Fergal Keane Diary: Europe is spared the displaced millions but Ukraine's forgotten war rages on
Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30
I am too old for this carry-on. Outside, the snow is piling in drifts against the cabins. Inside the single heater groans and splutters and cannot keep the cold at bay. The woman of the house tells us she can do no more. She is a vision from a fashion show on a collective farm in the 1960s: beehive hairdo, fur coat, white leather boots and a gold tooth that glitters when, very occasionally, she smiles. This close to the front you pay your money and you takes your chance.
I am back in Ukraine. For this part of the world the temperature is mild, a mere 13 below zero. The wind does the real damage. It is Anna Akhmatova's "wind from the age of stone". It lacerates the face and renders you incapable of speech.
At dawn there is a gorgeous pink light reflected from the snow. A clear day ahead. To hell with that. We were praying for fog. The landscape here is endlessly flat. Driving towards the front in clear weather means there is no cover. The gunners spot you from a long way off. Technically, there is a ceasefire, but on the day we arrive it is violated 71 times. This means sniper fire, mortars large and small, artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, grenade launchers at closer quarters and the usual clatter of automatic rifles.
Back in 1946, a political prisoner, Lev Vatkhin, wrote that for the people of this region "history has been merely a succession of traps". That was in the wake of World War II and in the middle of the second famine to strike Ukraine in a decade. Pity the poor people of this land now, caught between Putin's ambition and the corruption, incompetence and infighting of Kiev.
The world has forgotten this war. More than two million people have been displaced in the two years since fighting began. They have stayed in the region: More than a million within Ukraine's own borders, the same again fled to Russia, Poland and Belarus. But there are no Ukrainians landing by boat in Greece, none heading for Germany, none causing panic among the leaders of the European Union.
The war is not over. It is hunched in the trenches that braid the land between the Dnieper and the Sea of Azov. It squats in basements and crumbling apartment blocks and stamps its feet in food ration lines on snowbound mornings. And it was waiting for us in Peski, where the old route into the village has been mined and we were forced down unfamiliar lanes to reach the house of Anatoly and Svetlana, the beekeeper of Peski and his wife.
I first visited them last May on a day of high heat. I was their guest for a night and we talked late while artillery pounded and tracers arced across the dark like a shower of malign stars. The sounds no longer troubled them. Shells had landed in the vegetable garden but they still planted and harvested. Anatoly tended his bees and shared the honey with neighbours. Only 18 people now lived here from a pre-war population of two thousand. For dinner we ate potato cakes, red cabbage, pickles, omelettes, bread and honey.
Anatoly and Svetlana stayed on in Peski because leaving would have represented a defeat in life from which they would never recover.
Coming back to see them in winter, they seemed reduced in spirit. The war ground on around them. "My poor Ukraine," said Anatoly, "all of this weighs heavy on my soul."
The village was trapped in a dystopian nightmare, its residents marooned inside concentric circles of devastation. The able-bodied were gone. Nobody moved in or out anymore. The old couple could have left. They could still leave. "But where would we go?" asked Svetlana. They did not want to become exiles in a daughter's one-bedroom flat in a city they did not know, or live in a converted school among hundreds of other refugees with no grip on their future. If they left the house it would be looted. So they were staying in Peski and making their stand here. This summer they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I promised them I would be there.
* * * * *
I got back from Ukraine to get a text from Nolan. Would I like to go the Transatlantic Sessions that night? I nearly bit the phone. Since my long ago youth folk music has been a mainstay of my existence. It began with my grandmother Hannie Keane singing the 'Sally Gardens' in her Church Street kitchen in Listowel. After that came Planxty, who changed forever the way my generation would engage with traditional music. They rescued it from the fainne-wearing commissars, dressed it in denim and grew its hair long and shaggy. The aforementioned Nolan - Kevin is his first name - is a veteran of the playing scene of the sixties and seventies. Late of Enniskillen, he claims never to have been drunk or waylaid by pharmaceutical products in his life. Despite these obvious blemishes he remains well-loved among the Irish musical fraternity at home and abroad.
Nolan will talk all night and drink tea for Ireland. He is also a man of extraordinary generosity. Guitars, music sheets, CDs he has given by the score to my musician son. That said, he has the true Ulsterman's gift for finding a flaw where none was obvious to others. When gazing once on a noted beauty, a creature that would have reduced Michelangelo to speechless rapture, Nolan remarked: "Ach, I don't know. She has a bit of a weak chin."
I went to the Sessions with him and was revived by a night of the fine music. We had songs from Cara Dillon and Rhiannon Giddens of North Carolina, and tunes from the great John McCusker and Aly Bain, among many others, while the great Dublin guitarist John Doyle held sway in the middle of the stage. Only a day back from Ukraine and I was swept along by the rapture of great artists playing at their best. Backstage afterwards I bumped into Ralph McTell who told me of the deep emotion he'd felt playing 'From Clare to Here' on 'The Late Late' last week. Afterwards Nolan drove me home, the two of us singing our hearts out, whatever songs came into our heads.
Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent