Three girls sitting in front of my camera. Shy you might think. But this shyness is something else – they are traumatized. From a war that does not exist actually, if you would believe the western and German media. A war in Europe that no one sees. Because it does not take place in the media. Because it is hidden and hushed up. And though it exists here in Donetsk in southeastern Ukraine, where I live since over 2 months. In the middle of a metropolis that is heavily bombarded daily by the Ukrainian army.
The war is here among us, it is in the midst between us, between me and these three girls – Paulina, Nastya and Katya. It is in their eyes, their voices, burned into their souls. And they recognize me, because I also now live in this war like them.
It is mid-September 2014 and we are sitting together in a bare room of a refugee house in Donetsk. It took us some time to get this interview. The people in Donbass no longer believe in the West, in Europe, in Germany. For the West, they say, “they has forgotten us, they let us down”. The West knows nothing about the dead civilians, the bombing demand here every day. “The West does not care about us. Assist even the junta in Kiev, which kills us here.” I always swallow when they tell me – I know that they are right. No one in Germany knows that children like Paulina, Nastya and Katya have no home, that it was bombed away. Just like their school and the kindergarten there in the northwest of Donetsk, close to the airport. Just as the homes of more than 100 other children and their families solely in this house of refuge. And there are many of these refugee camps and homes in and around Donetsk.
The sky was burning
Katya, the eldest starts speaking: “My classmate and I have lived together for five years, we went to the same school, the school is not very big. So, at the beginning of spring everything was fine, we were only told that something had happened in Kiev. This was not so interesting to us, we did not think so, that something here might happen. So we lived like normal children.
Then they began to bomb the airport. We lived next to it. We were scared and we were constantly sent to our homes, so we could not be out there. So they bombed the airport and we always went to the basement.
Then, I do not remember the exact date in August, at 7.00 clock they started a massive bombing. We have gone out on the balcony and the whole sky was filled with such a burning precipitation. So I was still in my pajamas, shorts, my hair was not done because I had no time for it. So I was outside, ran to a little girl and then it hit next to us. We all ran into the basement, it was terrible. The windows shattered and all that noise!
This little girl and me sat there, she is 3 years old and she asked, “Grandma, what’s going on, where’s Mama”. Her mother was in Donetsk. “
Our school was also hit – 4 times
“I woke up at 5 in the morning”, Nastya tells me, “because once again the airport was bombed, it was very terrible. In the basement we ate dry bread, because there was nothing else. They again began very early to shoot and we were all only in the basement. I was still in my pajamas when we drove here (to the refugee house). During the trip I slept then, because I could not sleep there. Because we were afraid that the house might collapse. To here we fled because gas and electricity were already turned off. Paulina, so this is my little sister, woke up at night constantly, cried and said that she was scared. There was a lot of shootings, we always saw the smoke. The house of a friend there completely burned to the ground and her uncle was hit by a shrapnel to the lungs. He’s dead. Shrapnels laid everywhere around and there were many great holes. Our school was also hit – 4 times. Once the gym, Paulinas class, the entrance hall and somewhere I do not know exactly. We just thought ‘where shall we go now?’. They just shoot everywhere, in every window and they do not care at all whether one lives there or not. “
I ask Paulina if she also wants to tell me something. Her sister Nastya answers instead of her: “She’s shy. She still has fear.” I can see it in Paulinas eyes. The small mouth pressed tightly she looks in an emptiness, in which no child should see.
They died because they protected their younger siblings with their bodies
Nastya and Katya keep speaking. They speak as if there were no tomorrow. Their souls become easier for a moment. Someone is listening. We do not ask a lot of questions and it begins to flow out of them more and more – as if someone had open an invisible sluice. I do hear about their friends and how much they miss them and that they do not know where they are or what could have happened to them. I do hear of how they shared dry bread in the basement with the dog of an old man, so that “he must not die. The old man had but only him.” I do hear about Katie’s friend, who fled with her parents in a car and was shot. The father died on the spot by a head shot and her friend carried her wounded mother away from the shootings deeper into the woods. But she could not rescue her – the mother died from her injuries though. Katie’s friend then survived with some bread and tea for two days in the woods and made her way to Russia to her grandmother. I do hear about other classmates who protected their little siblings with their bodies and so paid with their lives. And
I hear them say: “It’s so awful that the children have to die. They are so young and do not know anything yet.”. And they who say this are not even 13 years of age.
Suddenly Paulina says: “Into my godfathers room there flew a shrapnel.”
We look at her and smile to make her tell some more.
“I want to go home”, she continues speaking. “I miss my doll. One can her put her on, what one wants. And you can play ‘hide and seek’ there.” Her simple wishes touching us deeply. On their escape to the safer center of Donetsk they had to leave behind everything. “I have only two shirts and two shorts,” Katya says. “Me too,” Nastya adds. “And now the winter comes soon. We have thought we could go back soon. It was so beautiful there and now everything is destroyed. My friend Lena now lives in a very old house, because their own has completely collapsed. When it rains the water runs down inside the walls, even they try to repair it. How it will be in the winter they do not know, because there are no heaters, only bare stone walls. It will be cold.”
“But we hope for their parents that their children do not need to see this, that they are doing well at home”
They talk off the load from their souls for half an hour and we know that they daily experience the same as we do. Bombardment, also here in this district – again and again, day and night. And we also know that we not feel the same as these children though. Their trauma exceeds ours many times and will influence their lives.
We ask them, if they would like to tell something to the children in Kiev, in Germany, England or France. Their answer touches us deeply and we feel that there may be a future after all the death, the bombs, the tanks and atrocities. Maybe someday.
They say: “If they would say, for example, ‘I have no pleasure in going to school, I do not want to get up early’, I would answer them that one should prefer to get up early, as to hear the bombardment behind the windows, rather than sitting in a wet cellar with the rats and mice. That one should prefer get up earlier but rested, as to hear this. And that they do not need to see how one shoots, that they do not need to see the explosions that we saw, that they do not need to see these warplanes, that they do not need to see the tanks. Probably they have not yet seen, even as it was on the Maidan, or they have forgotten it. But we hope for their parents that their children do not need to see that, that they are doing well at home. And I would tell them, they are lucky that they can sleep at night, that they always have something to eat, that they can live in their own home, that their best friends are with them.”
Katya adds: “My best friend is now in Kherson. I can simply not see her. We did everything together throughout our entire childhood and now she’s gone. It’s such a shame. They really are lucky to have their friends and can see them every day, not as we are now. “
As we leave the house on that day I get a surprisingly gift. It is a picture of flowers, grasses and seeds. A picture crafted by a mother and her child. During a bombing raid. To distract themselves from fear. Lena, who made this picture, cries as she gives it to us.
It’s raining in this picture, but there are raindrops, no bombs. It may also be tears – the tears of the children from Donetsk.
From Donetsk, a city in the Donbass.
A city in Europe.
A city raged by war.
A war that Europe does not see.