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Feature: Ruussaar in Eastern Ukraine, Part 1 | War

Sign marking a mined strip of land in Eastern Ukraine.
Sign marking a mined strip of land in Eastern Ukraine. Source: Ainar Ruussaar/ERR

ERR's Ainar Ruussaar traveled to Eastern Ukraine in February as part of a training program for local journalists. ERR News is publishing Ruussaar's account of the situation in the area over the next few weekends. This is the first of four parts, where he describes his arrival in the Mariupol area.

Part 1: War

Four years ago this month she would have watched TV or sat at her computer to see what was happening on the central square of the capital city of one of Europe's biggest countries. Or maybe she stood on Kiev's Maidan herself, demanding a change.

Now the woman, about a meter and a half tall, in her camouflage battle dress and equipped with an assault rifle, a bullet-proof vest, and a helmet, looks at me with her greenish-grey eyes like I'm the enemy.

She is guarding a roadblock in the way of vehicles moving east from the city of Mariupol in the Donetsk Oblast, towards an area of sporadic skirmishes between the Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed separatists. They are occasional exchanges of shots rather than attacks and defensive struggles, but in the Donbass region alone 26 soldiers wearing Ukrainian uniforms have been killed since the beginning of the year. I couldn't get any reliable figures about deaths on the other side, so there is no point publishing any of them here.

Ukrainian position close to the front. Author: Ainar Ruussaar/ERR

War exhausts everyone. War exhausts those who want to win, it exhausts those who have to defend themselves, it exhausts those who would like to trade their uniform for a pair of jeans and occasionally go to a nightclub, but more than anything else it exhausts those who have lost a husband, a son, a daughter, or their home or perhaps a loved pet.

Four years after the beginning of this messy war and the voiceless surrender of the Crimean peninsula, this small woman with her enormous rifle stares into my eyes from under her helmet and spits at me: "No pictures, no filming, no going any further!"

I prove that I have a permit, that I'm a journalist from Estonia, a country extremely friendly with Ukraine, and that I have no intention to report about soldiers. I'm not interested in ruins either, who can be bothered to go and see those? They look the same in Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in some places even in Myanmar.

I explain that more than anything else, I want to talk to the people who live where shells might come raining down in the middle of the night. The answer is a resounding "No."

Very politely I try to make it clear to her that it isn't up to a sergeant guarding a roadblock to decide. There are higher ranking women and men in charge of doing that. This does something: a lieutenant appears, also wearing camouflage battle dress. The answer is still no. After a lot of explaining, a friendly officer with captain's insignia appears. Again the answer is no, but this time I'm told the reason: beyond this roadblock it's only Ukrainian military personnel and equipment.

Roadblock of the Ukrainian army on the way to Donetsk. Author: Ainar Ruussaar/ERR

The taxi driver I've hired to get to the front is sad, or at least that's the impression he leaves. And he says that if I pay him a little extra, he can arrange for "salads," and then we can move on.

Idiot that I am, I don't even ask how much this "little extra" will cost me, and of course I say yes. And by some inexplicable Ukrainian miracle, some sort of Open Sesame passkey only known to local drivers, we can go on and eventually make it to the Sea of Azov and village of Shyrokyne, which by Estonian standards would be a small town if it still existed.

The place is deserted and overgrown, the site of a tank battle in 2014 that has since been passed back and forth between the Ukrainian army and the "little green men" so well-known in Estonia. Those "little green men" that at some point received T80-type heavy tanks, howitzers, and grenade launchers from somewhere, while the Ukrainians were fighting with T72s, the older model.

We don't encounter anyone in Shyrokyne, and hardly anyone in other, similar places.

Destroyed building in Shyrokyne. Author: Ainar Ruussaar/ERR

The city of Mariupol, with 440,000 inhabitants Ukraine's tenth-largest, is the main center of the part of Donetsk Oblast that is still under the control of the government. In 2014 and 2015 the city was a war zone, with the Ukrainian army fighting to get it back and advancing step by step, at times no more than 50 meters of territory a week.

According to locals, at the same time the fight for city was on, some 60,000 refugees from the area controlled by the separatists arrived in Mariupol, a group the size of the population of Narva.

What we have come to associate with Ukraine is occupied Crimea, the "little green men," and of course the Malaysian passenger plane shot down in 2014 and its 298 dead. I don't doubt that the BUK anti-aircraft system that shot down Flight MH17 wasn't Ukrainian, and that the order to fire it wasn't given by a Ukrainian officer. Only a well-trained Russian officer with a team of their own could have done that. On the other side, no orders have been issued by Ukrainian officers either that would help end this war.

How do wars end, then? Europe's history over the last 30 years shows that they end with agreements (as with former Yugoslavia and Kosovo), they are cooled off by accepting defeat up to a certain degree (Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia), or then they are put on hold until someone sees fit to reignite them (Transnistria in Moldova comes to mind). In Ukraine's case, there are signs of exhaustion, like I saw them in the greenish-grey eyes of that sergeant guarding the roadblock.

I don't hear a single shot in the five days I spend in Mariupol and the surrounding area. But in those same five days, four Ukrainian soldiers fall in Donetsk Oblast, according to official information, one of them a young nurse.

Monument to the fallen Ukrainian soldiers. Author: Ainar Ruussaar/ERR


Ainar Ruussaar (*1966) is an Estonian journalist and until 2017 was a member of the management of Estonian Public Broadcasting. Ruussaar's career spans three decades and began a few years before Estonia regained its independence in 1991, still under Soviet occupation. He is one of Estonia's longest-serving and most recognized news journalists.

Ruussaar traveled to East Ukraine in February 2018 as part of a training program for local journalists, run by SA Eesti Idapartnerluse Keskus and financed by the Estonian Ministry of Foreign affairs in cooperation with the United States and Flanders.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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