One Year in the Grey Zone

Where exactly are the fronts between the Russian and Ukrainian armies? People follow their movements on DeepStateMAP. Some areas are marked in grey: they are no-man’s land. At the beginning of the war the Ukrainian village of Borova was situated in such a grey zone. This is where Stanislav1 grew up. The young man is in his mid-twenties and speaks the local dialect, Surzhyk, a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. He describes himself as neutral, unwilling to fight against either side. He had to leave Borova and is still inwardly torn between the fronts, fighting against the hatred. One year into the war, Falk Zientz spoke with him.

How did you experience the beginning of the war in 2022?

The first missiles came down in Borova at five in the morning, hitting a military post. We knew at once that the attacks had started, although we didn’t see anything – we just heard the shelling.

What did you do?

We cleared the cellar and turned it into a shelter, taking only the most necessary things. We also filled the car with fuel so we could get away if necessary, although we did want to stay.

Was the village taken over by Russian troops?

No. Borova is situated in a valley by a river and is of no strategic interest to anyone. On the second day the only bridge was blown up and we were cut off from Ukraine. For several weeks, we heard the air raids on Izium, day and night. Often our windows were shaking from the impact.

What was everyday life like?

In the first two weeks we were always ready to go, we had our backpacks filled with the most necessary things, and we were waiting, although we didn’t know what for. Thoughts were going round and round in my head, about people I knew and whether they might have died. The nights were worst. I often went outside and tried to make sense of the sounds. There were looters around, too. The supply situation was a disaster.

How was the mood among people in the village?

People often helped each other but there was also growing division. The supporters of the different armies soon separated. When the conflict became military, two camps formed quickly. If you didn’t take sides and remained neutral, you’d be on your own. There was no doubt nonetheless in my family that we would not fight against others. We would not take sides in order to kill people.

Neutrality didn’t stand a chance?

What was most difficult was that others always tried to place you: which side are you on? Are you one of the volunteers ready to fight with Molotov cocktails against the Russian army? Or are you one of those who are hoping for Russian occupation and possibly trying to gain personal advantages? When the Russian army arrived two months later, our district was given a Russian commander. He realized at some point that hardly anywhere else did people accuse each other as much as in our district.

Dorothea Templeton, ‹Herausforderung› [Challenge], 2020, mixed media on canvas, 60 × 80 cm

You often went to Russia. Why?

To provide the most necessary things for people: insulin, heart medication, food. What was particularly important for many people were letters and also selfies for relatives and friends on the other side of the border: look, we are alive and our house is still standing. I was the only one to bring provisions to Borova. When I walked through the village, people came from everywhere to talk to me. Early on one woman I brought insulin to said, «You’ve saved my mother’s life!» I had no idea.

Why did you then flee to Russia with your family?

In the autumn, when the Ukrainian army recaptured our region, many of those who had supported the Russians were severely punished. Because neutrality stood no chance in this conflict it was clear to me that I could be seen as the enemy. This is why we left, with my nan, my two little sisters, the cat and the dog.

Will Russia be your new home?

We have friends and relatives here, but we always have the feeling that we should move on, that this is just a stop on the way. We could go on to Europe or America. But we don’t want to be so far from home. And our friends in Ukraine are asking, «You’re staying in Russia? Really? How can you?» Here, we would have to register in order to be able to work. In Ukraine that would be seen as proof that we are collaborators.

What do the changing fronts mean for the people in the villages?

With every change the gaps grow wider. One minute you were part of the power, the next moment you are punished as a collaborator. There is nothing in between. If there should be Russian occupation again – it’s incredible what this does to people. I would be asked again: Do you come from Russia to provide supplies for us in Borova? I really don’t know if I’d be ready for that. For no one will see me as neutral.

Will the fear prevail?

I really know what fear is. But when I was taken to be questioned at the border or driving on a mined road, I always only had good thoughts and nothing happened to me. In those situations I felt that I can survive if I don’t allow myself to be poisoned by hatred and hostility. But if I lost my centre, I would soon be broken inwardly – I feel that clearly. Many people I know are bitter and hostile inside. Letting war and hatred into our hearts, that will be death.

Does this apply to other regions, too?

I see myself as a citizen of planet earth. For me this war is like a test: am I human? When I hate or harm others, I destroy myself first of all, and also the earth. Neutrality does not mean that I don’t care about others. On the contrary: what is important for me is how we are all connected. We must not steal from or hurt each other. For as human beings we depend on each other – all of us.

On February 25th, 2022, Falk Zientz and Lukas Kunert started Unterkunft Ukraine, the largest civil society refugee initiative to date, providing private accommodation placements for more than 50,000 people.

Translation Margot M. Saar

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  1. The name was changed.

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