into the sky. The purpose of this act is to prove to ourselves that we were actually there, standing just a few dozen metres away from the impact. Vadim even takes a video of himself with the plumes of smoke in the background. There’s a strange buzz in the air. “We were right there and three minutes earlier, we would have been goners.” Throughout the rest of the day, I hear these same words repeated, expressing the danger of the situation and an awareness of our sheer luck. My stomach is in knots.


Ukraine diaries:

  1. Our ethnographic correspondent documents the war

  2. Art in the face of the war

  3. Volunteering for war (in French)

  4. Can we turn our back on “their” war? (in French)

  5. Ruins, carefree attitude and the trivialisation of war (in French)

  6. Standing firm as the bombs fall (in French)

  7. Donbas, where volunteers pray to be spared by fate.


Vadim and I don’t stick around. We have to head back to Severodonetsk to deliver the packages and evacuate any willing residents. He fills up the fuel tank and we drive away from the site of the explosion. Along the bumpy road, a few metres from the massive factory, a number of soldiers emerge from their hiding spot. They are on high alert, but appear at a loss. Once a missile explodes, it is too late for the soldiers to retaliate. Utterly powerless, all they can do is observe the sky and pray that they will be spared.

Gifts at the checkpoints: two packets of Oreos and two bottles of orange juice

The trip to Severodonetsk lasts an hour and a half.

There are many checkpoints on the way, which we pass through with no trouble. Vadim takes this road every day and he has his little habits. He exchanges a few words with the soldiers, some of whom are old acquaintances. He doesn’t come empty-handed. To each of them, he offers two packets of Oreo biscuits and two bottles of orange juice.

The soldiers are amused by Vadim’s generosity. They joke around but are happy to take the gift. For my part, I have only been checked once in the city of Severodonetsk. The soldier asked me where my helmet was and I told him that it was in the boot of the vehicle. Vadim wasn’t wearing one and I didn’t really want to stand out in those sorts of situations. The soldier eyed me up scornfully, annoyed by the apparent carelessness of the “war tourist”.

“Think you’re Ironman or something?” he asks. “If there’s an explosion, your whole body will be blown to pieces.”

Watching his sweeping gesture, simulating how my flesh would be scattered through the air, I secretly harboured a few doubts about the helmet’s usefulness. “You can just give it to me if you’re not going to wear it,” he continued. Not possible. The helmet and bulletproof vest were on loan from Reporters Without Borders. I had left a deposit of €2,500, so I had better hold on to it.

The same emptiness spreading out before us

Severodonetsk is just as sinister as the north-eastern neighbourhoods of Kharkiv. The same emptiness spreads out before us: streets reduced to rubble, bullet-riddled blocks of flats, collapsed roofs and charred buildings. Explosions are very frequent.

Severodonetsk. Romain Huët, Fourni par l'auteur

The Russians surround the city, located just 3 km (2 miles) away. On our way, we pass several Ukrainian tanks looking to position themselves. As we travel through the city, Vadim insists that I take some videos. After all, my role is to document, and “footage” is vital in attesting to this reality.

He reminds me to hide my camera as we appear to approach a checkpoint. But the streets are empty of people. Vadim has forgotten one important thing: we are at the frontline where there are, of course, no checkpoints.

The video ends abruptly when the soldiers tell us to stop the minibus.

As I film the wreckage from a slow moving mini-bus, four soldiers appear out of nowhere. They stand 20 metres away, their guns aimed at us. Vadim stops the vehicle and opens the door. One of the soldiers draws his weapon closer. He yells at us to stay still – one move and he’ll shoot. The air is thick with tension. They surround the vehicle located a few metres away. It wouldn’t take much for them to shoot us down based on the ‘precautionary principle’. War does not always offer a valiant death. I remember that in Syria, not far from Idlib, two fighters were killed right after a significant victory over Bashar Al-Assad’s forces. In a festive mood, they had fooled around with SUVs they had taken from the regular army. They collided; two fighters died.

From the driver’s seat, Vadim shouts that we are volunteers. They ask us to slowly step out of the vehicle, with our hands up. Without lowering their weapons and still eyeing us suspiciously, they approach us. After asking some questions and checking our papers, they relax a little. Surprisingly, they do not go through my phone. The check shouldn’t last too long. We’re all totally exposed and vulnerable. After a few minutes, they let us go, ordering us not to take any photos. They don’t have to ask me twice.

Once the check is complete, we soon reach the volunteer centre. It’s a narrow building of around 70 sq. m. The interior is hollow because the living room wall was blown apart yesterday. The chairs are still here, though, now facing a gaping hole that looks out on a heap of rubble. The house has barely been cleared of the detritus. A coffee pot sits on the floor near an electrical socket. Assorted cardboard boxes are strewn around. It is a dodgy, unsafe place to be. But it is here that a dozen or so volunteers are still working away to bring aid to the citizens of Severodonetsk.

The volunteer centre in Severodonetsk as seen from the outside… William Nessen, Fourni par l'auteur
… from the yard… William Nessen, Fourni par l'auteur
… and from the inside. William Nessen, Author provided

It is also where I happen to meet an American journalist by the name of William Nessen (whose story of his stay in the Donbas can be read here). He’s been here a fortnight already and doesn’t intend to leave “until the Russians are gone”. Holding a packet of crisps, he munches away while giving me a rapid summary of all the different lives he has led covering wars in Indonesia, Iraq, and many other locations. His nonchalant, carefree manner puts me at ease. Nothing seems to bother him, not even the dull sounds of explosions that can be heard almost constantly.

A strange void

After delivering the goods, we hastily leave the volunteer centre. We make our way out of Severodonetsk and head toward a village under threat of siege by Russians forces. Our mission is to evacuate any willing inhabitants. Sometimes, evacuation is done with the help of the army, but nothing has been organized today. We speed along another road, cracked by rocket attacks.

On the road. Romain Huët, Fourni par l'auteur

It is lined by trees and fields that conceal a number of tanks. All around are sparse, thin columns of smoke. People often ask what the front is like. This is what it is: an empty space, fighters hiding in plain sight, smoke all around, sounds of explosions coming like clockwork. Gunshots can also be heard here and there, likely missing their target. It is an eerie landscape that offers nothing in the way of comfort. All stands still, in waiting.

In the minibus, Vadim is quiet. We are on edge, our bodies restless. We smoke nervously. Speeding along the treacherous roads, our senses are hyper-receptive, watching for dangers that might pop out of anywhere. All I see is a strange void; a desolate scene that gives off an intensely destructive, lethal vibe. We arrive at the village, perched on top of a little hill. A few residents are smoking in front of their homes against this grim barren backdrop. Vadim rolls down the window and offers his help. They wave us away. They’re staying here. Even though they risk ruin and occupation, they have made their choice. Emptying these towns of all their citizens is no mean feat.

Vadim continues to drive up and down the virtually empty streets. At a street corner, a guy holds a plastic bag, waving frantically. He seems relieved by our presence and hurries over to us. “Yes, I want to evacuate,” he says, his voice trembling. He looks particularly shaken, his features worn out by fear. Vadim asks for his ID. He has it. Carrying nothing more than a plastic bag and his papers, the young man leaves his life behind.

Just one person has agreed to evacuate today. Rational choice theory suggests that decisions should be made by weighing up potential risks to be met and the benefits to be gained following a certain action. That theory does not apply here. Our vehicle leaves the village at breakneck speed.

“We can’t stop; it’s dangerous here,” Vadim says, as he focuses on the road.

Romain Huët, Fourni par l'auteur
Romain Huët, Fourni par l'auteur

Time is of the essence. Silence suddenly falls in the minibus, slipping in among us. Words seem meaningless at this point. The road is a total wreck, every inch of it cracked, but Vadim appears to be speeding up even more. He positions the right wheels on the other side of a trench, while the left side remains on the undamaged part of the road. The vehicle flies on in this insane balancing act. I hold on tight, as terrified as I am helpless. Branches clatter against the windscreen, already well worn from many previous trips of this kind. I gaze out at the road as if I am the one driving. I consider all the different ways we might crash, imagining the windscreen shattering to pieces. Completely caught up in the action of our race, I have forgotten about the bombs. Vadim continues to send the vehicle hurtling forward until he finds some solid road.

It’s now looking more navigable. As the road starts to widen, the danger seems to move farther and farther away. Our tense bodies slacken. We are a bit calmer, but remain silent. I regain my bearings. As we drive on in silence, my reflections on war turn over in my head.

In this disempowering reality, how is it possible to feel like we have made any difference at all?

A cough from the passenger in the back pulls me back into reality. Even when the world is crumbling around you, you can still find some outlet; some feeling of having acted and stood up against the violence. Of course, the quest for such meaning might send you straight to your death. Incredibly, however, throughout all my time with the volunteers, not once was death mentioned. It has not yet become ubiquitous. Only if war drags on and hopelessness settles in will it become par for the course. For the time being, however, all their energy is being poured into the resistance, which they believe will be victorious.

At the limit of all expressions, there is silence – (Chris Marker)

A few minutes later, we light up cigarettes and manage to start speaking again. Vadim says that this used to be a pleasant drive before the road was taken over by tanks.

The scene was one of lush vegetation. Verdant plains stretched on for miles and the road was shaded by beautiful trees. The silence that took hold of us a few minutes earlier reflected our general sadness. It is a sadness not told in words, but rooted in the body. In his essay The living and the dead, the multimedia artist Chris Marker wrote: “At the limit of all expressions, there is silence.”

Each day, endlessly, Vadim makes these same journeys. When we get to Kramatorsk, he stops outside a bar that is seemingly shut, but which can actually be entered through a discreetly hidden door. We find ourselves in a semi-clandestine grocery shop selling alcohol, cigarettes, and a few food products. Vadim buys a few bottles. All of a sudden, I feel like having a big party, where everyone gets slightly tipsy and we all congratulate each other warmly for an extra day of work.

Instead, he leaves me back at HQ. Before heading home, he asks me to send him the video that I took before the soldiers started aiming at us. That utterly absurd moment really happened, and here’s the proof. But it’s not like people always believe what they see in videos. Real footage, at least, can prevent the memory from being lost, and defend against skeptics who would have you doubt your own experience.


Translated from the French by Enda Boorman for Fast ForWord

This article is a continuation of the author's research and ANR 'Ethnographie des guerillas et des émeutes: formations subjectives, émotions et expérience sensible de la violence en train de fait - EGR' https://anr.fr/Projet-ANR-18-CE39-0011.


Read the full article here.
This content was originally published by The Conversation. Original publishers retain all rights. It appears here for a limited time before automated archiving. By The Conversation

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