Yasinovataia, 21 January, 2016.
We are welcomed by the city administration for a fully booked day that will take us through the ruins and devastations of the Ukrainian army in the Donbass. We will visit five schools and two pre-schools. Sadly, the kids are not there, as a quarantine is keeping all the school children at home because of an alert about a flu epidemic. But the staff are all there at their post, so we will meet the professors, the directors and lots of other staff.
The town of Yasinovataia, like the others in its jurisdiction, is right on the front. During the summer of 2014, the Ukrainians mounted an incursion, but were driven off by the insurgents. The fighting since then has been at some distance, but during our time there, we were hearing mortars and automatic weapons fire. The Ukrainians never leave the Donbass in peace and quiet, and keep making a mockery of the Minsk Accords.
The first place we visit is a pre-school for kids from three to six. The building has been hit by mortars, the windows are out; inside, mortar explosions have riddled the walls with their shrapnel. It is cold, glacially cold, and the property is unusable.
The director takes us to a penthouse in the back, which used to serve as kitchen and storage. Now, however, it’s where the kids are greeted.
We are in Mineralnie, where the water tower was destroyed by Ukrainian artillery. The whole district is without heat, but they have restored the electricity. The power plant supplying it actually is in Ukrainian territory, and an agreement was reached to furnish electricity to the nearby villages in compliance with the Minsk agreements. That has to be respected under the surveillance of OSCE — which doesn’t mean much. The Ukrainians, with cynical malice, regularly cut off the power, sometimes for days on end, a week, two weeks.
15,000 people still live in the region, compared to 35,000 before the war. People have fled the Ukrainian terror bombings for refuge in Donetsk, or with relatives in other places.
In the name of volunteer Sebastian Hairon, I turn over 5,000 rubles to this preschool, and fill it out with 5,000 more from my own network of donors. It’s little enough for this establishment; they have practically nothing and their needs are enormous.
The situation is no better in the Yakovlivka school. No heat. The kids have to study in the cold. Inside, it’s 6º C (42º F), and about 50 come here to learn. The principal gives us the tour of the entire school; it is all in a deplorable state. “The school didn’t get anything before the war; it’s all in the original state, and the bombardments have finished the rest. Bit of a paradox: We’re in a better position because the Donetsk Republic is paying attention to us and we hope to get in on the first rebuilding soon.”
I haven’t seen a school worse hit since my arrival in the Donbass, or where the working conditions were as bad as here. We are three kilometers from the front; the Ukrainians fire on the place right during our visit.
School Number Five at Yasinovataya is a district school; one of the two furnaces is right behind the building and miraculously has not been hit by Ukrainian shells. All the same, it’s an antique coal stove and a man has to shovel in the coal full time to keep the operational one going. The other furnace is ruined; the boiler dates from after World War II.
The whole sector is under intermittent bombardment; the desolation is real: entire houses are nothing but ruins. The place is targeted by piercing shells and direct hits, and the result is different from the look of Sparak to the south, where everything is peppered with shrapnel.
Despite the smiles of all the people we meet, we understand that all the schools are in the same situation or worse, as we will see again in Krasnii Partisan [Red Partisan] in the afternoon.
The morning’s visits end up at City Hall, where we are met by a man of courage, Yuri Ianenko, a native of this town, a police officer who made a brilliant career in the financial law enforcement in the great city of Mariupol. He committed early on in the resistance, quitting his retired life of leisure, leaving all his goods, his house, even his aged mother to be part of the insurgent struggle. Today he is the mayor of Yasinovataya :
“It’s one difficult situation, but we keep up the work. You have to realize that all the administrative employees are still at their duty here, under the shelling and without salary since March. Kiev didn’t lose any time cutting off supplies. So as not to leave the residents in the lurch, everybody has stayed at his post, and I am proud that we have been able to keep up the missions that a municipality must fulfill.”
He continues to explain to me that a lot of the people have lost their homes, and most of the aid comes from the Russian Federation, some from the Red Cross; 40 tons total, of which 10 tons for the town itself. It is little enough.
The mayor is astonished at a question posed by Erwan:
“In view of the destruction, how much would it cost to fix up everything?”
But he cracks a smile and says: “You know, there’s so much ruination here that we don’t think of anything past food, electricity, water, and heat. These are our worries. It would take millions to put everything back in shape that’s been destroyed here by the Ukrainians, millions, and that’s just for our town.”
Our travels through the schools in ruins continued all day into the night. The overall impression remains one of utter shock, thinking of those teachers, smiling and dedicated, working in deplorable conditions, and under the ongoing menace of Ukrainian shelling.
It would be a great day if, just once, a single solitary French official from the national education office were to come here and see for himself — and I would be curious to hear his impressions. Maybe then he could at last realize and comprehend the benefits without number that teachers enjoy.