Published February 10, 2015 in Vita Magazine
February 20, 2015
Translated from Italian by Tom Winter
The satirist is one of the few people from the west to have been on the ground in the Donbass, the part of Ukraine called Novorossiya that is fighting against Kiev. “The situation is extremely dramatic. Instead of Russian regular army, there are guerillas that fight against a nazist government.”
The situation is at a crossroads. At present there are negotiations between the USA, the EU, and Russia. If Merkel, Hollande and Kerry can find a deal with Putin the situation could cool down. The problem is that in the opposite case, the scenario is at risk becoming quite dramatic. The notices that come from the war zone are few, and almost always from Ukrainian and American sources. One of the very few Italians and westerners to have been on the other side, amidst the pro-russian combatants, is the famous satirical cartoonist Vauro Senesi. Therefore Vita has contacted him and asked him to recount what he saw.
Vita: You’ve recently been in the east of Ukraine. What did you see?
VS: A humanitarian disaster. Many cities and villages are partially depopulated. Mainly the refugees head for Russia, and this goes a long way about saying who the liberators are. The ones to remain are those who can’t get out. These are the elderly, the disabled, or persons in extreme poverty. It’s winter, with temperatures of 20 below. They don’t have water; they don’t have electricity. I’ve seen them transport drinking water in old oil drums in the back of pickups in the bombarded and half-destroyed neighborhoods. One moving scene: the driver of the pickup was an old World War Two vet, still in his Red Army uniform.
It’s impossible, going there, not to see the fact that there is a clear strategy on the part of Kiev: ethnic cleansing. When you strike the nerve center of the life of a community with such arrogance, that can only be the motive: Raze to the ground the schools, hospitals, factories, electric power plants…
Vita: What’s the response of the pro-russians?
VS: The reply of the armed Cossacks is participatory, and heroic. In addition to defending the territory militarily, they have also taken on the burden to the extent possible, of sustaining the population. They distribute food and water, and organize co-ops and aid groups to rebuild the social fabric.
The population in recent years has had the experience of a liberalism without rules, a society run only in the private interest of the tycoons. In Ukraine the system denies fundamental rights like access to health care: right in Kiev, the hospital, for example, even before the conflict, was still living in the Chernobyl emergency era, without available cures or treatments. The only access was the black market.
A situation like that, with a state system so unfair, then coupled with the Maidan coup, and the memory of the massacre at Odessa, has cut a deep chasm between the the russo-ukrainian population and the Kiev regime. I say the regime, because within the same society of Ukraine there are strong currents of dissent, stifled by the militarization in place in Kiev.
Vita: His reading of the facts is a bit pro-soviet, Or at least, that is the accusation of his critics. But we should remind these gentlemen that the Soviet Union ended in 1991.
Actually, the accusation is a matter of being nostalgic…
VS: I’m not Russian, so the nostalgia would be about something else. But certainly there is a vein of nostalgia in the population of Donbass. The people there say that while there was a Soviet Union, the welfare was free and better than today. Sanitation and school worked for everybody. In the midst of it all, strange to relate, were mingled Byzantine icons, Madonnas, portraits of Lenin, Russian flags and Red flags. I have to say that this nostalgia is for a system that, with all its horrors, guaranteed basic rights: health, education, and work.
Vita: How did Anti-fascism get into the pro-russian revolt in Ukraine?
VS: It’s outright: the salute the Cossacks give among themselves is a clenched fist accompanied by the phrase “¡No pasarán!” This because on the opposing side there are army divisions that have adopted the symbols of the German SS. The battalions of the Ukrainian National Guard are openly nazist. At Kiev they have erected a monuments to nazi criminals like Stepan Bandera.
Vita: In the western media they refer to the rebels of the Donbass as regular army supported by Russia. True?
VS: I haven’t walked through every corner of the Donbass. What I saw was an army equipped with light to medium weapons. I didn’t see an army set up like the Russian army. There certainly are Russians among them, but they are volunteers. Guerillas. A guerrilla army. They are composed, from a tactical standpoint, on Guevarism. So said the general I was able to talk to — the idea is that of a guerrilla war of liberation and of reconstruction of an ethical society.
The thing I don’t understand is that here we are in 2015: Why don’t we have satellite photos or news of prisoners from the Russian Army that are supposed to have invaded Donbass? It seems that these soldiers of Putin have the gift of invisibility.
Vita: In these hours we have negotiations between the US, the EU, and Russia. There are those who say it’s an attempt to manage the conflict at least, if peace itself is not attainable. What do you think?
VS: From my personal experience as a war correspondent, the idea of regulating the intensity of a conflict is folly. When you unchain the breakout of the violence it’s not able to be regulated or circumscribed. A war on this scale in the heart of Europe could be the fore-runner of a world conflict.
Europe is getting pushed onto pro-American positions, but I hope diplomacy can get to a positive opening. The alternative would be an immense tragedy. On the positive side there is this: Europe, though Mogherini has categorically squelched the idea of arming Kiev. And Tsipras is dealing with Putin and has said no to new sanctions. So the Americanist front is cracking. I hope they take it hard.
To read Vauro’s own account of his tour of Donbass, click here, and here