a blog about Carpathian shepherds on the road, and other journeys


Monday 7 March 2016

Migrating blog

This is just to let you know that I'm moving this blog to Wordpress. The reason is that Wordpress is said to be freer and there's less danger of losing your (precious?) work. Its new URL is https://carpathiansheepwalk.wordpress.com/

Monday 30 November 2015

Tinkering while the world churns

In despair at ever finishing my sainted book about Romanian shepherds migrating to the east, I've gone back to some previous drafts (see one of them below), hoping that will kick start another effort. And, no, dear reader (if there is one) I'm not blind or deaf to what's going on in the world right now, but holding on to a belief that other people's lives are inherently more interesting than mine is a way of surviving the torrent of propaganda that once again is trying to force us to throw our toys out of the pram and go bombing again...

One morning in mid-September, while an incandescent moon was still throwing Sibiu’s buildings into dark relief, I walked down to the lower town to catch a bus to Jina. It was just after 6am but could have been the middle of the night. On my way, I crossed a deserted Piaţa Mare, the city’s main square, looking unearthly in the silver light. It was strange to see it like that: an empty oval stage waiting for its daily performances of strolling pedestrians, of fountains which leapt up suddenly out of the pavement to soak unwary children and make them shriek, its buskers, its medieval crafts fairs, rock concerts and exhibitions. Ever since Sibiu had been voted a European City of Culture it had not looked back, and Piaţa Mare was the hub of its re-energised cultural life. Not so now: without the razzamatazz it had no identity at all. Its former shabbiness recalling the nervousness and anger of the past as well as the cruelty of medieval witch hunts and public meetings had had some magic in it. Now all that had been swept up and thrown away, along with the gardens which had been here. They too were an anachronism and had been removed to restore the square’s medieval form. My sentimentality was probably misplaced: Sibiu used to be the fiefdom of Nicu Ceauşescu, the communist dictator’s son, and I wasn’t keen to see a return to that state of affairs, or to the lynch mob. The medieval clink was still there, or at least the metal bars which had been its cage. It looked oddly out of place, but was doing useful service as a public drinking fountain.

As I turned down Strada ??, one or two ghostly people materialised out of the pre-dawn blackness and hurried past on their way to work. After the initial shock of seeing someone else abroad and a shiver of suspicion, none of them gave me a second glance. That made me too feel like a wraith, on my own weightless and speedy mission.

Jina is Romania’s highest village. It perches like a lop-sided starfish on seven rolling hilltops some three thousand feet above sea level (and 18oo feet higher than Sibiu), on the northern edge of the Cindrel Massif.
Fuck said the bus driver, waking me from my reverie.

The massif forms part of the southern Carpathians which rise like rows of camels’ humps between Transylvania and Oltenia, the western half of Wallachia, to the south. Its conical peaks, broad-backed moorlands and deeply folded and forested valleys attracted Romania’s most ambitious pastoralists and to this day, sheep folds and colibe (small wooden farmsteads built for summer use) lie scattered around its accommodating relief. They are the modest remnants of thousands of years of pastoralism, and they are thought to stand on sites where the Iron Age Dacians and their medieval descendants held out in ancient fortified communities. In English, the rolling hills and wide, sometimes terraced meadows of these mountain tops have been given the rather charming geological name of peneplains. This is because they are said to replicate in the high mountains the last stages of fluvial erosion (to you and me, that means rivers and streams wearing the land down to its bedrock) that you get in the low plains. Jina stands on a peneplain, which as I read in a learned geographical journal, is gently sloping and called the Gornoviţa surface. It didn’t look all that gently sloping to me.

At its eastern limit, the Cindrel Massif comes to an abrupt end in its high rolling path, suddenly giving way to make way for the Olt River. The Olt which gives its name to the region of Oltenia, the town of Olteniţa (which perplexingly is not anywhere near it) and the unlamented Oltcit motor car, meanders here from north-east Transylvania in a series of indecisive loops, then as a unravelling silver boa constrictor makes a sudden dash from here to the Danube, pouring through the mountain gateway in a mighty flood.

At their western side the Cindrel touch fingers with the Sureanu Range, where the Dacians made their last stand against the Romans in 105-106 AD. Decebal, the last Dacian leader had a fortress at Sarmizegetusa right in the heart of the Sureanu Mountains. This has become a symbol of Romanian resistance to foreign threats, and a place where with the right amount of imagination you can make the connections between the sheep-rearing Dacians, Romania’s myth of origin, inspired by a legend about a shepherd who gets murdered because he will not abandon his flock and modern shepherding can become delightfully entangled.

To the south, interwoven with the Cindrel, lie the Lotru Mountains, the Outlaws’ range, the Cindrel Massif’s Oltenian twin that forms the other half of the double barrier between Transylvania and Oltenia.

Crowning the Cindrel Mountains on their north-western side, Jina is also the country’s largest comuna. A comuna is the administrative centre of a group of villages, presided over by an elected mayor who represents a political party, as in a French commune.)

Jina’s population is about 4000 but its boundaries encompass a space the size of Bucharest.

(New people enter the story)

But for me Jina had another attraction: as the most important shepherding centre in Romania. On the evidence of hearsay alone, this small town or large village, I wasn’t sure which to call it so as not to offend local pride, was to shepherding what Vienna is to music, Newcastle is to coals, or Los Angeles to Valley Girls.

You could say more or less the same thing about all 18 villages of Mărginimea Sibiului, as well as about the mountains and villages around Valea Sebeşului and Valea Frumoasei to the west. All of these areas have probably thriven on sheep since long before records began. And the likelihood is that they were practising transhumance long before the 14th century, when people started takimg enough notice to write it down. But I didn’t really care because having seen choirs of Jinari pipers in their striking shepherds’ costumes - white cotton suits, black waistcoats, with brown and white woollen plaids tossed over their shoulders, and tall black clopuri (brimless pot hats), I was ready to give Jina pride of place. The pipe music alone, which had haunted me ever since I had first heard the pan pipes of the Maramureş, made me want to know more about this outpost of ancient shepherding traditions. I was impatient to test the theory for myself.

Waiting in the autogara, Sibiu’s main bus station, was a social leveller: it’s a place where down and outs collapse onto benches, where Roma men in broad-brimmed black fedora hats saunter about like Mexican bandits, bossing their women - looking as if they would boss you too given half a chance - and where prospective hired shepherds, the so-called angajaţi who have no sheep of their own and are often on their uppers, hang around for work.

If anything, during the 18 or so years that I have been visiting Romania, the gap between rich and poor has grown, or at least it has become more glaring since the Revolution when just about everyone looked etiolated from years of deprivation. As I sat facing a wretched-looking man who was sleeping off last night’s binge slantwise across two chairs with loud snorts and nose riffs, and a couple of anxious-looking old people wrapped in dingy clothes, I felt as though I could easily become one of the underclass. But either because I was a visitor who could escape or because an income-based class-system is something new in Romania, the expected despondency, inspired by the aggressive British Toryism of the Thatcherite years, didn’t fall. Instead, I exchanged sympathetic glances with the old couple and looked ahead to the day.

It was 6.50 as I lugged my rucksack on board the Transmixt bus. The 20 or so passengers who were already ensconced in the musty old seats regarded me with scepticism or like zombies, their eyes not registering anything at all. Either it was too early for them to take much notice or they were simply exhausted by a life of unremitting toil. We had all seen better days, including the bus. It was a disappointing start to a journey but I was thrilled to be going back to spend several days in a sheep fold at last.

I had been to Jina several times since my first visit in 2007. The first time it had been late in the day on a cold and foggy at the end of October. There had been hardly any other people around. Because of that, my memories of Jina were rather bleak. A Romanian acquaintance had brought me and a British friend of mine up in his car and we had pulled up on a concrete apron, supposedly in the centre of the village, but looking to me like the world’s end. The fog was so low and thick that it was hard to tell that there was anything else here at all. There had only been time to garner a fleeting impression of stark white buildings looming out from the damp, invading gloom before we had to turn round and get back to Sibiu.

Chilled to the bone, my friend and I had taken refuge for five minutes in the wood-floored magazin mixt, a general shop where we saw a few other Jinari browsing over meagrely stocked shelves. The people looked as though they had battened down their hatches for the winter and were not inclined to talk. Or was I hoping that the villagers would fall at our feet, as exotic and precious visitors – or even worse did I in some snobbish corner expect them to touch their forelocks? Whatever I expected it was clear that Jina had a pragmatic community well used to tourists and we were of no interest whatsoever, unless perhaps we wanted to buy land or sheep. I found this discouraging but my friend, who was married to an Orcadian sheep farmer, was in her element. To keep us going on the way down, she bought half a kilo of sickly-sweet biscuits that she found loose in a cardboard box, and a plastic bag full of pale yellow potato croquettes, Romania’s version of crisps. The shop-keeper beamed at her, showing that Jina was human after all.

That had been five years ago. My next trip to Jina had been at the end of August, when I went with Amalia, my anthropologist friend, to the launch of a folk life museum. Armed with names and mobile phone numbers of at least three shepherds and their families, I was determined to use the chance to make contact with one or other of them.

We got to Jina just after mid-day on a Sunday, and it was nothing like I remembered. The weather was exceptionally hot, and the sky was entirely blue; there had been no rain for a month, and the roadsides were so dusty that a white film covered the verges. The village looked resplendent in the sunshine: the light danced on the terraced Habsburg-period farmsteads and their terracotta roofs, picking out the faded stripes and patterned stucco on 18th century facades and on the sharper edges of ostentatious new villas, too, with their burnt orange, puce or lemon yellow hues. The light had a clarity that you only get in exceptionally pure air. It shone with special fervor on Jina’s white walled churches. The older of Jina’s two Orthodox churches was being restored and its row of retouched frescoes showing Biblical stories which ran right around its body, just below the gutters, glowed warmly against the clean, white walls. Amalia turned off the main road, drove a few hundreds down a lane and parked her Citroen on the edge of a precipice. Below us, on the steep sides of a valley and along its bottom about 100 feet down, freshly dug earthworks traced abstract designs on the land – it wasn’t an artistic installation though, but the preparations for a ski run. Right here, in the middle of Jina? I was impressed.

The folk museum was housed in a farmstead of the type that you can find all over Transylvania – and across the eastern European part of the former Habsburg Empire. Built cheek by jowl to its neighbours which were all more or less the same, it was like a mini fortress, hidden from the road behind massive wooden gates. The museum was the brain child of a retired teacher called Ileana and she had been collecting its contents for years, hoarding anything she could find that could be of interest to future generations curious about the history and customs of the village.

Her friends and neighbours had donated a lot of the objects too. The museum occupied several rooms, barns and outhouses, and each of these spaces was crammed with every kind of household and agricultural implement, as well as furniture, clothes, toys and linen. There was no rigid theme to each space, although things from the house were kept in the house and farming tools stayed in the barns, but the displays weren’t random either. Their prolixity was charming.

It was lovely to be invited to the launch, to be part of an eager, heaving, friendly, back-slapping crowd in its Sunday best

and, if possible, to make contact with shepherds who still practised transhumance. Amalia was Romanian and had grown up in the area. Her father had written learned books on Romanian folk beliefs and the history of Romanian shepherding and transhumance had been one of his passions. Amalia had her own ideas about how I could find my way into a fold and together we were collecting shepherds, she as material for research and conference papers, and me because five in the hand are worth thousands in the bush.

I had made the bus trip but had left Sibiu at mid-day. I had visited a couple who owned a thousand or so sheep which they kept at two separate folds higher up in the mountains. Their son Ghiţa still practised long-distance transhumance on foot, in company with a couple of hired shepherds, and I wanted to meet him in case I could go along too.

My introduction to the Danuleţ family had been promising but vague: I found them through a Romanian colleague who had been taking photos of transhumant shepherds across Europe and had himself become good friends with Ghiţa Danulet. My colleague had given me Ghiţa’s number, and as I stumbled over my request in halting Romanian, he asked me to talk to his mother, Paraschiva. Clinging to this hope like a limpet, I had explained to Paraschiva that I too was interested in transhumance and asked if they would mind if I came to stay at their sheep folds with a view to getting to know them and joining the seasonal sheep walk. It was a lot to ask and I was half expecting a brusque refusal.

Mrs Danulet had a voice that would have stopped the Golden Horde in its tracks. In my mind’s ear I could hear it ringing out from an Amazon’s chariot. It was a voice designed for yelling across wide, deep valleys - full of goodwill but standing no nonsense. Paraschiva could have bawled out a delinquent rugger team and kept the British House of Commons in order, and she inspired confidence in me from the first.

She reminded me of a woman I had encountered running a bar in Medicine Hat. It was the only place to keep warm in the middle of the night while waiting for my onward Greyhound connection, and she made sure I was not pestered by the men who were lurching in and out of the place, stone drunk and potentially violent. I had had some misgivings about launching myself into a clutch of male shepherds, and, although I hadn’t even met her, it was reassuring to feel that there was someone like Paraschiva around.

Paraschiva accepted my request without demur and told me they would meet me at the town hall, where the bus ended its panting journey, 600 metres above Sibiu, on top of the world. But on that first afternoon, no-one was waiting for me when I got down, and I took the chance to look around. I was in the same place where my friend had parked his car in 2007 – there was the magazin mixt on the opposite side of the square. But otherwise there was no resemblance. Now it was early September, we were at the end of an unusually dry summer, and the sun was blazing out of a brilliant, cloudless sky. People were everywhere, scurrying about in a purposeful manner, stopping to chat with each other or zooming up and down the street in cars, vans, on motorbikes and cycles, chugging along in tractors or whipping up their carthorses to a spanking pace. Next to the shop was a modern bank, and on my side of the road, there was a large, modern, chalet style building housing not only the town hall, but also the police station and the headquarters of the regional forestry authority. Next to the town hall was a smart-looking pensiune cum restaurant, which was obviously doing a roaring trade. What had happened to Jina seemed to have one particular explanation: the EU had perked things up no end.

When they saw I was hanging around, the bus driver and two or three other people asked me if I was alright, but after ten minutes a young woman dressed in a trendy low cut turquoise blouse and tight jeans crossed the street and came over to me. She was tanned and healthy looking with glossy raven black hair that bounced around her shoulders. She came up to me with a ready smile and introduced herself as Ionela (Daniela) – she had no doubt who I was because among the short, sturdy, dark-haired people of Jina, I stood out like a sore thumb. Feeling less like a stray dog and more like a welcome guest I set off with Ionela, who walked briskly back up the street whence the bus had come. As we rounded the bend at the top, I could see right out onto the Transylvanian Plateau, which was hazy and very, very far below.

Jina lies on seven hills and straight ahead of us, cresting one of them, was the ‘new’ quarter. It was known as Bordeaua, and had been built by the Băieşi who came to the village in the late 18th century. The Baiesi were miners (hence their name) from the Apuseni Mountains to the north and they had turned their hands to crafts and tree-felling. Some ran small cattle farms, but they rarely became shepherds like most of the rest of the population. Baiesi became the village’s artisans and the quarter was still thought of as separate enclave. But today that was for a different reason: Bordeaua housed most of Jina’s Gypsy population.

The village was shaped like a sprawling star-fish, and Bordeaua stood on a leg of its own. As we looked at its bright roofs gleaming in the sunshine, a group of Roma women came out of the lane that linked the quarter to the main through road. Laughing loudly, they gave us a cursory glance with a hint of challenge in it. Ionela said, they don’t work but they receive a lot of help... The old, old problem. When I pushed her to say a bit more, she told me, We get on alright with them, most of the time.

Ionela was telling me some of this as we went along, pointing out interesting places like a helpful guide. Our walk only lasted five minutes but it seemed much longer – there was so much to take in. Then we turned to the right and up hill again onto a wide, dirt track with concrete paving in the middle. On either side were sturdy farmsteads whose facade walls were built flush with each other so that there was no chink between the properties. Each household had a pair of formidable wooden gates, wide and tall enough for a tractor to pass through although they had been designed for horses and carts. This architectural arrangement was due to Maria Theresa’s influence; before the Habsburgs regulated Transylvania’s mountain villages, Jina’s homes had been scattered far and wide over the mountains. The Empress’s officials demolished the scattered farms and forced the inhabitants to cluster together in tight enclaves where they could be more easily controlled.

Ionela’s house was no different to the rest except that its walls were salmon pink. We entered through the large gates and found a cobbled T-shaped yard, enclosed on all sides by the house and its outbuildings. Through a barn which had two sets of doors facing each other, I could see a patch of grass. Ionela led me into the house and proceeded to ply me with food – the Romanian way. She put a large uneven loaf of bread on the table, hacking off several slices iwth a wicked looking knife. She gave me bean soup and sheep’s cheese and tomatoes and peppers and brewed fresh coffee which I drank in a tiny cup, Turkish style. I wasn’t really sure what was happening, whether I should stay here or go back to Sibiu (although the last bus would leave in five minutes) . I hoped it would be OK to stay, and I began asking Ionela all kinds of questions about the farm, how it worked, whether it was going OK, what she did and so on. She answered me with limpid openness, courteous to a fault, and when she smiled which was often, the corners of her mouth turned upwards. Her lower jaw was slightly protruding, whether from a fault of birth or an accident was hard to say, but it only made her seem more likeable and more real. She had the kind of frankness that made it easy to talk to her, and her lack of reserve soon made me relax. Ionela was 16 and had just started a four year ocurse at an agricultural school in Sibiu. She told me she hoped to go into accounting or something similar having no desire to follow her mother into the hardships of shepherding life. They didn’t have internet access, but Ionela showed me photos of the farm and the mountains on her laptop. When she noticed that the one I had was full, she gave me a new exercise book.

What was I to do now, I wondered, having eaten lavishly and feeling that glow that you get from the feeling you are among friends after the worries of being a stray. It’s up to you said Ionela, we can stay here for the night or we can go to the stâna. To the stâna, I decided, thinking ‘at last’ and kicking myself for not bringing a sleeping bag or even a warm coat.

Not sure about this Stâna is the word which Romanians use for the buildings, the milking station and corrals which together comprise a sheep fold. It originally meant just the barns and comes from the Latin stabulum for a stable or stall, which became staul and then stâna.

After showing me the narrow strip of garden with its spreading plum and walnut trees and its modest vegetable patch, Ionela got ready to go. First she went down into a cellar, unlocking the door with reverence. I could see why: the cellar was as wide and long as the house, a serious space that stored the family’s main source of income. Row upon row of wooden barrels stood in the cold, damp air. Each barrel was full to the brim with plastic packets of telemeaua, salted sheep’s cheese. The Danuletses sold their cheese in various ways but mainly to a middle-man who passed it on to shops and markets in Bucharest, Timişoara and Craiova, and other big cities. People could also buy their cheese at the farm gate.

Ionela collected some big plastic cartons and heaved them into a sun-bleached, weather-worn caruţa (horse-drawn cart). She put my gear alongside, covered the load with a blanket and manoeuvred the cart outside, no mean feat because it was heavy and cumbersome. Not for the first time in Romania, I marvelled at the physical strength of the country women. And I wasn’t alone: as a joke, a Bucharest newspaper had recently printed a photograph showing a ţăranca (country woman) single-handedly lifting a log the size of a telegraph pole, alongside another image in which twelve sweating men were struggling to heft a trunk that was two thirds of its size.

Hovering uncertainly, I had offered to help but Ionela waved me aside - and barely puffed. She went to fetch the horse.

In their stable which overlooked the courtyard, a strawberry roan mare was tied up to a long wooden feeding trough. She stood disconsolately, her lower lip dangling, side by side with her large, gangling colt. The stable was low-ceilinged and dark, but when they had modernised the house earlier that year, the Danulets had enlarged the stable window, so that now it was the size of a large flat screen telly, and the horses could look out into the yard. Ionela pointed this out to me, proud that they had made the animals’ lives happier.

The mare was called Stela (Star). She was six years old and could have been handsome. Today, after a long summer’s haulage, though, her spine and hips stood out and you could have played a little, muffled tune on her ribs. On her chest and rump there were one or two harness sores, barely scabbed over from the last time she had worked.

Ionela knew that the mare needed help; when I tactfully asked if she had anything to soothe Stela’s sores, she said they had tried but nothing worked – the problem was with the harness which needed padding, and that was one step too far.

She yanked the bridle over Stela’s submissive head and eased the stiff harness over her back, expertly pulling into line the straps that crossed diagonally over her back. She led Stela out into the lane, where the cart was waiting, facing the wrong way, and backed her into the shafts. Ionela worked quickly and efficiently: she did up the girth, tied the straps and traces that gave the horse extra braking power around her chest and quarters, and checked again to see that everything was in place. Then she got the mare to back and fill, hauling the cart round to face the right direction.

Ionela tied the colt to Stela’s neck collar by his head collar rope, and we set off down the dirt track, turning right and right again out onto the concrete and then the asphalt road. As soon as we moved, Stela became a different animal. Her head came up and she arched her neck impatiently, jiggling her bit at every sign of restraint and pulling at the reins: Ionela had her hands full. After a few minutes clattering down the spiralling hill road towards Sibiu, we turned down a grassy track. Ionela had to check the mare every few seconds, ‘Ho, Stela, ho, ho,’ she called in melodious tones, an Amazon in her chariot.

We sat side by side on a plank which rested on the cart’s sides. It relied on us sitting still enough to keep it in place. This was hard when one side was tilted several feet higher than the other, as became the rule. I tried to reassure myself that the vehicle’s flexibility was its safety net: if everything were rigid and fixed, it would be smashed to smithereens on the ruts and gulleys that were laughably called the road to the fold. It was easier to believe that when looking at it from a safe, analytical distance.

Once I had got used to the see-sawing motion, I enjoyed the drive very much. It was wonderful to be flying along with the warm wind in your face, inhaling fresh mountain air and going deeper and deeper into the folds of the mountains where the intrusive signs, smells and sounds of ‘civilisation’ did not follow. I noticed the odd buzzard overhead, the sky was as blue as the Virgin’s mantle and the willows bent their weeping branches to let us pass. We sploshed through reedbeds and crashed across streams; we bob-sleighed along the sides of narrow gulleys and careened into mud hollows. As the cart tumbled along, yanked out of potholes the size of small caves by the willing Stela, I remarked what a good horse she was. ‘She didn’t know how to do anything when we bought her,’ said her driver, ‘We had to teach her everything... but she is learning’.

Although it was wet in the stream beds and marshes, the soil had not seen rain for two months. It was mostly pure sand. Desiccation lay all around us: in the stone-coloured grass that covered the rounded, sheep-trodden hills, and in the surface of the paths we had to negotiate.

The tracks we were following belonged to a network that led to all the outlying farms in Jina’s landholdings. Like yellow arteries, they connected the scattered and isolated small holders to the heart of the town/village. But in many places the once level roadways had been eviscerated by carts and tractors ploughing through them in torrential spring rain. Nobody had mended the holes or smoothed out the ruts and now with the terrible seceta (drought) they had been cast like cement.

Ionela was a good driver and did not push Stela beyond her limits. Still, the mare was sweating hard by the time we arrived, at the little shack which the Danulet’s used as their summer home, 40 minutes after we had left Jina.

Dusk was falling and we had missed the evening milking but I did not mind. The scene was fascinating enough: the farm consisted of a wooden shack, called a coliba, a couple of timber sheds and a corral. They clustered together on the side of a steep hill looking over a valley several hundred yards below. It had timber walls and a tin roof, pitched high on the lower side. Inside were three rooms, one open to the elements like a vestibule, with an inner sanctum leading off it where the family did their cooking, eating and sleeping, and a separate room for making cheese. The river was narrow and ran in a curvaceous line along the valley floor. Half of the sheep flock were feeding there, with a solitary figure in a clop looking after them and keeping them from straying.

Ionela’s parents, Paraschiva and Vasile, greeted me warmly but with expressions that showed they found it hilarious that I should want to visit them in such a humble setting, let alone share their food and sleeping quarters. Paraschiva had a ready smile which showed she would be equal to most crises, but she could be fierce, too, and I realised that when it came to cheese-making and domestic chores at any rate, she was the boss.

I could see that she would give short shrift to anyone who made a fuss. Not that I was remotely dismayed; I felt as though I were in Pan’s own country, and was quite happy to share whatever they could offer me. Two or three shaggy Carpathian sheepdogs, the older of them with half-moulted fur hanging off it in rags, came up to me, unsure whether to snarl or grovel. A sharp word from Vasile and they accepted me without a grumble. Some turkeys, hens and cockerels scuffed about outside the coliba. They spoke to each other in encouraging, conversational chirps, and occasionally shrieked in outrage at some social misdemeanour. A couple of portly pigs snuffed and poked about in the outer circle, and two dogs hung around asking for attention, ready to skedaddle as soon as their masters’ boots came within kicking distance. I went to look at the dark wood of conifers that grew a few yards higher up the slope. But as soon as I moved the pigs rushed at me menacingly, squealing, as though they were going to demand to see my credentials; one of them had quite an officious look and I had to threaten it back before it would leave me alone. I had heard of domestic pigs devouring human beings and did not want my visit to end so soon. The pigs were probably hoping I would toss them some food scraps but I am still not convinced of their innocent intent.

There was a wolf scare

I met Andrei in the twilight,

Vasile played his pipe

Paraschiva cooked fried eggs and mamaliga for supper. And we had tuica.

Nicu the Mouth brightened the meal. His banter as sharp as a skinner’s knife.

Night fell, and I had no bed clothes.

It seems I was sharing a bed in the kitchen cum bedroom with Ionela while her parents slept next to us, at 90 degrees. It was very cold. I couldn’t move for fear of bumping into Ionela. I woke with a chest cold but missed the 4 am reveille for milking. Oh, dear.

I ate breakfast alone: fried eggs swimming in fat again, and very hard bits of mutton or pork, like bullets, also fried. Fresh sheep’s milk.

Paraschiva was making cheese next door. Cas before telemea; cutting it into cubes a foot square and then pressing it again. Jintita pours out, ready to make... branza de burduf or urda (can’t remember which, even now!).

No-one was watching the cauldron and it got too hot and burnt the milk. Oh, dear.

Vasile mended the cheese room door which had fallen off its hinges.

Paraschiva and Ionela packed the cheese that was ready into the plastic cartons. We all heaved them into the cart.

Vasile caught Stela from the valley floor as the sun started to turn the opposite hillsides pink.

Nicu and Andrei had gone way up out of sight with the sheep. Two plus two makes 1500: there were this lot of sheep but what about the ones higher up? You forgot this lot when you were up there, how are the mighty fallen.

Ionela drove us back to Jina – didn’t Paraschiva come too, and you had to sit in the back? Another startling drive: were the cart rides the most enjoyable part of all this?

In Jina, I helped them unload the cheese and womanhandle it into the cellar.

There was a bus to Sibiu at 3.30. I stood on the corner near the Brutăria (the other one!) and got into a spat with some Romany boys while an old man who was waiting for the bus with me stayed calm but was visibly shaken. It was because the boys thought I was a soft touch foreigner and demanded money, and I told them to shove it. One of them said how are you going to make me. And made a comment that I smelt badly (Puté, a useful word), and finally they slunk off. And the bus ride home and feeling ill and being told I’d got pneumonia and having to stay longer with Amalia and Cornelia, which was very uncomfortable for all of us. This was before Helen and Les had left, because I got cross with Les after that, when we were eating together in Piata Mica.

And then there is another pause while you waited to get well, and then you returned to Jina to stay at the higher fold for four days.

After that there was the three-day episode with the rather terrifying (don’t mess me about or I’ll attack you with my yardstick) Aurica at her small-holding, meeting Bade (Mihai, the hired shepherd-hand from Tecuci north of Galaţi. And he was a Pentecostalist and on my last night in the coliba, when Aurica wasn’t there, we had a conversation that moved me a great deal.

And Aurica churned milk and made cheese twice while I was taking pictures, and recited strigaturi which I recorded digitally on Zoom.

And the clear sunlight making everything sharp.

And we walked back into the village a second time, my ordeal past...

And on the way, that time, we passed a fantastically elegant man in a cart, spreading dung on his section of unfenced land. He sped past me without a word but later I saw him in the village and he was a lot friendlier. How dashing these people can be in their archaic contraptions, as long as horses are involved.

And while waiting for a bus, I walked out of Jina on the other side, explored a wide ridge where birch brush had been cut, perhaps with an EU grant (subventia pentru teren) and followed a path along the ridge into a stand of young birch, and stopped short when I saw something hanging from a bar of an electricity stalp (pylon). Horrified in case it was someone who had committed suicide or worse. Going closer the body turned out to be a dead goat. I couldn’t bring myself to go right up to it, but the smell reached me from 20 yards away. There were goats’ skulls lying on the ground, near the remains of a bonfire. And scattered rubbish as there is all over the place in Jina and most Romanian villages (which should know better). I told Aurica about it later, over a meal, and she shrugged her shoulders and grimaced: it might be someone with a grudge against goats because they can be very destructive.

The village, its star fish sprawls over ridges and into deep valleys, strange mixture of rural and urban. The busy celebration going on in the town hall while I was waiting for a bus that never went (no 3.30 on Saturdays, remember!), and the photographer who waived me out of the way, and the comings and goings of carts and cars, and no lifts because nobody was going down to the city that afternoon. And then, a miracle: a man stopped in a good car and offered me a lift all the way, but did a detour into Bordeaua to leave a message with someone about a building project, or something. He was from Agnita? Anyhow he was great and it was a relief to be able to get home to Turnisor and the Martins’ house.

This isn’t complete without the sheepish interludes with the Dordea brothers and their mother at Crinţ, all thanks to Amalia’s bold approach in Jina after the museum opening. And your return to the Dordeas’ to see if there was news of their going on the road, and how their mother fed you and their younger sister with her huge eyes played on her roller blades. Or with Maria Barb, or Gheorghe Hanzu. Quickly, quickly, sketch them in, if you think they are not a drag on your drift.

And there the story stops for the present,

The next part should be about the road.

Travelling by public transport is a great way of meeting oameni de rând (ordinary people) and Romanians are by and large talkative, curious and friendly. Not so this morning, but after reaching the ‘base camp’ of Sălişte, a market town at the foot of the Părâul Negru Valley, a lot of the passengers got off, leaving the rest of us to breathe more easily and hunker down for the steep climb ahead.

It took an hour and a half to cover the 42 km to Jina. We went slower than normal because the primăria (town hall) in Tilişca, two thirds of the way up the valley, had won an EU grant to connect every household to mains drainage, and the road through the village was like an obstacle course – so narrow in places that the bus threatened to get wedged between opposite walls. The driver was obviously a local and he steered the old coach like a demon, spinning the wheel with one finger and cheerfully crashing the gears which screamed like a stricken animal as we bent around ever tighter corners, and pointing the front out over sheer precipices in a way that would have made me finger my rosary, if I’d had one. The other passengers didn’t turn a hair – they were used to the ride; but they and the driver crossed themselves every time we passed a church, a gesture of gentle respect that I found moving.

And now for a little scientific input. For a discussion of how MSib or Jina shepherds kept going during the communist period, see Geographica Pannonica article: "However it seems that under communism the tradi­tion of wintering sheep in the lowlands became restricted to Jina, Poiana Sibiului and Tilişca as all the other settle­ments restricted their pastoral activities during this peri­od. Much rested on the skills of the shepherds (‘ciobani’) who not only looked after the sheep owned by private farm­ers but also the animals belonging to state farms (just as they had previously served the feudal landowners)..... p 147-8 This is also where the helicopter story is mentioned, with the real background".

Sunday 13 September 2015

Found in Mariupol

There is some good news about my quest for Romanian shepherds who migrated to Ukraine and the Caucasus. After years of trying to make contact with the family of one of them, I finally succeeded. Or rather, my friends in Kyiv succeeded and have passed the information on to me. What follows is a brief outline of the situation. 

In 1912, Ioan Preda and one of his brothers led their flock of Turcana sheep from Tilisca in the southern Carpathian Mountains (then part of Austria-Hungary, now Romania) to eastern Ukraine. They settled in a village near Mariupol and for a few years did very well. Then events caught up with them. By the time Stalin came to power, in 1925 or 1926 (I'm writing this off the cuff), things were already chaotic: the First World War coincided with the 1917 Revolution which was followed by a civil war, and widespread famine.  Stalin orchestrated the liquidation of Ukraine's farmers, and well-to-do shepherds were no exception. Ioan Preda lost all his sheep and was deported to Kazakhstan where he continued to work with sheep. One of his sons, (I think it was Pavel, but must check his name), was conscripted into the Red Army. Ioan's wife and another son fled to Romania. In 1954, shortly after Stalin's death, Ioan and Pavel returned to Mariupol (where they had owned a town house). Pavel married Nina. Ioan went back to Kazakhstan and resumed his shepherding career. I would dearly love to know where he went and what his life was like. In Bloodlands, Tim Snyder paints a grim picture of the Central Asian gulags, but a canny shepherd might possibly have carved out a tolerable existence.

Thanks to my Kyiv friends, I now know that Nina survived and - until at least two weeks ago - was still in Mariupol. My friends wrote to her in Russian (because Russian is the predominant language in eastern Ukraine), using an address I'd obtained from a letter Nina's husband had written to the Tiliscan branch of his family  in 1989. 

Since March 2014, Mariupol has been in the eye of the storm. Crimea's annexation by Russia was followed almost immediately by the rise of 'rebel' groups of Russian nationalists in the nearby Donbass region. Mariupol is a port on the Sea of Azov, as well as being an important coal and steel town*. As such it's a vitally strategic point for any group that wants to dominate eastern Ukraine. I went there with my friends in December last year, but there wasn't time to look for the Preda family. It seems amazing that Nina is still there. 

When my friends rang her she was naturally surprised. But what surprises me is the fear she exhibited at the mention of Stalin's name. Nearly three-quarters of a century after he died, she was still afraid to talk about 'that time'.  My friends and I have sent Nina some small gifts and are hoping to talk to her more. Meanwhile I am so thrilled to have 'found' her - and more importantly, to have given her Romanian cousins the news. It makes this sometimes pointless-seeming research worthwhile. 

*Incidentally, the man behind the 19th century exploitation of the Donbass coal mines was a Welsh entrepreneur, John Hughes. Donetsk was once named after him. 

Wednesday 25 February 2015


As part of my quest for Romanian shepherds who migrated to the east, I found out that one of them had settled in what is now south-west Ukraine.

Lambrovka is a village of some 120 households in the broadly undulating steppe of south-west Ukraine. If that sentence sounds authoritative, it's misleading. I haven't actually been there, and am relying on the few photos and an internet satellite view to give me a picture. Judging by them, Lambrovka looks like thousands of other east European settlements lost in the steppe: it's got rows of single-storey houses, each with its own sheds and a rectangle of land at the back, built around a framework of straight roads. That's only a superficial view because like the region it belongs to, Lambrovka has fascinating stories to tell. And those stories are not only about its past but concern the present, too.

Since the time of Ottoman rule (1484 - 1812), the region in which Lambrovka lies has been known as the Budjak. The name comes from a Turkish word for borderlands. It's appropriate because the Budjak is almost completely cut off from the rest of Ukraine by the Dniestr Estuary and is surrounded on its other sides by Romania, Moldova and about 200 kms of Black Sea coast. 

Covering roughly the same size as Northern Ireland or half the area of Vermont, about half a million people live in the Budjak. About half of them are Ukrainians, while the rest are mainly Bulgarians, Russians, Moldovans, Albanians and Gagauz (Turkish Christians). It was probably always thus: a quick tally of tribes and races that have lived here over the past five thousand years brings together a sparkling array of names: Phoenicians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Thracians, Greeks, Celts, Romans, Bulgars, Magyars, Cumans, Pechenegs, Bulgars, Tatars, Genoese, Jews, Germans, Roma, Ukrainians, Russians, Albanians and Romanians. There are surely others. 

If you're touring the Budjak, there's plenty to see without getting lost in its farmlands. You could start with the whacking great Genoese/Romanian citadel at Bilgorod-Dnistrovskii (aka Cetatea Alba and Akkerman) on the Dniestr Estuary, and head west to the pretty town of Izmail for the remains of a magnificent Turkish bastion. In Izmail you are on the northern edge of the Danube Delta, one of the world's great nature reserves, and even if you weren't tempted to cross the border into Romania, you could spend a happy day or two in the riverine towns of Kilia and Vilkove. 

Lambrovka can't compete with these beauty spots, but I was interested in it for another reason. It was one of the places which offered work to shepherds who migrated east from Romania's Carpathian Mountains. Many of the graziers concerned came from a group of villages in southern Transylvania called Marginimea Sibiului. Dating from around 1870, this pastoral diaspora spread right across southern Ukraine into the northern Caucasus and beyond. One of the families I was tracing had landed in Lambrovka. Their name was Ciorogariu and they came from the Marginimea village of Tilisca. 

They arrived in the Budjak during a period of massive upheaval.  At the time, this corner of Europe belonged to the Romanian region of Bessarabia which more or less corresponded to the present-day Republic of Moldova. Bessarabia was about to be swallowed by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, but when the young Ion Ciorogariu settled there with his parents in the early 1930s, his capital city was Bucharest not Kiev.*

During our conversation at his Tilisca farmhouse in October 2007, the 77 year old Ion told me he had spent eight or nine years in 'Lambroca, somewhere west of Odessa, not far from Borodino'. Lambroca was one of several variants on Lambrovka's name (see ** below for some others). It had been a happy time: he said he went to the Yiddish School (which is odd since my research shows there was also a Romanian school in Lambrovka), and that he had many Jewish friends (he called them jidani). Ion claimed he spoke Yiddish better than Russian. He could not remember any words, but his face lit up at the memories, and he showed us a photo of his eight year old self wearing a double-fronted, Russian style coat and an astrakhan collar and hat. 

Lambrovka was founded in 1927 as an agricultural experiment, inspired by a philanthropic German-Jewish baron called Maurice de Hirsch. In 1891, de Hirsch founded the Jewish Colonisation Association (JCA or ICA) to help Jewish people who were being persecuted in Russia and Romania. He wanted to give them the means to emigrate - to Argentina at first - but the impracticalities associated with the wholesale resettlement of millions of people persuaded him to pour funds into projects where they already lived. Maurice de Hirsch died in 1896 but the JCA resettlement scheme continued, not only in Russia and Bessarabia but also in Canada and Palestine. A Palestinian branch of the Jewish Colonisation Association (PICA) was created in 1924 by the banking millionaire and leading Zionist, Baron Edmond de Rothschild. PICA acquired Palestinian land for collective farming schemes similar to the one Ion's father must have known in Lambrovka. Inadvertently, I had run across a cause of the Israeli-Arab conflict. 

Ion mentioned that the village was part of a special project but he did not say that Lambrovka grew famous because of its vines. A correspondent on JewishGen's Bessarabia forum came up with some links. One of them led to a wine-making company called Chateau Grona (motto 'Life is too short to drink bad wine'). Grona is owned by a Jewish family from Odessa who have rehabilitated Lambrovka's neglected vineyards. The family trades under the name of Agroyug. Following that lead I found a news report from December 2014 which says Agroyug is hoping its wines will enter the Dutch market this year, taking advantage of Ukraine's association agreement with the European Union. Returning to the history page on Grona's website, I read this:

'In the 20 years of the twentieth century ICA... created Jewish agricultural commune on the territory of the then Kingdom of Romania. The commune became the prototype of the modern Israeli “moshav”. In 1926 French agronomists visited almost all of Bessarabia looking for the best areas for viticulture. They chose a site near the town of Kaushan, which they named “the ideal plot”. The land (about 60 acres ) have been redeemed , and in 1927 “in an open field” the Lambrovka village was created. The Fund built 52 houses, a winery, and a dairy farm. Around the village, the 52 hectares of vineyards was laid down. Then the Fund moved to Lambrovka 52 Jewish families from nearby villages and towns in Bessarabia. Each family received a property of 1 hectare vineyard, cow and sheep 6. French agronomists and winemakers were managing the project. The winery was provided with the latest equipment at that time. In just a few years Lambrovka became one of most prosperous villages of Bessarabia and its wines were supplied all over Europe including France. In 1937 (sic) the area was annexed by the Soviet Union, but the Jewish community continued to exist until the beginning of World War II. The entire population of Lambrovka was evacuated to Central Asia, and after the war the colonists did not return to the village, moving mostly in the U.S. and Israel.'***
(According to Wikipedia, the Budjak was not annexed in 1937, but was assigned to the USSR in the secret appendix to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, and became part of the Ukrainian SSR the following year. But the political chess game in which Bessarabia/Moldova has played pawn to various larger powers is eye-crossingly complicated - an article in The Economist from January 2015 says that the Budjak changed state hands nine times in 200 years, and it may still not have ended, if you take account of recent moves to make the Budjak independent - so to mention this may be splitting hairs.)

In eastern Europe, farming was not a traditional Jewish vocation because Jews were often not allowed to own land. Apart from Ion's memory, and the links provided by JewishGen and its contributors, my sources were limited and slightly contradictory: one said the Lambrovka project began in 1932, another implied that the village was not established on virgin soil and that somebody had been living there, or at least working the land, already.**   

Ion said his father had moved to Lambrovka from Tilisca, their Carpathian Mountain home, 'several years' ahead of his marriage (to another Tiliscan). In his words it sounded as though his dad had settled there long before Ion was born. But to a young child, a single year can seem like aeons. Ion told me they lived in a 'nice farm house', and that Ciorogariu Sr. raised not the traditional, hardy Turcanas that flourished in the Carpathians, but Karakuls. A black breed, also known as Astrakhans, Karakuls were imported from Asia. They were mainly raised for their skins. The lambs were killed at a few days old, while their coats were still curly, and their soft little fleeces became the collars and hats that were all the rage in those days. It's likely Ion's father's animals belonged to the colony: a list of its assets for the mid-1930s shows Lambrovka owned 500 Karakuls. But there was no mention of a Mr. Ciorogariu or his family.

It all fell apart when war was declared. Looking back, it seems miraculous that Lambrovka's colony existed at all. During the 1930s, hell-bent on creating the 'perfect' Communist society, Stalin deliberately starved most of Ukraine's farmers to death. He then turned his murderous attention to Poles and Jews. But when Nazi Germany entered 'the bloodlands' (as historian Timothy Snyder calls the territory between Berlin and Moscow) persecution came from the west as well. The Ciorogarius decided it would be safer to run. Packing their children into their horse-drawn cart, Ion's father and mother did a midnight flit. They sold their horses at the railway station and caught a train north to Chisinau (now capital of Moldova). Ion's father was thrown in prison for two months, but the family escaped back to Transylvania relatively unscathed.

In 1940, Hungary annexed northern Transylvania. Although Tilisca lies in the south of the region, after King Michael's 1944 coup turned Romania to the Allied side against Nazi Germany, the Russian army invaded most of the country, carrying out brutal raids in Transylvania (because of its German population) before the Moscow Armistice was signed in September 1944. Four years later, Romania's own, vile form of Communism would take hold but maybe the Ciorogarius enjoyed a few years of grace before political darkness fell again.   

Ion made his living as a hatter. He showed me the wooden formas for shaping the shepherds' traditional sapka, a tall astrakhan cap, and let us try some of his old ones on.

When Hitler's army - and the Romanians - invaded Bessarabia in 1941, Lambrovka's Jewish farmers fled to Russia. None of them returned. I appreciated something of the terror created by the Soviet and Nazi regimes when travelling by train across Romania in 2013. During a long, sleepless, freezing night in a couchette without bedclothes or heating, I noticed a frail elderly woman sitting up on the opposite seat, which she had not turned into a bunk. To withstand the cold, she had simply pulled her coat more tightly around her shoulders, and her face wore an expression of great serenity. Whoever she was, she was not bothered. In the morning, my friend and I asked how the woman had managed to survive such a dreadful ordeal. She gave us a ravishing smile and said, 'This wasn't so bad; I've been through a lot worse. When I was two, my parents fled from the Nazis in Bessarabia. They were retreating from their defeat at Stalingrad, and burnt everything in their path. My parents had no choice: they left all our possessions behind except our horse and cart, they put us inside it, and drove us to Bucharest. It took six weeks.  

After the Nazis' retreat, Lambrovka became a Soviet collective farm. In the 1950s, it fell into neglect until its recent revival as a privately-owned vineyard. Vlad Bliumberg, CEO of Chateau Grona group, told me he hopes to bring sheep farming back to the village.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

My work on Romania's migrant shepherds received a huge filip with the 2009 publication of a collection of memoirs, 'Oieri margineni in Crimeea si sudul Rusiei' ('Sheep farmers of Marginimea Sibiului in Crimea and Southern Russia'), which was edited by Toma Lupas, an ex-mayor of one of the Marginimea villages. The book is wonderfully fresh and moving and it is full of information, but it still leaves a lot of stories untold or even more tantalisingly, half-told. Ion Ciorogariu's tale is not included, but even with the ones who are, I'm fascinated to know more about their lives. The Romanian book mentions shepherds who lived alongside Cossacks, shepherds who were bewitched by Caucasian sirens, shepherds who went to Moscow to plead for their fellows, shepherds who were deported, starved, murdered, shepherds who hoarded gold roubles and escaped with their loot stitched into belts and linings... There is one shepherd who took to the road so keenly that he ended up in Japan (though admittedly not as a shepherd), and others who having fled the Soviet terror, made it safely across the Atlantic to the USA. 

* Although the region had a new name, the Moldovan Democratic Republic, and its own government, or Council of Directors General, in Chisinau. 

** Lambrovka's other names. According to the JewishGen website, it was also known as Lambrivka [Ukrainian], Lambrovca [Romanian], Lumbravka, Gofman, Gofmana, Fol'vark Gofmana, and Ungravka. 

*** Lazar Vereta, son of one of the Lambrovka cooperative's founders, told me that the village actually dated from the early 19th century. At the time when the Jewish colony was being established, Lambrovka belonged to a Bessarabian-German landowner. He sold 1000 hectares to the JCA which set about building houses for 53 families, and some additional agricultural buildings. The colony was up and running by 1932. Its inhabitants had to repay 'large loans'. Lazar says that Lambrovka's sheep were managed by 'shepherds from neighbouring villages (or from Romania as in your case).' The shepherds did not practice transhumance.

Monday 5 January 2015

Ukrainian sleep walk: blundering into a people's war

 On my way to Georgia in the summer of 2014, I made a stopover in Kyiv. It was only a few weeks after the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, MH17, and coincided with the dismantling of the protest camp in the capital's famous central square, the Maidan. During that brief overnight stay I became friends with the young couple in whose flat I was staying, thanks to airbnb. Ukraine's situation was so devastating that I couldn't ignore it. In any case Ukraine was a crucial part of my shepherding research. It wasn't the best, or brightest, time to pursue that quest, but when my friends invited me to return to Kyiv in December to help make a film about Ukraine's struggle against Russian invasion, it was too good a chance to miss. But it was also devastating. What follows is from the notes I made at the time. At times, they became virtually incoherent because I couldn't deal with my own fear. 

Night had fallen by the time we flew over Ukraine. A few pinpricks of orange light showed that life still went on, but the vast landscape that spread out under the Boeing was almost entirely black. Actually it was a relief from the relentless illumination you get over Britain. But the reasons for it were unhappy: local authorities were not only saving money by switching off the lights, they were afraid of making themselves into targets. Our flight on this early December weekday was only a quarter full but I had a companion to talk to. She was a woman from Kyiv, on her way home after four days in Malta, where she'd been trying to get over a broken relationship and escape the winter freeze. Behind her personal story, which was touching but ordinary enough in its way, rose another one, and it stood between us like a wall of darkness to match the stygian panorama below. It consisted of all the questions we were avoiding: how long would her country be able to hold out against the Russian-backed rebels in the east? How long would Europe pretend to believe the lie that no Russian soldiers were involved? How many more people would have to die or flee their homes? And what on earth was I, a British visitor, doing here at all? It was hardly a holiday destination. Not totally sure myself, I was vague, telling her I had come to write about people. Whether she swallowed that or not, I do not know. She did try to explain that the word Russia came not from the Tsarist empire which grew out of Moscow, but from the Carpathian Mountains, where the Rus'yn people lived long before Moscow was founded. Kiev - or Kyiv as I have learned to spell it - cradled a culture far more dignified, just and worthy of admiration than anything seen in Moscow, she said; in fact she told me that 'modern' (ie Tsarist) Russia's leaders had been jealous of Kyiv's standing in the world and had wanted to grab it for themselves. I had listened to a lot of people from different countries talk proudly about their ways being the best. But what this woman said hit home. What are European values after all? What kind of civilisation do we want? Ironically it seemed that I had been following a path that led away from traditional notions of civilisation; following shepherds to the east was in a sense rejecting Jakob Bronowski's theories of the ascent of man. To what end, I was not sure; it was tangled up with a loathing for capitalist rapaciousness, for any bullying by the strong of the weak. As we got up to leave the plane, my companion, who had already shared some of her food with me, pulled out a little shoulder bag. It was decorated with a Carpathian village scene. She presented it to me with a smile of great friendliness. 'For not being indifferent', she said.

So I landed in Ukraine, where only weeks after risking their lives to fight corruption at home, the citizens of this beleaguered country have switched to a different campaign, still death defying, still largely alone. This time the threat comes from an external aggressor, whom, despite the complications of the so-called hybrid war, the international community knows full well is Russia. A power game is being played out on Ukrainian sovereign territory, but because the stakes are so high (the threat of a third world war), Western leaders will likely do nothing to intervene. Ukrainians are perfectly aware of the West's reluctance to get involved. Not for the first time in their history, they have squared their shoulders to face the threat alone. For them this is a fight for survival. Our soundings showed that about half of Ukraine's 50 million people is involved in their own defense. These are people who are refusing to be bullied, and considering the threat, and the lack of external help for their cause, their morale is astonishingly high. That's because the consequences of losing are too awful to contemplate. But the winter is harsh this year, and a humanitarian crisis is making matters even more complicated: people are starving in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk while aid meant to help them is being stolen.

I had been to Kyiv once before, on a stopover to Georgia. My hosts on that early August evening were a young couple who were earning a bit of extra money by letting a room through airbnb. Both were professionals – Tanya, the wife, was a marketing expert who had set up her own firm making traditional, hand-crafted dolls. Alex, the husband, was an MBA who had run his own business development consultancy. Tanya had also been a teacher and Alex had finished medical school but did not want to practice professionally because health service salaries were so low. Since the Maidan demonstrations began in November last year, both Tanya and Alex had given up their day jobs to concentrate on supporting Ukrainian fighters on the frontline.

Ukraine's army was in a terrible state. Since gaining independence in 1991, the government ran it down, thinking its borders were safe. Caught unawares when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, the armed forces lacked training and decent equipment. Word was that the soldiers had been employed doing odd jobs for oligarchs. In October, Ukraine went to the polls again. The faces in Parliament have at last changed - several of the deputies are youngsters who have run their own businesses and worked abroad - and there are signs that the new government is prepared to reform. (For more on this, here's an article in the New York Times.) 

In the emergency, men and women who wanted to defend their country preferred to join one of the new militias, Azov, Donbas or Dnipro, which sprang up as a direct response to the Crimean annexation. Since then, the numbers of irregular battalions had exploded: in December, there were about 40 of them. Alex estimated that the regular army employed about 140,000 soldiers, and that there were at least that number in the battalions. But it was hard to come by official figures: no state institution wanted to admit that it was failing in its job. But everybody knew how bad the situation was: Alex and Tanya were among thousands who had been collecting money and aid for fighters on the frontline. 

On that first, flying visit, I knew only a fraction of all this. But the youngsters impressed me so much with their hopes for Ukraine, their quiet, intelligent patriotism, their compassion and dedication, that I wanted to keep in touch.

So in early December, there I was again. Only this time, I went to help Alex make a film about what he called 'the people's war'. Joining us was a French journalist, called Laetitia Gaudin. Laetitia had spent eight days in Kyiv during the EuroMaidan protests; she was there when things turned really nasty at the end of February – after secret police shooters were let loose on the streets, hundreds of previously peaceful demonstrators died or went missing. Inspired by a passion for fairness and an instinct for news, Laetitia had gone to see what was happening. She and I hadn't met before and have very different backgrounds. But we were united by a sense of outrage and alarm at Putin's creeping influence in the west (by Russia’s funding of right-wing parties in the EU), by respect for Ukraine's brave attempts at independence, by sympathy for 'ordinary' Ukrainians who long to disentangle themselves from the external tyranny coming from the Kremlin and the internal tyranny of corrupt oligarchs. We also wanted to see if there was any truth in the tales that neo-Nazism was rife in Ukraine's population at large and in the armed forces in particular.

During the following week we spent two days hurtling around the Donbas in temperatures that were well below zero. In Mariupol, we spoke to soldiers of the Azov Battalion (notorious for its swastika-like, wolfsangel symbol and frequently accused of brutalities). We also visited regular soldiers on the frontline, about 20 kms from Donetsk airport. Altogether we spoke to about 20 fighters. At the Azov Battalion's headquarters near Urzuf, we looked for signs of goose-stepping gauleiters and saw only normal human beings in combat gear rather distractedly going about their unremarkable business: mending an old ambulance, practising hand to hand fighting in a desultory fashion. We heard from youngsters who had interrupted their university studies to help protect their country from attack.
We talked to an older volunteer fighter who was furious about the Russian invasion, and had left his job to join his two sons who were already in the militias. We heard about the camaraderie, the respect the soldiers felt for their commanders, how the militias were now officially recognised as part of Ukraine's security forces, how they got the army's basic pay equivalent to around 150 US dollars a month, no matter how high their rank. We listened to stories of how ordinary people bring food parcels to the battalion’s gates, and how the fighters feel they get on well with the people of Mariupol. Nowhere did we see any hint of extremism. Perhaps the fascists were hiding round a corner laughing at us. Perhaps they had sent stooges to talk to us. It didn't feel like a set up, and the rumours and press reports about the Azov battalion's neo-Nazist tendencies painted a completely different picture to the one we saw.

To get some kind of objectivity, we turned to independent observers. In September Amnesty International published a report about atrocities committed by the Aidar Battalion in Lugansk province: it highlighted abductions, beatings and theft of property from people suspected of collaborating with the pro-Russian faction. Quoting from the report: “Some of the abuses committed by members of the Aidar battalion amount to war crimes, for which both the perpetrators and, possibly, the commanders would bear responsibility under national and international law." But another Amnesty report states that the numbers of executions committed by Ukrainian militias have been deliberately exaggerated. Indeed the Russian media campaign is one of the most insidious parts of this conflict. For a brilliant analysis of how it works, have a look at Tim Snyder's YouTube lecture, From Propaganda to Reality.

In the soldiers' bunker, we were told that villagers invite Ukrainian fighters to have baths in their homes, how they bring them parcels of food. We asked the battalion members if they were fascists. From what they said and how they looked – educated, intelligent, compassionate - it seemed extremely unlikely. They did admit to liking the sense of fellowship they found in the battalion. We had heard of an ultra-right wing Swedish man and some French volunteers who were thirsting for blood, using war as an excuse for violence. In a situation like this, where nobody is checking volunteers' credentials or credos, there will always be bad apples. A 21 year old medical student from Crimea summed up what we learned: ‘We don’t want to invade Russia. We only want to protect our land. We didn’t want to shoot on our Russian brothers, but they started shooting at us.’ Another young soldier said ‘I’m a patriot, not a fascist. The fascists are on the other side’.

We asked them what they wanted from Europe. Most replied that it would be very nice if the EU would help, with training if not better quality weapons. Europe's involvement is not the lynch pin: those we spoke to are determined to defend Ukraine and whoever its main allies turn out to be, they want their country to be a fair-minded as well as a prosperous nation.

After returning to Kyiv, we went to one of the main collection points for donated aid. Alex guessed that at least 80% of the soldiers’ supplies were sourced that way. On a trip to a supermarket we had seen a basket set aside for people to give what they could. Students had abandoned their courses to work full-time at the centre. They were not fanatics, just youngsters who wanted to help change Ukraine from a basket case into a prosperous country in which social justice could thrive. Some of the students had been there for months, ever since the EuroMaidan morphed into the unofficial war in the east. We met Hrystina whose parents and grannie were still in Lugansk, a rebel held area. ‘They’re OK’, she said confidently. But she had not seen them for a long time. Using whiteboards and charts to send it where it was needed most, Hrystina and her colleagues were collecting, organising and distributing boxes of food – we noticed tubs of homemade soup with their own funny labels announcing it had been made specially for Ukraine’s brave servicemen and women – but also mountains of camouflaged clothing, medicines, sleeping bags, bullet proof vests, toiletries – anything and everything that they could find. Alex had told me one of his own shopping trips had included buying parts to mend a broken tank. The shelves were packed with beautifully wrapped boxes containing Christmas presents.

We heard how government supplies constantly went missing on their way to the war, and how the volunteers are much more careful to make sure their aid gets where its meant. We watched a vanload leaving Kyiv with two trusted volunteer drivers.

But there was still this lurking doubt: were Ukraine’s militias hotbeds of racist hatred and uncontrollable violence? Amnesty International's reports suggest that there were isolated cases but they were not typical. Still, it seemed wise to ask about it ourselves. We consulted two human rights' activists, one working in Kyiv who was called Alexandra and the other in the rebel-held regions whose name was Mariana. Alexandra said it was complicated: like us, she thought that there were a few loose cannons but that the majority of fighters were there because they wanted to protect their country from aggressive invasion. She was more worried about the refugees – she thought there were half a million eastern Ukrainians in the central and western areas. ‘It’s ironic’, she said, ‘the pro-Russian rebels in the east say horrible things about the Ukrainians but western Ukrainians, I’m thinking particularly of people in the Carpathian Mountains, have opened their doors to the refugees without missing a beat.’ 

There was another angle we thought of: if Ukraine was such a Nazistic, anti-semitic place, surely its Jewish population would know. Officially there are 80,000 Jews in Ukraine, but that figure is probably far too low because it doesn not take account of people who do not call themselves Jewish. In the Central Choral Synagogue in Kyiv, we met the assistant chief rabbi of Ukraine. He told us the synagogue was helping to house refugees (often known as IDPs, short for ‘internally displaced persons’ – what a clinical term that is!). The rabbi also said he knew several Jewish men who were fighting in the Azov Battalion and that the synagogue sent regular parcels of aid to the front. He said, ‘If Ukraine is a fascist country, then I’m a fascist’.

A week wasn't nearly long enough to carry out full-scale, in-depth research. Of course our soundings were partial. But going to look was a lot better than sitting at home wringing our hands. If our fears that western Europe is wrong to sit back while Putin gets stronger and bolder were confirmed, we were buoyed up by the positive, brave spirits we encountered. Ukrainians are afraid that western Europe is appeasing Putin at its peril. Sanctions may hamper the Russian leader for a while, they say, but it won't stop him pushing even further into Ukraine. He reacts badly to personal slights, and he needs war to mask his inadequacies at home. That may all be very well: Ukraine may be expendable in western eyes but it is a sovereign state which Britain and the USA guaranteed to protect. Ukrainians are not wasting time whining about Europe's faithlessness: they can't afford to. And actually, they have a history of taking matters into their own hands. The tradition goes back to the medieval yeomen farmers who had to be ready to defend their people's land at a moment’s notice.

This conflict has brought Ukrainians together. What sticks in my mind are the soldiers’ courageous declarations: 'I love my country. I love freedom. I must do something to stop this invasion taking place.' We heard that time and again from the soldiers in the Azov Battalion.

They also want peace, but how can it be achieved? 'This is a hybrid war: you don't know who you're fighting, or where, or when', said a soldier we met at the frontline. There is real suffering in the east. The estimated numbers of deaths caused directly by the conflict is likely to be more than 8000, twice the official number. One recently highlighted problem concerned the hijacking of supplies. One of Ukraine’s richest men, Renat Akhmetov, has been sending convoys of food and other kinds of aid. In December, Ukrainian soldiers at checkpoints began blocking their entry. The reason is that the supplies have been found on sale in Donetsk and Lugansk shops instead of going where it should have, to people in isolated villages who have had their pensions stopped, and have run out of food. But the blocked supplies are also affecting urban pensioners: people in both situations are starving. Government officials in Kyiv stopped paying pensions to citizens in the rebel areas because they do not want inadvertently to support their enemies. Winter came early to Ukraine this year, so food and heating are desperately needed. Hanging over this is the spectre of the state-induced famines which blighted Ukraine three times from the 1920s to the 1940s.

During my last few days in Kyiv, Alex gave me another guided tour: this time we went to the tower commemorating Ukraine’s devastating, deliberately induced famines. We went to the Pechersk Lavra and saw the wall plate dedicated to the Ukrainian who founded Moscow. We looked at the display of miniature art – so fine that you had to peer at each object through a strong lens - and the documentation collected by the artist about the famines. We lit candles in the cave churches. I spent an amazed half hour gazing at Scythian and Sarmatian gold ornaments. We said hello to the giant bronze statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius. And we went through the looking glass in the Bulgakov Museum (and once again, a well-known cultural figure, this time one of my favourite writers, turned out to be Ukrainian not Russian). 

Laetitia and I visited Sta Sophia, an 11th century church with a Baroque exterior. The church stands in a beautiful orchard setting. Its trees were decked with rime frost. As we walked to the west entrance, I stopped to listen to a bandura player serenading two friends. The bandura is a large stringed instrument, rather like a cello. The three individuals were elderly and sat tightly together on a bench, muffled against the cold. The plaintive songs haunted my imagination for hours afterwards: they were a reminder that war is ghastly, and that the best option for everyone is love.

But how? Surely in a just world, Russia would hand Crimea back to Ukraine. It would say ‘sorry, guv, let’s talk about our differences, not fight’. Russian forces would retreat over the eastern borders. People stuck in the middle would be given food and their houses repaired. Then again, NATO hawks would not have taunted Putin by going further east than they promised. The US and UK government would have backed up their legally binding guarantee to protect Ukraine’s borders with something stronger than silence. Russia, Ukraine and the EU would learn to live with each other; Ukraine would not be pushed into joining either of them; we would not have a polarised world where ‘west’ is seen as the enemy of ‘east’, and more than half the population lives in destitution. And so on. It has to be possible. When I was in Ukraine, talking to Alex and Tanya and their like, I began to think it might be.

Ukraine matters: it's not a far away country of which we know nothing or a non-place populated by vicious zombies (as some Russian media would have us believe), but a fascinating, well-educated nation that could be a great potential ally and trading partner – which is not an invitation to go and suck it dry. Ukrainians would like help from the EU and the USA, but true to their Scythian roots, they are not craven about it and though understandably frightened, are not likely to run away (where would they go?). They are well aware of the EU’s shortcomings. As the Slovenian writer, Slavoj Žižek says, it's not Ukraine that needs to shape up, but western Europe. Then there are the oligarchs, power wielding, dodgy freewheelers who seem not to care about anything much except themselves. Spot any differences between them and British robber barons? Should we aim to get rid of them all? Because some of them could make a big difference to Ukraine's future if they chose. One question is, can we trust the signs that some of these figures may have changed their attitudes, or are they chameleons who can change their colours according to the environment? These unknown quantities include the current president, Petro Poroshenko (who is on the face of it, quite conciliatory and pro-Western), and another oligarch called Rinat Akhmetov. Often referred to as Ukraine's richest man, Akhmetov made his fortune in his native Donbas from coal and coke mining. According to bornrich (http://www.bornrich.com/rinat-akhmetov.html) he was the chief sponsor of Ukraine's deeply unpopular president, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled the country during the Maidan protests last year, and Akhmetov himself has been accused of violent crimes, although the charges against him were dropped. Akhmetov represents Yanukovych's political party in parliament but he is a big giver, having donated millions of dollars to charities and other philanthropic projects dedicated to relieving the causes of poverty and putting Ukraine onto a securer economic footing. Rinat Akhmatov was most recently in the news because he has
been supplying aid convoys to the eastern regions stricken by the conflict. But stomach-grinding complications arose there too, because Ukrainian soldiers were stopping the convoys at checkpoints, to prevent the supplies from being stolen and sold in rebel held areas.

These are some of the questions hanging over Ukraine, a place that for me is no longer a vaguely conflicted space next to Romania on the map but a country full of soul.

Ukrainians want peace but not at the price of being destroyed either from within or without. 'We have always been the buffer zone. If Europe will not help us, we will do it alone.'

The People's War, a Ukrainian-French-British film, is ready: if you are interested in showing it please contact me.