Donbass, the "Somme" of the 21st century at the gates of Europe

(To Giorgio Bianchi)

Four years have passed since I first set foot in Donetsk.

At the time the city looked spooky.

Of the approximately two million inhabitants, little more remained than 60000.

The streets were deserted, the shops were tight, the supermarkets also lacked basic necessities.

It was winter, it was cold.

The noise of the bombing was audible from the center of the city, it seemed like a storm in the distance.

The thing that struck me most at the time was that the Opera and Ballet Theater worked.

The building, the only survivor of the Nazi devastation in the city, continued to be crowded with spectators despite the war, despite the bombs.

When I asked people why they went to the theater despite the apocalyptic situation, the answer was almost unanimous; that was the only place in the city from which no bombings could be heard.

The artists and workers who had not fled elsewhere had made a meeting and had decided to continue the work, without receiving the salary, to continue to offer the population at least those two hours of refreshment from the horror of the civil war.

Over the years, the situation gradually became normal and the dividing line between the outskirts of the city and the center became progressively clearer.

Today Donetsk has repopulated, the streets are crowded throughout the day (except for the night due to the curfew still in force) and the sounds of war are almost completely absent.

In short, in the streets of the center the war seems far away, a memory of the past.

At this moment there seems to be a sort of dimensional door able to transfer you from the most absolute normality, right up to the horror and devastation of the civil war.

In Donetsk it is therefore possible to meet friends in the cafeteria in front of the theater to eat a slice of cake and sip a cappuccino, and half an hour later to be in a trench that has nothing to envy to those dug by our grandparents in the Somme, during World War I.

In the area of ​​the trenches, unlike the city center, the wounded and fallen continue to swell the numbers of this absurd war on the doorstep of Europe in the 21st century.

The soldiers of the Shakhterskaya Divisiya they operate in the trenches dug less than 600 meters from the Ukrainian positions.

In a little over three years they built an underground city in that area, complete with dormitories, a canteen, warehouses, a kitchen and even a Russian sauna.

You dig every day, all year round in -25 in winter and in + 40 in summer, in snow and mud, with a helmet and bulletproof vest, because as soldiers constantly repeat to you, there can be something raining at any time .

The yellow-blue flag of the Ukrainian trenches is clearly visible from the lookout post.

The rotation of men often occurs: the arrival of the Ural truck with fresh troops is announced by a call to the radio.

As soon as the receiver is placed, two men mobilize and look at the enemy positions.

Each movement is programmed per second. That is the most dangerous moment of the day, because the truck could be targeted by enemy fire.

As soon as they stand next to the entrance to the trench the men jump down and start unloading backpacks and equipment. Each transport is also used to bring fresh water and cut tree trunks along the road.

Once unloaded the trunks are finished to size and positioned to reinforce the coverage of the stations.

There is very little free time in the trenches.

On the rare breaks the soldiers take advantage of it to play a game of dominoes, to clean the weapons and why not, to take a nap in the dormitory.

The cook works all day and works hard to try to serve a vaguely different step every day than the previous day.

His family lives not far from the trench. When he returns from his home he always brings home-made jams and the fruit infusion preparation.

He had never cooked before in his life, he learned in the army.

The name of the division that literally translated means the "division of the miners" recalls that many of them before the war worked in the mine not far away.

Andrei shows me his old workplace on the horizon. It can be seen with the naked eye.

Before he was a foreman, now he is a lieutenant.

After five days of being there with them they invite me to the sauna.

Initially I think I misunderstood.

But no. The boys built a Russian sauna in the trench that meets the highest standards.

There is the vestibule where you can undress the military equipment and the sauna itself with lots of seats, sheets and LED lights.

While I'm lying down enjoying the warm steam, a soldier grabs a bundle of laurel branches and starts to rub my back.

If there was still snow, tradition would expect to occasionally go out and sprinkle the body with handfuls of white flakes. In this period the mud has taken the place of the snow, therefore in replacement there is the bucket of frozen water.

The sauna is a magic moment. In a moment the humidity that had entered me right into the bones gives way to a general sense of well-being. The laurel scent somehow manages to mask the trench smell that my body was starting to emanate after five days without a shower.

I can't imagine how it is possible that in the 2019 there are boys forced to live in those conditions. Today at least some comforts have managed to give it to us. But when they arrived there, more than three years ago, there was nothing.

They gave him the shovels and told him to dig. And so they did day after day, winter after winter, cigarette after cigarette.

Photos and text: Giorgio Bianchi