Ian Bateson is a journalist and current Fulbright scholar based in Ukraine.
As the sun begins to set, the boom of artillery begins. This is Marinka, a former suburb of Donetsk that now sits on the front line of fighting in Ukraine. Here, as elsewhere, shooting picks up along the front line as international observers go home for the day.
In her home, Tatiana Kutsenko shows me where a rocket landed in her garden. In another spot you can see where a bullet hit a window. The bullet still sits in between the panes of glass. She has covered the entry hole with tape, but it makes no sense to replace the glass. It will likely just be hit by another bullet.
This is the reality in Marinka, where the unbearable has become everyday. Children learn behind schools’ sandbagged windows how to recognize unexploded ordnance and land mines. Cease-fires are broken almost as quickly as they are agreed upon. And tombstones for the dead are delayed because they will too quickly be shattered by stray bullets. Territory now rarely changes hands, but fighting is constant.
On Sept. 5, that suddenly seemed to have a chance of changing when Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly told journalists that Russia would support a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has long called for U.N. peacekeepers, but a lack of Russian support doomed the project. Now, on Sept. 20, Poroshenko is expected to call for a peacekeeping mission during his address to the U.N. General Assembly.
A peacekeeping mission has the potential to pull the two sides away from each other and add muscle to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring mission. Although peacekeepers will not end the conflict, they could make cease-fires stick and drastically improve the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people living along the front line.
For those who remain, the stress is tremendous, and aid organizations like Médecins Sans Frontières now run mobile psychological clinics that travel to try to help locals cope. Few have the resources to go elsewhere, and the lack of any sort of end to the conflict or closure to loss is daunting.
The lack of closure takes many forms. For some, it is the constant shooting, but for others it is the faces of relatives who have disappeared. “We call it ambiguous loss. The person is in your mind, but they are already gone,” said Mariana Chacón Lozano, who handles missing persons for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ukraine.
Valentina Tylichko has been looking for her son since he disappeared on Aug. 3, 2014. He had gone to Donetsk to pick up his paycheck and had called her after getting off the bus and beginning the two-mile walk home. Heavy shooting started, and she never heard from him again.
Now, like many mothers of the missing, she has a recurring dream. She sees her son, Dima, coming down the street. She runs after him, only to lose him in a crowd that doesn’t understand her. Other mothers in Marinka have similar dreams of their sons returning, only to tell them that they can’t remember the way home, or are lying in hospitals and can’t remember who they are. In desperation, some mothers turn to psychics or Internet scammers who claim to be able to help find their missing relatives.
Kutsenko listens to Tylichko and coaches her on what to tell the police to have her son added to a registry of the missing and tells her how to get in touch with the ICRC. Kutsenko’s own son was missing for a year. “It is better to know,” she says.
Kutsenko’s son, who was partially paralyzed, disappeared after going to meet with Ukrainian soldiers in 2015. She saw soldiers driving his car with the windshield blown out later that day. After a year of lobbying, she succeeded in having an investigation opened, and later one of the soldiers revealed the mortar crater where they had left her son’s body. The two soldiers are now on trial.
Now she has a grave for her son and takes him roses from her garden, but she has yet to put up a headstone. The cemetery frequently comes under fire, the bullets damaging and destroying headstones. “It will have to wait until things change,” she says.
Whether U.N. peacekeepers actually put their boots on the ground in the eastern Ukraine will depend on negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine has to agree to any mission, and Russia has to withdraw its veto in order for any mission to happen. So far Putin has supported a narrower mandate that would limit the peacekeepers to the front and to escorting observers from the OSCE. Ukraine has advocated for a wider mandate that would include the entire Donbass, and, critically, the Ukrainian-Russian border that Ukraine does not control, and where military forces and weapons currently cross freely from Russia into separatist-controlled territory. Trust is almost nonexistent.
But if a peacekeeping mission can be agreed upon, Marinka would be one of the first places to benefit.