oDR: Feature

How war has hit Zakarpattia, hundreds of miles from Ukraine's front lines

Zakarpattia is the region of Ukraine furthest from Russia and Belarus. But even here, the war is hard to escape

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Kateryna Semchuk
4 May 2023, 3.24pm
Mukachevo, in the far west of Ukraine, is home to 85,000 - including many displaced by Russia's war
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(c) Tanya Dzhafarova. All rights reserved

The pink blossoms of sakura trees hang peacefully in Mukachevo, a town of 85,500 in western Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region. No sirens, gunfire, distant artillery or the motorbike growl of Iranian drones disturb the blooms under the gentle sun – only the humming of insects.

It’s an unusual scene in Ukraine, 14 months on from Russia’s full-scale invasion.

On 3 May alone, Russia shelled the southern Kherson region 98 times, killing 23 people in a single attack on a city supermarket. And on the night of 4 May, Russia attacked Ukraine with 24 drones against a background of offensive operations in the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions.

Zakarpattia is the region furthest from both Russia and Belarus, and life here, hundreds of miles from the front lines, is as close to normal as one can get in a country facing its second year of war.

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President Volodymyr Zelenskyi has claimed that people in relatively safe regions such as this are losing motivation in Ukraine’s war effort. Comparing the situation now to the “stronger spirit” at the beginning of the Russian invasion, he said: “Now I see in some cities that they are on vacation. I believe that this is a weakness.”

But though life in Zakarpattia may feel like a ‘vacation’ at times, the border region is still touched by war. Thousands of ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) from the south and east have come here, while the region has faced economic decline, emigration and an exodus of its ethnic Hungarian minority population.

Zakarpattia’s border with the EU has become a crossing point for refugees fleeing Russia’s destruction, as well as a clandestine route for men avoiding conscription into the Ukrainian military. And the region, like other parts of Ukraine, sees a steady stream of bodies – fallen soldiers being returned home for burial.

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Zakarpattia's economy largely relies on agriculture and seasonal work abroad

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(c) Tanya Dzhafarova. All rights reserved

Normal life

The eerie sense of normality in Mukachevo is a familiar feeling for some.

Luba Derevyanko is a former resident of Kharkiv, the eastern Ukrainian city close to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that have been mired in conflict for almost nine years now. “In 2014, we felt safe,” she says.

Then war arrived in Kharkiv last spring, destroying Derevyanko’s home district of North Saltivka. She fled west to Zakarpattia.

“People [in Mukachevo] who have not experienced what we have experienced cannot understand,” she says. Since last May, only one Russian missile has hit Zakarpattia.

In Mukachevo, there are currently 17,228 officially-registered IDPs – almost a quarter of the town’s total pre-war population. (Overall, 27,000 IDPs have been registered in the town since last year.) But arrivals have slowed since the first half of 2022 and Mukachevo is visibly less crowded than it was a year ago.

“If you don’t check the news, you could forget about the war,” says Olha Ovcharenko, 51, who sells dreamy handmade dolls in Mukachevo’s central square. The town doesn’t even have a night-time curfew like other parts of the country.

Still, Ovcharenko donates a percentage of her income to Venetsiya, a local volunteer aid centre.

The centre, named after the under-construction restaurant that houses it, was opened in the early days of the Russian invasion thanks to donations by locals. Run by IDPs themselves, Venetsiya helped displaced people find shelter, giving out hot meals and clothes.

But that vital work suffered a setback in late April, when the Venetsiya restaurant found itself in the middle of an ownership dispute – a story that feels typical of Ukraine before the February 2022 invasion, but out of place today.

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Inside the Venetsiya restaurant, women make camouflage nets for troops in eastern and southern Ukraine

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(c) Tanya Dzhafarova. All rights reserved

The company that owns the restaurant claimed the former manager had, in fact, let IDPs illegally occupy the building. The volunteer hub was then evicted, and local prosecutors have opened an investigation into allegations that the company’s corporate rights and property had been fraudulently seized.

“How are we going to finish making the 10 [camouflage] nets that were supposed to go to Bakhmut?” asks Halyna Korzun, 68, originally from Mykolayiv. As she speaks to openDemocracy, she bursts into tears while facing the gates to the restaurant, which is now blocked off by the police.

Venetsiya had served as a place where women who had escaped the fighting but wanted to contribute to the war effort, like Korzun and Derevyanko, came to make camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military.

Derevyanko did this for up to six hours a day, longing for the home she hasn’t seen in more than a year, and remembering the traumatic first weeks of the war before she left.

Zakarpattia, like the rest of the country, is going through a recession

The cost of living, including housing, means money counts for Derevyanko. She spends around £200 a month on a place for her and her two children. “If it weren’t for [free] lunches at Venetsiya, it would be difficult,” she told openDemocracy. Today, the NGO is looking for a new home, but hopes to return to the restaurant.

The pressure of war has also created conflict in Mukachevo.

Ira Serhieieva, a social media manager at the Venetsiya volunteer hub, says some IDPs have had to leave the places where they are staying over personal conflicts with hosts. These arguments often come from a stereotype that parts of the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine somehow caused this war.

“‘You came in large numbers, the war is because of you, and our men have to go and fight,’” says Serhieieva, summarising the arguments she has heard.

Staying afloat

Rolling blackouts and cuts in water supply as a result of Russia's destruction of critical infrastructure, the situation in western Ukraine has stabilised this spring.

But Zakarpattia, like the rest of the country, is going through a recession. An important sector of the region’s economy is agriculture, although tourism and shadow sectors like contraband (Zakarpattia borders four countries, after all) are equally important, while many workers in the local population are migrants.

“Last year, trade was boosted by IDPs. This year income has dropped by 60%. People are waiting to see what will happen next,” says Kamill Harakhonych, 44, the owner of a small seed shop at Mukachevo central market.

Inflation and a 50% hike in water bills have made things harder still.

“We do not expect profits. The plan is to stay afloat, wait until Ukraine wins and then rebuild the business,” says Harakhonych, whose family has owned the shop for 15 years.

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Kamill Harakhonych says trade in Mukachevo went up last year thanks to IDPs

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(c) Tanya Dzhafarova. All rights reserved

Both Harakhonych and Ovcharenko, the handmade doll seller, have friends who have joined the Ukrainian army – but they also know many people who have emigrated, both before and since the invasion.

Emigration has been higher in predominantly Hungarian villages of Zakarpattia, where many hold Hungarian passports. Gizella Lukach, 72, who sells spinach from her garden at the market in Mukachevo, says her village largely emptied after war broke out.

“Only the young and old have stayed,” she says, explaining that she sells vegetables to supplement her monthly pension of £54. Unlike Ukrainian citizens, under martial law, men of military age with Hungarian passports have been able to leave the country legally to avoid conscription.

“We never thought that war would come to Ukraine,” says one woman who works at a local shop in Fornosh, Lukach’s village. The shop worker returned from Hungary a few months ago to take care of her 77-year-old mother, having fled with her family after the invasion. Her husband and son are among those who have stayed in Hungary as they fear being conscripted for the army if they return to Ukraine.

Border region

Zakarpattia has its own army brigade, the 128th, which Zelenskyi has thanked for its defence of the Zaporizhzhia region, and its role in the offensive in Kherson.

But Zakarpattia’s 460-kilometre border with the EU is also where men from all over Ukraine attempt to escape the country illegally.

Ukraine’s State Border Service told openDemocracy that 8,101 Ukrainian citizens of military age had been detained at the border in the 14 months since the invasion. Some 2,310 were apprehended outside official border checkpoints – while the rest were detained directly at border checkpoints.

Women like Valentyna Pavliuk know the reality of war, even if they live in a region where others can forget about it

Men who try to leave illegally often do so by crossing the river Tysa, which separates Ukraine from Romania and Hungary, or through mountains to Romania. The routes can be lethal, with men drowning in the river or freezing to death in the mountains. It’s unclear how many men actually make it across the border.

At the same time, Mukachevo’s main cemetery, on the town’s outskirts, is now a final resting place for Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the south and east. Faded blue and yellow flags on the graves of those who have died in Donbas since 2014 sit next to freshly-coloured flags for those who died recently. Even on a weekday, there are relatives tending the graves.

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Valentyna Pavliuk lost her son, Oleksandr, whose grave is on the right, in fighting in 2015

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(c) Tanya Dzhafarova

Valentyna Pavliuk, 82, comes to clean weeds from around the grave of her son Oleksandr, who was killed in 2015. She even planted flowers on some nearby, older Soviet military graves, “so it was nicer around my son”.

“My youngest [son] brought home Oleksandr’s body,” Pavliuk says. Oleksandr’s brother is still fighting today.

Women like Valentyna Pavliuk know the reality of war, even if they live in a region where others can forget about it.

“Such is my fate,” says Pavliuk, through tears.

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