28 August 2014 was the last time I received a message from Yurii. There were two sentences in it: “Everything’s fine, we are alive. Tomorrow morning we are getting out”. Then, the connection was lost. If you are reading this text, it means I can make it public without imperiling my friend. I regret writing it.
Adamchuki, 4 August 2014
As every year at the beginning of August (exclusively) a pontoon bridge over the Bug river is open for crossing on the occasion of European Days of Good Neighborliness, enabling anyone to get from Polish village of Zbereże to the Ukrainian Adamchuki. Of course I will not miss such an opportunity. As soon as I find myself on the other side of the bridge I immediately change my mobile sim-card into a Ukrainian one. Luckily, among numerous stalls offering sweets of Roshen confectionery manufacturer, Torchin ketchups and white beer there is one selling top-up cards. I hand over forty 40 hrn. and snug down in the shade of the trees. Crowds of people are everywhere. The air is thick with the smell of beer and dried fish. In a moment I will hear the voice of Yurii, beaming at the other side of the phone. Some 1.300 km lay between us, a good few hours of non-stop drive. Yurii left his hometown Donetsk for Western Ukraine. We crack some jokes then talk about serious issues. Relatively recently he has joined the armed forces of Ukraine as a volunteer. “Military training lasted only for two weeks and was pretty lame – he admits amid the witticisms, adding – I need a good helmet. As a matter of fact two, one for Slava will also come in handy. Do you remember Slava? He is the philologist that helped us with our publication”.
Lublin, Volyn, 2011-2012
Yurii Matushchak came to Lublin from Donetsk to serve as a volunteer at The “Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre” Centre. I was his mentor. From our mutual acquaintance Marynka Charna he had come to know about me launching a project dedicated to the difficult history of Polish-Ukrainian relations, that was Volyn. Therefore as a historian Yurii chose Lublin. [i].
We became friends during the research expedition in 2012. Sitting with eighty- and ninety-year-olds on crumbling away beds and benches or sometimes on the grass we were talking about life, death, Banderites (Banderivtsi), Melnikovtsi, Petlurovtsi, Pilsudchyki and horrors of war. We asked them to send their message to future generations of Poles and Ukrainians. Their responses were almost unanimous: “Let them never experience war. Live in peace and love. Go through life hand in hand, don’t quarrel.” It did not occur to us back then that in three years’ time we would be the ones witnessing history.
Donetsk, 10 February 2014
Yurii and my other volunteers Mikhail and Sergey see me off at the airport in Donetsk. On his neck Yurii has a silver medallion and a catholic cross on a threadbare string. He laughs that he lacks only the crescent and the star of David to make his collection of amulets complete. Only a few months from then, Ukrainian solders will be so fiercely protecting the airport I am standing in waiting for the flight home, that their enemies wili call them “Donetsk cyborgs”. The helmets that never reached Yurii and Slava would save the lives of two of such “cyborgs”.
Donetsk, February-March 2014
In February Yurii and activists of Donetsk pro-Ukrainian organization “Poshtovh” [Ukrainian – impulse] go to offer their assistance at Kyiv Maidan. Later on he returns to Donetsk inclined to initiate a pro-Ukrainian peaceful rally. Participants of the manifestation are beaten – three men never regain their consciousness. All over Donbass those who do not think Moscow is right up their street are persecuted. Yurii has to leave the city for some time. He also sees to it that several of his acquaintances are safely out of Donetsk since they have fallen into disfavour of the local authorities for promoting European values. Yurii’s family is in jeopardy as well. Everybody must flee their hometown.
Donbass-Lublin, July-August 2014
Being twenty eight and passionately engaged in the pro-Ukrainian movement the idealists they are – Yurii and Slava ask their friends for help: Kevlar Helmets, military knee-pads and – the boys let their imagination run wild – a night-vision device. The latter that costs at least 17.000 zloty is out of the question, because we don’t have the required sum at our disposal. Having collected some money among the acquaintances, we scrape enough to buy a few helmets, though also not without difficulty. There were no Kevlar Helmets in military shops in Poland that was why we were forced to purchase them in England. The packages of goodwill from Włodawa and Kielce made their way through Lviv or Drochobych to Kiev and got stuck there. Yurii never received the helmet, Slava likewise. Nevertheless, there is a well-trodden path to Ukraine. New packages appear again and follow the same route. This time they contain blood-stancher bandages in case of gunshot injuries, hemostatic dressings, medicines, surgical wire and thin needles to obtain pneumoperitoneum. Marynka says that Ukrainian army doctors cry with happiness upon seeing these needles. It is 22 zloty per each. Once again we collect money among our acquaintances all over Poland. Some people from Kiev and Berlin, who are willing to help join the process.
In the Ilovaisk Kettle (the encirclement in Ilovaisk area) August 2014
The guys are trapped in the encirclement. They sit in the trenches. Luckily, there is still telephone connection. Slava sends a message: “They aim so well. It cannot be separatists; most probably it is a professional army. The Russians”. Yurii is concerned with another matter. It seems that on Ukrainian and Russian web portals it doesn’t require much effort to get information regarding the localization of the troops and scheduled operations of ther divisions. The rumour says that such piece of information has a value of 100 dollars. All we can do is wonder who foots the bill.
Days and weeks fly by without any supplies has been delivered. Slava admits that there is nothing to eat. For the last two days pears from local gardens have been their only meal. We talk over skype. I comfort him, saying that if he managed “to live through Volyn” nothing worse could happen to him anymore. Good news arrives on 27 August – finally they will be given a safe corridor. On 28 August 2014 I received the last message from Yurii. At night. There were two sentences in it: “Everything’s fine, we are alive. Tomorrow morning we are getting out”. Then the connection was lost.
Ukraine, September-October 2014
Ukrainian media are abuzz with news. The official version claims that among the committed crimes have been the following: treason against the State, carnage and breach of faith by the officer cadre. Supreme Council of Ukraine convokes a special commission intended to investigate why volunteer battalions encircled in Ilovaisk area hadn’t been given required support on time. Meanwhile bodies of the killed are decaying in the fields, exposed to rain, then to sun. Dogs have been scattering their bones all along the neighborhood. Despite it, the separatists continue to deny any access to the battle field. Only in a few days they will grant permission to the Ukrainian services and hardworking members of the organization The Chorny Tulpan [Ukrainian – Black Tulip] to enter the so called “corridor”. People engaged in the activities of The Chorny Tulpan are volunteers, who conduct the search of war conflicts victims so as their bodies could be identified and properly buried. Among other volunteers of the organization working on Ilovaisk site is Yaroslav Zhylkin, who would to spearhead the exhumations of Volyn victims. The circle is closed: in Volyn Yurii were looking for Ukrainians who rescued Poles. And now maybe The Chorny Tulpan will recover his body for us to bury it with dignity.
October 2014 – May 2015
It is difficult to define the exact number of the killed in the process of retreat from the Ilovaisk Kettle. The data given is never the same. Some soldiers marked as deceased appear later on among the wounded. Situation with war prisoners is similar. It is never precisely known how many of them are in captivity and where are those, whose surnames cannot be found in the lists of killed or wounded. Even Yurii Ruban’s center specializing in the search of Ukrainian prisoners is unable to provide accurate numbers. The official Russia keeps claiming its noninvolvement in the war, hence how should they know anything about the prisoners. One thing is certain though. Mainly members of Volunteer Battalions were killed in “the humanitarian” corridor in Ilovaisk area. They were young boys, some wearing caps and sneakers, but isn’t one supposed to go meet his death in a decent pair of boots? Three lists emerge on the web pages of Ukrainian authorities: killed, missing and the third – awarded for heroism. Ukrainian president has not been idle. Yurii Matushchak and Viacheslaw (Slava) Makarenko are listed among the missing. There is still some hope that they are alive! Here’s a mood swing. According to the Centre of Olena Chongarova in Ternopil, engaged in the search of Ukrainian prisoners, certain Sergii Matushchak surfaced on the territories occupied by the separatists. He was at the hospital there. We are unable to prove this information.
25 May 2015
I receive a sudden phone call from Ukraine. It is sudden, yet it has been obvious for some time, that eventually the moment will come. Marynka says a funeral is being organized. The funeral? But why now? We still don’t have the results of the DNA analysis. What if Yura is alive? What if he is waiting to be rescued from captivity? Hope is the last to die. However I shouldn’t waste time on doubts. The funeral is in three days and I have a distance of 1.500 km to cover one-way. Although there was a way smaller distance Yura had to come in order to reach safety and life, he didn’t make it. In that Ilovaisk corridor he lacked 3 km. He as many others were killed caught in the triangle between three villages Voznesenka, Chumaky and Horbatenko.
27 May 2015
I take a direct train from Lublin to Kiev. It is getting colder and starts to rain. The wheels of the carriage are pounding against the rails. I have booked a ticket in the compartment with sleeping places. It is just me in there. The dusk hasn’t fallen yet, but the outside world looks gloomy due to the weather. The landscapes flying by have the same air of sulkiness. Have we barely crossed the border I notice a lonely crane up in the Ukrainian skies. It is gliding easily in the direction of Poland. Not many people have a clear understanding, what it means to be a Pro-Ukrainian activist in Donetsk, what it means to fight for Ukraine in Donbass. It was Yurii who made me keenly aware of the matter. If you get into the hands of separatists you will either be killed or tortured, whereas your family will be persecuted. If you are fortunate enough to stay alive, a future of an alien lies ahead of for you; an alien in your own country (Lviv for instance); suspected; “this inferior one from the East”. A real harassment campaign against pro-Ukrainian activists was launched in the region and Donetsk itself as soon as first strikes at Maidan in Kiev took place. No blood had been shed yet, but lists with the names of activists and representatives of NGOs of Donbass (written in Russian) were circling all over the Internet. Yurii’s name was there also with some additional information – his mother’s and sister’s names, their addresses. What if not a warning?! “See, how much we know about you? Neither you, nor your family are safe.” Later on terrorists would come to his home fully conscious that he had joined a Ukrainian Volunteer Battalion. They would torture his mother, saying: “As soon as we find him, he is dead”.
29 May 2015
There are several of us on the way to Dnipropetrovsk from Kiev. Military unit is far from city centre. A group of soldiers on a rented bus come to take us to the cemetery. Television crew is already waiting there. Nothing distinguishes one grave from the other – cold mounds with crosses adjusted on top. Number is the only inscription on the surface. First of all, we have to find Yurii’s number. Afterwards, one of the solders brings a plate with his surname and date of death. It is nailed to the cross. This is how Yura Matushchak was recognized. Only rare crosses at the military cemetery in Dnipropetrovsk bare any information apart from the number. Though it is not his only award – Yura was buried in two graves. The other one is a collective grave in Zaporizhia. In May this year specialists from Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhia have performed the analysis of the remains after the massacre in Ilovaisk area. They confirmed that Yura’s DNA was found. In both cases.
When next to a cold towering barrow everyone cries, men as well. We stand in a complete silence waiting for the ceremony to begin. It starts with a speech of officers from the squad who talk about courage and heroism. Then two Orthodox priests pray for his soul. Someone intones the hymn of Ukraine “Ще не вмерла…” [Ukr. “Has not passed away…”]. We lay flowers, light the lamps. For a long time neither of us can leave. When being in the army our friend gave himself a pseudonym. It was “Wind”. And here we are, standing next to his grave. The day is grey. It is raining. There are strong blasts of wind…
A soldier from Yura’s battalion sits in front of me. He talks about our Yurek, his sense of humour, bravery, about him knowing loads of songs and the shock he experienced when they had cut his hair. The commander himself didn’t recognize him. In a while he goes on: “Guys form volunteer battalions had a problem with shooting and killing a man. Once, when recce was underway, we spotted a separatist passing by. But not a single one fired off. (…) Many volunteers got frighten after the very first days and left the army. They were entitled to do so. Not many carried on.”
29 August 2015
Another ceremony takes place in Dnipropetrovsk: the Orders for Courage are being decorated posthumously. All in all Yurii was awarded three medals of this kind by the president of Ukraine. Family and friends of the deceased arrive to the venue. Yurii’s medal was received by his mother. Organizations “Poshtovh” as well as Grupa Mowa Żywa were stripped of their leader… and still the rest of their members are willing to pursue their work further. Poshtovh is directly translated as impulse from Ukrainian. Yurii is no longer with us, nevertheless the powerful impulse to move and to act he radiated, everyone cannot help but feel.
Specialized DNA-tests of Yurii, Slava and Maks are done by Lublin doctors in the local Department of Forensic Medicine. The families haven’t made their peace with the results obtained in Ukraine and want a confirmation. They have never ceased to hope that boys are in captivity. In autumn Maks’s parents get a sudden phone call, made by the separatists apparently. The latter claim that their son is safe and sound, works and may return home pretty soon. Later on, certain allegations have been made by various sources, that is – the soldiers we are searching for may be held at Caucasus in one of the slave-labour camps for captives. After all nobody from the families saw the bodies. The tests are more accurate provided they are based on material taken from the femur. We don’t have it at our disposal. All we are left with are some small trifle things, which reached Poland in parcels via post offices or were simply delivered by the acquaintances. In Yura’s case these are the following: some hairs and a toothbrush; in Maks’s (who were standing next to Yurii when the grenade exploded) – a T-shirt and a watch. Maksym Poshedin was also awarded the Order for Courage posthumously. And I simply can’t master the strength to open Slava’s bundle. All I notice is saliva samples of his father and sister. There is no sample of his mother, since she passed away long ago leaving Slava an orphan. At the beginning of September Polish doctors confirmed the results of the previously run tests. Ukraine has new heroes.
When we talked with Yurii in the chat for the last time, he even managed to read a poem, dedicated to him. In time that poem would be published in “Akcent”. He was sincerely happy, even though the mood of it couldn’t be called optimistic. I promised that if anything ever happened to him, we would look for him against all the odds. And we did. We ran the DNA-test in Poland in order to make sure the results received in Ukraine were trustworthy; we sought contact with various official and sometimes nonofficial organizations such as a group of mothers searching for their sons vanished in the Ilovaisk Kettle; we kept trace of bits of information regarding concentration camps at Caucasus. If not for the net of people of good will, we could have still stuck in a rut completely blind about the truth.
It seems that since the broke out of the war in the Eastern Ukraine more and more images of Saints fighting with the Beast entered Ukrainian shops, offices and homes. In theology St. George may be identified with St. Michael the Archangel as they both killed the dragon displaying bravery of their hearts. St George is the patron of Lviv. Gilded statue of St. Michael the Archangel stands at Maidan in Kiev in the proximity of Khreshchatyk St. winding through the centre of the town. At the foot of this statue flowers and miners’ helmets were laid after the bloodshed clashes during the protests at Maidan. It is not a coincidence that in Lublin the very same saint was the patron of the Parish Church that up to 19th century used to stand on Plac po Farze. Kiev with the St. Michael the Archangel towering above its main square became a beating heart of Europe after the Orange revolution. Pompously remarked Micheil Saakaszwili on the Ukrainian uprising. For many pathos ended as soon as the blood was shed. Our Yurek was killed by a grenade not far from Ilovaisk. There is nothing pompous about it.
Could the helmet (in the long run he didn’t get it) have saved his life? Military doctors say that the helmet wouldn’t have changed anything: “It was a matter of few seconds”. At least he did not suffer. At the beginning of September I received a picture of some Ukrainian soldier I didn’t know. He had several surgeries. In the picture he is dressed in the civilian clothing. He is holding the hand of his three-year old son. He sends his thanks for the helmet. He is alive.
[i] I offered Yurii Matushchak to participate in the programme Reconciliation through Difficult Remembrance and coordinate the activities of the Ukrainian part. An informal research group Grupa Mowa Żywa was established in the framework of the expedition. We are still working on the programme. It is being implemented on the territory Poland and Ukraine (Eastern Galiсia and Ternopil region). Unfortunately, without Yurii.
Text will be included in ‘The essays on Polish-Ukrainian Poland”, prepared and published within the frame of the Artistic Scholarship granted by the Mayor of Lublin.