Petal Bombs

Alejandro Kirk

No one in Donetsk gives any credence to the Ukrainian narrative that Russian forces are launching these devices against their own people.

Between April 28 and May 31, 3,789 cases of police violence against demonstrators of the National Strike were reported, according to the NGO Temblores. Do you think the Colombian government has taken measures to prevent these events from continuing?

In the streets and parks of Donetsk something is not right: capsules are falling, propelled by mortars. Projectiles are coming from the north, from the neighboring Ukrainian-controlled Adveedka area.

Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky recently told his fellow citizens that respect for the life of any human being is precisely what makes Ukraine different from Russia.

People of good will desire only peace, brotherhood, justice and solidarity. Such sentiments are manifested in all human expressions: political, ideological, national, religious, affective. Love for children is the highest public promise of any authority.

But in the streets and parks of Donetsk something is not right: capsules are falling, propelled by mortars. Projectiles coming from the north, from the neighboring Ukrainian-controlled Adveedka area. Projectiles containing so-called “petals” or “butterflies”, which detach in the air and fall delicately to the ground. They are made of plastic, 12 by five centimeters, of the intense color of the leaves that cover the tree-lined avenues and courtyards of the city in this summer season.

They could be defined as “only-kill-children”. Or animals. A pressure of five kilos is enough to detonate them. Sometimes it is enough to squeeze them with the hands. Or a heat wave. An adult can lose his legs or arms.

They are forbidden by international conventions to which Ukraine is a party.

But there they are, along streets and in parks, to function according to their design. Last time they rained down on the city on Saturday, July 30, the night when there is no curfew. And on the morning of Sunday 31, when families usually go for a walk.

No one in Donetsk gives any credence to the Ukrainian version that Russian forces are launching these devices against their own people. But many do believe it is just another display of the anti-Russian hatred fomented in Ukraine since the neo-Nazi coup of 2014. Hatred that these people have felt day by day, cannon fire by cannon fire, since 2014, at a cost of nearly 14 thousand lives.

And that we who are here continue to feel every day, and that when we go out anywhere we must be on the lookout for missile whistles, and “petals” on the ground. Attentive to the children and the dogs.

And still living, laughing, meeting brave and worthy people, like young Daria, mother, cafe owner, dance teacher. “When I tell my relatives in Ukraine about what is happening here, they don’t believe me,” she says. “They blame the Russians.”

“I understand why they shoot at us,” she adds. “They fight like they fight on this side, they defend their territory, but I can’t understand those ‘petals.’ There’s no explanation for that.”

Many have left Donetsk since 2014, when the war began. And others have left since March, when we arrived in Donbas, and especially since June, when attacks on the city center intensified. Already accustomed to the constant roar of artillery coming and going, we have also been getting used to the “arrivals,” as they call incoming shells here.

Like that morning in June, when we were having coffee, the immense roar lifted us from our chairs. We ran in the direction of the noise, following patrol cars and firemen. We arrived at Public School #5, in the middle of downtown, I saw the broken glass, an open door, the intense sun, I ran inside with my camera and stumbled over something. I see with horror the body of a woman of about 40 years old on the floor, her head in a pool of blood.

It was the cook. Dead while working on a Monday at 11:00 am, the time when parents and teachers meet to plan the week and to receive the food for the children who receive distance education.

While there we learned that another school nearby also received loads, at the same time and with the same precision. We ran there. Another woman dead, the entrance destroyed, the children’s nap beds covered with rubble.

We went to the Yelenovka prison complex, where prisoners – Ukrainian soldiers, neo-Nazi militants and mercenaries – captured at the Azovstal metallurgical plant in Mariupol are being held. A Ukrainian missile landed in the center of the prison and killed more than 50, with more than a hundred wounded. There is no possible mistake: that prison is in the middle of the plain.

You walk around with your camera, or your cell phone, trying to stay calm, not to be prejudiced, to observe from a certain distance, weighing the factors of the event, thinking about who might have a motivation and profit from these crimes.

But one also goes around meeting people, many of them soldiers and militiamen like Sasha and Sergei, two tired fighters aboard a Niva, close to the front line.

– Where are they going?

– To Novolugansk

– What are they taking there?

– Food and water

Novolugansk is a town about 60 kilometers northwest of Donetsk. A mining town just taken over by Russian forces and people’s militias.

– We guide them, it’s very dangerous, it’s all mined, says one of them.

He adds: “Stay close. If we speed up, speed up too: it’s all mined and the drones are watching us. They can also see us from the other side”.

Thus began a mad race on impossible roads, in which the military’s Lada Niva and our UAZ van “Bujanka (Sliced Bread) showed their warlike nature.

Upon arrival we were told that Sasha and Serguei went every day since the retreat of the Ukrainians to share their rations and any food they found.

We distributed the food, the word spread, people came from everywhere, they were sorted behind the van, no shouting, no fighting, no fanfare, and lots of stories to tell.

The same experience in Mariupol, Popasnaya, Lisichansk and Severodonetsk, where we found dozens of Sashas and Sergeis sharing their military rations with the civilian population caught in the conflict.

Are these cheerful, dirty and tired servicemen throwing toy-like mines at night to kill children?

Marina, an English teacher in Mariupol, tells me: “I was always Ukrainian, proud to be a Ukrainian woman. But not anymore. Everything has changed. The only ones who have cared about us are the Russian soldiers.”

And in Novolugansk, Victoria, a young mother of two girls, whose tired eyes didn’t measure her intense beauty: “They (Ukrainians) told us (Ukrainians) every day to get out of here. But we stayed. Now we see some light. Home is home. Later I saw his house, entirely destroyed. At her door, a huge mulberry tree.

Almost the same sentence of Daria in the center of Donetsk, who confessed that during the first three months of the Russian operation she did not leave her house. Or Yulia, an inhabitant of Petrovka district, the hardest hit by Ukrainian artillery, whose daughter begs her to go to Mariupol, today safer than Donetsk.

The Western press does not come to the Donbas, they are not interested in these stories. They don’t want to know what has been going on here for eight years, let alone tell it.

For telling stories like these, intelligent and good  people, even lifelong friends, have denounced me. Propagandist for Tsar Putin is the least they call me. Also “nostalgic for Stalinism”. Others  wish the death penalty.

I don’t respond, I don’t get angry, I don’t get offended. I may err. I just walk, observe and relate what I find in these steppes. There is no more than that, but no less either.

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