The Limits of human endurance

It is late in the evening and we land in Dnipropetrovsk or Dnipro, as everybody calls it here. We are going to the war hospital of Mechnikov. During the last 28 months i.e. since May 2014 12 thousand wounded have been transferred to this hospital from the area of the whole county. 1300 of the patients have lacerations from explosions, but the majority have gunshot injuries. More than 40% of the injured had to be put into intensive care. More than 3000 surgeries were performed. These are the statistics.

The injured are sitting in a small visiting room, they have metal braces on their legs holding the dressings together. The physicians are using all their skills to avoid amputation. They are saving and treating legs and hands, even when the muscle tissue is missing. There is also an old woman in the room. She is visiting a boy who has already been operated three times. Shrapnel shells tore Jewgienij’s lungs apart, and some pieces are left in his heart and head The small woman looks up at us with sadness and asks: „When is the killing going to end?”. There is no answer.

When you ask the 20-year old soldiers how they are feeling, they will say: “We want to get better, we want to fight, we love Ukraine, it’s our Mother”. They give us a strong hand shake, even when it really hurts.

Everybody knows that saving lives is one thing, physiotherapy is another thing and mental recovery from a trauma is the longest process. Professor Serhii Ryzhenko talks about the challenges they face everyday.

We look at the wounded bodies, at the tired doctors. We see the wounded on the 18th September who have been transferred here after 15th September, already after announcement of cease-fire. It is visible that somebody has broken the cease-fire… We watch the bullets taken out from the bodies of the wounded. What a terrifying collection of bullets it is: oblong ones, sharpened one, big and small!

This hospital has a long standing tradition. It was established at the end of the 19th century. When during the II World War German were here, the doctors admitted those that were especially vulnerable: the Roma, the Jews, the teachers and well-known people. They let them lie in the hospital and… unfortunately the patients died. Death certificates were prepared and they were taken away in special caskets. People were disappearing, but they were actually alive. When the Soviets came back after the war the team of doctors and nurses were sent away to the labor camps for collaborating with Germans. The last ones came back to Dnipro in the seventies.

There are three of us here from the European Parliament: Rebecca Harms, a German MEP from the Greens, Jaromír Štětina, a Czech MEP from the Christian Democrats, the same party as me. There is also Mariia Ionova, Iryna Herashchenko, Andrii Lopushanskyi from the Verkhovna Rada. It is midnight and we are feeling more depressed than tired.

In the morning we go to Mariink. When we come to the border of the Donetsk region, we change cars at the gas station and we are joined by soldiers. Two new armed transporters of Ukrainian production with a Ford engine join us. The soldiers are fully armed and masked. They ask not to have their pictures taken. For safety reasons. They come with us to keep us safe but we send the transporters away. Mariia Ionova says that it would look stupid if we came by military armored cars to see the people who live under fire every day. Before leaving, we have an espresso from a drinks machine at the gas station.

We arrive to the check point. It is a passage between the territories occupied by Russian separatists and the Ukrainian side. It is Monday and the line is huge: people, cars and bikes in the direction of Donetsk. People are coming back after a weekend with the family who is lives on this side. They come back with their shopping, food, bags. Some have collected their pension on the Ukrainian side. It takes time to pass. Passport control, luggage control. People are coming back, because that is where they live and have not decided to migrate within their own country. They are waiting in line, and moving along side container offices and soldiers. The container buildings are practical, they serve as offices, places make different arrangements. You can also find roofed benches with the presence of the UNHCR representatives. This is a place for those looking for help in finding their close ones or wanting to migrate. The same line is going from the other side, from Donetsk towards the areas controlled by Ukraine. The same container buildings as everywhere in the world: in Jordan, between Palestine and Israel and in the African wars.

You can see exhaustion on the people’s faces, some are slightly aggressive and they do not want to talk. Others say they are fed up and want peace. There are limits of human endurance. They do not actually say they want peace but they stress they want the killing to stop.

One of us asks about elections. In Europe, especially among German and French diplomats, a lot is being said about holding elections as a way to resolve the conflict. This triggers irritation and anger. What kind of elections? Under the pressure of separatists? Under the pressure of Russians? There will be no free elections. A few hours later in Kramatorsk, not far from the famous destroyed bridge in Sloviansk, representatives of the administration and NGOs state clearly that elections under the pressure of drunken bandits shooting to people are no elections. First you need real peace, improved conditions, safety and Ukraine’s control over the Russian-Ukrainian border.

From the check point we go to the small town of Mariink. It is the so called contact line area. We enter a small, two storey building. It is a kind of social aid and social integration centre. We talk to the administrative and military authorities. They talk about this area where people are living and the war is taking place at the same time. They are happy with each renovated roof and building after the gunshot from the other side. They are happy with a new kindergarten and show us the nice interior, much nicer that the old Soviet one. They are worried about gas for wintertime, so far it has been inaccessible. People are bustling about in the alleys. Some are tiding leaves, others are heading towards the vegetable and fruit stands to buy apples and watermelons. Slightly further there is a small shop where Jaromir buys some bread and locally produced mortadella. The shops are open for a short time during the day. This is due to safety reasons, it is better not to be hanging around, as there are still snipers around one side of the town.

Together with the commanding officer we are going to the border street. We are to drive quickly to avoid shooting. You can see gates leaking like a sieves. Broken roofs, walls falling off, totally destroyed houses. People from Marrink do not want to leave. This is their world, their land. Once the shooting starts they go down to the basement. We are staying in such a basement, it is much safer there. The prudence and creativity of the housewives is incredible. The basement serves not only as a shelter but as a pantry. There are apple preserves and pickles on the shelves. The hostess looks at us sadly. She says she no longer feels fear. The fear has penetrated her skin and soul. She is scared and not scared at the same time. She is at the end of her rope. Recently, snipers from the nearby hills or telecommunication towers have wounded two children. The woman tells us this story with tears in her eyes. They did not make it to the beginning of the school year.

In the car the commanding officer says that when he is passing by and sees elderly persons picking up a mobile phone, he is afraid that the phone might be sending by a signal to the other side that you can shoot. There is a lot distrust in the community of Marrink.

There is also distrust towards the OSCE monitoring units. The locals wish the units would protect them. They need the protection and they are bitter when the support and security is not assured.

The OSCE groups’ mission is just to monitor. There should be 800 people, although even this would not suffice. So far there are 660 people. They are not able to catch everything, with the insufficient number of monitoring equipment, especially the electronic equipment – night-vision devices and signal processing devices which would indicate where the shootings are coming from. This is very important because the safety regulations of the OSCE do not allow for night patrols. There are a dozen border lines which pass through the residency areas. Only now works are put into place to create demilitarization zones. This is the only way to get rid of snipers and constant shooting. So that the people living there, who today are under the constant threat of gunshot, could have a moment of relief.

Where is the limit of their human endurance?

My friends from Ukraine say such a limit does not exist. That you need to endure everything, as this is a mayor fight, for Ukraine, for their Homeland…

We feel this spirit as we go into the forest and meet soldiers in a hidden camp There are dugouts, water cans which you can open with a plastic faucet. The electricity comes from a generator. There is even a banya with heating stones and evenly cut wood for burning. There is a canteen. We have a delicious, traditional borsch with vegetables and meat from mess tins. We bite on dark bread spread with salo (pork fat), sprinkled with garlic and onion. For the main course we have buckwheat or barley groats and compote. The soldiers are very open, and their commander is a powerful man who has important insights about the situation. The Russians have set a price for his head. He is one the heroes of the Ukrainian awakening of the national identity and the dignity revolution, as Maidan is called today. He knows and understands what the fight is about. In Kiev on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the independence of Ukraine I saw posters of soldiers in helmets. Young faces and a sign: born as free men. The commander, to whom we say goodbye to in a cordial manner, was also born as a free man.

This is the biggest phenomenon of today’s Ukraine: people are growing up to freedom. If it is the inner freedom that wins, there will be no limit to the human endurance. They will make it.

We went there as a group of colleagues. The authorities of the European Parliament did not agree to organize an official delegation for security reasons. Nevertheless, we did go: Rebecca, Jaromir and me. We thought it was important to offer solidarity to our Ukrainian friends. I believe that the power of solidarity enables to endure anything.

„Slava Ukraïni!” „Heroyam slava!” Doctors, soldiers, civilians, administrators, the NGO leaders, the people waiting to pass at the check point and the habitants of Marrink – these are all “heroyam”. They are the heroes of their time. The heroes of freedom.

Michał Boni

Notes from the journey to the Donbas, 19th September 2016