ZOLOTE, UKRAINE (Aftenposten): On Wednesday, they promised to hold a ceasefire in Ukraine. The next day it slammed into the houses of Natalia and Vera.
Darkness is about to descend over the village of Zolote in eastern Ukraine on Thursday afternoon. At this time of day, most people who live here have already returned home for the day. Then lights must be turned off. Windows are avoided. The few people who are still out want as much daylight as possible. Two of them are friends Natalia Grinishina (61) and Vera Beskaravaynaya (68).
They often stand here and talk to each other, they tell Aftenposten. And preferably to passers-by who want to hear about their problems. They have many of them.
As they begin to tell, they are interrupted by a bang that resounds through the air.
Ceasefire on paper
Zolote is located in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. The village is divided into two. On the one hand, there are Ukrainian government forces in power. On the other side of the cliff at the end of the city, there are Russian-backed rebel groups in control.
The two sides have been at war since 2014. Since the end of November 2021, the conflict has escalated. The United States and NATO believe there is a real danger that Russia will invade. Meetings and discussions take place across Allied countries and time zones to find a solution.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday.
“The United States and NATO’s response to Russia’s demands have not taken into account Russia’s fundamental concerns, including halting NATO’s expansion and refraining from deploying advanced weapons systems near Russia’s border,” Putin told Macron, according to a Kremlin call.
On Wednesday this week, representatives of the Russian and Ukrainian governments met. There they discussed first and foremost the Minsk agreement. It is a peace agreement and a ceasefire Russia and Ukraine signed in 2014. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) was tasked with checking compliance with it. For years, Osse has reported daily skirmishes.
Wednesday alone documented the 516 breaches of the ceasefire.
When Ina Fursenko (28) opened her front door earlier this week, she almost experienced how wrong it can go.
Grew up on the other side
The 28-year-old was actually born and raised on the other side of the border, in what are now Russian-backed areas. A bombed-out home and lack of jobs gave her reason to pack up and flee. But she did not travel far.
Zolote is less than three kilometers from the city she grew up in. Now she has lived there for almost eight years, as long as the war has raged.
Ina Fursenko is used to having to go home before darkness descends on the city. When she opened the door on Monday night to brush the stairs, she therefore used a flashlight. The idea was that it would not be too visible. But just after she stuck her head out, she heard the sound. When the 28-year-old describes it to Aftenposten three days later, she says briefly:
– Tsvipp. Tsvipp.
Shortly afterwards, a branch fell next to her. She quickly realized what the sound was. Someone had shot and hit the tree next to her. Where the shot came from, she had no idea. Not even if the projectiles were really meant to hit her. Or whether they were fired on purpose or not. She quickly turned off her flashlight and squatted down.
An ordinary event
Because when shots hit near you in the village, there is only one thing to do, the 28-year-old says.
– Lie down. And stay calm.
Although it is common for such incidents to occur, it is impossible to get used to it, she says.
Nevertheless, she has built up a life in the village with her daughter Karolina. The five-year-old is picked up by a bus every morning and driven to the kindergarten. Almost daily they hear artillery or shots from the outskirts of the city.
Each time it happens, Karolina repeats the same sentences to her mother.
Do not play alone
If the five-year-old goes out, she must be accompanied by an adult. Even if it’s just for playing in the street. The reason is the risk of being shot, as the mother almost experienced earlier this week. But even though she is protected from getting too close to the warlike reality that surrounds her hometown, Karolina notices the dangers, her mother says. When Ina Fursenko comes home from work on days they have heard artillery in the distance, the five-year-old says:
– Mom, where have you been? They shot here. What if you get killed? Where were you?
Every time that happens, the 28-year-old gets scared. Still, she has no plans to move from the village. This despite the fact that Zolote is closer to an invasion than for years.
From bridesmaid to friends in the war
The 28-year-old works as a social worker for the elderly who live in the village. The work gives her a place to live, money for food. How can I leave when I have that security? she asks.
– To go somewhere, you must have money. Here I have work, some pay. So at the moment I’m staying here.
The days are spent talking to the elderly in the village. Two of them are friends Natalia Grinishina (61) and Vera Beskaravaynaya (68) whom we met on the street. The two have known each other since Vera moved to Zolote when she was 18 years old. From that time she remembers Natalia as a small child running around.
Later they became close friends. It was Vera who helped her with the wedding dress when Natalia got married. They lived in houses next to each other with their husbands. This is how they still live, but now only Vera and Natalia are left. Their husbands died of disease during the first years of the war.
The two friends believe the stress of living in the middle of a line of fire led to the two men dying young. Now they fear that it will go the same way with them.
Hears artillery from the garden
Aftenposten meets Vera and Natalia outside their homes in Zolote while dusk is about to settle over the village. Most residents have already finished their errands for the day and are safe inside their homes before dark. A couple of latecomers stroll home.
Two young girls carrying a toboggan. An old lady in a fur coat and gold-plated earrings is carrying a shopping bag.
Both Vera’s and Natalia’s houses were damaged at the beginning of the war. Repairing the damage has taken several years and a lot of assistance.
– How was it here before the war?
They smile before they both answer:
– Beautiful. Come here in the summer, and you will see the green grass we have.
Suddenly a bang resounds through the air. The sound of artillery. How far away it is is hard to say. Probably a few kilometers.
The incident stands in stark contrast to the eight-hour meeting that took place the day before between Ukraine and Russia. Afterwards, Russia’s envoy Dmitry Kozak said the talks “were not easy”. At the same time, he said they agreed on one point:
– Despite all the different interpretations, we agreed that the ceasefire must be observed by all parties.
The crash in Zolote was not the only breach of the ceasefire on Thursday. It happened 266 times that day, reports the OSCE. Natalia only lifts her arms in despair when she hears the sound of artillery.
– This is quite common.
Although the rhetoric and danger of a new war has escalated steadily in recent months, the fighting they hear from Zolote has remained steady. Still, Natalia struggles to sleep. She needs to take medicine to calm her nerves. It’s not just because of the artillery that thunders nearby.
Terrified by the news
When the two girlfriends listen to the news, they become terrified. Some have said that a massacre will take place in the village. That Russians will invade their homes. It puts fear in them.
– We do not care who starts shooting in earnest, whether it is our side or the others. If the war starts in earnest again, we are in the middle of it. We want to live in peace, says Natalia, before she raises her hands to her face to wipe away the tears that have begun to flow.
When she’s done, she spreads her fingers in front of her, to show her nails. They are adorned with silver-colored and half-scraped nail polish.
– It was Ina who did it, she says proudly.
The two ladies are among those the 28-year-old talks to to help them deal with the conflict. It helps to talk to someone, they say. Distracting yourself with everyday chores helps even more. Natalia sums up life in the war waiting room:
– We’re scared. We are crying. But we have manicures.