Solidarity With the Independent Unions of Miners and Rail Workers of Dobropillia (Donbas) and Zaporizhzhia
International Workers’ Unity—Fourth International (IWU-FI)
Putin had planned a blitzkrieg to bring the Government of Ukraine under his control in matter of days: but a year has passed, and he is a long way from achieving that goal. Despite the enormous Russian military superiority, the invasion failed due to the resistance of the Ukrainian army and people. The Ukrainian counteroffensive has pushed back the Russian troops on three occasions, driving the invaders away from Kyiv, from Kharkiv and recovering Kherson. But the Putin regime is willing to turn Ukraine into an uninhabitable country if it does not surrender: thousands dead, millions displaced, cities and towns reduced to rubble, vital infrastructure systematically destroyed … a year of suffering and brutality. International solidarity against the invasion must make itself felt forcefully to defeat Russian imperialism through defence of Ukraine’s right to self-determination.
Putin and the failure of his ‘lightning war’ plan
The resistance of the people and the Ukrainian army defeated the blitzkrieg planned by Putin.
After one year of the war Putin’s great military and political failure is obvious. The war is bogged down and may last for a long time. Ukrainian military counter-offensives in 2022 caused a political crisis in the Putin regime. The more militaristic sectors questioned his war policy. Putin had to change his commander-in-chief three times. He even had to turn to the private militia of the Wagner Group of oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, based on the recruitment of criminal former prisoners.
Putin cannot go on a decisive offensive because of the difficulties in recruitment imposed by his population, notwithstanding his contempt towards its poorest and most radicalised sectors. He has silenced any critical voice with an iron fist, yet many young people continue to resist recruitment and flee the country. That is why international solidarity with the networks that give support to young Russians escaping the war is vital and why it is necessary to demand that European Union (EU) governments guarantee them political asylum.
A war that prolongs and deepens the crisis of the capitalist-imperialist system
The resistance of the people and the Ukrainian army demolished the blitzkrieg planned by Putin. The failure of the invasion in the first weeks forced a reorientation on American imperialism, the European imperialisms and NATO. Otherwise, they would have shed crocodile tears and continued doing business with the Russian partner, as they did in 2014, in the face of the occupation of Crimea and the intervention in the Donbas, just as they had also done after Putin’s support for the crackdown on protests in Belarus (2020) and in Kazakhstan (2022), and just as they were silent in the face of the Kremlin’s military interventions to suffocate the revolution in Syria (2015) or in the face of the massacres in Chechnya (1999). This is the chain of impunity that Putin has enjoyed since his coming to power and which has allowed the Russian army to develop ever more atrocious methods against the civilian population, which bear full comparison with the interventions of American imperialism.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has given North American and European imperialisms the opportunity to reactivate NATO, which was in a slump after the flight from Afghanistan in 2021.
We are witnessing an escalation in military spending, not so much to help Ukraine, but to shield the USA and European countries. If the European and American imperialisms deliver weapons to the Zelensky government it is not because they care about the Ukrainian people, but to satisfy their own interests. Weapons arrive in Ukraine drop by drop, with the goal not of defeating the Russian invasion but to force Putin into negotiations. That is why, a year after the start of the war, Ukraine remains without the heavy arms it needs to confront the military might of Russia. Ukraine has no almost military aviation and Biden has reaffirmed that he is not authorising the dispatch of the F16 fighter jets that Ukraine demands so much. After a year of rejection, Germany and the US now say that they will send some modern tanks (German Leopard 2s and the Yankee Abrams). But it will be barely a few dozen when the Ukrainian military claim they need a minimum of 300 tanks.
Our solidarity with the Ukrainian people has no nothing to do with supporting NATO, a criminal machinery directed against the peoples. The war in Ukraine has done nothing but deepen the crisis of capitalism and its economy. The consequences are more misery and a drop in the standard of living of the masses. As well as the danger of a loss of control that can lead humanity to an extension of this war or to new wars. Even with the use of nuclear weapons. Therefore, we in the IWU-FI oppose the arms races of all imperialist powers and are for the dissolution of NATO.
A just war against an imperialist invader
Internationalist solidarity with the Ukrainian people that is being invaded and massacred has been very weak over the year in which they have resisted the bombs and tanks of the Kremlin. A section of the left has unhesitatingly aligned with the lies of Putin and dusts off the old theses of two camp or blocs facing each other in a clash in which Russia would be waging a “progressive” battle of self-defence against imperialism. A scenario that justifies the sacrifice of the Ukrainian people for daring to question their submission to Great Russia. A policy that delivers the working class and the peoples who fight against oppression and capitalist exploitation to reactionary governments like those of Putin, the Ayatollahs in Iran or the criminal Bashar Al Assad in Syria. But the reality is that there are no blocs. Putin’s Russia did not hesitate to collaborate with the US in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, just as the US collaborated with Iran to secure control of Iraq after its withdrawal; also in Syria, Russia and the USA intervene in a coordinated way. The world is not divided into blocs but into social classes and oppressor and oppressed countries. And we are with the working class and the peoples where they fight against exploitation and rebel against all oppression, wherever they are.
This is a war whose cause is just and so as IWU-FI we are not neutral. In reality, the “neither one nor the other” of a section of the left favours Putin and his murderous invasion.
Other sectors, from a pacifist position, restrict themselves to denouncing the arms race and the increase in military spending, as if that were the fault of the Ukrainian people. We are not fooled: military budgets expand not to help the Ukrainian people but to protect the interests of the bourgeoisie in each country. Demanding a cease-fire and negotiations without demanding the withdrawal of the invading troops amounts to rewarding Putin’s imperialist armed aggression with territorial conquests.
There can be no just peace that does not respect the right of peoples to rebel and resist oppression and occupation. We recognise these rights for the Palestinian people, the Sahrawis, for the people of Iraq, of Afghanistan and of Vietnam against the Yankee imperialist invasion. And this is no different for the Ukrainians who, having been assaulted, oppressed, and occupied, have the right to defend and arm themselves. And as we said of Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam – all reactionary regimes – this position is independent of the character of their respective governments.
We support the Ukrainian working people, not Zelensky
Zelensky’s is capitalist and pro-imperialist government, legitimises the extreme right and is taking harsh measures against the working class in Ukraine, which is seeing a retreat in its wages and rights. But we do not judge peoples by their governments. And being a on the side of Ukrainian workers, supporting left-wing organisations and fighting unions, we condemn the measures taken in this direction. Zelensky’s anti-worker measures weaken the war effort. It is not the Ukrainian oligarchs, but the working people who supply the dead and wounded to defeat the Russian offensive. It is the oligarchs, those who got rich thought large-scale privatisations at ridiculous prices, and the governments that served them, that bear the chief responsibility for Ukraine being the poorest country in Europe. They, not the working class and the mass of the people, should bear the cost of the measures to fund the war. Annul the anti-worker decrees and tax and expropriate the business class and the oligarchs, Ukrainian and foreign, to fund war expenditure.
In the face of the needs of the conflict and those of reconstruction, Ukraine’s debt, as the Ukrainian left organisation Social Movement says, is unpayable. It is necessary to demand from the Zelensky government non-payment of the debt so these funds can be used for the war and reconstruction.
We call for a redoubling of international solidarity
Our commitment is to continue building the broadest possible solidarity with the Ukrainian people and the popular-military resistance to Putin’s aggression. We take part in the European Network for Solidarity with Ukraine (ENSU). As IWU-FI we have already sent three aid convoys to the trade unions and left-wing organisations in Ukraine, supporting and strengthening ties with the political left, the anti-authoritarian movement and the trade unionism that has also fought anti-worker legislation of the Zelensky government. With the first convoy we went to Kyiv in May to deliver aid to anti-fascist youth organisations fighting the invasion; with the second, in November, we visited the mining town of Krivyi Rih to deliver aid to the independent miners’ union and also in Zaporizhzhia, to support the independent railway workers union. A few weeks ago, we were in the mining town of Dobropillia, in the Donbas, also supporting the independent miners’ union, and we returned to Zaporizhzhia.
On the first anniversary of Putin’s criminal invasion, the IWU-FI calls for redoubled international solidarity in defence of the Ukrainian people and their right to arm themselves, wherever the weapons come from, to defeat the invasion of Russian imperialism. We do so from a position independent of the Zelensky government and NATO. We call on the workers and peoples of the world and all forces of the international left to support the popular-military resistance to the Russian invasion and organisations of the left, of anti-authoritarianism and of fighting trade unionism in Ukraine.
Russian troops out of Ukraine!
Solidarity with the Ukrainian people and their resistance!
Political asylum in the EU for Russians refusing to take part in the war!
Freedom for prisoners in Russia to opposed to the war!
Putin out! No to NATO!
Chronicle of the third aid convoy to the militant unions of Ukraine
From the Donbas to Zaporizhzhia: the struggle from below against the Russian invasion
After almost 48 hours of travel by plane, train and bus, we arrive a Dobropillia, a mining town in the Ukrainian Donbas 80 kilometres from Bakhmut, where right now brutal battles are taking place to stop the invasion of the Russian army. Dimitri, Natalia and Alexander, from the Independent Miners Union of Ukraine, are waiting for us. We communicate with looks and gestures because the translators are late. The comrades of the Solidarity Collectives, a group of young anarchists who provide the resistance with material aid, have had a problem with the car.
Between hugs, smiles and machine translators we go off to have a coffee while we wait for them. It is the first stop on the trip. Objective: to hand over €1500 to buy essential food needs that they will take care to distribute through Labour Initiatives, a worker aid organisation. Afterwards, we will go to Zaporizhzhia, the industrial city on the bank of the Dnieper, also to bring help to the Independent Union of Railway Workers. It is the third convoy of solidarity with Ukraine, and in particular with young people and the working class, which we in Internationalist Struggle (Lluita Internationalista) and International Workers Unity–Fourth International (IWU-FI) have organised just one year after the beginning of the invasion launched by Vladimir Putin.
With the coal miners in the Donbas
Unlike other cities in the Donbas under Ukrainian control, in Dobropillia you can still see a lot of street life. Before the invasion it had 65,000 inhabitants, and now less than 25,000 remain, plus a few thousand refugees from cities in the region where there is fighting, or which have fallen under Russian occupation. Alexander is one of them: he shows us photos of his house in Mariupol, totally destroyed, and tells us that his parents are still there. The Donbas is the coal mining basin in eastern Ukraine, where there was an uprising in 2014 that was exploited by the Kremlin, which ended up occupying a good part of the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, and that is where the fighting is most intense—on the Eastern Front.
In Dobropillia the bars and shops are open, and the children play in the parks throwing snowballs at each other. “There is more life here because we still have a mine that works, and people still have jobs,” says Natasha, a mature and serious woman who for 16 years also worked in the mine. She was one of the first to claim her right to work in the underground part of the mines, which like other dangerous jobs used to be forbidden to women.
They take us on a tour of the city, grey and polluted: the wind blows from the east and sends dust from the coal mines and the coal-upgrading plant over the houses. The city is organised along two main streets that over the last 60 years have grown up alongside the mines. They show us the coal-fired power station that spits out black smoke, and the publicly owned mine that is still in operation. “It used to be called the Red Army Mine, but now, as a joke, we call it the Crystal-Clear Mine, because, in reality, it’s very dirty”, Dimitri says with a smile.
All the mines of Dobropillia belonged to DTK, company of oligarch Rinad Akhmetov [according to the Forbes list the richest man in Ukraine, who now sides with the Zelensky government in the face of the invasion]. Two years ago, the company abandoned five mines, which became public property, and only held onto the most profitable. Only one public mine continues in operation, and in a very precarious state: the miners complain that conditions there are worse than under the private company. The situation in the Donbas under the Russian occupation, they tell us, is even worse, with most mines abandoned, flooded and irrecoverable.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion 15 missiles have fallen on the city, the last just two weeks ago. There is no military target in Dobropillia. There are also no shelters to take refuge in: only the basements of some residential buildings that have an open door marked with a sign.
As with our second convoy, in November, the militant Ukrainian unions have once again asked that we bring them food. And it’s not that in Ukraine food is lacking nor that it seems very expensive: the prices are like those in Barcelona. But salaries here are much lower and now even more so, because of the cuts that the government has imposed under the cover of martial law. In addition, many businesses have closed or have imposed layoffs.
We go to a big supermarket together and do the shopping: €1500 in basic products that Labour Initiatives will distribute in parcels to 63 families in the city who have lost someone in the fight against the Russian invasion. Amidst hugs and thanks, we say goodbye.
With the railway workers
By bus and train we pass through Dnipro and arrive in Zaporizhzhia, which since the liberation of Kherson last summer now lies a little further from the front line but is also subject to bombardment: two days after we leave, in a new shower of missiles, the Kremlin launches up to 20 attacks on the region.
The city, which this year has taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Donbas, continues to be very stressed. Due to systematic attacks from Russia against electrical infrastructures, houses only get electricity four hours on and four hours off. It is two in the afternoon and the thermometer has fallen to five degrees below zero. Schools and kindergartens hold on-line classes only: they have practically not worked normally since the Covid pandemic began in 2020. The curfew starts at nine in the evening.
Being in a city on the second line, Zaporizhzhia’s inhabitants receive a government grant of 800 hryvnia (about €18) monthly. But as inflation starts to skyrocket unemployment is rising and real wages are falling. “Now we are afraid to go to the supermarket, because the wage buys practically nothing”, explains Sergei Alexandrovich, leader of the Independent Railworkers Union of Ukraine. It is that Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has decreed that salaries stop being indexed to inflation. Sergei, who is a driver with Ukrzaliznytsia (Ukrainian Railways, the public railway company), barely earns around €300 a month, and that is one of the highest wages within the company. “Ten years ago, the young people wanted to be train drivers, but not now”, he regrets. Drivers’ wages are tied to the distance they travel, and now in general journeys are shorter. Natasha Savelieva, who works in the locomotive depot, gets barely €200 a month.
The latest corruption scandal involving food purchases for soldiers at inflated prices has brought down the number two at the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, and has again highlighted a problem that the colleagues of this railway union have been denouncing for many years: “We don’t know what the government does with all the aid it receives from the EU, we don’t know where this money ends up… it’s not like you guys who make sure your help reaches the working people,” the trade unionist tells us.” We go with them to a large supermarket in Zaporizhzhia to buy the food with the €1500 euros we bring them: oil, flour, sugar, salt, biscuits, canned fish, condensed milk, cans of sardines…
The trains are strategic in the defence against the Russian invasion: They carry all kinds of cargo to all corners of the country and are key to evacuating the wounded and refugees. Some railway workers have been killed or badly injured in Russian attacks on trains. Sergei complains that when there are problems the train drivers are on their own: “No one tells you what you have to do if there is an alarm, if you have to stop or keep going: according to the law whatever happens is the responsibility of the driver.” He says he’s afraid that one day trains will become a specific target of Russian missiles: “It can happen, but we can’t do anything about it.”
“We continue to operate in the midst of war above all thanks to the efforts of the workers, not of the company, which only does things to get itself into the photo: they buy very nice-looking locomotives though that they don’t quite work well, and they cut wages and fire workers”, complains Natasha, also a union leader. She herself oversees supplying the coal-fired locomotives, which have had to be put into operation whenever the electricity supply fails. Just as we are talking, she receives an SMS announcing that they have paid her wage: less than €120.
The railways are also facing a new wave of dismissals. Without giving any reason the public company has dismissed 41 workers in Zaporizhzhia, who will be out of work beginning from May. They have been able to suspend one of the sackings because the woman worker concerned belongs to the union. Sergei says that they are ready to fight but that the law does not allow them to intervene if those affected are not members of their union. “We can’t do anything for the others, the majority union has to act for them, but we are ready to fight until the end. They have proposed to me to be on the regional union council, but I don’t want to end up corrupt like most leaders of large organisations. Do you also have big corrupt unions who look out more for themselves than for the working people?”
The next day in the small union office in the depot of the Zaporizhzhia 2 station, their 79 members come in to pick up their food parcels. The distribution is done with full transparency, from a list which everyone signs when receiving help. Igor, a 42-year-old machinist who comes to pick up his parcel explains in surgik (a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian) that he had to leave his home, in the town of Kamyanske, about 30 kilometres south of Zaporizhzhia, because it is under constant Russian attacks, being within range of the Kremlin’s artillery.
“Relatives left us a flat in Zaporizhzhia and we came to live here two weeks after the beginning of the invasion. In the village where we used to live there were 3000 people and now only 160 are left who don’t want to leave. We have a group of volunteers and each week we send them a van with food, but it is very dangerous. We also bring food for all the dogs that have been abandoned there,” he explains. Igor and his wife, who worked in an orphanage and is now unemployed and without any help (officially on unpaid leave), know from those who have stayed in the village that only the walls of their home remain. But who they most fear for are their neighbours: they have lost contact with the part south of the town and they are afraid that they might have been deported to Vasilivka, which is under Russian occupation. “If they have been taken, they will have gone through what the Russians call ‘filtration’, which are torture and deportation camps”, the driver warns. “This war has no meaning: all this for a regime that has decided to put all the territories of the old USSR back under the yoke of Moscow and regain a lost empire. We hope that the Ukrainian people will resist.”
Interview with Dimitri Zeleniy (Independent Miners’ Union of Ukraine, NPGU) and Natasha Antonevskaya (Labour Initiatives), Dobropillia (Donbas)
‘Russia is destroying the mines in the occupied area of the Donbas’
We find Dimitri and Natalia in Dobropíllia, a city in the Donetsk region that has grown up around the coal mines. Before the war it had about 65,000 inhabitants, but since the Russian invasion that started a year ago, about 25,000 are left, in addition to some 6000 displaced people who have fled from other localities in the Donbas. Right now, the front is in the city of Bakhmut, about 80 kilometres away. We have delivered €1500 worth of basic food items that we bought with them in Dobropillia and they will be in charge of distributing it.
Internationalist Struggle (LI): What was the situation of the miners of Dobropillia before the Russian invasion?
Dimitri Zeleniy: Before the war the main problems we had to face were corruption and injustice in the energy sector and particularly in Ukraine’s mining sector. In Dobropillia we have six coal mines that all used to belong to DTK, the company of the oligarch Rinad Akhmetov [the biggest fortune in Ukraine according to the Forbes list]. Two years ago. the company abandoned five mines, which became public property and only kept the most profitable one. Of the five public mines only one continue in operation, and in very precarious conditions.
The state should be leading the way on technology and working conditions, but unfortunately this is not the case, because DTK miners work in better conditions. In 2020, we held a big demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Kyiv, demanding that the Zelensky government stop importing coal from Russia because we were finding that the Donbas coal under Russian control is better quality and all warehouses in Ukraine were full of it, while we had very little production. We won that fight.
LI: And what, in particular, was the situation for women in the mines?
Natasha Antonevskaya: I worked for 16 years in the mine before the war: I was a union activist, and I oversaw youth work. I led the fight for us women to be able to work in the mine after the law was changed to prohibit women from doing work regarded as dangerous. Although he had the right to do it, the management of the mine would not allow me to work underground and they put me in a team of electricians where they were all men and that was my situation for many years. We organised many seminars and training sessions on labour rights, and also on women’s rights. I am a trade unionist, but also a feminist activist. That is how it was four years ago when I met Labour Initiatives and I set about organising its local office in Dobropillia. From the beginning we started working especially with independent unions, not only of miners but also in the health and other sectors.
We opened a club called Real Women, where there was a lawyer and a psychologist, and we organised seminars with women to explain to them that they are not only workers, mothers and wives, but that they have their rights.
LI: How are things at the moment?
DZ: It depends a lot on the situation at the front. Since the invasion began, we have been preparing for our city to becomes a battlefield. We place all our hope in the Ukrainian army, which in our region is largely formed by miners. We’re missing workforce because of the war. First, because it is not very attractive to work as a miner, because of the low salaries (about €1500 a month gross for people who works in the mine, about €400 for those who work above ground), with very dangerous working conditions. But hopefully after Ukraine’s victory, with the current global energy crisis and also with the anti-corruption measures that the government has started to adopt, although we know that the problems will not be solved immediately, the coal mines will be able to develop in the future. Entire cities depend on mines, all life works thanks to the mines, which is the only industry we have. At the moment, mine production is falling, especially in the state-owned mines, and as trade unionists our priority is to make sure the mines simply remain open, rather than developing them. We have to live from moment to moment and have hope. And at the same time, prepare the future, which is what the Ukrainian energy ministry is not doing. Hopefully, after the war Ukraine will stop importing coal and gas from Russia and we will be able to increase the production of our mines.
LI: What is the Labour Initiative doing now?
NA: On February 26, two days after the invasion began, we held a women’s club meeting and we agreed to turn it into a volunteer centre for the distribution of humanitarian aid and the reception of refugees arriving from Mariupol, Kramatorsk, and other Donbas towns. Because we had a lot of contacts in other localities due to our training activities, we asked everyone for help, NGOs and solidarity associations. The Labour Initiatives Solidarity Centre decided to finance our office and gas expenses, and so we were able to host refugees and distribute humanitarian aid. Unlike many other organisations, there were no layoffs at Labour Initiatives, and we even had to take on staff. At the end of March, it was decided to work with the Independent Miners Union of Dobropillia and since then we do everything together. The volunteer women of the club help with the reception of refugees and in the distribution of humanitarian aid, and we also cook for the soldiers. Now we have decided to continue the work as a centre of labour rights defence. On February 20, we will have a seminar on martial law and how it affects the workers. I will also participate in a meeting of women’s organisations from the region, called “Coalition 13/25 Women, Peace, Security”, in reference to the number of the proposed law on women’s rights that we have presented to Parliament, to address violence against women, especially sexual violence.
LI: Where will the help we have brought you go?
NA: We will distribute it among the families of soldiers who have died in the war in Donbas. 63 families will receive a complete parcel of basic foods. It is a significant help in the difficult situation we are experiencing.
LI: You said before that there are many miners in the Ukrainian army fighting the Russian invasion in Donbas. What situation are they in?
DZ: Yes, my son himself is at the front and I personally know 100 miners from Dobropillia that are fighting right now. The first months were the most difficult. People joined the Territorial Defence and had nothing, not even uniforms, helmets, or vests. Many miners were called up and from the beginning the union went to work to equip them, feed them. We don’t only help the local miners but all the soldiers that have been mobilised in this region. We also work with the mining unions of Krivyi Rih, Pavlograd and also with the other regions. The union bought 42 bulletproof vests, which back then were very hard to obtain, to protect them. The comrades from the west of Ukraine sent us uniforms of very good quality and our priority was to deliver them to those who most needed them, whether or not they were members of our union. Before the war there was competition between the two trade union centres and we here in Dobropillia had 58% of affiliates, however, that does not count now. Here people are even more motivated to contribute to the defence of Ukraine because their homes are very near the front line. Now they are all in the regular army: since June the Territorial Defence units have been integrated into the army and now the situation is different.
LI: What are your main demands on the Zelensky government today?
DZ: Today we are fighting Russia at the front, while at the same time we are fighting the anti-labour laws of the Ukrainian government. They have promoted a labour reform that is against workers: it attacks labour rights and trade unions. We still have some important labour law that we don’t want to lose. We made several calls to different international workers’ defence organisations to side with us in the fight against these laws. We want the integration into the EU to also takes labour rights into account: that the rights we have now don’t disappear.
LI: What is your message for miners around the world?
DZ: During Maidan I went into a shop with my wife, and there was book there for people to write their wishes for Santa Claus. I wrote “peace to the world”, just as anyone might. Now we understand how important peace is.
How do you think the conflict in Donbas should be resolved?
DZ: The only possible solution is the complete victory of Ukraine and the return of all territories to Ukraine, including the Donbas and Crimea. We have to fight for our independence, our self-determination.
For example, in areas under Russian occupation in Lugansk there is a mine that produce the highest quality coal, anthracite, and many more that produce the best coal in the country. They used to produce 14 million tons every day. Today that mine is destroyed and flooded with water: it is what happens when mines are abandoned, and then they can no longer be recovered. It is the same everywhere: all the industries under the Russian occupation have been abandoned.
We want to be part of the civilised world, th conflicts should not be resolved first with a military invasion and afterwards by having a referendum There should be first civilised negotiations and then a referendum, but Russia occupied Donbas in 2014.
LI: Do you want to add anything else?
DZ: Thank you very much for your help. We are very grateful for your work. The important thing is who is by our side. We have to do whatever it takes to win the future.
NA: We workers of all countries must unite in the fight for our rights.
The crimes of the Russian soldiers in Bucha explained by a building worker
The buildings and streets of Bucha are being rebuilt, but it will take much more for people to recover from the crimes that the Russian army committed there, in its failed attempt to control Kyiv and overthrow the Ukrainian government in what was supposed to be a military walkover. It wasn’t, and not just because the Ukrainian resistance — without any outside support in the first weeks, it must be remembered — managed to slow down the offensive. The tank column that was going to take control of the capital from the north, through Bucha and Irpin, just stopped. Without enough supplies and no preparation for a long battle, the Russian troops turned to massacring the civilian population of these two cities on the outskirts of Kyiv, who lived through four weeks of hell before they were liberated.
In the town square of Bucha, we meet Alexei, 60-year-old crane operator who has twice been through the same hell. In 2014, he saw the Russian army occupy Lysychansk, his hometown in the Donbas basin, in the east of Ukraine. He had to flee, leaving his parents behind.
“There were very heavy bombardments, they were shooting against everything and everyone, and we had to flee. Then the Ukrainian army liberated it and later it fell back under Russian occupation”, he recalls. He has lost contact with his parents: “I don’t know if they are alive or dead. I don’t know if they have been deported to Russia, or if they have been killed,” he says, covering his eyes with his hands so we cannot see him crying.
He took refuge in the province of Lugansk, in the territory under Ukrainian control, but there the situation was no better, and he moved to Kyiv and five years ago he went to Bucha because there was a lot of construction work there. He is not the only one: many people displaced by the war in the Donbas ended up on the outskirts of Kyiv, where housing is cheaper, and the real estate boom offered more opportunities. He moved there with his grandson and the son of his nephew, and they started again from scratch.
That was until the Russian bombardments began on February 24. “It was very frightening; I grabbed my grandson and the son of my nephew, and I took them to the basement.” Alexei was working on the construction of a large residential complex called Millenium and thought that they would be safer there. Two days passed without them leaving that shelter and that was the last time he saw his colleague and friend Roman. When he remembers, he breaks down again. “He was an excellent person. He always helped his mates, and he brought candy for the kids. He brought a meal down to the basement, a meat and potato stew and told me to eat it, that it was still hot. He said he would come back, but I never saw him again,” he remembers.
Without an escape route when Bucha was occupied, Alexei and his people ended up in the hands of Russian soldiers. “We locked the door of the building, but they broke it in. They took us down to the basement at gunpoint, I raised my hands and shouted that there were only civilians there,” he remembers. He says that “the soldiers installed five artillery pieces on the roof from which they fired on Ukrainian positions, they locked us all in the basement and they stayed there too.” And then the barbarities began: “They were constantly pointing at us and making fun of us and when I asked them to be allowed to go out for my needs they wouldn’t let me, I would have to do it in there, in front of the kids.”
He takes a breath. Remembering hurts him, but he wants to explain so nothing gets forgotten. “The soldiers were always drugged or drunk. They looked like zombies, with a lost look, and it was very scary because they were going around heavily armed.” There were 25 people in the basement, and they spent 20 days there. His nine-year-old grandson and the other children were his main concern.
“From time to time they gave us army food and some things they had looted from supermarkets in the city, but I was always afraid that they would poison us, and I tasted it before giving it to the kids.” He protected his grandson as much as he could, but it was impossible for the child not to suffer trauma: “His hair fell out and even now he is awakened at night by nightmares, and he gets very scared whenever he hears any noise.” But he has recovered enough to explain to his classmates, now that they have returned to school (number 3 of the city), that his grandfather worked on the reconstruction project to build the air raid shelter where everyone now has a place in case of bombardment.
“Bucha” means noise in both Ukrainian and Russian. The noise of the river that crosses it and that was one the barriers to the advance of the Russian tanks, as were the inhabitants who threw Molotov cocktails at them from their houses. That is how they stopped the advance on Kyiv, that resisted the attack until the Kremlin announced the withdrawal of the northern front to focus on the conquest of eastern Ukraine. But the price was very high. Even today, there are posters of the City Council in the street warning of the presence of mines in the forests surrounding the city.
Alexei and his grandson were lucky. On March 12, they left in a Red Cross evacuation convoy. They were safe and sound, unlike many of the survivors who were tortured and raped by Russian soldiers, as they have recounted to the Ukrainian authorities who are now documenting the war crimes of the invaders. His dear friend Roman, who used to say to him affectionately over the radio when he mounted the crane “Hey, Dad, I’m up now, I’m OK, don’t worry”, was executed. It was Alexei who had to recognise his body, which appeared on a street with his hands tied behind his back and eight gunshots to the body.
Alexei does not know what will become of him now. The company where he was working told him that when the work on the residential complex resumes, he will have to leave the container where he is staying with his family. He says goodbye to us with a hug. “Thanks for having come and listened to me. I will never forget it.”