“What is the value of my life? You in America only care about death if it involves your allies?” a young pro-Russian soldier at a funeral for a fallen comrade plead his case. He smelled of tobacco, gunpowder and booze. Tears streaked his face. His uniform: mismatched camo pants and shirt.
He was born here in Donetsk, the large Ukrainian city that now serves as the de facto capital of a separatist occupation. Donetsk is the hub of “Free Donbass,” under the control of the Donetsk’s People’s Republic (DPR). “Why do you not care if we die, our cause is just—maybe not you, but to millions of Russians— why does America ignore our sacrifice?”
Objectively, there wasn’t an answer. Despite Ukraine being in a two-sided war, no one is really keeping track of how many rebel and civilian deaths are occurring in Free Donbass. Casualties on the Ukraine side are reported daily. News about “Russian aggression” is allotted far more column inches than information about the aggressors behind the fight.
Ukraine’s war is a small conflict in an important region. The eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, collectively called the Donbass region, are the country’s largest sources of natural resources. War broke out here in winter 2013 after a street revolution overthrew a pro-Kremlin leader in Kiev. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by invading Ukraine’s southern peninsula of Crimea, seizing it, then propped up insurrection along the border. Donbass is now split in half by a deadlocked frontline in a failed ceasefire, like a Kashmir in Europe.
Spending a week spent with the insurgents last month, I came to agree with my Russian friend. Their cause is legitimate. They want autonomy from Kiev. How many people who live in Donbass agree with them is the question: a questionable 2014 referendum counted 89% pro-freedom votes just a few months after Western NGO poll said only 18% wanted out of Ukraine. Nonetheless, the Western media doesn’t seem to report equally on both sides.
“Please tell America we are good people too,” the soldier begged.
The reason they’ve been called the bad guys is obvious. The Ukrainians—a mixture of army, national guard and nationalist militias—are backed by America and Europe. The rebel side, labeled “Russian-backed separatists,” receive direct combat assistance from our Cold War nemesis, the evil former empire led by Putin. Free Donbass is under the control of the DPR and the neighboring Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Its fighters are a mixture of local Ukrainians who hate the central government in Kiev and prefer closer ties to Moscow if not outright secession, Russian volunteers, and actual Russian soldiers and officers who are running the strategic side. But just being aligned with Putin does not make them all bad people.
Donetsk’s morgue is inside a Second World medical complex. The entryway is a shoddy alleyway lined by a black steel fence. This is one of the most active places in an otherwise deserted city. Every day an average of one to three war dead arrive here, according to Dr. Dimitri Kalashnikov, the head of Donbass’ morgue system. Of those, two out of three are civilians.
On this overcast morning, though, the morgue took in a soldier. About ten rebels stood near women wearing black. Soon, a van pulled in and a man opened its back doors. Two dirty feet hung off a stretcher. The crowd made its way towards the van in silence. Two soldiers assembled a humble plywood casket wrapped in red wine-colored velvet. Then another two soldiers removed the body and placed it in the casket.
The open casket was propped up on benches in the middle of the alley. Family members approached one by one, the women kissing the face of a young soldier, his head shaved, his skin the post-mortal color of old canvass. His comrades followed. Most dropped a few roses onto the body. Minutes later, the casket’s cover was secured and placed into another van.
The soldier, a sniper, had been killed the day prior, according to his commanding officer, a 32-year-old Siberian named Alexey. Incoming shrapnel had sliced into him while he lay at the ready. “He was a good fighter, always willing to help,” said Alexey, a burly man with a big red beard and bald head, his glacial-blue eyes bubbled with trace tears.
Alexey was the head of The Patriot Brigade, a militia unit fighting for the DPR. He allowed us to follow their three-car convoy back to base for the military funeral, charging along back roads to the gates of an old three-story CCCP rectangle of decay. In the parking lot, a column of a half-dozen men raised their guns, another dozen stood in formation. The casket was placed in the middle of the lot. Two shots were fired in salute. En masse, the unit surrounded the casket to pay final respects.
After the ceremony, Alexey invited us for tea. The casket was moved to a family service in a nearby village church. War is not hobby for the commander. Both sides are tired.
“I want the fighting to end,” Alexey said. “We send food to the Ukrainian Army on the other side of the line. They do not have enough. We don’t fight them, really. It’s the National Guard that fights us.” It was unclear who his commanding officers were. “We follow orders from above,” the Russian vaguely stated. “We just want this land, they can have theirs.”
Alexey’s cause is Novorossiya (New Russia), a belief that Ukraine isn’t a nation, and that its east and south are Russian territory. This concept was born in the 1700s and has played out scores of times since. For example, over one four-year period between World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, Kiev changed hands 19 times between the Russian monarchists, Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet Communists.
The next day, we joined the Patriot Brigade at their position south-west of Donetsk, in the village of Oleksandrivka, facing Ukrainian-held Marinka. This area has seen an absurd number of ceasefire violations.
The Patriots held four lines of defense. Alexey drove a black Audi A8. We blazed through a series of checkpoints of stacked concrete slabs draped in green netting, wrapped by trenches. Each checkpoint was manned by a dozen or so rebels with various looks—some wore tank tops showing off tattoos, others had jumpsuits, kevlar vests, bandanas—a militant style that was both uniquely post-Commie and generic insurgent-chic.
At the last of the lines—the front—we looked through a telescope down a steep valley and back up at a collection of sandbagged huts. Just a few hundred yards away, Ukraine’s yellow and blue flag flew.
Fighting is mostly confined to this front, a few hundred miles long, fought by 100,000 or so troops split between both sides. An estimated 10,000 rebels are Russian. From my experience, that number seems low. Shelling flies ten or so miles each way. Running battles for strategic towns push the lines back and forth. There is no air power. Most of the related regional terrorism has been small bombs not intended to kill civilians. It is deadly but limited warfare.
The Patriot Brigade’s rebel frontline wall of concrete, dirt and sandbags was intact. But every house around it was scorched rubble, crumbling brick walls and splintered timber. Incoming shells had half-demolished the house that served as the brigade barracks. Still, most residents had stayed in the village, crowding in basements during the nightly siege, Alexey said. Looking at the time, we saw it was 4 pm and wanted to avoid the evening artillery. We bid farewell.
Not that fighting was confined to the front anymore. A few nights later, Donetsk proper was shelled for the first time in months, killing civilians in the center city. Video shows a lush pink sunset punctuated by incoming fire. Both sides blamed one another. The DPR internally shelling itself would seem stupid, were this not such an odd war.
Down in Mariupol, the frontline Black Sea port city held by Ukraine, occupied Donbass’ wartime trauma seemed absent. Beach life was vigorous on a recent Saturday. Sailboats raced a regatta offshore. Speedo-clad men and be-thonged women alternated between sand and sea. Volleyball, soccer, grand wedding parties dancing at beach clubs, a sauna offering sex after you sweat. The only signs of war here were the military trucks in the parking lot and the guns on beach towels next to beefy men catching rays.
All of this was within eyesight of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s war monitors quarters at a beachfront resort. Lounging at the hotel’s balcony cafe, officials told us Mariupol could be Putin’s next target. Battles rage within ten miles of this city of half a million. But the rebels had recently retreated, much to the relief of the OSCE, the only international organization allowed on the front. (Last week, fighting broke out up again.)
With Mariupol’s airport now the Ukrainian Army’s HQ, the train is the best way out of Donbass. I was still with the French photographer, and we booked a 20-hour ride to Kiev.
For 18 hours we were back in peacetime Ukraine, dozing in bunks. But as the last two hours approached, our cabin was invaded by Ukrainian militiamen from the Azov Brigade. All night they were partying in the neighboring cabins. At 11 a.m. they decided to take ours, too. Azov is considered one the best fighting units, but its nationalist Neo-Nazi reputation has tainted its battle prowess.
“Obama and McCain good!” said one boy in a striped sailor tank-top and fatigues. McCain really wants to arm the Ukrainians, and Obama’s military had trained these kids, despite a Congressional amendment banning the training of Neo-Nazis.
The boy, Alexii, 22, looked truly sad when he asked, “Why do you think we are Nazis?”
I pointed to the SS Wolfsangel logo on the Azov patch and asked how many of them were Nazis.
“Maybe 10 percent….It is a symbol of power to most, not a racist issue. Some use the imagery as a joke. It is like your Confederate flag, no?” Touché, Alexii. “Look, we love Muslims!” He pointed to a big, bearded Jihadist, who had two empty mortar tubes attached to his backpack.
In one of the stranger unions in modern warfare, Neo-Nazis have united with Jihadists to battle Russians. Chechnya, a Muslim-majority Russian province in the Caucasus Mountains, has fought two wars against Moscow in the last 20 years. Many Chechens are experienced Russian killers.
Sure enough, a bottle of cheap vodka plopped down on the table. The Ukrainians provided pickles as a chaser, not sausages like a Russian soldier had a few days prior. We pulled into Kiev around 1 p.m., drunkenly hugging the Ukrainians and making plans to hang out in the coming days. Two sides and one universal beverage, all fighting for a deadly ideology: nationalism.