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As Ukraine’s frontline villages fight for economic survival, some even succeed

Frontline villages in southeastern Ukraine are under enormous pressure, but this one is finding ways to sustain itself even in war time.

Dmitry Durnev
26 February 2020
OSCE Special Monitoring Mission patrol in Pavlopil, 2016
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CC BY NC ND 2.0 OSCE / Evgeniy Maloletka. Some rights reserved

For a frontline village on the demarcation line in Donbas, Pavlopil stands out.

The former and current leadership of the OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, not to mention the German and French ambassadors, are well known to village head Sergey Shapkin. Conflict negotiators come to study local experience. It is here, close to Mariupol, the largest city in the Ukraine-controlled part of Donbas, that the Ukrainian military can pull back without facing protests by local residents.

In 2014, when the war in eastern Ukraine began, Pavlopil found itself caught between two opposing checkpoints. “We were only visited by military patrols then, but we managed to come to an agreement and set up a timetable, to avoid gunfire in residential areas,” Shapkin tells me. “The Ukrainian forces did their shopping in our shop in the morning, and the ‘other lot’ did theirs after lunch.”

Pavlopil lived in this state until December 2015. That year, Shapkin managed to negotiate Pavlopil’s move out of the “neutral territory” - the land which divides territory controlled by Ukraine and the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”. Ukrainian forces moved slowly over the river into the steppe, crossing just over two kilometres into the other side.

Today, ambulances and repairmen still don’t travel to Pavlopil - home to 420 people, 45 of whom are children - the surrounding fields are mostly mined. But while this hard everyday reality passes most residents by nowadays, they’re also finding ways to make life work.

Mines in the allotment

“To get to work by seven am, everyone had to be on the bus by six,” Pavlopil resident Leonid Krainyuk explains. “A checkpoint was set up at the start of the war. There was always congestion there in the mornings and it became really difficult to get to work – sometimes impossible. Some younger people started trying to move from their villages and rent accommodation in Mariupol, while the rest looked for work locally.”

On the other side of Krainyuk’s fence, immediately across the road is an allotment area, and beyond - Ukrainian army positions and minefields. Leonid’s neighbours have left, and the village head has given him permission to farm two plots. He doesn’t have much livestock now, just goats and chickens: he slaughtered his turkeys before New Year.

Pavlopil has been lucky - in the first place because the village has had a gas supply throughout the war

“I have some land, nearly half a hectare,” Leonid tells me calmly, “Plus my wife has her own privatised land, but that can’t be worked yet until it’s demined. It’s not a question of mines, just the fact that the whole area was under fire and who knows what is lying there, so you can’t touch it. We grow all our own food, plus I’ve planted alfalfa to feed the goats: I have two milkers and a couple of young ones. I used to have thirty or so chickens and a similar number of ducks, turkeys and geese as well, but they’ve all been slaughtered now.”

Krainyuk was given turkeys, chickens and even goats from grants provided by western NGOs. We met him in the village council building – he had brought all his papers to Shapkin, who usually helps all his neighbours fill in grant forms and other documents.

We caught Leonid at a busy moment. He’s driving to the local school to ask the border guards for the small excavator which soldiers use to dig trenches. The village has permanent military “guests”: marine and commando battalions in rotation, a border guard detachment and a unit from “Right Sector”. People don’t mention brigade numbers in conversation, in case they let them slip during a phone call – in the frontline zone you try not to talk about things aloud.

The border guards are quartered in the local school, and until recently an army unit also occupied the local children’s nursery. One building has been let out to the “Tarli Angels”, a medical volunteer centre which evacuates wounded from the demarcation line.

Leonid Krainyuk | Image: Dmitry Durnev

“If a doctor has prescribed some treatment, they can do injections and drips, and if needed, they can drive patients to hospital in Mariupol, wait while the consultation takes place and then bring them back,” people say of the military paramedics stationed in town. “Ambulances don’t come here, so it’s an enormous help.”

Military personnel in the village don’t just rent property, they’re also employers – the locals make extra money in office jobs and as cooks, labourers and so on.

Unknown negotiations

Pavlopil has been lucky - in the first place because the village has had a gas supply throughout the war. Satellite towns of Donetsk such as Krasnohorivka and Maryinka haven’t had gas for nearly six years, and people heat their apartments with wood stoves. No agreements on repairing gas lines come to fruition here, and in Avdiivka, where the gas supply from Donetsk was also damaged during the conflict, a new gas line has been laid from the Ukraine-controlled side.

Pavlopil was lucky before the war, too. Many years before the present conflict, the giant Ilyich Metallurgical Plant in Mariupol ran an extra gas pipeline from the Russian city of Taganrog through Novoazovsk and Pavlopil, laying gas mains through villages on the route. In 2014, during the last round of negotiations, locals somehow managed to reach some agreement and continued to use Russian gas. The village gets its electricity from Mariupol, its gas from Novoazovsk, which is outside of Ukrainian control, and its water pumped (thanks to the International Red Cross) from its own borehole in the neutral corridor.

The same year, Pavlopil set up its own volunteer maintenance team, headed by electrician Alexander Dyadenchuk. The maintenance work was paid for by humanitarian aid and preferential arrangements – Shapkin was able to “sell” his brigade to the OSCE mission, which, with its help installed a technical surveillance system along the entire front line. Jobs are counted and collected here individually – there are few residents here.

In June 2019, the village gas line was broken during artillery fire, as was the gasworks in the village of Krasnoarmeyskoe (outside of Ukrainian-controlled territory). Restoring a gas supply is not just a matter of repair, but complex regulatory operations, especially given that there’s no communication between the utility services on either side of the frontline. Shapkin nonetheless managed to coordinate repair work on both sides of the demarcation line and in December the village got its gas again.

Sergey Shapkin | Image: Dmitry Durnev

The same year, Pavlopil set up its own volunteer maintenance team, headed by electrician Alexander Dyadenchuk. The maintenance work was paid for by humanitarian aid and preferential arrangements – Shapkin was able to “sell” his brigade to the OSCE mission, which, with its help installed a technical surveillance system along the entire front line. Jobs are counted and collected here individually – there are few residents here.

In June 2019, the village gas line was broken during artillery fire, as was the gasworks in the village of Krasnoarmeyskoe (outside of Ukrainian-controlled territory). Restoring a gas supply is not just a matter of repair, but complex regulatory operations, especially given that there’s no communication between the utility services on either side of the frontline. Shapkin nonetheless managed to coordinate repair work on both sides of the demarcation line and in December the village got its gas again.

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“Both sides went to work ahead of the Paris Summit,” Shapkin tells me, referring to talks held in December 2019. “At first no one would help me, but as the Summit approached, everyone from both Kramatorsk and Donetsk began to push me on: ‘Let’s do it!’ Everyone realised it was crucial for the conference.”

Everything connected with gas is kept as quiet as possible. Russian gas is almost free in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” – it costs six times less than in Ukrainian controlled territory, and you have to pay in roubles, in person and in Novoazovsk. Under Ukrainian law, this process could be classed as “financial terrorism”, but the village elders are clear they have no connection to it.

Some Pavlopil residents check the gas meters, collect everyone’s dues and take them through the checkpoints to Novoazovsk once a month. Everyone realises that Ukrainian soldiers’ eggs are also fried on Russian gas and there are no people who owe money for gas there either. They try not to discuss the fact that soldiers and the “nationalists” pay for gas in roubles.

Technical monitoring station | Image: Dmitry Durnev

In December, specialists from the Mariupol gas company didn’t even mention “Russian gas” and cooperation with the “Donetsk People’s Republic”: the networks were checked and then the specialists stepped back and watched as the local maintenance workers opened the taps.

Negotiations

The Pavlopil reservoir – one of Mariupol’s main sources of water should the Severny Donetsk-Donbas Canal fail – usually provides industrial water for the metallurgical plants and fish for the local residents.

Before the war, there was an extensive fishing area here – five lines of pontoons for Beluga and Osetra mother stock. These spawned hundreds of thousands of fish that were annually released into the Azov Sea as part of a Russian-Ukrainian international project. Now the mother stocks have been moved to a reservoir in Vinnitsa. The metal pontoons’ owners broke them up, under military protection, for scrap metal, and they will be replaced with plastic ones.

“We’re thinking about reviving the fishing area this year,” Shapkin tells me. “We’ll start by helping to update all the permits for the use of the reservoir surface: that always used to be a good excuse for corrupt practices, but now, with our help, people should just have to pay the established rate. If we help, they’ll be able to release silver carp and Chinese carp. We need three normal years under military rule, and they’ve promised us that there’ll be jobs for ten people, and from 2023 onwards there’ll start releasing 150 tonnes of fish a year into the shops. We also hope to buy geese as part of some NGO project.”

Pavlopil’s secret for working with international NGOs is simple and complex at the same time. It’s not just a question of strong applications and accurate reports: the donors are impressed by the lack of conflict over the distribution of assistance here.

When Shapkin says “we hope to buy”, he’s referring to a local cooperative, set up by the village, which is developing some pretty exotic projects. There isn’t much land available – the whole area is mined. In May 2016, a tractor blew up during field work, killing one person and injuring another. Shapkin tells me that the family of the dead man continued ploughing the same field the next year.

Last year, sappers gave the locals 90 hectares of cleared land, which is mostly used for wheat – it’s weed-resistant and over five years the steppe has left its mark on the former arable land. All the projects are as compact as possible – people here grow whatever provides the largest return from the smallest area.

International help

“The International Red Cross was one of our first supporters,” says Shapkin. “I’m not talking about things like Rinat Akhmetov’s office, who gives people food. I’m talking about project support. The Red Cross does provide aid, but it also provides support for locals’ micro-businesses. The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) has given us a lot of help, and the Norwegian Refugee Council has also been generous to us – we’ve just received $5,000 from them and bought a seeding machine for the cooperative.

Pavlopil’s secret for working with international NGOs is simple and complex at the same time. It’s not just a question of strong applications and accurate reports: the donors are impressed by the lack of conflict over the distribution of assistance here.

“We were given twenty good turkeys per household, but there weren’t enough to go round,” Shapkin tells me. “I decided that there should be enough for everyone, so we fulfilled all the requests that were received and then distributed the birds. Families got ten turkeys each and single people, fewer. The NGO guys were amazed – there were fist fights in Chermalyk, in Orlovskoye people were fighting for aid and they were so surprised here: ‘We distribute the stuff, and our village head sits in his office calmly drinking tea, and everything’s fine. It was important to organise everything properly.’

Business, Pavlopil-style

Everyone who is prepared to build a business under rocket fire is valued and respected in Pavlopil. Shapkin also has plans with another businessman, Alexander Zhukov, as long as the latter re-registers his legal address from Mariupol to Pavlopil.

“I have three men working on my farm, and we take milk, cream cheese and meat to market in Mariupol. Everything’s close by there, we’ll find clients for the breezeblocks as well,” says Zhukov, who is from the neighbouring village of Chernenko. “There’ll be no shortage of customers. We just need an investor: we have a construction gang and a building site in Mariupol – we can build a house for free, then sell it and split the profit with the investor.”

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“There used to be a checkpoint near Chernenko, but it was heavily shot at and fell to 40 rounds from a rocket launcher in 2015 – bits of rocket are still lying around all over the local cemetery. So we’ve made money all sorts of ways, we can work at anything and everything.”

Another example of a successful business here is a local cafe, which belongs to a man Shapkin calls “stubborn Denis”. He amazed everyone by opening a cafe in the nearby village of Pishchevik, where there is a major checkpoint. Denis was the sixth businessman whom Shapkin allowed to build a pavilion on his land, but no one could get permission from the combined forces of the Border Service, the Security Service of Ukraine and the military.

Denis dealt with official suspicions about “intelligence activity” in his own way - the cafe is staffed by Natalya, a young woman with heavy makeup and startled eyes. As well as coffee and pastries, Natalya has bread and sweets for local people – there are no other shops nearby. But there is a checkpoint surrounded by minefields and two streets where 20 people live (a figure we arrived at after thorough calculations with a local older woman). There are Natalya and her daughter (the only “young people”), a couple of men, one aged 47 and the other a little over 50, and the rest are pensioners. It’s clear that Natalya isn’t interested in being “a spy in a kiosk” - she lives here anyway.

“If your bus doesn’t arrive at the terminus in time a couple of times, on the third time people won’t turn up and the service will disappear”

On the whole, though, local residents’ main business is more clandestine: driving through checkpoints. When Donetsk business owners are carrying important goods, they pick up temporary passengers just to get through the checkpoints due to restrictions on goods per passengers. This costs 150 hryvnya (£5) per head and you can make a journey there and back across the demarcation line once a day.

Village of fatalists

Transport is a separate matter here, very laborious and precise. The village populations are tiny. Local buses are part of family business – drivers usually know all their passengers by name.

“If your bus doesn’t arrive at the terminus in time a couple of times, on the third time people won’t turn up and the service will disappear,” says Ivan Alexandrov. He is a former bus driver who bought his own bus, built a large garage beside his house in the village of Hnutove as a family bus service company. He’s now busy repairing a second bus to cover the local area.

“I bought this bus for 100,000 hryvnya [£3,120]. It’s 14 years old and with a lot of rust. I re-welded its entire undercarriage. A complete rebuild will cost me 240,000 hryvnya [£7,800], but that will still be just half of what an ordinary car would cost on the open market,” says Alexandrov.

To the left of his house stands a large cattle shed, and the frontline is just 500 metres away, opposite a half-dismantled hangar. The cowshed was built before the war – in the eyes of the locals it is almost “new”.

Ivan is looking at the hangar, which still has walls and gates – all that remains of the farm. He would like to buy the building for a normal price as an auto repair shop – there is a stream of cars passing by from the occupied territories and they also need to change their oil and tyres. Alexandrov wants to hold on to his project, his land and his normal business. He can hear gunfire, but as usual doesn’t pay any attention to it: anyone who was afraid here has long since left – only the fatalists have stayed.

Ivan Alexandrov | Image: Dmitry Durnev

We talk with the best known of the “fatalists”, Vitaly, who has a farm. Or rather what remained of it after its fences, roofs and other essential elements were broken up for scrap. The damage wasn’t done by marauders – it was the previous owners. The same holding sold a perfectly good working complex to a firm specialising in demolishing buildings.

Vitaly used to breed birds here, and admits that he consciously bought it as an extra – the owners couldn’t break the rental agreement while there were birds in two buildings. He ended up buying the two buildings for 400,000 hryvnya (£12,500). His flock of 700 geese were protected by a metal fence. Two pairs of wolves tore down the fence at night and killed half the flock and the remaining geese have been terrified for the rest of their lives and don’t leave their enclosures.

This is the new reality of the war here: hunting is forbidden, the public aren’t allowed to shoot foxes, hares have proliferated everywhere, and several times a day you can hear people saying, “the pheasants have been breeding like sparrows!” And now there are wolves as well.

Vitaly works with his whole family and plans to breed sheep and restore the roof of one of his abandoned buildings. He now has eight hectares of land and will somehow cope with the wolves (he pays no attention to the foxes and hunters).

Once, Vitaly tells me, four rockets hit his farm - thankfully, there were neither casualties nor serious damage. It was a long time ago, he says, he’s ready to fight for his livelihood.

In fact, everyone here is very stubborn and ready to fight.

26 February: the terms of reference in this article were updated to remove several references to "rebel territory" and use "Ukrainian-controlled territory" throughout.

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