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The artist who “made Donbas human”: Alevtina Kakhidze on empathy and discrimination in eastern Ukraine

In Ukraine, Alevtina Kakhidze is known for her illustrations of the impacts of the war in eastern Ukraine. Here, she talks about how society’s attitudes to displaced persons need to change.

Kateryna Iakovlenko
29 July 2019
Pension tourism
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Alevtina Kakhidze. Image provided by artist

Over the more than five years of war in Ukraine’s Donbas, artist Alevtina Kakhidze has spoken out for people living in the “uncontrolled territories” - the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Kakhidze’s drawings, which focus on the lives of her mother and her neighbours, lay bare the problems faced by displaced persons and residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Alevtina’s mother Lyudmila Andreyevna - better known as “Strawberry Andreyevna” from Kakhidze’s work - died in January this year while crossing the demarcation line between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR).

The death of Alevtina’s mother, like the deaths of many other elderly people at border crossings, once again brought attention to Ukraine’s policy towards pensioners living in the uncontrolled territories. For example, pensioners who live in the unrecognised republics have to register themselves officially as displaced persons in Ukraine in order to claim their Ukrainian pensions. This involves having to cross the demarcation line several times a month - a practice that has since become known as “pension tourism”.

Since 2014, almost 200,000 residents of the uncontrolled territories have not been receiving their pensions, and over the last five years the sums concerned have increased. According to Ukraine’s Pension Fund, in December 2018, 562,000 pensioners were registered in the uncontrolled territories, and around 700,000 pensioners living there have had no access to their pensions.

In May 2019, Alevtina Kakhidze took the BBC to examine the border crossing point where her mother died. Ukraine’s Social Policy Minister Andriy Reva told the journalists in advance that he had no sympathy for pensioners who had remained in the so-called “People’s Republics” and referred to them as “scum”, for which he was roundly condemned and faced two charges in Kyiv’s county administrative court.

Here, Kateryna Iakovlenko speaks to Alevtina Kakhidze about the problems of displaced persons and “pension tourism”.

"I was walking from the allotment and thought, if they start shooting, where will I hide?" | Alevtina Kakhidze. Image provided by artist

Could you comment on Ukrainian institutions’ attitudes to displaced persons and residents of the separatist controlled areas? On the one hand, our country declares that all its citizens enjoy equal rights and freedoms. On the other, Social Policy Minister Andriy Reva permits himself to make unethical and insulting statements when referring to residents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

There are human rights organisations [e.g. Influence Group NGO, ZMINA Human Rights Centre, Right to Defence NGO, Crimea SOS, Vostok SOS, Stabilization Support Services] that are professionally engaged on these issues. They are currently compiling a document on the changes needed to current legislation to simplify procedures for displaced persons and residents in the separatist-controlled areas to receive their pensions.

The saddest thing is that Minister Reva’s statement was basically no worse than all the actions taken by his Ministry in the last five years. His words match his actions as a Minister, or his deputy Mykola Shambir and former Minister Pavlo Rozenko.

I’m also thinking about how remarks like these closely reflect the views and attitudes of the general public. Many people, unfortunately, still believe that if you haven’t left the “separatist areas” it’s because you’re not patriotic enough. And issues around social security and other opportunities often come down to these attitudes.

I agree. If the Minister had fewer supporters and brownie points for this kind of posturing, he would probably not have said things like “Everyone who’s pro-Ukrainian has left”. That is, in Reva’s opinion, if a certain section of society decided not to leave, then they’re not “pro-Ukrainian”! But that’s not true.

"The saddest thing is that Minister Reva’s statement was basically no worse than all the actions taken by his Ministry in the last five years"

Many people’s decisions to stay had nothing to do with their political views. I can also give you the examples of neighbours of my mother’s - their health prevented them from recognising the political reality they have found themselves in. Then there are practical issues as well: my town still has a psycho-neurological clinic. There are also people who valued their private property and lifestyle above political reality. For example, my mother. And it’s not important whether these people are pro-Ukrainian or pro-Russian. Their opinions count for nothing, as does their right to live their own lives.

When my mother was alive, I had to deal with the role of bad daughter. People constantly asked me reproachfully: “Why don’t you bring your mother to live with you?” Even now, when she’s no longer alive, they still go on about it being my fault that she died at a border crossing post because I didn’t bring her to live with me. I replied, and still do, that my mother wasn’t a piece of furniture, but an adult woman, and that she had the right to make her own decisions.

And every time people told me that I should move her, I realised this was the way society was trying to lay collective responsibility on my shoulders. They told me I should take her in hand: persuade her, organise her move, take her to her new home and integrate her in her new surroundings. But no one who asked me this would worry about something happening to her on the other side of the line – that was fine for them.

Strawberry Andreevna's garden | Alevtina Kakhidze. Image provided by artist

How do we stop discrimination against displaced persons?

I think it’s unfair that my mother had to cross the demarcation line, which is difficult, every two months just in order to collect her Ukrainian pension. She didn’t need to go any further into the country.

To stop discrimination, you need to change the legislation on the procedure for pensioners living in uncontrolled territory eceiving their pensions and Social Security benefits. Currently, people are placed in a situation where they are forced to lie and say they are a displaced person in order to get their Ukrainian pensions. In other words, if you don’t lie to the authorities and pretend to be displaced, a pensioner doesn’t get a pension.

The first thing that needs to be done is to “uncouple” the right to a Ukrainian pension from the certificate verifying that an individual is an internally displaced person. Minister Reva is, in fact, right when he says that this would change the entire pension system. At present, it means that all pensioners are tied to their place of registration. But according to human rights activists, all pensioners, wherever they live, should simply inform the authorities that they are alive and in need of the pension which they have legally earned.

The second thing would be to simplify the identity verification system. There are many ways of doing this. The Red Cross, which is trusted on both sides of the border, could become involved in aiding less mobile pensioners. Or pensioners could perhaps stop at the demarcation line, without having to cross it completely. Verification could also take place online with the help of new technologies and collaboration from banks and Ukraine’s Pension Fund. Because of the war, I taught my mother to use a smartphone. So, technology can help, but we still need political will and empathy with these people.

But the state declares that it provides social benefits for its citizens...

Of course, but these days pensioners have to spend their own money, risk their own lives and visit who owes them money - in this case, the government - but they receive accusations in return.

The saddest thing about this whole story is that the majority of pensioners don’t realise that this pension situation discriminates against them. But around 600,000 people in the uncontrolled territories didn’t worry at all about having to pretend to be displaced persons! In the first months of the war, a decision was taken to quickly register everyone as displaced persons, in order to provide them with some sort of pension. And my mother then re-registered at some random address. A lot of people didn’t even bother about what address to put down and where to “register”. Then, later the government carried out checks on these addresses. This is just callousness from the state.

"What gets in the way of showing empathy? I believe it is structural violence as a part of our lives"

So residents in the uncontrolled territories found themselves caught in a trap, and had to constantly battle with the system, spending 11 hours travelling in each direction in order to be at the address shown on the register. And when no one came to check them out, they phoned social services and complained: why aren’t you checking me out? I remember my mother telling me this story.

After the checks were made, 80,000 displaced persons lost their pensions – my mother was one of them. When I heard, I couldn’t believe what was happening. And so it started - who could deceive the other first. When some pensioners found out that, as well as their pension, they could also receive compensation for their rent (just over 800 hryvnia, or £24 a month), some used all their time-tested ways to deceive the state, as if in response to the state forcing them to lie.

But the main question is: why was it so difficult to get a pension? Surely some officials could have been found in the Social Policy Ministry who were capable of simplifying the system. There must have been. I suspect that the government’s main aim is to save money – checks take time, or are for those who can’t afford to travel to Ukraine proper.

The government’s actions also “inflate” the register of displaced persons, since there appear to be 600,000-800,000 pensioners from the separatist controlled areas registered as displaced persons. If, on the other hand, you remove this number of pensioners claiming to be displaced from the overall figure of 1.8 million, it turns out you have one million, and not almost two. Displacement figures also affect the level of international aid. And lastly, there is the sneakiest reason: for politicians, who could influence ministries, displaced people aren’t voters.

How do we form empathy for displaced persons?

Empathy is the result of non-violent communication, which is possible if we start to talk without judging. When we start to talk about our feelings to one another, or formulate concrete requests out of our grievances. It’s when we don’t say that Ukraine’s entire political set up is bad, but say, for example: “I feel alienated from this concrete situation, help me here!”

In the city of Bakhmut, for example, there’s the “Aeneas” bookshop, which is always open for people from the uncontrolled territories who come to collect their pensions or for other reasons. You can always have a drink of water there, use the toilet and have a rest.

"Mum, you did nothing wrong!" / “Oh Lyuda, what have you done?! You're not getting your pension” | Alevtina Kakhidze. Image provided by artist

But what gets in the way of showing empathy? I believe it is structural violence as a part of our lives. When my mother stopped receiving a pension, her relatives from Horlivka, who had escaped the same fate by a miracle, just said: “Oh Lyuda, what have you done?!” She couldn’t give them an answer at the time, but when she recounted the conversation to me, I answered “Mum, this isn’t your fault. Both you and they are in the same unfair situation” and asked her forgiveness for what she must have felt. The story about the relatives is basically an illustration of that structural violence that gets in the way of empathy – instead of offering sympathy, they set up a hierarchy with themselves at the top.

Can I show empathy to those people who leave negative posts on social media, about how pensioners from the uncontrolled territories hate Ukraine, for example? I believe that the strength of any state lies in giving everyone the right to passivity and mistakes, so long as they don’t break the law.

Tell me about the demarcation line. What does it look like? These days, it’s really difficult to grasp how long it is - and how difficult it is to cross it.

I used to draw the demarcation line in my work, or rather my mother would tell me about it and I would draw it. It came out so accurately that when I went there, the map I had drawn coincided exactly with the real one. It had so many details on it: where a bus runs and where it goes to… For example, the place where my mother died was the easiest for crossing the line – the place that belongs to no one. People have to walk over the line, not drive.

"Empathy arises when you understand what someone has really experienced. I wrote and drew everything my mother and her neighbours had experienced: how the schools closed down, there was no water and the doctors gradually all left. All this provided space for empathy"

Is there no public transport there?

No. So there’s an immediate question – whose side should provide transport? People have to cross it on foot. At the Mayorsk crossing that’s a distance of 150 metres.

What facilities are there in these 150 metres?

On the “DNR” side there was always a toilet, but it was in a bad condition, so my mother never used it. She didn’t eat or drink at all, so as to avoid using it and, as my aunt told me afterwards, she fainted more than once. On the “Ukrainian side” there were more and better toilets. There are also places to get warm on both sides. People, after all, cross the border on foot in spring, summer, autumn and winter – in rain, snow and sun.

The demarcation line | Alevtina Kakhidze. Image provided by artist

Are there pharmacies?

There are first aid points. My mother called an ambulance on the day of her death, but it didn’t arrive in time.

You said that many people in the uncontrolled territory have no way of grasping political reality. But has there been any real chance of it?

To answer that, there’d have to be hours of difficult conversation. And for that conversation to happen, we’d need an enormous number of facilitators and mediators to help us. Artists can also take part in this process. In the town of Bakhmut I created a project called “How to Construct Political Truth”. It was based on taking an approach to the same political question from various angles – the tourist, the mediator and the person inside the situation. To the question, for example, “Why didn’t I bring my mother to live with me?” these three angles can suggest three different answers and permit one to grasp the complexity of reality.

What was the most difficult thing about living through the war with your mother: talking to her on the phone, talking through situations in drawings and Facebook or something else?

It was easier for me when everyone read what I wrote and supported me. But with time I realised that I was phoning her but didn’t feel like talking to her. I was tired. Every time I phoned my mother and she didn’t pick up after the first, second or third rings, I started to worry.

Then, with time she stopped asking me “What are you up to now?” I seemed to disappear from her life as a person who also needed support. I found myself in a situation where I needed to just be strong and not speak about my own problems. So at a certain point our relations became lopsided, although when she visited me for some time they would stabilise. Even the fact that we argued about the slightest thing made me feel as though everything was normal between us.

"It started to thunder, and we all ran to hide in the basement. But it turned out to be just a thunderstorm!" | Alevtina Kakhidze. Image provided by artist

At the moment I happen to be writing about the difficulty of feeling continual empathy. In my drawings there is a phrase that came from my mother: “The thunder roared and we all ran off to hide”. What do you think happened to people there? Everyone’s reactions, including reactions to nature, change when thunder makes us feel under threat.

Returning to the subject of pensions, can people in the uncontrolled territories survive without Ukrainian pensions?

That’s a big generalisation - I can’t speak about everyone. My mother, for instance, was fiercely independent! She earned a living by selling vegetables and salad crops, so she could say: “I don’t need their pension!” But her friends didn’t have that opportunity, whether because of ill health or because they managed to find some other work on the side. When she entered Ukrainian territory, she always bought the necessary medical supplies for her insulin-dependent friends. A lot of people in her town were going hungry, and came to her asking for salad vegetables.

Do you have the feeling that many people started to empathise with the problems of your mother and people in a similar situation after you started telling her story?

Of course. A lot of people who had never been to Donbas talked to me about it – I “made Donbas human” for them. Empathy arises when you understand what someone has really experienced. I wrote and drew everything my mother and her neighbours had experienced: how the schools closed down, there was no water and the doctors gradually all left. All this provided space for empathy.

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