Infobae in the Donbas: journey into the bowels of the war and a love that for Russia was lost forever

(Kramatorsk, special envoy). “I was Russian. russian russian My father was a Russian military. I was brought up in Russian culture. I have spoken Russian all my life. I loved music, painting, Russian literature. All. But since they started this war, I realized that all of this has the devil. I will never speak Russian again, now my every word will be spoken in Ukrainian.”

Olena has a black fur-lined cap, very Russian. She is 59 years old and has a firm voice. She talks a lot, she seems like she was forced into silence for months. Much of the small population of Balakliya it was: the troops of putin They took the city in March 2022 and occupied it for seven months. They jailed citizens, offered passports, and even began organizing elections. But the result was exactly the opposite of what they were looking for.

Residential buildings in the city of Izium, reduced to rubble in one of the cities hardest hit by the Russian invasion in eastern Ukraine. (FRANCO FAFASULI /)

“We lived like a prison, in a huge prison from which no one could get out. This is what this town became while the Russians were there,” says another woman of a similar age to Olena. They are both lining up to buy a liter of milk from a truck that distributes it once a day. People accumulate there and as soon as they find out that there are journalists, they begin to come over to talk.

“I live with my husband, but for people who live alone it was very difficult, really very difficult. No one could leave their house, there was no one to talk to, all topics seemed forbidden, everyone was suspicious… Ties were broken for months,” says Irina, from the same group of women.

The days of the occupation lasted until September 8, when the Ukrainian troops recaptured the city. With only 26,000 inhabitants, Balakliya is twenty minutes south of Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine. To the east, only 150 kilometers separate it from the border with Russia. It is one of the reasons why the Russians expected to be welcomed with open arms. It did not happen, but it was not the opposite either: some inhabitants were indeed pro-Russian and helped the invading troops. There are hardly any of them left anymore, they went to Russia when their army was defeated. If before Balakliya was a divided town, today it is much more Ukrainian than a year ago.

Journey to the East - Kharkiv to Kramatorsk - Ukraine Russia War - Infoabe in Ukraine
After hours traveling semi-destroyed routes, the car that transported the Infobae envoys punctured a tire. (Franco Fafasuli/)

It is not a very famous town. It is not located next to any main access nor did it occupy the pages of the newspapers too many times, but fate wanted us to arrive. We started our journey from kyiv to get as close as possible to the current epicenter of the conflict, in the Donbas. The routes, used for a year almost as much by tanks and armored vehicles as by cars, are not in the best condition. The splinters of the explosives are in almost all the roads and are treacherous for the tires. After several hours on the road we had to stop due to a puncture. We did it right next to a destroyed Russian tank. After trying without luck to solve the situation, Iván’s car appeared. He gave us air with a compressor and told us to accompany him to his town, only 30 kilometers away, because he was a friend of the owner of a tire shop.

Without hesitation, we followed him. We continue along the main route to a crossroads, where we turn right. The landscape became more wintry and desert, just bare trees, mud and snow. So, the sign: Balakliya. And to the right, a huge destroyed hangar. The war had been here too.

Journey to the East - Kharkiv to Kramatorsk - Ukraine Russia War - Infoabe in Ukraine
A woman walks past an industrial center hit by Russian missiles in the city of Balakliya in Kharkiv Oblast located on the banks of the Donets River. (Franco Fafasuli/)

When we got to the workshop we asked Iván how his life was this year. His face was transformed, and suddenly a bitterness appeared that he had not shown until then. “The worst were those seven months,” he said then. Only then did we learn that we were in one of the towns that had suffered the occupation.

“They arrived on March 2 or 3. The first thing they did was say that we were Russian citizens from then on and they were planning to hold an election. The people were divided half and half. Those of us who were pro-Ukraine were silent, those who were pro-Russia spoke out, and if they knew someone was pro-Ukraine, they accused him. Then the Russians would go and imprison them. That is why when they were defeated, almost all the pro-Russians went with them, ”he says. He falls silent and takes a drag on his cigarette. He looks at us and says that the first few days were the worst because he was one of the people incarcerated.


-I was a policeman in the past, but not anymore. And they had a list with the names of the people, with some information, and they were based on that.

-How was being detained by the Russians?

-The first three days I was in a cell in the dark and they beat me a lot, all the time. After three days they took me to another room, they removed the mask from my head, they released the chains from my wrists and they told me to make a video in which I said that I was an artillery corrector of the Ukrainian forces, and that we had killed some Ukrainian civilians with our gunfire. And they told me that if I agreed to film it, they would give me a Russian passport and I could start a new life in Russia, that everything would be fine for me. But I refused, and so they took me back to the prison for another three days.

Journey to the East - Kharkiv to Kramatorsk - Ukraine Russia War - Infoabe in Ukraine
“I was Russian. Russian Russian. But I realized that all this has the devil inside. I will never speak Russian again. Only Ukrainian,” says Olena. (Franco Fafasuli/)

Ivan is huge. He has a green jacket and when he greets he makes an effort not to push too hard so as not to hurt. He is 34 years old and before saying goodbye he greets us with an affectionate shrug, like uniting the bodies in a hands-free hug. We ask his mechanic friend how much we owe him and he won’t let us pay. We insist, but he refuses to take the money. For them, they say, there is no better payment than being able to be free to tell your story.

We walk the streets of Balakliya for a while and then we return to the route, again heading towards the Donbas. From then on, almost all the towns we will pass through have been occupied and liberated, many destroyed in the process. Some refer to the path as “the route of liberation.” And the costs are not hidden: as we get closer to Kramatorskour destination, we began to see more and more destroyed tanks on the side of the road.

Journey to the East - Kharkiv to Kramatorsk - Ukraine Russia War - Infoabe in Ukraine
Between snow and debris in the city of Izium in eastern Ukraine, the inhabitants make an attempt to return to a practically ghost town after having been one of the hottest spots since the Russian invasion began. (Franco Fafasuli/)

izium It is another of the cities hit hard by the war. We cross it from end to end and we do not see a single block that does not have at least one building hit by artillery or by missile fire. On a hill at the end of the city there was a famous cafeteria that had a small hotel, a swimming pool and even a paintball field, where the locals played war with paintballs. Nothing remains today but rubble. It is also a historical point: due to the panoramic view it offers, it was an operations base during the Second World War, and there stands a huge monument in memory of those who fell in those clashes. Not even the memorial was left intact: today it is a monument torn in half by the power of war, completely oblivious to the irony that it was a tribute to the very people who destroyed it.

A few hours later we reached the border that separates the Kharkiv region from the Donbas region. We deliver the credentials and the passport at a checkpoint and the officer who checks it is surprised that there are journalists from Latin America. He thanks us for going there from so far away and asks us to take care of ourselves. He makes a fist and thumps his heart, then waves his arm for us to move forward. The image of her is getting smaller in the rearview mirror. Ahead the debacle is becoming enormous.

Journey to the East - Kharkiv to Kramatorsk - Ukraine Russia War - Infoabe in Ukraine
A woman walks with her bicycle in the city of Balakliya in Kharkiv Oblast, after it was recovered by the Ukrainian Army. (FRANCO FAFASULI /)

The route descends towards a valley and from the height we see a small town with absolutely all the roofs broken and painted black by the soot from the fire. It is -again- an image from the First World War, enhanced by the abandoned tanks in the middle of the field, also destroyed, and the detonated bridges and the overturned cars. On the route we go some private vehicles and many military transports. Entering the Donbas region is like entering a huge military base, everything is war, there is no longer that fear of forgetfulness that can be experienced in kyiv.

Once in Kramatorsk, the largest city in the area under Ukrainian rule, the artillery curtain begins to sound. They are the sounds of war, ringing in our ears again. We try to contain the shocks, but it takes days to calm the state of alertness. Bakhmut it is only 50 kilometers away, there is today hell. Small towns along the way are also bombed. Everything is heard everywhere, so that no one forgets.

In the streets of Kramatorsk the traffic consists of few cars and many armored vehicles. A tank waits at the traffic light. The image is laughable. Sitting on the edge of the open hatch, a soldier smokes. They don’t have to stop at the red light, but I can imagine why: even for a while, even in a city that seems devoid of everyday life, when soldiers leave the front lines they look for any excuse to feel that they still exist. , remote and sacred, the old ways of peacetime.

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