The last Ukrainian checkpoint, a de facto border crossing, is manned by the border guards. In the middle of it, aluminium-clad cabin gleams in the morning light – a semi functioning customs-inspection point. “Until the first shelling,” motions one of the guards. The road leading to Pavlopil, yet another village stuck in the buffer zone, has seen heavy fighting in recent months.
Far-right affiliated Azov battalion led the assault in February 2015 to push the frontline further away from Mariupol. Pavlopil was secured by Ukrainian troops in February 2014 along with other neighbouring villages, some of which – such as Kominternove – were later retaken by Russian-backed separatists. Pavlopil, however, remained trapped between the frontlines. “Red Cross came twice; Renat Ahmetov Foundation [the charity run by Ukraine’s richest oligarch] came once” – says Igor (name changed). The aid and attention dried up quickly, with Pavlopil becoming one of the many buffer zone villages in the same day-to-day struggle for survival.
Climate of fear and mistrusts surrounds the community, which by now has become a wartime enclave. One of the remaining youths sits aboard a bus, which charges three times more than in peacetime for travel between Pavlopil and Mariupol. Every resident spoken to preferred to remain anonymous – with no question of portrait photography – citing fears for their safety in the hands of the separatists or the Ukrainian soldiers. “We bring back ten loafs of bread, they [Ukrainians] say those are for separatists. There are four people in my family, we are not separatists!” – says Yana (name changed) – “They [the Ukrainian border guards] treat us like separatists; we don’t know why.” Whether a different future awaits across the separatist lines, Vlad (name changed) shrugs: “What’s the point of crossing into the separatist areas, there’s no work there as well. There used to be a lot of jobs in Novoazovsk [separatist stronghold, 50 kilometres east of Mariupol], now there’s nothing.”
“Those who left have come back by now” – says Igor. Majority of the 700 residents of Pavlopil stayed in the village, while those who fled during the initial fighting in February 2014, have returned. “How can we leave? We have no money to relocate.” – says Igor’s wife.
“We share everything now. Maybe someone has some bread or potatoes, another person has a cow,” explains Vlad about the everyday struggle in the village – “Yes, yes you could say it’s almost like Communism,” he laughs at the suggestion.
“We haven’t paid for gas and electricity for two months now; how can we?” – says Igor – “All I do is watch TV- I used to work.” In the midst of an economic crisis, even metropolitan cities are short for work. “I can’t travel for work, when it takes hours and costs 40 hryvnas and I can only earn less than 100 for a full day,” says Igor.
“Most are unemployed now, before we all worked in factories and fields.” – says Yana. The only two shops in the village are now closed; supplies are brought in by relatives, friends and neighbours “Maybe that person needs some cigarettes or another needs some flour,” explains Yana. This leads to increased difficulties when crossing the Ukrainian checkpoints, where the time to cross ranges from minutes to – more often than not – hours.
“Before it was a really nice place to live; the Community House worked, so did the schools.” – says Nadia. The emptiness of the village is interrupted by barking of the many stray dogs. As the day progresses, few people emerge to work the fields and leave for Mariupol; in return, those who come back quickly disperse back into their homes.
The graffiti on Pavlopil’s bus stop reads – ‘We are for peace.’ Waiting for a bus to Mariupol, Nadia says: “We are so tired of this war; enough is enough.”