In the fading hours of the day, children laughter dies down, as they make their way back home – the other side of a semi-detached house, where a Ukrainian army unit is staying.
Radio, hooked onto separatist channel, crackles away with reports of Ukrainian movements and hourly checks. After a long silence, explosion of a rocket propelled grenade nearby breaks the calm; the children are long in bed.
One year since the War in Dobass has begun, the war continues to wind down into attritious, stationary frontline grind – opposing positions remain in place, along with all the civilians which refuse to, or can’t leave.
“What’s the point of leaving,” says Natasha, mother of the two children living in the house. “Those who left when the war begun have all returned. The money runs out, there’s not much work, and you have to go back.”
Natasha, along with her two children – Kristina, 14 and Kolia, 8 live together with the grandmother and great grandmother, 50 meters from the Ukrainian trenches and 300 meters away are the separatist lines; the men in the family are long gone.
“They’re probably fighting for the separatists,” says one of the Ukrainian soldiers. The mistrust between local population and the Ukrainian army is commonplace, especially in buffer zone, where the large majority of people support separatists and are reliant on Russian propaganda TV and radio.
Even after offered a flat in neighbouring Artemivsk, 30 kilometers away from the frontline, Natasha refused – “What’s the point, we still got to pay for the upkeep and there aren’t many jobs.”
However, the soldiers fail to see the point in her reluctance – “If they’re hurt, we’ll be the ones to blame, when she’s the one who doesn’t want to work,” says an officer, Oksana.
With the lull in fighting, days are spent preparing for the night time “discoteque” – the nightly fire exchanges take place according to unit’s commander Sasha.
Isolated, the world of the Ukrainian unit and the three-generation family is reduced to daily chores and semi-regular life. Someone begins peeling potatoes, as another takes a shower; Vova, an NCO, fills out a mountain of military paperwork.
In the second half of the day, the kids start playing football with the soldiers, and exchange shots of apples and water bombs. “Look at this wall, we got shelled badly,” says Vadim, pointing at the remains of a splattered apple on the wall; three bullet holes mark the roof, two meters above.
Following separatist rotation, the intensity of the fighting has decreased. According to the soldiers, most intense period was when Chechnyan fighters were stationed opposite.
“One night, they started shooting at each other. We watched it like a film,” laughs Sergei. Such reports are widespread on the frontline north of Donetsk, however, none have been confirmed.
As the night falls, Ukrainians gather for dinner around a table, protected by a row of sandbags. Most have been in Maidan during the revolution, yet some have much closer experiences.
Vadim was serving in the police force, 25 kilometres from where he is stationed now, when the separatists came. “We had to patrol, as if nothing was happening. If we weren’t there, total chaos would have taken place,” he says.
“The separatists had checkpoints, but then Aidar came”- the infamous Ukrainian volunteer battalion accused by Amensty International of perpetrating war crimes – “they took cars, some people got shot,” remembers Vadim.
Three men of the group have contusion, yet they must remain in the positions. Demobilisation has been delayed, as Ukrainian intelligence has reported of possible conflict escalation; it hasn’t happened so far. “We all want to go home, of course,” says Vitia,”I’m a simple man from a village, but I understand why we need to be here; no one wanted this war.”
Kristina, listened attentively as Medical corps gave a session on first-aid. “She can tell us all what to do after,” says Natasha.
“Everything is ok, we’re not afraid,” says Kolia, giving a standard reply. But beyond the childish façade, the minds of the children are harbouring future emotional and psychological problems.
“Well, they look at it as a game – what weapon fell where, and so on,” says Natasha. With the house being so close to separatists own positions, artillery rarely falls directly above. However, often it was too close for comfort.
“Some nights were very bad. The shells kept landing behind and around the house, not too far away; we spent the whole night in the shelter, shivering,” remembers the grandmother. The only bomb-shelter is an old basement, naively supporting by additional cinder blocks on top – it would not withstand a direct hit.
At night, individual pot shots ring out from the separatists’ lines, with long pauses in between; Ukrainians hold their fire. “What they shoot, we respond with the same,” says battalion’s commander Sergei – “What we shoot with, they’ll respond with the same,” he explains the tit-for-tat confrontation.
“No, we wouldn’t use the automatic rocket launcher,” says Vitaly, clearly aware of the possible repercussions.
Nearby, an Armoured Personnel Carrier reinforces the precarious position of Ukrainian soldiers. “BTR taxi,” says Vova, the officer – “If we can’t hold the line, we will withdraw to our second line of defence.” Whether the family would stay or go, remains an open question.
Andrei calls Kolia across the yard. “Can you ask your mom if I can use your washing machine for my uniform, please?” After spending months in frontline isolation, living in a 300 metre radius bubble, trenchline confrontations and artillery duels overhead evoke sentiments of First World War.
“Across, they’re people like us,” says Vitia, pointing to the separatist trenches – “The Russians, which are there, have also been told to sit there – like us.”