Life in the shadows of the Crimea blockade
Power cuts, rising prices and job losses are a daily reality for Ukrainians living near the Crimea border.
Chaplinka, Ukraine – In a village called Mirne, which means peaceful, blackouts are becoming a normal part of life.
The cluster of houses sits just 4km away from one of the main roadblocks preventing the flow of goods from Ukraine to the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in March 2014.
Three weeks ago, on November 25, unidentified members of the blockades blew up electricity pylons that supplied Crimea with power, blacking out the peninsula but also affecting the surrounding villages.
One power line has since been restored, but electricity in the area is still patchy at best.
“We have no idea who is wrong and who is right,” 84-year-old Anya told Al Jazeera.
“All we know is that since the blockades came, the power has been off more frequently. We don’t have electricity for light or heat. What are we to do?”
Anya is typical of Mirne’s ageing population. She said that she had been trying to stockpile coal and wood in preparation for the winter, as her pension was less than it used to be and heating her home was becoming increasingly expensive. But the lack of electricity means she is eating a big hole into her winter supplies.
“I try to save coal and wood because in the winter it is very expensive to use electricity for heating.
“Now I only use it when it is very cold, when I absolutely must,” she said, adding that she was too scared to have her photograph taken or to give her last name.
On the blockades
On the blockade at Chaplinka, men and women are camped by the side of the road. Chaplinka is one of three major roadblocks on routes from Ukraine to Crimea that have cut off supplies to the peninsula.
Those manning the three blockades come from about 15 disparate political groups, with the Chaplinka blockade being largely made up of members of the Sich Battalion, which sprang up as a volunteer force when the war in east Ukraine began.
Many of the groups are strongly nationalistic – advocating a united Ukraine and the return of the peninsula.
They argue that Russia should be responsible for the peninsula if it wants to keep control of the territory, and that Crimea should be under the same international sanctions as the rest of Russia.
Their hope is that if the financial burden becomes too great, Russia will relinquish control of Crimea.
There are also Crimean Tatars in the roadside camps. After Crimea was annexed, many Tatars left for Ukraine, fearing a repeat of the Russian persecution they experienced during the 1940s.
Amnesty International has reported that, since Russia took over Crimea, free speech has been retricted and the Tatars are beginning to suffer persecution.
Those civilians who do not support the blockaders’ cause are dismissed as being disloyal.
“They are traitors,” said one, who stood with a group of volunteers by the side of the road, watching the cars being stopped by armed men. In his eyes, the people who did not leave Crimea when Russia took over are also traitors.
In the meantime, groups such as the Sich Battalion and the Tatars want to keep the annexed peninsula on the international agenda.
During a recent visit to Kiev, Joe Bidon, the US vice president, called the annexation an “illegal invasion” in comments made to reporters after his meeting with Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko.
“The United States stands firmly with the people of Ukraine in the face of continued, and I emphasise continued, aggression from Russia and Russian-backed separatists,” he said.
“The fact that we are not talking as much every single day about Crimea does not mean in any way we have forgotten.”
Despite criticism of the effect the blockade is having on citizens in Crimea, the blockaders living in the faded green tents along the side of the road insist that they are doing what is necessary.
“People do not support us because we have made life hard for them, and people do not like hardship,” Andriy Garchov, who was participating in the Chaplinka blockade, told Al Jazeera.
“Most people, they just care about getting a pay cheque and that is it ….
“I don’t think it will make a difference to the future of Crimea, but we must do our patriotic duty and stay here,” he said, adding that the Sich Battalion, of which he is a member, had plans to shut the road completely, so nothing can pass.
“We are staying here because there are many traitors about, and we must stand for a united Ukraine. It is too simple to say Putin is bad and must be stopped. We want to say that Ukraine is strong, and that Ukrainians are stronger than Russians.”
None of the villagers in Chaplinka reported any problems caused by those on the blockade, who never venture into the village, but the fallout from their actions is affecting daily life for the villagers.
‘Putin doesn’t care’
Chaplinka is bigger than Mirne. It has a small market in the square, and many of the bridges that criss-cross the park at its centre have been painted in the Ukrainian national colours of blue and yellow.
Olga and her husband run one of the temporary food stalls in the village centre. Their trestle tables are stocked with pasta, sauces and tinned goods that they have transported from their home village of Kairka, which sits between the checkpoint and the start of the annexed territory.
The couple’s car has Crimean plates, and Olga explained that it used to be cheaper and easier to buy items from the peninsula than by travelling to a city in the other direction.
Now life in her village has completely changed because of both the blockade and the earlier annexation by Russia. “Most people in the village used to work in a factory in Crimea,” she said.
“But now to work there they have to pass certificates in Russian history and language. It is ridiculous. Many people now can’t go to work at all.”
Olga said it was nearly impossible to speak to friends and family in Crimea, and this was made worse by the blackout. The blockade, she said, had come too late.
“What can it achieve? If they wanted Crimea returned they should have stopped it when the men first arrived there. That is when a blockade would have done something. Now it is just making matters worse.”
Not everyone is so willing to speak. A man walking his cows by the side of the road leading to the blockade said hurriedly that everything was fine, and nothing had changed with the arrival of the blockades.
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Olga, however, was sceptical about what the road blocks would achieve versus the amount of upheaval they were causing.
“Putin doesn’t care about the people in Crimea. If he wanted to, he would just come in with men and break up the blockade and shoot people. It makes no difference to him.”
“I’ve seen what he [Putin] is capable of,” she added, saying that she had worked in a military hospital in Moscow during Russia’s war with Chechnya.
“These blockades won’t make any difference at all. It is just hurting ordinary people. There’s no electricity and everything is getting more expensive and harder to manage.
“What is the point?”
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