(Translator's note: the word "shchastia" in Ukrainian means "happiness, "luck"; it is also a name of town in the Luhansk region.)
I take a walk around Shchastia, a small town in the east of Ukraine, in the company of Maksym, a very young soldier. They say it is not safe to walk here alone with a camera.
From all the people here, most of the smiles come from children and taxi drivers. I ask the taxi drivers whether they get enough clients these days. "People take taxies now, of course, but they took taxies even more often when shooting was going on" -the round-faced taxi driver with grey hair is laughing for some reason when answering my question.
THE ENEMY IS WAITING FOR OUR OFFENSIVE WHILE WE ARE WAITING FOR THEIRS - THAT'S HOW WE LIVE
A few days ago I arrived in this town together with fighters of the battalion "Zoloti vorota" ("Golden Gates", a historic landmark in Kyiv). On the left I can see a power generating plant which provides electricity to almost the entire Luhansk region. The separatists' main goal is to capture the power plant. For a long time, the town has been selflessly guarded and periodically defended by soldiers of the "Zoloti vorota", 92nd and 80th (army) brigades, as well as fighters of the volunteer battalion "Aidar".
Many members of this battalion come from the east of Ukraine. They hide their faces. Some because their relatives do not even know they went to fight the war, others because their relatives still live in the occupied territories. "The enemy is waiting for us to start the offensive, while we are waiting for them to start. That's how we live. But they surely brought a lot of equipment here!" the commanding officer explains the situation on this part of the front.
"We have situations when locals approach us and attempt to start a conversation in Ukrainian, while I tell them to calm down and stop worrying, because I myself come from the Donetsk region. When they hear this their faces change immediately, because many believe that only guys from Western Ukraine come to fight here. I don't understand why this is not explained in the news?!", says one of the soldiers.
"My parents still live in Russia and don't know I am fighting here. I lived there for 15 years in my childhood. And they don't have anything good there, I know that for sure!", another soldier shares his opinion.
"All the locals here think we are fighting for (president) Poroshenko's candies, but I don't even eat them, and I am not fighting for him," a soldier from Ivano-Frankivsk (western Ukraine - ed.) joins the conversation in Ukrainian. Everyone agrees that they are fighting for the country and the people.
WE REPAIR EVERYTHING OURSELVES AND HAVE NEVER EVEN SEEN NEW EQUIPMENT
Until about one month ago the town was regularly shelled by the terrorists. Today, at first glance, it lives a normal, unhurried life, with the exception that it is surrounded by roadblocks and minefields. The sound of artillery is sometimes also audible - attributed to trainings on both sides of the front.
In the evening it is raining. Soldiers tell me that rain means they have a chance to relax, no shelling when it rains.
Soldiers tell me that their crews repair everything on their own, that's why their equipment works. "We know that no one will come here to help us and we have never seen any new equipment."
The commanding officer shows me the power plant, rotation at the roadblocks. He assures me that they are training as much as the enemy does, and no one is planning to give up this town. We visit the roadblock manned by the 80th brigade. I observe the guys and realize that all our "happiness" is held together only by the enthusiasm of our soldiers.
YOU WANT TO FIGHT? GO AND DO THAT AS FAR AWAY FROM THE TOWN AS POSSIBLE, THE PEOPLE HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS
The downtown of Shchastia looks like any other provincial town in eastern or central Ukraine, except that some buildings are in ruins - destroyed during the winter shelling by the separatists. There are almost no cars in the streets and one can cross anywhere, no need to look for a traffic light. There is occasional bicycle traffic, cafes, shops and supermarkets work regular hours. There are playing children and chatting retirees in front of residential buildings. One often sees military personnel, occasionally with weapons.
"How is your life here now?" - I approach local women selling cheese and fish. A heavy-set woman in fur hat and a vest worn over a cheetah-patterned sweater replies with a complaint: "Nothing good. There is no work, pension payments come late. My father-in-law needed medications, I had to get them from the "Aidar" and "Zoloti vorota" soldiers, it's good that they are here and help us."
She continued in a tone of voice that signaled the full lack of hope: "I don't trust the government in Kyiv now. What do they take all those credits for, how are they going to repay them? I believe everything should have been resolved peacefully. Young boys are dying, for what?"
I ask in what country the people here would want to live.
"Now I don't even know. There was no talk of splitting away from Ukraine when we had the referendum here, we only wanted autonomy, because 70% of our income went to Kyiv and only 30% stayed here, why do you think people in Kyiv lived better that we did here?" - the fish seller becomes more animated and replies a bit more aggressively.
I carefully continue with questions: "And what do you want now?"
A slim woman with a grey-colored and sad face, selling cheese, wistfully replies that they want peace, they want shooting to stop. The woman in fur hat adds that she believes the government in Kyiv should be overthrown.
"Before, we lived better than now, at least our pensions were paid in time. We had a stable life and no one was rushing to join the European Union."
"Our people are not stupid, they understand everything. Do we need the European Union?" - joins the woman selling cheese. "Of course, we would like to live separately. We could then solve our problems on our own. Now no one needs us, everyone only wants our territory."
"Those in charge pitted the people against each other, but the city was shelled by our ( Ukrainian ) army" - the women revert to their "killer argument". "Yes-yes, they shelled and then they came to put the fires out! Young woman, even a stupid person knows this!"
I ask them why our army would shell the people and then help them. "It's simple - in order to record it and show how good they are and what sort of scum the rebels are."
"And they aren't scum?" - I try to get them to be more specific.
"We don't know the answer. We only know that everyone is hiding behind peoples' backs. If you want to fight a war - go do it far from town, the people have nothing to do with this!"
I take Maksym by the arm and leave excited women behind before our dialogue escalates into a conflict. When I am far enough, I turn around and see that the women are still looking my way.
Maksym calmly tells me that he has been hearing such talk for the past seven months and is used to it by now. "It's impossible to convince them of anything."
IN THE OCCUPIED CITIES PEOPLE LIVE IN THE STREETS AND DON'T RECEIVE ANY HELP FROM RUSSIA
While buying something to eat in the supermarket I strike up a conversation about the war and divided territories with the saleswomen.
"We don't like neither the Ukrainian army nor the separatists, because our situation here is like between the rock and a hard place" - replies a fat saleswoman in a green store-branded cap. The second saleswoman adds: "It's important for us is to have money." "Exactly," continues the first woman while weighing salad, "jobs and money. I honestly don't care in which country I will be. I will live where there is no shooting."
I don't give up: "But what did you want before the war started?"
"You won't believe me, but I did not care about what country to live in before the war either."
A store manager politely stops our discussion, telling me that taking pictures inside the supermarket is not allowed. The saleswomen try to defend me, telling the manager I was only talking to them. I take my bun and leave the store.
We enter a café, where we want to buy some tea and eat something. The café is dark and not very inviting. I notice a young couple drinking beer, come closer and ask what they think of the war.
"We, of course, want to live in Ukraine," the girl answers quietly and with a smile.
"And why do you want to live in Ukraine?"
"Because we oppose the separatists. We have seen how people live there and it's just terrible. There is no money at all, no one is paid for anything. There is no help from Russia either, except when they want to make a show for the cameras."
The day ends with rain. The next day also starts with rain. I leave Shchastia with a feeling that two days is enough to get used to the town, to its alert people, to wet windshields in military vehicles, to the sound of artillery training.
24 hours later, when I am already in Kyiv, I learn that four soldiers from the 92th brigade got blown up on the bridge in Shchastia. I feel ill at ease and start thinking that "happiness" is a lottery. I got lucky, others did not.
Text and photos: Vika Yasinska, Censor.NET