It’s a very small cup: blue dotted with yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. But for Yelena, it holds a lot of history. It’s a reminder of almost thirty years’ labor, and of the day they ended in summer 2014, when an artillery shell landed on the bread factory where she’d worked all her life in Mariinka, east Ukraine.
Now, the cup sits on a table beside an Orthodox icon in Mariinka’s small, local bakery; a survivor of the on-going war in east Ukraine. “We went back [to the factory] after it was bombed,” Yelena tells me, “and I saw my cup there. I cried. And my little stool was still there… The icon too, our icon. We had a table in the workshop, like now, and it was above the table all the time.”
Yelena’s new workshop is in a former supermarket in Mariinka town center, a ‘gray zone’ in a conflict that’s claimed 10,000 lives since 2014. Reborn from staff and equipment of the destroyed factory, the non-profit bakery was opened in March 2016 by the Dobra Vest (Good News) evangelical church. It’s Ukraine’s first frontline workplace-generating enterprise, and a haven from the politics, propaganda, and violence that have torn Mariinka apart.
It’s late evening in the spring of 2017, although with no windows lining the bright, orange-painted walls it’s hard to tell the time, or hear the boom and rattle of artillery and machine-gun fire that starts up outside at 5 p.m., prompt as a curfew siren emptying the streets. Because of the shooting, workers stay all night at the bakery. It’s too dangerous to go home before morning.
The biscuit mixture is resting; the first batch of bread loaves is in the ovens. Yelena and fellow baker Olya work together with the speed and ease of long practice, making pizzas and buns that the bakery sells for just under market price in Mariinka and surrounding towns, or distributes for free to citizens deprived of work and income, gas and water, homes and family, by the war.
“We’re trying to make something tasty for people, because you see how we live here,” says Yelena. “If it ends one day—and God willing, every war has to end—well, then we’ll have to live further.”
The sweet buns are about to go to oven. Despite the war, the bakers try to make something tasty and fancy-looking from whatever ingredients they get. All photos by Olya Morvan
More than three years after the July 2014 battle to take back Mariinka from armed Russian-backed separatists, the war between Ukraine’s government forces and its Russian-supported breakaway eastern region continues, and the frontline runs right through Mariinka.
Most of the town is back under government control. Donetsk, the urban center six miles away which locals once relied on for work, higher education, shopping, and entertainment, is capital of the unrecognized ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DNR). The frontline runs northeast of Mariinka’s center, cutting across residential roads that lead to Donetsk. Many of the roadside houses, their windows regularly patched up and then broken again by explosions and gunfire, are still inhabited by locals who are unable or unwilling to move away. Yelena lives in one of them with her 29-year-old pregnant daughter Viktoria and granddaughter Veronika.
Fighters on the two warring sides, entrenched in positions about 500 feet apart, fire at each other nightly and sometimes daily. Civilian casualties are still common: in July this year, three local youths aged 3, 14, and 19 were injured by shrapnel.
We lived all our lives next to Donetsk… And now I have to treat them as enemies?
The war, which grew from a Russia-fomented uprising against a new government installed in Kiev in early 2014 after months of unrest, is often presented as a struggle between Ukraine’s Russified east and European-leaning west; between Russian and Ukrainian states, languages and histories. But here in the bakery, Yelena speaks Russian to Olya, and Olya speaks Ukrainian to Yelena. They’ve done so from kindergarten, through school and work in the bread factory; they are godmothers to each other’s children and life-long friends. Olya is red-cheeked and kindly and turns everything into a joke. Yelena has beautiful, sad blue eyes and a sometimes sharp manner, a protective wall that comes up when talk turns to the last three years’ divisions and destructions.
“We lived all our lives next to Donetsk,” she says, in an unguarded moment.
“Half of Mariinka went to work in Donetsk, and half my workers in the bread factory were from Donetsk. And now I have to treat them as enemies?”
The bakery staff don’t want to give their last names. While the town is full of Ukrainian soldiers and security services, almost everyone in Mariinka has family living or working on the other side. Bakery worker Antonina’s daughter lives in Donetsk. Oleg Tkachenko, the pastor who nominally owns the bakery, was forced to leave nearby Slovyansk in 2014 after separatists occupied the Dobra Vest church building and murdered another protestant pastor (he returned after the town was retaken by government forces in July 2014). One of Yelena’s neighbors has three sons fighting for the DNR.
“How many families have broken up because of it: who’s for Russia, who’s for Ukraine?” says Antonina. “I know ten families in Mariinka that broke up because of it.”
“We’re just people, we’re not separatists,” Yelena adds. “And all our guys just want to come home. The ones here and the ones over there, they all just want to go home.”