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Back in Ukraine
A year after I last visited I am back in Ukraine. My plan is to head for Kyiv and points east for a week or so before researching possibilities for a new wounded veterans project we are working on at Wild Bear Lodge. This will be the first of a handful of dispatches from my trip. I will post this on both Bearly Surviving – my wilderness newsletter – and Back to the Front – the newsletter I use to publish my journalism. Future posts from this trip that do not involve the Wild Bear Lodge Wounded Veterans Programme will only appear on Back to the Front.
The first hint of the war unfolding more than a thousand kilometres to the east came on the freshly-paved highway near the Polish town of Rzeszow. Three modern ambulances were speeding their way west, lights flashing.
Inside lay the injured bodies of young Ukrainian men, freshly maimed in the trenches of the Donbas. At a new EU medical evacuation hub doctors were waiting to prepare them for transport to European countries where they could be given proper medical care.
An hour later I was wheeling my suitcase through no man’s land and into Ukraine. I had left a frigid Kyiv just as the storm clouds were gathering late last January and not been back since.
A few weeks after my departure the Kremlin had sent its tanks into Ukraine in an attempt to decapitate the leadership and take the country by force. So sure were the Russians of victory they took with them parade uniforms and riot-control equipment.
The Ukrainians, written off by most pundits, had fought Moscow’s armies to a standstill across much of the east, while clawing back early Russian gains in the north and south.
But, as winter set in, increasingly the lines seemed to stagnate even as the casualty count mounted. By the end of last year one US estimate had the number of dead on both sides at around the hundred thousand mark.
With the first anniversary of the beginning of the war approaching, it was high time for me to return to the country I had first reported from as Moscow Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph nearly 20 years earlier.
As I emerged from the walkway between the two border posts, surrounded by high wire fencing, Anatoly, a handsome man with a blunt face and warm smile, was waiting. For the next several hours we chatted.
A native Russian speaker from Popasna, a small town in the eastern Luhansk region, Anatoly is one of those Ukrainians whose personal history seems interwoven with the story of the war.
When the fighting first started in 2014 Anatoly watched in horror as the new frontline snaked right along the edge of his village, cutting him off from friends who lived down the road.
He joined the Ukrainian defence forces and for two years fought the pro-Russia separatists who had declared war on his homeland.
Later Anatoly moved to a small pleasant town called Bakhmut, where he spent six years working his way up to become the managing director of a company mending railway waggons.
“It was a lovely town,” he said. “Kind of cool, but also relaxed.”
Today Bakhmut is better known as a 21st century Verdun or Stalingrad - albeit on a smaller scale.
Since last summer the Russian military – and its mercenary allies in the Wagner group – have thrown wave after wave of infantry at the town, and yet somehow still failed to take it.
Later Anatoly moved again, this time to Lysychansk, an hour down the road.By now he was one of the region’s more successful businessmen and when a local journalist was sent to interview him, he fell in love with her and they married.
“My friends told me to sell up and retire,” he said as we sat in a traffic jam on the outskirts of the western city of Lviv. “I certainly had the money. I had travelled to half the world on holiday – Sir Lanka, the Dominican Republic, all over Europe. But I decided I was too young.”
Then on Feb 24th last year Vladimir Putin ordered his tanks across the border. Anatoly, who had watched the military build-up and feared the worst, was on a train heading east to clear out his possessions. But he never made it.
“For six hours the train couldn’t move backwards or forwards,” he said. “There was fighting all around. We just sat there like sitting ducks.”
Eventually the train reversed direction. At each station locals, desperate to avoid the Russian advance, swarmed onboard. In the end Anatoly was sharing a sleeping couchette designed for two with 14 others.
“It took us three days and three nights to reach Lviv and twice the train was raked with bullets,” he said.
At his home in Lysychansk the Russian Army made short work of his worldly possessions. They torched his car, stole the vans, tractors and agricultural vehicles he used to run his business, and soldiers move into his house.
Today Anatoly lives in Lviv with his wife and four-year-old boy. He scratches a living as a driver for international NGOs, picking up western staff at the border and bringing them east.
“I can’t complain,” he said.
When we got to Lviv, my first visit to the city that has been at times Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian and Soviet, Anatoly volunteered to take me on a walking tour of the old town. He said his work was done for the day.
We visited a craft chocolate shop, another that sold only gingerbread, and yet another that sold artisan coffee from large glass containers.
The decorative facades of the buildings were so ornate, the cafes and restaurants so chic – one advertised oysters and bubbles in English – that were it not for the lack of tourists and gilding I could almost have imagined myself in central Brussels.
Eventually Anatoly and I parted – me to while away the hours until the night train to Kyiv, Anatoly to head home. I asked him if he envisaged staying in Lviv when the war was over. He shook his head.
He told me how one time he went fishing with his small son – “I love fishing and hunting,” he said. Just as they were sorting out their rods another father and son team arrived, also to fish.
Anatoly’s little boy ran over to the new boy. But when the boy’s father heard that they were Russian speakers he called his son back.
“My little boy turned to me questioningly – he just didn’t understand.” Anatoly said. “I wanted to grab the man and tell him that we didn’t decide which language we grew up with. But I didn’t want to make a scandal. I hate the division this war has brought.”
Please feel free to make comments and offer both opinions and corrections.
NEWS & UPCOMING
+ I am planning to head further east this week with an old friend who also worked in Moscow in the early 2000s as a newspaper correspondent.
+ Please note that this dispatch will go out to all subscribers but most future dispatches from this trip will be for paid subscribers only. As I am funding myself, that will help me cover some costs. Please do become a paid subscriber to Back to the Front if you want to receive all my dispatches.
+ My apologies for the gap between this and my last dispatch. I was not being entirely lazy. I will shortly share a report from Transylvania where I spent several days earlier this month wondering why Yugoslavia and Ukraine have descended into conflict and Transylvania didn't, even though it seemed set to.