In the Grey Zone
BBC Panorama journalist Taras Shumeyko visited the frontline between Russia and Ukraine in the days leading up to 24th February 2022. Translated by Julia Lasica and first published in Friends On the Shelf magazine.
The aftermath of shelling in Mariinka. Credit: Taras Shumeyko.
My story starts in February 2022 with Russian troops unabashedly massing on the Belarusian and Russian borders with Ukraine. Nobody in the civilised world felt full-scale, outright war was possible: yet American and British intelligence services were warning us every day that it was.
My colleagues from BBC Panorama didn’t believe it either, so they asked me to make a documentary on life in the ‘grey zone’ – the parts of occupied Ukraine just behind the front line – at war with Russia since 2014. I had made two documentaries for them before; one on the ‘Maidan’ revolution in 2014 (when the pro-Russian sitting president of Ukraine was ousted) and another on the invasion which followed, when Russia annexed Crimea and began a covert war, disguising their troops as local Eastern Ukraine separatists and calling the territories they occupied ‘people’s republics’ (such as the puppet state, Donestk People’s Republic – DPR – in the Donbas). It was their attempt to wrest back control of our country: Russia was unable to bear the thought of losing Ukraine, the jewel of its empire for 300 years.
But even against this background, in February 2022 the situation felt different. I prepare to leave for the grey zone.
11 February – two weeks before the full-scale invasion My aunt Olena from Vladimir, Russia, calls me, as she regularly did. ‘Why are you all so scared? Why do you not trust the Russian government? They keep telling you – it’s just military exercises!’
‘I wish I could agree ... but 150,000 troops ... and why specifically on our border? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.’
I am writing this in September 2022 – my aunt has stopped calling.
12 February In Kyiv on my way to the train station, I listen in to a conversation between two Ukrainian veterans on the metro. One of them was quite drunk.
‘Well, go on then, attack us! You’ll get fucked up so bad. We’ve learnt a lot in the past eight years. We have troops, a regular army. We’ll rise up and it’ll be absolute hell for them. Russia, how much more can you keep doing this?! Scaring people with war. Who the fuck is Russia anyway? Russia is nothing and its name means nothing. We’ll show Russia the true version of history – when the Kyivan Rus’ was in its prime, Russia wasn’t even being thought of. Fuck’s sake.’
He was referring to the war’s old, deep roots. Russia lays claim not just to modern Ukraine’s existence but also to its historical beginnings. Russians believe themselves to be the inheritors of the Kyivan Rus’, a powerful political grouping of states in the 10th – 13th century, centred in Kyiv which rivalled even the Byzantine Empire. The problem with this narrative is that while these Ukrainian cities were thriving centres of culture and trade, Moscow, as well as the rest of modern-day Russia, was nothing more than swamp land.
13 February – Slovyansk I arrive in Slovyansk, the first major city near the front line. At the bus stop I am visited by a sense of déjà vu. In 2015, I had given money to a beggar for food in a local cafe. He had bought himself a sandwich and a beer, and then had come over to my table. Trying to be companionable, he had asked me which country I was from.
‘What do you mean? I’m Ukrainian,’ I told him.
‘Oh no,’ he said, giving me a cunning look. ‘You’re not one of us. Are you from America? Or Canada?’
I shrugged. ‘Believe it or not, I live in Kyiv.’
‘Really? Well, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, because soon the DPR will come to Kyiv too. And to Warsaw and even to London. Mark my words.’ And here I am again in Slovyansk seven years later and the very same man comes up to me and asks for some cash for food. I give him some. He glances at my green jacket and trousers,
‘From the army?’
‘Well, something like that.’
‘Glory to Ukraine!’ He declares the national salute without much conviction, and I throw him the customary reply, ‘Glory to the Heroes’.
So that’s progress. At least people are greeted properly now, even if not convincingly. Like it or not, friend, you’re living in Ukraine, not the DPR.
15 February – Avdiivka Life in Avdiivka, a city just behind the front line, is in full swing: young mums with their children in prams calmly amble the streets of the city, pensioners with grocery bags return from the shops, locals drink coffee at tables outside the supermarket. I ask the first old man who crosses my path to help me find a hotel.
‘Are you not scared of war?’ I ask him, as he finishes giving me directions.
‘We’ve had war for the past eight years – why should we be scared of it now?’
The Hotel Alex is fully booked – all the rooms have been reserved by soldiers and war journalists. On my third attempt I find a flat in an apartment block in the centre of town. Most of the current occupants are soldiers who are meeting up with their wives and partners for a few days.
On Gagarin Street, murals on the grey walls please the eye with fresh, vibrant paint colours: a Kozak (a Ukrainian warrior), a woman in national dress, and a Cubist miner. The grey shabby five-storey blocks of flats flower with bright colours: the city has generally been well restored after Russian shelling in 2014 – 2016, and now it is reminiscent of a pleasant quarter of a metropolitan city. Life is getting better. A local court has been opened and train services run to Kyiv and Dnipro.
I was told about this by Vitalii Barabash, a veteran of the war and head of the local council of Avdiivka.
‘Shelling doesn’t happen often, and locals are used to it when it does – the last time was in August last year. Shells were flying past nine-storey blocks of flats to a military base and people were going shopping and kids were in the playgrounds.’
He continues. ‘Will there be a big war with Russia? I don’t think it’s possible. They won’t invade from Russian controlled Belarus. Sure, 150,000 troops massed on the border sounds like a lot but only around 10 – 15% of them have active military experience. And on top of that, the border with Belarus and Russia is over 1,000 km of pure swamp and peat. There are only two or three gaps in the border. And don’t forget about the sanctions of the whole world. No, I don’t think there will be a full-scale invasion. The Russians will carry on applying pressure here, in the Donetsk area. But I don’t think Putin will choose to openly declare war on Ukraine.’
The veteran finishes his optimistic train of thought and it felt like the threat of war that had been simmering in the air really had dispersed and was in retreat. Despite being so close to the front line, there is a sense of civilised life, a fragile quiet and comfort. Only the sound of artillery in the industrial zone behind the town, where the Ukrainian soldiers are in their positions, reminds one that there is a war going on.
17 February – Mariinka There is a sudden burst of military activity along the whole front line – Russian forces shell 20 residential areas. In Mariinka, a town further south, where I arrive at around lunch time, a woman has been wounded by fragments while she was standing at a bus stop, and was taken to hospital.
The place where I’ll be spending the night is a little cottage on Zhovtneva Street, about 400 – 500 metres from our positions on the front line, which are opposite the Trudovski mines – that is, occupied Donestk. As I am driven there, I see houses that have been hit by rockets. I am told later that this was from an attack back in 2017.
In the cottage, there is a sauna and the host, Maryna, gets the wood stove burning for me. I ask her what to do if the shelling starts.
‘We don’t have a basement so the best thing to do is just lie on the floor. The safest place is the sauna.’
I lie there and read my book. It was such an odd feeling – to be steaming in a sauna when 500 metres away from you there is missile and mortar fire. I wonder what I’ll feel if they come closer. I quickly fall asleep. Tomorrow there is a lot of work to do.
18 February The shelling intensifies. I can hear the shells flying in and flying out (I can already tell the difference). In our corner of Mariinka, people are sitting in their basements. But in the centre of the town, where I go that morning, the fighting can barely be heard.
‘Why don’t you leave this place?’ I ask a man in the street.
‘Where would I go? My home is here. We already left once, to my sister in Mariupol and spent two years there. But we came back.’
The local mood is hard to understand. A lot of them support Ukraine but also have sympathy for the DPR. It’s kind of like this: we’re for Ukraine but we don’t like the government. A particularly sensitive topic is the shellings. When the conversation turns to this, they suggestively raise their eyebrows as if to say, ‘We all know where the shelling comes from and where it lands.’
Later, Maryna’s husband takes me to the ruins of his old home. In 2015, it was hit by a rocket. Luckily, no one was at home. His neighbour, however, was killed behind the wall – he died on the spot. He received 300,000 hryvnia for the damage to the flat and was required to write in official documents that the reason for the compensation was ‘the result of Russian aggression’.
‘But in fact, the shell flew from the other side,’ he says, looking towards the Ukrainian positions.
‘Sure, that might be true, but who is the real aggressor in this situation?’ I ask. Silence. Finally, he replies,
‘Maybe I’m a bad patriot. But I wish they would all just leave us alone. Each side is fighting the other and we are caught in the middle. We have no life because of them.’
20 February – Kyiv I’m back in Kyiv. Nick and Paul, my producers from the BBC, are flying in from London, so I go to meet them at the airport.
In the taxi back to the hotel, we talk history. I relate the story of Kyiv, in particular that of Hilarion of Kyiv, the most famous of the Kyivan Rus’ metropolitan bishops. In his sermon ‘On Law and Grace’, written in the 11th century, he compares the ruler of the Kyivan Rus’, Volodymyr the Great, to Moses and Constantin the Great. Moses gave law to Israel and Constantin the Great gave law to the Greeks. Volodymyr the Great, as set out by Hilarion, gave law to the Rus’ people.
‘So, is Hilarion implying that the Rus’ were the newly chosen people of God?’ Paul asks, guessing correctly.
Yes, we Kyivans draw a historical line from spiritual Jerusalem to ourselves, whilst Moscow sees theirs as emanating from imperial Rome. Like imperial Rome, Moscow looks to conquer and subjugate all the lands around them, while we have no desire for more earthly land but would rather look towards heavenly Jerusalem. No, we don’t share much in common with them.
23 February We go to Chichiko, ‘the best Georgian restaurant in Kyiv’. On Yaroslav Val Street, a girl who looks similar to Amélie from the famous French film is playing moving melodies on her violin on the street. We listen to her, as if under a spell. Then, in the restaurant, we drink Georgian wine and laugh about the fact that I had asked to reserve a table in the basement. We leave at around midnight. Bidding my farewells, I go home to Bucha and they to their hotel in the centre of Kyiv.
By dawn, the war had started.
Taras Shumeyko is a Ukrainian writer, historian, war correspondent and BBC Panorama journalist. He lives in Kyiv.
Translated by Julia Lasica. This article was first published in Friends On The Shelf magazine, a bi-annual magazine of true stories, and is reprinted with their permission.
Thank you for reading my blog.
If you have any questions, please get in touch at email@example.com