My visit to Sviatohirsk this morning, about which I will write more later, was somewhat alarming: something that probably won’t surprise you. Sviatohirsk is (or more accurately, was) a settlement encompassing a historical Orthodox monastery about 8 kilometres off the main road northwest from Sloviansk to Izyum in free Donetsk Oblast, Sloviansk itself being about 15 kilometres north of Kramatorsk where I am currently staying. There was a discussion of sorts with my landlady this morning about taxi services, and we managed to agree something. A car arrived, which was not really a taxi but it did have a meter (incorporated as an App on the guy’s mobile ‘phone). An estimate was provided but how was I to tell whether this bizarre metre was rigged? Anyway he looked respectable enough even if his car did not, and I decided to accept the offer of the ride to and from Sviatohirsk which takes about 40 minutes in each direction. In the event the metre was not rigged and the price was entirely reasonable.
Nevertheless the journey was fraught with complications. It’s not just that you drive past one smashed out building another or that there was no seatbelt or that everyone drives down the highway fraught with tank traps at 90 miles per hour in clapped out bangers or that military checkpoints pull you over at random and suddenly everyone has to go screeching to a halt and at one point my driver had to slam on his brakes so hard that we almost rear-ended a military van. These are all minor problems. The checkpoints themselves presented greater problems, but not for me. The driver only spoke Russian, which is basically okay round here but nevertheless it increases the potential for a confrontational encounter. My Russian is passable, so I could understand the dialogue. The checkpoint guards don’t like this driver, whoever he is. At the first checkpoint, the guard asked him “who’s this guy in the car with you?”. The driver gave the unwise answer, “he’s a foreigner.” The guard (strapped down with ammo rounds and magazines for his assault rifle) asked him “what sort of foreigner?”. My driver replied, “I don’t know”. I could see this going downhill rapidly, so I decided to intervene. I pulled out my passport and said to the guard, in Ukrainian, “I’m British”. The guard looked at me and said “ok go”. So we were past checkpoint one, and soon back up to 90 miles per hour burning rubber.
The next checkpoint however proved more challenging. The guard wasn’t interested in me at all and my British passport wasn’t going to solve any strange problems. Instead he told my driver that he is eligible for military service. This created great consternation as he was photographed; his driving licence was photographed; his licence plates were photographed; and he had to provide evidence of his address. My driver remonstrated that he shouldn’t be taken away for boot camp immediately, because he had an important foreigner to drive somewhere (!). I had visions of being stranded by the side of the road as my driver was taken off in a military minibus, but thankfully this didn’t happen. Apparently he will be telephoned shortly, to be informed when he should report for military service. This is not the sort of fare the driver wanted, and he took to chain smoking while back up to high speeds once more.
I started to recognise the wreckage and ruined buildings along the side of the road; we were approaching Sloviansk, where I had been a few months ago, and yes there was another checkpoint but this one more cursory of my driver’s identity. Then we took a sharp right down a bouldery road towards Sviatohirsk, although it was hard to tell because all the road signs have been spray painted with white paint in order to confuse the Russians should they choose to invade this way. Hence the signpost towards Kharkiv has been whited out and replaced with a signpost saying “Kyiv” which is actually in another direction. I’ve seen this sort of silly thing in war and the signpost to Sviatohirsk was no exception. Then we reached true front line devastation, of the kind I have seen in the Balkans. Every single building along the side of the road had been blown up or blown out, and there is nothing left of Sviatohirsk at all.
My friend from Donbas, now living in Lviv, had suggested I might want to spend the night in Sviatohirsk, amongst the nature, relaxing. Well that would be hard, because there’s nothing there anymore except charred ruins and wild dogs. There are no people there at all. Even worse: Sviatohirsk appears now to be actually on the de facto front line in the sense that there is a road at the end of the village which is now blocked off to motorists and beyond which is Russian-controlled territory. Sviatohirsk is literally the end of the road; it is the maximum extent of territory that the Ukrainians purport to control. If you go past that road block - and there is nobody to stop you - then you are on your own. I don’t know how many kilometres you have to walk before you actually encounter the Russian Armed Forces or the FSB, but it’s clear that beyond this point you are on your own.
There is a Ukrainian military encampment in Sviatohirsk, but I couldn’t really establish how many soldiers are based there and I didn’t want to pop in to enquire. Sviatohirsk was seized by the Russians in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and they then withdrew and the ancient, pretty village, nestling in the foothills of the Siverskyi Donets River, has been completely destroyed. That river now forms, in substantial part, the Donbas front line between free Ukraine and that part of the Donbas occupied by the Russians. Therefore everything has been comprehensively destroyed in the same way as I saw on the front line in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and not a single building is habitable anymore. The situation is absolutely diabolical and the area is decimated. This once beautiful settlement stands sorely in need of rebuilding, but obviously that cannot be begun when it forms a de facto front line with the Russian occupied territories.