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Left Behind

Life in Purgatory on the Ukrainian Front Lines

Trade has slowly resumed between Kiev and Donetsk despite the ongoing trade embargo, but life for those who live on the frontlines in Ukraine remains difficult. And war could return to the region at any moment.

Dmitri Beliakov / DER SPIEGEL
Thursday, 11/5/2015   03:38 PM

The residents of the small Ukrainian city of Avdiivka are blessed with plenty of humor. Black humor.

That becomes particularly apparent when one visits the building located at Uliza Molodyoshnaya (Street of Youth) 20, a nine-story residential bloc at the edge of town. In front of the building, it is still possible to make out the tram tracks, though it hasn't actually been running for quite some time. Then comes a browned bit of unused land and, a couple hundred meters further on, the forest.

The people of Avdiivka call the building "Rasukrashka," a word used for uncolored picture outlines in coloring books. Or for dot-to-dots. That, after all, is what building 20 on the Street of Youth now looks like. Indeed, calling it a building at all is something of a stretch. The doors are gone, with some improvised using plywood. There are holes where windows once were and most of the balconies have been destroyed. Yet 18 families still live inside the ruin. Somehow.

The building is located directly on the frontline between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. Beyond the small wood lies the settlement of Spartak, and beyond that comes the runway of the Donetsk airport, or at least the burned-out steel and concrete shell that is left of it. Nowhere was the fighting as prolonged and intense as it was in this region.

The Rasukrashka had the bad luck of being located essentially directly across from Donetsk, with shells fired by separatist forces exploding here almost every single day. The last of the building's residents to have lost their lives were a grandmother and her grandson. The woman was found beneath a pile of rubble and the child was in the doorframe of a neighboring apartment. That was in July.

"Hopefully, they were the last to die," says a soldier, but that is far from a certainty. His unit has found shelter in a neighboring building. Despite the ceasefire, recent days have seen renewed shelling.

Almost Forgotten

But the world is no longer paying much attention to Ukraine, having shifted its gaze to Syria and to the stream of refugees heading for Europe and the war at the edge of the continent has almost been forgotten. But it hasn't come to an end. It is only dormant, ready to erupt again according to needs of those who started it.

The conflict is still a fact of life for the residents of Avdiivka. It has made the nearby provincial capital of Donetsk unreachable and the nearest large cities, with shopping malls, hospitals and cinemas, are hundreds of kilometers away. Electricity has returned, but there still is no warm water, many windows are simply boarded up and the shops are half empty. During the nonstop rain during the final days of October, the city resembled a cemetery.

Avdiivka has become a symbol of the border that divides a country into two regions: here, the Ukrainian-controlled portion of the former province of Donetsk and there, the self-proclaimed republic of pro-Russian separatists. The fighting has largely ceased, but in both camps, attitudes toward the opposing region have become hardened, with "terrorists" controlling the one and "fascists" the other.

Yet despite the official propaganda, there are several strands that connect the warring parties. Donetsk can't live without the rest of Ukraine and Ukraine can't do without Donetsk: Each side has something that the other doesn't. There are, of course, those who are able to profit from exactly that situation. And then there are those whose lives have been turned into a daily struggle.

Who is more aware of that than Mussa Magomedov? He's the general director of the coking plant in Avdiivka, which was once one of Europe's largest. Currently, the factory produces 8,500 tons of coke per day, a fuel derived from coal and used in steel making. "Last winter, I was convinced that we were facing catastrophe and that the factory would be destroyed," Magomedov says.

Magomedov is a 45-year-old originally from Dagestan in the northern Caucasus. He is wearing the red-and-white uniform of Metinvest, the holding company for steel and mining concerns that belongs to Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's wealthiest oligarch.

'Bandits and Marauders'

"This coking plant was the cornerstone of his empire," Magomedov says. He points out the window where a battery of thousand-degree coke ovens stands hissing. Toxic yellow steam pours out when the oven doors are opened and the entire factory is covered in dust and soot. It was opened in 1963, but it looks as though it comes from the very earliest days of industrialization.

When the war began, Akhmetov fled to Kiev. Once the king of Donetsk, he was also one of the main financial backers of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, though his role isn't entirely clear today. Last year, he referred to the separatists as "bandits and marauders," but since then he has said little as he tries to save his empire.

In late October, when Ukrainians went to the polls for local elections, the vote was cancelled in Mariupol, the home of Akhmetov's largest steel factory. Voting there was called off after large numbers of flawed ballots were found -- in a printing office owned by Akhmetov. The billionaire is eager to get friendly politicians in office wherever he can. Indeed, it is said that he offers his services to both parties to the conflict -- because the border between Ukraine and the separatist areas runs right through his network of companies.

The entire absurdity of the situation in eastern Ukraine is reflected in Akhmetov's empire. His coking plant in Avdiivka relies on coal produced by mines in areas now held by the rebels. The coke produced by the Avdiivka plant is then needed by the oligarch's steel factories, many of which are likewise located in rebel-held territories. But the finished product must then be shipped from ports in government-held regions of Ukraine. The fact that eastern Ukraine's economy is heavily dependent on steel helps explain why Avdiivka was such an important target in the war.


The Frontline

"We are living in a prolonged state of emergency," says Magomedov. "Bridges in the area and train lines were blown up so that no more coal was arriving, high tension lines failed, there were fires at the factory that we were unable to extinguish, nine workers were killed and 700 fled. Some 3,700 are still here."

Magomedov has spent the last 16 months mostly in his office, behind which he has a room for sleeping. Inside is a makeshift bed, with his bullet-proof vest lying next to it.

Trade Embargo

He was forced to shut down the coking plant 12 times due to shelling and skirmishes. But what does it really mean to shut down such a facility? Simply turning off the machinery would destroy it; the factory must constantly be heated. And the heat is generated by the gas that is a byproduct of coke production. "Our saving grace was tapping into natural gas lines out in the countryside, an extremely dangerous proposition," he says.

For the moment, at least, all that is history. But Magomedov now has other concerns. The coking ovens at his facility go through 12,000 tons of black coal each day -- coal that comes from areas further to the west, with some shipments even coming from the United States or Australia, 14,000 kilometers (8,700) away. Yet there are mines that produce high-quality black coal just a few hours' drive away in the Donetsk and Luhansk "People's Republics," but the government in Kiev has slapped a trade embargo on the separatist regions. Those who violate the embargo are accused of helping the "terrorists."

But as in every war, trading with the enemy continues. Mussa Magomedov, who is otherwise quite open about the affairs of the factory he runs, exhibits a certain amount of reticence when asked about cross-border commerce. "Yes," he finally says, "we purchase coal from Krasnodon in the Luhansk People's Republic. But it's no more than 10,000 tons per month at the moment, he adds.

And the coke is shipped back into the rebel republics, such as to the Yenakiieve steel works near Donetsk, which also belongs to Akhmetov?

"Yes, but that facility pays taxes to Ukraine. That's why Kiev allows me to ship my coke there," says Magomedov.

So the accusations coming out of Kiev that Akhmetov is financing terrorists are incorrect?

"I am convinced that the separatists are exerting influence on the steel works, but I don't know exactly how. If they helped the rebels, Kiev would shut down the facility immediately," Magomedov says.

Working Hand in Hand

He is, of course, aware that his response is not strictly accurate. Of course the separatists are profiting from this trade. Essentially, the arrangement involves Kiev, the rebels and Akhmetov working hand in hand: Ukraine needs the coal from the mines in the east.

Suppliers in the separatist areas must register in Kiev and undertake all financial transactions there. But it is an open secret that some of the money ends up with other recipients in the rebel republics by way of fictitious transactions. Even the coal minister of the Luhansk People's Republic was involved in such dealings, though he apparently went too far and was arrested by his own people in October. He is said to have "illegally" sold 3 million tons of coal to Ukraine proper.

Wars are not fought for the interests of the simple people, as residents of Avdiivka well know. But they are bothered by the double standard: Even as trade between east and west resumes, their lives are being made more difficult.

The victims are people like shift leader Artur Bygu, who is standing with his soot-smeared face at coke oven battery six. Bygu works in Avdiivka, but he lives in Yasynuvata, in the Donetsk People's Republic. Every weekend, he makes the 20 kilometer journey home to his wife and two children. The factory bus long has since stopped running and the roads are closed, but there is a way through -- an unofficial checkpoint that he can pass through on a bicycle. When it's raining, he has to walk due to the mud on the path.

"It's difficult," Bygu says, when asked what it's like to commute between the two vastly different worlds. He tells of his 10-year-old daughter, who goes to school in a school run by the separatists, and is being taught the history of Ukraine with Russian schoolbooks. "But our influence as parents is stronger," Bygu says. "She understands what is going on." Bygu also says that he is envied by his neighbors "because I have work and am being paid in Ukrainian hryvnia. In the People's Republic, where only the Russian ruble is accepted, hryvnia are as coveted as dollars."

Fear of Defeat

The worst, though, is crossing the border, he says. "The guard's often look at me with open hatred," Bygu says. "For those in Donetsk, I am a Ukrop, a Ukrainian patriot. The Ukrainians, by contrast, act as though I were a separatist, which is even worse. Their mistrust of us is palpable."

Such suspicions explain why many of those living at the cease-fire line either didn't cast their ballots in the October local elections or simply voted for former allies of Yanukovych. In cities like Slovyansk, where the war began last year, 70 percent of the people didn't bother to vote. In Avdiivka, the vote didn't even take place, for "security reasons." The real reason, though, was likely the government's fear of defeat.

The city of Donetsk lies but 10 kilometers from Avdiivka, but there is no longer a direct route connecting them. Travelers must take a 150 kilometer detour and pass through three official checkpoints to get there. The city continues to look just as beat up as it did during the months of heavy fighting and the streets are largely empty, belying claims that those who fled Donetsk during the fighting are returning. In fact, it is only young men who have returned as they seek to avoid conscription in Ukraine proper. Most shops remain closed, as do the cinemas. Only the opera house is carrying on, with Verdi's "A Masked Ball" to be staged on the first weekend in November.

Temperatures have dropped to typical late-autumn levels, but heating is rare, with coal and natural gas in short supply and extremely expensive. In the grocery stores, shoppers pull out their mobile phones to convert ruble prices to the more familiar Ukrainian hryvnia. A kilogram of meat costs around €5 with fish going for €6 and newspapers are full of tips for finding cheaper foodstuffs. Aid from Moscow has not been as generous as claimed.

Survival in the new People's Republic is difficult, and that is the primary concern of the people who live there. "When I want to travel to Mariupol, on the Ukrainian side, to withdraw money, I line up at the border at seven in the morning," says Andrei Korniyenko, who works at the Donetsk opera. "The last time, I still hadn't made it across by 6 p.m. when the border closed. I had to spend the night in the fields. That is humiliating."

Trading with the Enemy

People in Donetsk decline to talk about the separatist leader there, with many of them afraid to open their mouths. And nobody seems to know what might happen next. The government's military spokesman now says there was never any intention to establish a Novorossiya republic extending to the Crimean Peninsula. That idea, he says, existed only in the minds of simple people. Yet it was the rebel leaders themselves who used the promise of such a republic to motivate eastern Ukrainians to rise up against the rest of the country. Russia, though, no longer supports the project, thus transforming the Donetsk People's Republic into a republic without a purpose.

Money is the rebels' greatest problem. It can only be earned with the coal produced locally, which accounts for the stress the mining minister is under. On a recent weekend, he sat moodily in his office and complained that he hadn't received "a single ruble of support" in nine months. Of the 38 mines that used to be in operation, only 13 are still working today and 40 percent of all miners have fled. Furthermore, the minister continues, production costs of a ton of coal are up to five times as high as the current market price. Plus, many shafts became flooded during the war. "But despite all that, we're probably doing better than you are with all your refugees in Europe," the minister says with obvious schadenfreude.

His task, the minister says, is that of "ensuring the sector's survival." Every screw and every bolt must be saved, he says, adding that coal, like electricity, should be sold to the enemy, the Ukrainians. The financial distress also means that coal mines and steel factories won't be nationalized, he adds. "The reckoning with the oligarchs has been postponed to quieter times," the separatist newspaper, whose name translates as "New Russia," recently proclaimed. Leaders of the republic had decided "to give local industry clans the possibility to use their finances and energy in the fight against the Ukrainian fascists," the paper continued. The reference was to the oligarch Akhmetov or Dmitry Avtonomov.

Avtonomov is the 29-year-old scion of a mining family, which owns three mines, two of which are near Avtonomov's hometown of Torez, near where the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet fell to earth in July, 2014. Avtonomov junior is trying to sell his family's coal, along with that from other, small private mines, through his company Donbassugol. He has a degree in economics and finance -- and began trading in coal during his time at university.

His company headquarters has a view of Donetsk's Lenin Square, where a likeness of the revolutionary leader still stands. "Ukraine has betrayed us," Avtonomov says. That, though, hasn't stopped him from doing business with it. His company is registered in Kiev, where he pays 11 percent turnover tax, with another 20 percent of his profit owed to the separatist government. "But profit is not the most important thing at the moment," he says. "Our entire focus is now on keeping the mines in operation."

A trip to the Progress Mine in Torez reveals it to be one of the better mines in the separatist republic. Of 2,300 miners who once worked there, 1,800 remain. The mine's production has risen from the worst days of the war and now stands at 2,100 tons of coal each day, still a far cry from its one-time production rate of 3,000 tons per day.

It is 1 p.m. and mine director Alexander Klimentshuk and his general director Vladimir Mandrichenko descend 1,300 meters deep into the mine with the midday shift. "The worst days of the war," they say, "came in the wake of the Boeing crash, at the end of July, 2014." It was during those days that the high tension wire was destroyed, leading to a failure of the pumps. "Every hour, 500 cubic meters of water (130,000 gallons) were flowing into the mineshaft."

Uncompromising, Hateful Words

With his hand, Klimentshuk shows how high the water rose, indicating that the tunnels were almost completely flooded. The Ukrainians were advancing at the time and the mine also came under fire. Klimentshuk has saved some of the shrapnel in his office. "Two kilometers from the mine, the enemy tanks were stopped," he says.

Work at the mine ceased entirely for four months, but then it resumed. It is a relatively safe mine, not one of the death-wish shafts that can be found elsewhere in the Donetsk region, where deadly accidents occur with depressing regularity. But the air underground is far from fresh and it is 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). The miners still work as they did in 1935: one man with a jackhammer and two with shovels.

"They earn around $450 dollars per month," says mine director Klimentshuk. "Even for our conditions, that is a pathetic salary. It used to be that the men earned $1,500 on average, which was fine. Food was cheap. We could afford to fly to the Turkish coast for a beach vacation. Now, we can't even make it to the Black Sea anymore."

As the mine boss and his general director are driven back to the hoist cage, they say something that can be heard almost everywhere one goes in the People's Republics. That they will never forgive the Ukrainians for bombing their own people. And that, were Ukrainian forces to again go on the offensive, they would all grab for their weapons to once again beat back the "enemy." Just like they did last year.

They are uncompromising, even hateful, words. But the martial tones also serve to obscure a certain degree of helplessness. The people feel as though they have been left to their own devices: abandoned by a Moscow that had led them to believe in a future of close ties to the Russian world and punished by Kiev with a merciless embargo and contempt. Yet now would be an excellent time to begin the rapprochement process with Ukraine's separatist east. It is likely, though, that the government in Kiev will let this opportunity pass as well.

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