Trophies From an Incomprehensible War

As fighting rages in the east, one Slovyansk museum is already trying to tell the story of the war in Ukraine, one bullet-riddled helmet at a time.

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — When militants from the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic" (DNR) set up an outpost near the regional museum in Slovyansk in April, they stole two World War II field guns from the courtyard to defend their barricades.

The Ukrainian army drove out the occupying DNR rebels in July, but the liberators took the artillery with them. The soldiers took the field guns all the way to Kiev, putting them on view outside the war museum there as trophies. Neither side bothered to take off the notices that read: "Please don't steal our museum exhibits," which is how museum director Lilya Zander recognized her old exhibits on display in the capital, about 400 miles away.

She still has not gotten them back. Nor was either side fighting in the conflict apparently bothered that they are, in fact, useless replicas.

Other than the pair of fake guns, Zander's museum somehow survived weeks of fighting and looting unharmed, despite the widespread destruction of the surrounding town. This spring, Slovyansk briefly became the center of the armed pro-Russian uprising in eastern Ukraine that has set neighbor against neighbor and has turned much of the area around Donetsk and Luhansk into a war zone, claiming more than 2,000 civilian lives and displacing many hundreds of thousands more. The town was retaken by the Ukrainian army on July 5, after weeks of heavy shelling.

Hospitals, orphanages, and thousands of private homes have been damaged and destroyed in Slovyansk, but inside the museum's modest brick building, rooms re-create the peaceful interiors of a traditional Ukrainian peasant cottage and a 1950s Soviet dining room. Slovyansk's history from a prehistoric settlement through medieval trade, revolution, and world war to contemporary salt and clay industries is charted in collections begun in the 1970s.

Now Zander and her colleagues have started a new collection of artifacts from the town's latest occupation and liberation. They hope to create an exhibition that will make sense of those terrible, absurd months in 2014 when people who had known each other all their lives took up arms against each other; kidnapped, tortured, and murdered; played at soldiers; stole what they could; or hid in their cellars and waited for the nightmare to be over. 

Museum staff have no name for the collection yet or for their planned exhibition. Zander tentatively calls it "Trophies From an Incomprehensible War."

"Our job is to tell the history of our region," Zander said. "Today, our sorry history is our war."

Today Slovyansk may feel calm, but the peace is skin-deep. Instead of DNR recruitment posters, notices urge residents to report their neighbors for separatism (punishable by up to 15 years in prison) and warn them to be on their guard against terrorists and provocateurs. Wounded soldiers and refugees arrive daily from fighting less than 60 miles to the south and east. The town buzzes with rumors of an imminent new onslaught from pro-Russian or Russian forces.

Amid these tensions, Zander and her colleagues have put up notices in the town hall asking locals to donate recent artifacts that can help explain what happened in this city of 130,000 during the spring and summer of 2014, though they do not expect the exhibition to be ready for months, even years.

Still, in its beginning stages, so far the collection consists of cardboard boxes of body armor and gas masks, shell casings, paramilitary badges, and propaganda materials collected after DNR fighters fled Slovyansk. There are DNR recruitment fliers that resemble Hollywood action-movie posters and issues of the short-lived Slovyansk Front newsletter, which combine Soviet-style martial appeals from DNR leaders with domestic news about soup kitchens in a town under siege.

Zander has been unable to get any objects from the Ukrainian army, and anything of military value either DNR or Ukrainians forces took with them. Left behind are the useless remnants of an amateur fighting force: "bulletproof" vests made from homemade metal sheets held together with tape and canvas straps, a helmet with a paper cutout of the Russian two-headed eagle glued lopsidedly to the front.

But curating the exhibit will be at least as difficult as building the collection.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has yet to find a coherent narrative. Ukraine calls it an "anti-terrorist operation"; Russia calls it a "Ukrainian internal conflict"; propaganda on both sides has termed it everything from NATO aggression to genocide. The debate over nomenclature extends to those who are participating in the fighting: Locals who took up arms to support the DNR or its sister republic further east, the Luhansk People's Republic, object violently to being called "separatists," preferring the term "militants" who are fighting to protect their land from invasion by the "fascists" in Kiev.

This semantic battlefield presents a potential minefield for the museum. "I'm for a united Ukraine," Zander hurried to tell me. But, she said, the museum is "not trying to show 'for' and 'against.' We're trying to show the facts." She pointed to a helmet with a DNR sticker and a bullet hole right through it, picked up from a battlefield; whoever was wearing it presumably died. The helmet, she said, could be labeled a "separatist" helmet. "Separatists are those who want to divide Ukraine. It isn't an insult -- it's the right name." But others, she said, would want to label the helmet with words like "hero" or "bandit."

Everything in the coming exhibition has been donated by local people. But for some residents, the conflict still raging within Ukraine's borders remains too raw for its remnants to yet make the transition into history. In Slovyansk's main square, pensioner Tatiana Tyshenko showed me a bundle of leaflets the Ukrainian army dropped from airplanes in May, with instructions for residents on how to behave under occupation by what the pamphlet calls "terrorists."

"I didn't see them fall, but I saw someone running to collect them in the garden, so I ran out too, and we fought over them," she said, showing me the torn corners. Until she read them, she said, "We were like blind cats; we had no idea what was happening. I hid three of them; I heard that anyone who had one would be shot."

"These are important documents," said Tyshenko, stowing the leaflets carefully back in her handbag. For her, these are not museum pieces but vital instructions she might yet need. "They will become history; this will pass and then maybe we will start to forget. But now it is all fresh."

As Tyshenko told me her version of what happened in Slovyansk this summer, a man sitting near us on the bench interrupted. "She's fooling you; she's not telling you what really happened. Tell the truth," he shouted at her.

In neighboring Mykolaivka, massively damaged during the Ukrainian army's rout of the DNR on July 3 and 4, a woman told me about her brother, who was returned home to be buried in early August. He was killed fighting for the DNR near Donetsk.

"He was a hero," Svetlana told me. She still keeps at home the items her brother gave her, despite visits from Ukrainian law enforcement officials: rebel-produced Novorossiya newspapers, DNR flags, and a St. George ribbon, the Soviet symbol of World War II victory that has become a sign of separatism in Ukraine.

"I'll always keep that because it isn't just a symbol," Svetlana said. "It is my memorial."

Fluttering St. George ribbons have now disappeared from Slovyansk's streets, along with the separatist outposts -- like the one outside the Slovyansk museum guarded with Zander's two stolen World War II cannons.

Zander herself is still coming to terms with what happened in the town she grew up in and what is still happening to her country. 

"I can't say we were really fighting each other," she said. "Those people on the DNR outpost who took our guns weren't really our enemies, not exactly. Some of them came to visit the museum -- they even bought tickets. It's just that some took one side and some took another. That's all."

Photo by Alvaro Ybarra Zavala/Getty Images


Putin Takes Off the Gloves in Eastern Ukraine

Battered and besieged, Kiev's troops are just trying to survive to fight another day.

KOMSOMOLSKE, Ukraine — The column of Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicles, trucks, and an aging tank had been traveling west in retreat across the wilting sunflower fields near Novozaryevka in eastern Ukraine when separatist rebels struck it suddenly with fearsome power. Fifteen vehicles were frozen in place, nose to tail. Eleven were burned out, reduced to charred black husks. The tank's turret was dismembered from its chassis. Dry pasta was scattered across the ground along with rounds of ammunition. Another two fighting vehicles stood abandoned in a field down the road.

Locals who were looting parts for personal use and sale (15 cents for a kilogram of "black metal," $4.50 for a kilogram of copper) had placed six charred bodies of Ukrainian soldiers behind a windbreak several dozen yards away so the stench wouldn't disrupt their work. Near the corpses lay the fragments of several mortar shells, a Ukrainian military ID, and a bloodstained wallet holding black-and-white photos of one hapless soldier's parents. A military source confirmed that the attack came from a Grad multiple rocket launcher firing incendiary rounds, a weapon that has been used to deadly effect by both sides.

"We used to all be together, but not anymore," said Ruslan, a soot-stained local in a threadbare Spurs jersey, as he gestured at the blackened remains of the government forces.

The convoy's demise is yet another loss in Kiev's struggle with rebels who have reportedly been receiving ever more arms and fighters from Russia. Residents said the attack took place Aug. 26, the same day a furious-looking President Petro Poroshenko shook hands with his grinning Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, before fruitless peace talks in Belarus.

In the week since the ineffective peace talks began, government troops, who had previously been making steady gains against the pro-Russian forces, have suffered a string of defeats. Kiev has blamed the rebels' resurgence on an invasion of Russian troops brazenly moving across Ukraine's eastern border.

In a phone call last week with Jose Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European Commission, Putin said, "If I want I'll take Kiev in two weeks." The routing of Ukraine's army at the hands of Russian-backed rebels suggests that Putin's words ring true, even if they were undiplomatic.

On Aug. 27, rebel forces -- one local told me they were backed by Russian troops and armor -- seized the southern coastal town of Novoazovsk, near the border with Russia, opening a front in an area that had previously been peaceful. Also last week, rebels took back from government forces Savur-Mohyla, a strategically important hill to the east of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine's biggest city. Two Ukrainian commanders were among the casualties in the struggle for the strategic summit, which is topped by a destroyed monument to the Soviet soldiers who died fighting Germans there.

Ukrainian forces also retreated from the airport near the rebel stronghold of Luhansk on Sept. 1, while fighting was reported at the government-held airport in Donetsk. At least 50 pro-government volunteer fighters have been killed -- some sources suggest the actual number is closer to 200 -- in the town of Ilovaisk, a town southeast of Donetsk where hundreds of fighters have been surrounded by pro-Russian forces for more than 10 days.

On Monday night, Sept. 1, I counted 12 ambulances in Starobesheve, a small town near the border with Russia, waiting to extricate Ukrainian soldiers trapped in the town. Putin had called for a humanitarian corridor to allow troops to leave the town alive. Government forces have fled all towns in the Starobesheve district, according to the Ukrainian publication Vesti Reporter. Journalists in the area reported that pro-Russian forces were operating in the strategically placed cities of Volnovakha and Telmanove, which had been under Kiev's control until just days earlier.

Even Ukrainian government officials seem ready to admit that their forces have turned on their heels. Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey said in a statement on Facebook on Monday that Kiev's "anti-terrorist operation" to take back the east is over and that the government is now focusing on defending from a Russian invasion.

The burned-out husks of the convoy in Komsomolske were part of the retreat. A military source not authorized to speak to the press told me that the convoy had been withdrawing from Ilovaisk when pro-Russian forces hit it with mortar fire and then "finished it off with Grads."

Residents of Komsomolske, a town located between Starobesheve and Novozaryevka, said that government forces had withdrawn from the area on Sunday. Nearby fighting has left the town without electricity. Even though the school year started on Monday, children stayed home.

A Komsomolske policeman who would identify himself only as "Major" said government soldiers arrived on Aug. 28, after rebel shelling around the city killed two civilians. The soldiers set up a headquarters in the local police station. A shootout was heard that night, he said.

"They didn't know anything, judging by how they dug their trenches," Major said. "We told them the town's in a hollow, that they would get shot up."

In the following days, trucks and fighting vehicles began passing through Komsomolske, heading south from Starobesheve and Ilovaisk. On Sunday the last troops left the town, residents said. A man named Sergei showed videos of a Ukrainian fighting vehicle and a convoy of troop transport trucks passing through the town.

A group of supermarket employees who were boarding up their shop on Monday said National Guard soldiers had looted it on their way out of Komsomolske. "[The soldiers] said, 'Why aren't you taking anything? There's a sale today,'" a store employee named Nadezhda said. "I told them I don't take part in such sales."

But Raisa Petrovna, a pensioner from Komsomolske, said the troops had been in poor shape. "The soldiers here were small kids. I felt sorry for them," she said. "I bought them bread because they were hungry. That's the state of our army."

Petrovna called on both Putin and Poroshenko to end the fighting, but as she was speaking, a woman in a nearby apartment yelled from her window, "We love Russia!"

Eastern Ukraine is littered with abandoned Ukrainian military vehicles. The government troops abandoned two broken fighting vehicles in Komsomolske. Rebels managed to start one up and drove it off, but the other has become an impromptu playground for local kids.

The turning tide against Kiev has coincided with evidence of Russian troops operating in Ukraine. Last week, 10 Russian paratroopers were captured on the Ukrainian side of the border. (Moscow claimed, implausibly, that they had simply gotten lost.) And secretive funerals were held for soldiers from Russia's Pskov region who were reportedly killed in Ukraine. Kiev and NATO have reported that more and more Russian arms are being brought across the porous border.

But according to a rebel commander in Novoazovsk who goes by the nom de guerre "SWAT," the pro-Russian forces' sudden military successes were thanks to a counterattack that was a month in planning. And the fact remains that the rebels still enjoy the support of many residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

"People are afraid to speak out because it's unclear who will be in charge here tomorrow," Major said in Novozaryevka. "But 90 percent are for the Donetsk People's Republic," he added, citing a May referendum in which many residents voted to declare independence from Ukraine.

As if to back up his words, Major took two boxes' worth of unexploded ammunition from the wrecked fighting vehicles to downtown Komsomolske, where burly local men took them into an apartment building near the abandoned fighting vehicle turned playground. A few minutes later, a group of scruffy rebel fighters pulled up in an appropriated ambulance, loaded the ammunition into it, and drove away.