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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #384

This morning my colleagues and I visited the notorious Kramatorsk market, the haven of all bric-a-brac in free Donbas. It’s an extraordinary affair, a series of wooden shacks and low-level concrete buildings built on top of a maze of steel vaults and cellars beneath where presumably at some point animals and vegetables were stored en masse but these chambers are now used for who knows what purpose. But the market itself is a treat. It starts work at 7am, but it really gets going only at about 9am and it fills up with the most remarkable items you might ever or never want to purchase.

Perhaps the most gory items I found on display was a set of pig’s heads, hanging on skewers in front of a casual butchers. There were also various pieces of chopped liver, spleen, kidneys, spine and other indescribable parts of animals and also huge great lumps of lard - solid pig fat - slapped casually on large paved butchers’ slabs. Stacks of pick axes and pick axe handles are available. Strange garden mowers can be bought. Old pipes and bits of taps and miscellaneous junk of every conceivable description is available. Different sorts of unusual clothes, many of them military, are sold by buzzing old ladies around every tiny corner, jammed between the corners of the dirty grimy old buildings and shacks. It’s an amazing array of mess and chaos and cash banknotes slip freely between the old ladies who run the market and the bizarre myriad of customers, the greater majority of whom are serving soldiers who have popped into town to buy whatever strange wares they might need for the front. Some of them wear their loaded assault rifles on their backs as they walk round the market in their boots and their military fatigues, ordering their huge hunks or raw meat.

My purchases that I wanted this morning were a little more modest. I found a pair of gloves to keep me warm because it’s still cold here out east. The gloves I found were for a motorcyclist and had hardened plastic knuckles in case you fell off your motor bike at high speed or you needed to strike someone hard in the face with your first without breaking the bones in your hand. I also wanted to buy some camouflage netting shoes for my poor strained ankles but I couldn’t find any shoes in my size. I needed another warm top but I couldn’t find anything sufficiently fashionable without the air of military fashion to it. My friend was looking to buy some small taps for some reason or other but he had no success. As time went on, ever more shops opened selling increasingly strange things and the number of grumpy soldiers with their guns and their boots increased but we still couldn’t find precisely what we were looking for.

I went lurking into the bathrooms to use the toilet for the bargain price of 5 Gryvnas, and I almost found myself locking myself in a cold storage unit. I wondered around there for 15 minutes or so in this dungeon of cold dusty old rooms, in the dark, wanting to call out for help until I found my way out and bumped straight back into the pigs’ heads and the blocks of lard and the strips of spine or liver or whatever they were. I also picked up a balisong - an eccentric old-fashioned Philippine butterfly knife rarely now used but I learned the art of folding and unfolding them in a series of intricate flicks of the wrist back in the days when I was training in the martial arts weekly and they make excellent butter knives for 20-hour train journeys across the Ukrainian wilds. These knives are illegal in some countries in the West but anything goes in Kramatorsk, the consumer city on the front line of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. You can buy Russian boots, Russian military gear, Russian warm jackets, as well as Ukrainian version of all the same things. Kramatorsk market is a sight to behold.

We wondered over the road in the icy wind, my still regretting not buying yet more eccentric military clothing to supplement my wardrobe. My problems is that I know I will never wear any of this stuff back home, and the weather is soon warming up, so we won’t much use it here either. We went back to a little coffee shop shack that serves burgers from 8am, and we drank cappuccinos and americanos while the pretty girls who work in their smiled at us. The only customers were, needless to say, rough old soldiers who had wondered in pretty much straight off the front line, guns in hand and all, to get a cup of coffee before heading back off to the fighting. Only this sort of thing can happen in Kramatorsk, surely one of the most unusual cities in the world, in which a dreary old Soviet post-industrial horror-scape is intermixed with consumer shopping for the military with air raid sirens, explosions, and the thumping sounds of heavy artillery in the background. Everyone seems to think this is all completely normal, and they go about their business, getting back in their military vehicles with no licence plates and all the rest after their little shopping tours and back they go to the front line and to risking their lives.

In Kramatorsk life is going on normally. There is no Russian invasion of this city about to take place. The wheels of commerce will put pay to that idea. Instead the little restaurants and cafes will keep plying their ware, and you can still buy an alcoholic beer here; I’m drinking one as I write these words right now. After our early morning tour of the market, my friends and I walked back down the long hill towards our primitive hostel to find the internet had gone out, my door lock was being drilled through by some stinking workman and there was a constant buzz of chaos and good will. And it was only 10.45 in the morning. Kramatorsk feels as regular as ever and despite all the thuds and the bangs, the market keeps working and the war, even here, feels a world away.


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