A friend of WSBs, John Moyes (Merde Tete on the BBS) recently sent us this wonderful piece discussing the impact the current Ukranian conflict is having on our twinned Town, Gorlovka.
He’s under real pressure now.
Surely to god we can’t put up with any more of this?
That was an absolute disaster.
I can’t put my feelings into words.
They’ve pulled one back, the next five minutes are going to be unbearable!
My weekend has just been ruined. Again.
These are words and phrases that we often hear bandied about by fans and pundits alike when the team is struggling. But let’s take a step back for a minute. What does it really mean to have your weekend “ruined”? What is it like to be “under pressure”? How bad does a certain event in your life have to get in order to be considered a “disaster”?
Tuesday 10 February was spent in front of a computer, in a large apartment in a green and leafy district of St Petersburg, with my family beside me, and the snow falling peacefully outside. Despite the considerable chill on the street, we were warm and snug, primarily because we have very efficient central heating in Russia. We all felt nice and full as well, as we’d had a hearty dinner after I’d returned from work. I can’t remember what it was, but what I can say with complete certainty is that whatever we ate will have been not just something to fill our bellies, but will have actually been comprised of whatever ingredients we chose to buy on that particular day. It will certainly have consisted of a lot of fresh, out of season vegetables. Expensive of course, but readily available if you’re willing to pay, even after Putin’s notorious “anti sanctions” which banned the import of various foodstuffs into Russia from the EU. My little girl had just gone to bed, having had a bath. The water that came out of the taps was hot and clean. I was about to start following the Barnsley v Fleetwood game from afar, with the benefit of course of a high speed internet connection.
You may be wondering where this is going, and why I have painted a picture of my very comfortable, yet very typical modern existence. Well, all of the things that I mentioned that make my life – and I would hazard a guess at yours – so comfortable: hot water, heating, high speed internet, the choice of what to eat no matter what the season, and most crucially of all, a feeling of personal safety and security – these are all things that in our modern, peacetime lives, we absolutely take for granted.
So, back to Tuesday night. Tuesday night was spent, shall we say, multi-tasking. As not only was I following the “disaster” unfolding at Oakwell, but my wife and I were also making frantic arrangements to evacuate her relatives from their small farm in the Donbass area of Ukraine. Now, many of you will have heard about the conflict in Ukraine, presumably without really taking very much on board other than the statistics. 5,500 killed and 13,000 wounded. Five million people living in a combat zone, and nearly a million already displaced. Taking a cursory glance at some numbers on a computer screen before getting back to our sheltered, everyday lives is something that I am sure we have all done. I certainly have. But what does it actually mean if you are one of those affected? Once you are more than just a statistic? For our family, a couple in their mid 50s who live just outside Donetsk, it has meant prolonged periods without water, gas and electricity. Sporadic pension payments, if they are even paid at all at all. Unreliable internet and telephone signals which is especially alarming for all of us wishing to keep in touch with them, for obvious reasons. For a while, it seemed like they were some of the luckier ones. Indeed, with their lives and property still intact, and their utilities restored to a more or less functioning level, their lives are better than many people’s. However, the run-up to last week’s ceasefire agreement led to a renewed push for territory on both sides. They are located on Ukrainian controlled territory, but only just. Currently the Ukrainian army are lined up around a mile behind their farm, leaving them in the direct line of fire if open hostilities should resume. Their choice is a stark one. Leave their home in the beautiful Ukrainian countryside, along with their land and animals, the place which they purchased only two years ago to retire to – knowing that if they do it will almost certainly have been looted or occupied by the time they return. Or, stay there and run the risk of waking up one morning with a hole in their garden, or roof, or worse.
If you think all of this sounds grim, then you’d be quite right. However, compared with the residents of a nearby town located in rebel-held territory, they have got off lightly, so far. The town in question had quite a lot written about it in the British press last year, when it was being pounded by artillery fire, but you would be forgiven for giving it a cursory glance as just another war-torn town in Eastern Ukraine. It is almost always referred to in the British media by its Ukrainian name of “Horlivka”. Ring any bells? Well, unless you are proficient in the subtleties of Russian and Ukrainian transliteration, probably not. However, in the Donbass region itself, you will never hear it called by its Ukrainian name, as nobody actually speaks Ukrainian there. The locals all use the Russian name – Gorlovka. Starting to sound familiar? Yes, one of the key flashpoints in the Ukrainian war is Barnsley’s twin town. The fighting in Gorlovka was particularly intense from July 2014, until September of last year when the first shaky ceasefire was agreed. Many residential areas came under artillery fire during the “Battle of Horlivka” as it is now known, with the civilian dead running into the hundreds, and the numbers wounded and made homeless running into the thousands. The rebels accused the Ukrainian government forces of indiscriminate shelling of populated areas, whereas the Ukrainian government line is that the rebels were shooting directly out of residential areas, thus using local civilians as a human shield. Whichever version of events contains more truth hardly matters in practical terms. The dead are still dead, and the displaced are still displaced. Since the September truce, things have been calmer, but Gorlovka’s position right on the edge of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ leaves it particularly vulnerable as a key strategic point. As recently as February 2nd, one of the rebel commanders in the New York Times was quoted as saying “if we lose Gorlovka, we lose the war”.
As the conflict has developed and moved away from Gorlovka to other towns, they have become the focus of the media – as I write, Debaltseve, the railway junction between the two main cities in the rebel held territory, Donetsk and Lugansk, is the scene of a violent battle, despite yet another ‘ceasefire’ agreement in Minsk last week. Gorlovka has already been forgotten. Just another bombed out town in a war zone far from home. But Gorlovka is home to real people, a lot of them. Nearly 300,000 in fact, which makes it as populous as Cardiff, and considerably bigger than Newcastle, Nottingham, Leicester and Brighton. A sobering thought, as the people there are left to rebuild their lives. A difficult enough task in any circumstances, but made immensely more complicated by the fact that Gorlovka is currently located in a state – the Donetsk People’s Republic – that does not officially exist. It doesn’t take much to work out the detrimental effect that this has on even the most basic of public services.
Although I personally have not visited Gorlovka, I spent a lot of time in the Donbass region and particularly Donetsk during the summer of 2012 when the European Championships were taking place in Ukraine. What struck me immediately was how similar the area is to South Yorkshire in so many ways. Flying in, the landscape reminded me of the area as I remember it from being a child – rolling countryside punctuated by coal mines and slag heaps, and the air has a red tinge in the morning. Gorlovka, the old mining town is twinned with Barnsley, and Donetsk, the regional capital famed for its coal and metal industries is twinned with Sheffield.
‘John & his wife Sasha at the 2012 Euro Championships’
Many twin town arrangements begin and end on paper, but that is clearly not the case with Donbass and South Yorkshire. The local people here are really proud of their links with their industrial brethren in Great Britain. Donetsk itself was founded by a Welsh industrialist, John Hughes, who is credited with bringing both the mining industry and football to the area. He is still a celebrated figure in the area today. Shakhtar Donetsk, roughly translated actually means ‘The Donetsk Miners’ in English. The Colliers, if you will. Gorlovka has a restaurant called Barnsley, and the Russian speaking branch of the Barnsley Supporters Club (yes, it does exist) appears to be run by somebody from Gorlovka. The page on the Russian version of Facebook (vk.com) is still active and regularly updated – http://vk.com/barnsley . As far as I am aware from scanning the news sites for the town, cultural exchanges between Barnsley and Gorlovka have taken place at a council level, although what the level of connection is now I’m not sure. I would hazard a guess at not very high, considering it is currently under the control of pro-Russian separatists, who are not recognised by central government in Kiev. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the current political situation in Eastern Ukraine, it is without doubt a humanitarian catastrophe of the highest order. If something of a similar magnitude were to happen in South Yorkshire, whether it was a war in Wakefield, a tsunami in Barnsley, or Sheffield turned out to have been built on an active volcano, I am absolutely sure that the people of Donbass would be doing every little thing they could to help the people of their twin towns. It’s just how they are. I’m also quite sure that many people in the South Yorkshire area would really like to be able to lend their help to the ordinary people of Donbass, caught up in an atrocious civil war. However, it seems that actually very few people are aware of the full extent of what has been happening there. How to help is another matter entirely, especially given the fractious nature of the political situation in the region. Whilst it would be nice to think that money, clothes and canned food could be sent there and would help improve people’s lives, their reality is that the chances of any aid being misappropriated are extremely high. That, unfortunately, is the reality of war. It is also the reality of life in Ukraine in general, on both sides of the political divide.
‘The Barnsley Cafe – Gorlovka’
Donbass is an area of Europe, not so very different from our own home in England. An area that people are proud to call their home, just like we are forever proud to say that we are from Yorkshire, no matter where we find ourselves in the world. Without wishing to generalise or stereotype, I found the people of Donbass endearingly similar to South Yorkshire folk, right down to the fact that they speak in a rather peculiar dialect of their native language (Russian, not Ukrainian). They’re unpretentious, incredibly warm and welcoming, and have a love of the simple pleasures in life – fishing, football, delicious foods from their local farms, and a beer in the summer sun. They’re people just like you and me. Except these are people who live in fear of a bomb dropping on their house at any moment. It’s enough to ruin anyone’s weekend.