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There are only three roads that lead to the Ukrainian village of Berdianske, which lies between peaceful Mariupol and the frontline Shyrokyne. Only the locals with permits are allowed past its checkpoints.
The village is considered to be dangerous territory, and not only because of its proximity to the active military conflict in neighboring Donetsk. In 2016, Ukraine’s military engineers planted mines at the bottom of the Azov Sea in anticipation of a militant attack on Mariupol from occupied Novoazovsk. A year ago, the Red Cross put up signs saying: “Danger. Sea mines.” But no one here pays much attention to them. And the same goes for the mines.
There are buildings along the shore, and there is a boat in almost every yard. This fishing town has been emptying out since the start of the war. Now only the most persevering and daring fishermen remain. But, as the fishermen say, the sea is calling them back.
Fedir Fedorovych Pakhomov – or as he introduces himself, Uncle Fedya – lived in Mariupol until his summer cottage in Shyrokyne was hit by GRAD missiles, leaving him wounded. Upon his return, he had to provide for his young twin sons Fedir and Timofiy, so they could go to school, have clothes to wear, and relax. He tells us that he has been married three times, referring to his “younger wife,” “middle wife,” and “older wife.”
Uncle Fedya is one of a small group of legal fishermen, that’s why he allows us to film him. He has a license to fish and pays taxes as a private business owner. He sells his fish in Mariupol.
He also owns a wonderful farm with pheasants, pigeons, chickens, turkeys, goats, and peacocks.
Fedir told us what it was like in the early days of war in Donbas. “At the start of the war, they shot at boats a few times in the dark. So now we only fish when it’s light. They don’t shoot anymore because they know already. They don’t chase us, they only warn us to be careful, but how can you be careful if the mines are at the very bottom. They are scattered everywhere here!”
Fortunately, mines have not killed a single fisherman from Berdianske, although they have already witnessed them explode. It was winter the first time this happened. The sea had frozen, and the water level rose. The mines started to explode as they pressed against the ice.
At least that’s according to Uncle Fedya’s version of events. He says that he and his friends counted 28 explosions in one night and that his neighbor set off a mine with his net.
“We almost lost Sasha. He cast the net, and it got caught on a mine. It caught as soon as he started to pull. It’s good that it blasted upwards. But Sasha was 20-30 meters away. He then jumped ashore, chain-smoked five cigarettes and went home.”
It’s not just his own safety Fedir has to worry about. His young twin sons spend time with him at weekends learning how to fish. They go out to sea together.
“They are not afraid of anything,” he says. “And they’d not seen anything like that before. One flew over our house in Shyrokyne...The explosion threw me to the ground, something hit my head. The kids ran up to me: ‘Dad, are you ok?’ Yes, I say, I’m alive!”
Fedya dreams of his twin sons following in his footsteps. Fishing is a family tradition. Fedya has been going to sea since he was a child.
“I was 10 years old when my father took me out with him. I got seasick as soon as I got on the boat. But then – nothing, I was fine. I slept on the boat in the middle of the sea, I went to that side (Russia) when it was (part of) the Soviet Union. They accepted us then.”
Fedya is full of stories. Like the time he almost lost his boat recently. After unloading the fish, he went to rest on the shore but forgot to drop anchor. He fell asleep and the wind picked up. His boat floated for several kilometers before it was found by the border guards. Luckily the boat had documents, so they returned it. If this had not been the case, then Fedya would have been left without a source of income.
Fedya says that he lives a happy life. He likes to look at the sea and at the birds flying up the sky. He grows things in his garden and milks his goats, sometimes giving the milk to his neighbors, and takes his fish to the market in Mariupol.
He has a helper: a homeless man, for whom he provides shelter and work.
“He fled Shyrokyne and just slept rough here,” Fedir explains. When they wreaked havoc on Berdianske, one guy was hiding in a pile of trash in my courtyard. I said to him: If you want to stay, you’ll have to work. So now he feeds the birds, fixes things, he gets food, and he has a roof over his head.”
Fedya does not plan to move anywhere else, as he says there will always be fish in the sea. There is not much that bothers him here, apart from maybe poachers. And the mines. And politics.
“Why do they need mines in the sea? Who is going to attack from the sea? If they wanted to attack, they would have done it already. We were a friendly nation and now we are at war. It’s a shame for the sea… They need to de-mine here, those people who sit over there and govern here. Let them try and live here for even a week. And then they say: ‘We’ve raised pensions for you.’ Screw them.”
According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, 2558 civilian and 273 servicemen have died from detonated mines since the start of the war in eastern Ukraine (between 14 April 2014 and 15 August 2017).
According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission, 480 civilians have died from mine explosions and unexploded shells in 2017, and 39 people died between the start of the year and April.
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The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.
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