PRYMORSKE, Ukraine — In the idle heat, a hundred eyes stare out from the tangle of fishing nets, the fish drying like tiny slivers of tinfoil under a stifling sun. Plastic buckets, battered hulls and lengths of knotted rope litter an otherwise empty beach. A few wooden dinghies bob on the sea’s flat, mercury surface; white light glares in the haze.
It’s peak fishing season and today’s catch is nothing special: Another hot day on a frozen frontline.
Nikolai Gnatoshenko and his fellow fishermen are cleaning up from gutting mullet and flounder, soon to clock off. But most of the men won’t be going home.
The fishing cooperative is based in a rusted shack near the eastern Ukraine conflict zone. Displaced by war and banned from returning to their ruined hometown a few miles away, this group of exiles ekes out a living in the dusty, sun-bleached village of Prymorske in the eastern region of Donetsk by the Azov Sea.
Fisherman Nikolai Gnatoshenko (in red shirt) stands outside a shack with his workers on the shore of the Azov sea | Pierre Crom for POLITICO
Azov’s northern shores have been home to fishermen since Neolithic times; the sea later provided the USSR with its most productive fisheries. But men like Gnatoshenk, who make their living from the trade today, say they feel like a dying breed.
They face a shrinking market and access to fishing waters, a generational drain toward cities, and the insecurity of protracted violence on a volatile frontier.
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The dozen-strong cooperative is headed up by Gnatoshenko — a boisterous, almost Falstaffian grandfather in his late 60s. The man’s belly bulges beneath a sweat-stained T-shirt; his face is a scowling mask that disguises an otherwise affable personality with an easy laugh. He is the last in a long line of fishermen after his son left the region to work for an agricultural company.
“Young men don’t want this job,” Gnatoshenko shrugs. “They leave for the city, looking for money and fun. Sadly, fishing was not my son’s vocation. I was disappointed but I’d never force him to do it. I have to respect his decision.”
His forebears would have found today’s instability familiar. Struggle for control of the maritime region has caused violent clashes in the past — Crimean Tatars, Mongol hordes and Cossack horsemen; the imperial powers of Lithuania, Russia, Poland and Turkey; rival navies of the Crimean war; the Nazis and the Red Army all jostled for influence in the region.
Dima Stetsenko, 27, smokes onboard a ship in the port of Mariupol. Dima works at the Azovstal Iron & Steel Works factory during the week and fishes on weekends | Pierre Crom for POLITICO
Gnatoshenko was born in Prymorske a few years after the German retreat. The sleepy village lies near the government-held port of Mariupol, close to the modern-day frontline.
Half of his colleagues come from nearby Shyrokyne, further east. The small resort town used to be a popular getaway for Ukrainians living among the industrial region’s slag heaps and smokestacks.
After war erupted in 2014, the pleasant, seaside spot became a deadly battleground between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists. People fled, their houses mostly damaged beyond repair. Both sides continue to exchange potshots and occasional artillery fire.
Aleksandr Dotsenko, a grandfather-of-two in his late 50s, was among the fishermen who took flight in early 2015 when shells and rockets began raining down.
Walking around Shyrokyne, a sustainable solution seems a remote possibility.
“The war has changed everything,” he says under the shack’s corrugated roof. “We’ve had to start from scratch. When the fighting began, we had to escape quickly and left behind our equipment. Now the army stops us from returning to collect it.”
This is a widespread problem along the 280-mile contact line. U.N. monitors say the Ukrainian army prevents internally displaced people (IDPs) from accessing their properties in Shyrokyne and elsewhere “due to security constraints.” Commanders insist the settlement is unsafe and riddled with explosives — cold comfort for former residents who accuse fighters of looting their destroyed homes.
A man fishes in Mariupol, only 20 kilometers from the front line | Pierre Crom for POLITICO
It wasn’t always like this. During the Soviet period, Gnatoshenko worked at a fishing kolkhoz — a cooperative, one of many along the coast. Following Ukrainian independence in 1991, these little cooperatives were incorporated into a large fishing company, where he worked as an executive.
His glory days began to fade, though, when a group of predatory financiers moved in, firing him along with hundreds of employees. “Now I’m lucky to earn a fifth of what I used to make,” he says.
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On a recent trip to the ravaged frontline town, Shyrokyne appears completely deserted.
A soldier nicknamed Shrek sits behind the wheel of our military SUV, shades on above his boxer’s nose, as the vehicle bumps down a dirt track dissecting a minefield.
A new truce, which would later fall apart, means soldiers have time to build new positions and bolster old ones. The sea laps at the golden sand — a pretty scene, save for blocks of concrete, trails of razor-wire and hidden landmines to stave off enemy incursions.
Smoking cigarettes and sipping instant coffee, a few bored servicemen loiter among sandbags and rubble beneath wrecked apartments. Down one narrow street leading to the water, indiscriminate artillery strikes have blown apart a row of two-story homes. A pack of Little Mermaid playing cards lies among the debris. There is a tense, high-pitched buzz of insects; shards of glass crunch underfoot.
Residents of Melekyne stand with Ukrainian servicemen to commemorate the liberation of Mariupol from the Nazi occupation. During World War II, troops from the former Soviet Union landed on the beach of Melekyne to liberate Mariupol and its outskirts | Pierre Crom for POLITICO
“What you see here is the calling card of the Russian Federation,” says the battalion’s dour commander, Cascade, his nom de guerre. “It’s the same in Transnistria, in Abkhazia, in Chechnya. This is what it looks like after the Russian World pays you a visit.”
With more than 10,000 dead, this war-torn expanse is “a debilitating political and economic drain on Russia,” writes Mark Galeotti, a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, adding that Donbas “will return to [Kiev’s] control in due course.”
But walking around Shyrokyne, a sustainable solution seems a remote possibility. The deadlock has endured since February 2015’s floundering peace deal. For now, Dotsenko and his fellow fishermen will stay put in Prymorske — dislodged, destitute but resilient. Theirs is a community strengthened by the mutual sharing of collective trauma.
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There is greater activity south of their fishing grounds — specifically in the Kerch Strait between the Black and Azov Seas.
In recent months, tugboats have towed out two colossal arches weighing thousands of tons each to form part of a 12-mile-long bridge that Russia is constructing to Crimea after it seized the peninsula in 2014.
Like some giant cable of concrete and steel, this ambitious road-and-rail link has become a prestige project for Russia to bind Crimea to its mainland, ease the territory’s isolation and boost tourism and investment. Putin’s tycoon friend and childhood judo partner, Arkady Rotenberg, was awarded the lucrative state contract to build the bridge, projected to cost more than $3 billion.
The day’s catch hangs to dry | Pierre Crom for POLITICO
More a political gamble and brash symbol of resurgent power than a piece of practical infrastructure, some expect the bridge to be ready enough for Putin to ride across during next year’s election campaign. The vote — slated to take place in March 2018 — coincides with the fourth anniversary of Crimea’s annexation.
While Prymorske’s fishermen worry the bridge’s construction could upset fish stocks by disturbing the flow from the Black Sea, they face a more immediate concern: where to sell their catch.
Divisions in the region mean former friends in separatist-held areas are scorned as enemies.
War has catastrophically shrunk the market. The men used to trade in cities that now lie in rebel-held territory, blockaded by Kiev. “No one there can buy from us,” says 46-year-old Aleksandr Karliv who supports a wife and two children.
“We can’t fish around Shyrokyne anymore and we can’t go near the [Donetsk People’s Republic] as Ukrainian border patrol stop us.”
Relations with fishermen to the east are less than cordial. Divisions in the region mean former friends in separatist-held areas are scorned as enemies. “I’ve told them if they come here I’ll kill them all,” says Gnatoshenko.
He feels his allies lie to the West. In July, the U.S. military began constructing an operations center in Ochakiv, a Ukrainian Black Sea port, positioned less than 100 miles from Crimea (condemned by Russian state media as “dangerous proximity”).
Territory under control of Russia-backed separatists is seen from a Ukrainian position on the front line | Pierre Crom for POLITICO
As Ukraine’s fourth winter at war looms, regional tensions are far from defused.
A hub for U.S.-Ukrainian drills, the facility will command naval, air and special-ops units, according to analysts at Jane’s. A former commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet has voiced concerns the center could be used to keep tabs on Moscow’s forces in Crimea, which has become increasingly militarized since annexation.
Kiev still hopes for a no-strings-attached supply of U.S. weapons, prompting threats from Putin, while further west, NATO recently deployed a multinational force in Romania to check Russia’s growing Black Sea presence.
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Back at Prymorske’s fishing shack, Gnatoshenko’s associates are ready to leave, by bicycle or rusting Lada. In the village, a few men loiter near houses with peeling paint, digging in the mud for sea-worms. During winter months, the sea regularly freezes over in bitter, sub-zero temperatures. But Gnatoshenko has no interest in trying his luck away from this depressed settlement so near the front. Even here, he has a cause for optimism.
“My soul lives in this place — I wouldn’t exchange it for a life for the city,” he says. “Living here, I can stroll on the beach, take my boat out to sea. Bad things can happen anywhere — God decides when we die so I’m not afraid. Here, my soul is free.”
Fishing operations are bigger — and with it, the profits — a few miles west near Mariupol’s sprawling steelworks. But it’s a bleak, industrial scene of canneries and potholed roads, ringed by a brown, blast-furnace haze that catches in the throat — and you can see why someone like Gnatoshenko wouldn’t trade the beach for it.
Pollution here is rampant. The Azov Sea has seen the rich diversity of its marine life threatened by toxic waste, overfishing, dam construction and invasive jellyfish that devour the plankton on which commercial fish feed, damaging ecosystems and destroying fisheries.
“We’ve always been at the center of competing empires. But I’m proud of this. It’s made us stronger” — Vanya, fisherman
Two fishermen, Vanya and Dima, are killing time on the quay in Mariupol, awaiting a delivery of ice before they head out early the next morning. Across the water lies Azovstal, one of the country’s biggest steel mills and a major employer that came under pressure this year from a railway blockade that disrupted coal supplies, reportedly causing steel production to fall by 30 percent.
Dima, 27, works at the plant on weekdays, taking weekend fishing jobs to boost his meager salary. His neck is tattooed with a Chinese symbol — “lone wolf” — inked when he was an army conscript. He lives with his grandmother in a bungalow near the beach.
A war veteran joins Navy cadets for a ceremony in Mariupol | Pierre Crom for POLITICO
Prymorske’s fishermen said marine patrols had hemmed them into increasingly small pockets of the sea, but Dima says the war hardly affects his work.
“We’re not afraid of anything — nobody touches us,” he grins. “When we go to areas we’re not supposed to, the coastguard calls on the radio and tells us to move on. It’s all good — we’ve got it under control.”
His older colleague is less cavalier. Vanya, 30, lives with his wife and 12-year-old son in a cramped flat and struggles to make ends meet with his monthly, $100 pay-check.
Dima, a mine worker, dives into the Azov Sea | Pierre Crom for POLITICO
“This situation’s tough, my income is down,” he says. “People used to have more money to buy fish.” Border patrols regularly stop his boat at sea. “They check our documents and look for guns and contraband. It always happens when you’re exhausted and just want to get home.”
Though he appears older than his years, Vanya finds peace when working, much like the fishermen of Prymorkse.
“I feel free when I’m on my boat,” he says. “I still dream that one day I’ll live in my own house and grow fruit from my own tree.”
“This crisis has been made by people who want more and more, who are never satisfied,” he says, before departing to catch a few hours’ sleep ahead of tomorrow’s fishing job. “We’ve always been at the center of competing empires. But I’m proud of this. It’s made us stronger.”
Jack Losh is a freelance journalist with a focus on conflict-zone reporting and humanitarian issues.