“Everything we have done, we have done for our children,” said Sasha Dobyri, sitting with his wife Marina at their cramped kitchen table. “They are the most important thing we have.”
“It’s been more than two years since Sasha, 41 and Marina, 38, gathered their two children, Kostya and Artyom, packed their car with the TV and some clothes and left home, joining the estimated 1.4 million people who have been displaced by Ukraine’s ongoing war in the east.
“We never guessed we would be where we are now,” said Sasha. “Two years ago I could not have predicted our community would fall apart.”
Following the Euromaidan revolution that rocked Ukraine’s capital and deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, counter-demonstrations by separatist and pro-Russian groups roiled throughout eastern and southern Ukraine. By late February 2014 the protests had fomented an insurgency in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. The Ukrainian government responded quickly, deploying it’s military and engaging in an all out war, but by spring rebels had established the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in Ukraine’s far east, and Russia had annexed Ukraine’s southern peninsula, Crimea. The fighting has continued off and on since then, killing at least 9,115 and costing more than one million jobs, according to the UN Development Program.
“The fighting had become so bad, ”Sasha said, recalling the summer in 2014 when shelling and gunfire rumbled just a few kilometers from their home in the small town of Charcizk in Donetsk province. “We hated what was happening, but we had our home and jobs in Charciz. My mother is there and all our friends.”
But by the end of summer 2014, it had become clear the conflict between the Ukrainian government and the DPR was still far off being resolved and life in the occupied territory was bound to become more complicated.
“Our doctor told us that medical supplies from the Ukrainian government would probably be cut in the next year,” Marina recalled. “He said that the border [between DPR and Ukraine] might close as well.” So the decision to stay or leave was made for them. Their two sons – Kostya, 16, and Artyom, 10, are diabetic and the prospect of a shortage of insulin was untenable. They were soon driving northwest to the town of Kramatorsk in northern Donetsk.
By many standards the family has been lucky – they have a small apartment with running water and heat, both Sasha and Marina have been able to find work, and there is warm food on the table at the end of the day. Their kids are in good physical health. And yet the trauma of leaving the life they knew and the loneliness they face day-to-day are constants. While Kramatorsk sits only 70 miles from Charcizk, the family feels a world away.
“It’s not the physical isolation or being in a small apartment,” says Sasha. “The hardest part has been the emotional isolation. We have this powerful feeling of loneliness.”
“The last time we saw our friends, it ended in yelling and crying,” she said. “Since then we haven’t talked with them about the war. We can’t. We want to try and maintain our relationships for when this ends.”
Sasha and his family never supported the rebel occupation, but some of their friends have, and since they’ve been gone the community and home they knew has changed into something they have neither approved of nor been a part of. Uncertain about the future, they have yet to invest in building a new community in Kramatorsk, but feel increasingly out of touch with their old lives.
The future for Kostya and Artyom weighs most heavily on their minds. “We worry about the ways the fear and uncertainty has affected them,” said Marina, “We worry the sadness of losing their home and friends will make them more isolated.”
“Especially Kostya,” chimed in Sasha. “He has become more closed.”
“We want them to have ordinary lives with their own friends and family” Marina said.
“I’m not very active now in finding new people to get to know,” said Kostya. “I don’t know what will happen,” he said of the conflict and his plans. “I live day by day. I don’t look into the future because your plans usually don’t come true.”
One recent evening, Sasha sat alone in the bedroom, lost in thought with his laptop resting beside him on the bed when Marina walked in from the kitchen, her hands still damp from washing dishes. After a moment, he took the laptop onto his knees and pulled up a song by the late Viktor Tsoi, the revolutionary Soviet rocker and Sasha and Marina’s favorite. The song, called Pachka Sigaret – A Pack of Cigarettes – faded in with a slow and winding guitar riff, it’s bending notes as nostalgic as the lyrics that soon filled the room.
“I sit down and look out another’s window at another strange sky
And I don’t even see one familiar star,
I’ve travelled along all the roads, I’ve been here and I’ve been there,
And when I turned back, my own footprints were gone…”
Sasha wrapped his arm around Marina’s back and she rested her head against him, a faint smile slowly forming across her face. .
“But if I’ve got a pack of cigarettes in my pocket,
Then today won’t be so bad after all,
And a ticket for the plane with silver wings,
Which flies away, leaving only a shadow on the ground…”
Sasha and Marina soon climbed into the bed– that belonged to the owners of the apartment who had fled when fighting erupted– and slept until daybreak.