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«Mother, you are steel»

A story of Stalina Chubenko, mother of the youngest patriot killed during the undeclared war in Donbas. (The first part of her name “Stalina” is “stal” meaning “steel” in Ukrainian).

A story of Stalina Chubenko, mother of the youngest patriot killed during the undeclared war in Donbas. (The first part of her name “Stalina” is “stal” meaning “steel” in Ukrainian.)

On 8 November 2014 Stalina and Victor Chubenko from Kramatorsk buried their youngest son Stepan. He was a 16-year-old goalkeeper of the local football team “Avant-garde” cruelly killed by militants of “Kerch” battalion of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in July, but his body was found only in autumn.

Stalina was looking for her son, went to the occupied territories and was present at exhumation. She, mother-steel, made the impossible: managed to organise the search beyond two sides of the frontline and in spite of all difficulties managed to determine names of those who had tortured and killed her son.

Mahadan, the Russian Federative Soviet Republic, 1974

A wide square near the central department store was filled with people. They resembled a shoal of small fish – all looked grey and similar, and seemed to move in the same direction. Near the department store (it is Gorkyi Street now) a round-faced fair-haired five-year-old girl was talking to her father who was going to fulfill her dream.

– Father, have you seen that doll? Let us buy it!

– Do you promise to behave well?

– Yes, I promise, always!

Viacheslav Mykhailovych, a flight mechanic of civil aviation, could never refuse his daughter’s wishes. And he did not refuse that time either, so in 15 minutes his beloved daughter was holding a pretty doll with plastic orange hair. The father and the daughter were happy. They had no idea that in 40 years they will face a tragedy and a war would try to separate them.

Kramatorsk, Ukraine 2018

“We always tried to help not only each other in our family, but also all those in need. My mother was a bookkeeper and often took my dolls to work, so that children of a cleaner could play with them, because that cleaner could not afford to buy toys”, Stalina Chubenko says.

She is that fair-haired girl and in her 49 she still resembles a pretty doll. She says that her mother never gave the other children to play with that doll with orange hair and also a soft hare, which her father had brought her from a trip. “These were my own treasures. By the way, the hare lived in my parents’ house till 1990-ies”, she smiles.

Her name, which always interests people was given to Stalina by her father. He lived in Russia and died a few months ago. Now she  remembers his words with sadness: “If somebody writes on a fence: “Katya is a fool”, it won’t be clear which Katya is meant. If somebody writes: ”Stalina is a fool”, all will know who is meant”. And after a while he always added: “Live and behave in a way, so that nobody could write rubbish about you on the fence”.

The woman says that many people associate her name “Stalina” with Stalin, because they both were born in December. But she personally likes the association with the word ”steel” better (“stal” means “steel” in Ukrainian). Her family members tell her: “Mother, you are steel”.

“In 2014 at the very beginning of the war in Donbas I often visited Debaltsevo of Donetsk region. And perhaps, barracks with toilets outside made the most negative impression on me. It seemed people could not be happy in such a wilderness. I thought there were no such depressing residential areas anywhere else in Ukraine. I was totally wrong.”

We are talking with Stalina and her husband Victor Chubenko in a similar ex-barrack, a two-storey house with several flats. Victor was born and grew up here, he brought his wife here, his two sons were born here and they were really happy as a family here.

“Vitya and I got to know each other in 1992”, Stalina says. He had a motorbike accident, fell down and was taken to the hospital. By that time I had already left Mahadan, lived in Rostov region with my parents and worked as a school teacher. That summer I came to Sloviansk to see my friend. She suggested to join her and visit a young man she knew in a hospital. Since that moment Vitya and I have been almost always together”.

The woman makes strong coffee in clay pots and puts plates with filled pancakes on a small table. She makes it in a very cosy way, so there is a feeling I am at home. I cannot express how pleasant, kind and sincere these people are. I am watching them, eating pancakes and everything seems fine until the moment I realise that they can never be as happy Stalina and Victor as they were in 1992.

Village of Gorbachevo-Mykhailivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 2014

Block posts in Donetsk and around the city have been made. People in military uniform are checking cars there. They are mostly local people, however there are also “arrived guests” wearing no distinguishing marks and being particularly polite. Nobody knows for sure how it will end, nobody is no longer surprised with roaring turbines of fighter aircrafts in the sky and caterpillar military machinery in the fields. The weather is very hot and sticky. The air is heavy and choky. If you walk during a day time, the blood seems to start boiling. It is better at night time, though you can still hardly breathe.

There are several cars waiting near one of the new block posts of Donetsk in the village of Gorbachevo-Mykhailivka. People in uniform check trunks and passports; their appearance frighten the embarrassed passengers of small transit buses.

“Who’s the chief here?”, a middle aged woman asks a man in uniform firmly.

She has a light linen clothes on. Her fair curly hair brushed back, eyes widely opened. “Who is the chief here? They have sent me from Donetsk. I am Stepan Chubenko’s mother. I know that he has been arrested here a few days ago. Styopa is only 16, he is still a child. Release him immediately! Where is my son, tell me?!”, she demands.

The man stares at her holding his gun and says: “The chief is coming. Stay here”.

Our Stiopa

Stepan Chubenko wanted to live to the fullest extent. He was 16 and it seemed he could find time for everything: football,  theatrical studio, Greco-Roman wrestling, Club of Fun and Smart, study, friends, video editing, help to local children’s house “Antoshka”. He grew up in Donbas in a Russian-speaking family, but he was born in independent Ukraine and often used to say: “I am Stiopa, I am a Ukrainian”.

Nothing has changed during the last few years in his room in ex-barrack in Kramatorsk: a teenager bed, a desk, books and posters. “Stepan asked us to put one poster on the wall”, his mother says. “We allowed him to do it. Then the second and the third one were put on, and finally almost the whole wall was covered with them.”

When in spring 2014 militants entered Kramatorsk and declared foundation of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Stepan together with his friends-football fans became partisans. They stayed in the town, removed flags of separatists, distributed patriotic leaflets, wrote “Kramatorsk is Ukraine”, secretly came to our soldiers of nearby block posts to bring them some water or food.

“Once Stiopa went for a walk wearing a hoodie with an inscription “Glory to Ukraine!”, Victor Chubenko, the boy’s father, says. I stopped him saying: “What are you doing? Do you want to die?”. He looked at me and replied very emotionally: “Father, what is going on is wrong. It is not fair. Why do people keep silent?!”

After being a partisan in occupation for a few months, Stepan made a very difficult for him decision to leave Kramatorsk for Kyiv. The parents asked their sons to leave long ago, but both of them refused.  However, when local separatists noticed Stiopa, there was no other choice than to leave.

On 5 July 2014 the militants left Kramatorsk. The Ukrainian Armed Forces entered the town almost without any combat, some people even said without any shot. They gossiped that this episode of the undeclared war as well as liberation of the nearby Sloviansk was “an agreement”. But four years ago, Stepan and his parents did not care who had made that agreement, the main thing was that the Russians and those who supported them had left and there was peace.

A few weeks after the liberation of his native city Stiopa decided to return back. He did not inform his parents about it, because he wanted to make a surprise for them. Strangely, there were no direct trains from Kyiv to Kramatorsk that time: trains continued going to already occupied Donetsk and after that it was necessary to travel 100km by bus. So, Stepan travelled through Donetsk and village of Gorbachevo-Mykhailivka and after that he disappeared.

“Where is the aunt’s kitchen garden?”

“They called us on 24 July,” Stalina says. “They said Stiopa had been arrested in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic a few days before that. The person who called us said he was a people’s militiaman. I asked why my son had been arrested and got no reply.”

Stepan’s mother and his aunt went to Donetsk to rescue him. Local men were stopped at block posts and were made to join the separatists’ army. Stalina was afraid that they would do the same with her husband, so the two women decided to go and search for Stepan. The boy’s father came later and it was much easier  to go through the nearby villages with him.

“I felt anger and despair, but I believed that Stiopa was alive. It was not clear at first where and why he had been arrested, so we went to Donetsk. Accidentally we got into the building, where previously the Security Service of Ukraine had been situated, and also accidentally and due to my Russian citizenship, we came to Zakharchenko, the commander of the militants. I was sent from one office to another, from one person to another. Zakharchenko personally ordered to find Stepan. Some time later we learned that after the arrest, he was taken to a place near the village of Gorbachevo-Mykhailivka”, Stalina says.

While the woman made the separatists to search for her son by all possible means on the territory of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Victor urged investigators on in Kramatorsk. Despite the intensity of the military actions, Stalina continued going to the territory not controlled by Ukraine. She did not have a fear to die, she had a fear not to find her son. In a very hot weather she was going from house to house in Gorbachevo-Mykhailivka holding his picture and asking if anybody saw her son.

The militants did not provide any clear information about Stepan. During the first visit to the block post near the village the separatists told his mother that they knew nothing about 16-year-old schoolboy Chubenko. During her third visit several militants under pressure of their leaders confessed that they had arrested Stiopa due to his yellow-blue ribbon on his rucksack and scarf with symbols of “Carpathians” football team. Besides, the teenager-patriot could cry: ”Donetsk is Ukraine!” or be rude with fighters. Unfortunately, nobody knows it for sure because the witnesses of Stepan’s detention have not disclosed any details.

“I was told that after the arrest my son was sent to dig trenches. According to the militants’ words they were going to release him, but during the shelling Stiopa used the situation, disappeared in an unknown direction and nobody saw him again”, Stalina says.

It was known both in Kyiv and Donetsk that Stepan’s mother and father were searching for him on both sides of the front line. Approximately in one and a half month of search one of the militants, a witness of the tragedy, decided to confess: “The boy did not escape. He was killed. I cannot tell you where his body is,  nobody knows it.”

“At the same time”, –  Victor Chubenko says, – “ there were people who wanted to make a profit out of our grief. You cannot imagine how many times per night or per day swindlers called us saying: “We have your son, but his freedom costs money. Come if you want to see him alive.”  On the one side, such calls gave us hope. On the other side, they continued killing us internally. When they let us talk with supposedly our son, we asked where his aunt’s kitchen garden was, or what nickname one of his teachers had. Only Stepan could know the right answers, so the swindlers panicked and stopped calling”.

Five shots

They searched for Stiopa Chubenko approximately 100 days. At first they searched for him as alive, then as dead. After the militants of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic said the boy had been killed soon after his detention, Stepan’s parents literally digged all the ground near that evil block post. The boy’s body was found by the militants, when in autumn one of them agreed to show where the  burial had been made.

Somebody called Stalina from Donetsk at the beginning of October and informed that they would do exhumation and would inform her when to come to take the body. “Mother-steel” answered that she would personally come to take her son and left for the block post immediately.

“Stiopa was killed very cruelly. He did not deserve it: his hands were tied up behind his back with a scotch tape, his teeth were knocked out, he had multiple injuries and  bullet wounds… They shot 5 times at him. They shot at his head. Before shooting they covered his face with a T-shirt, probably they could not look into his eyes. They also took off his sneakers to wear them, we saw them on a photo with a militant, who was killed later. I had a synchronous interrogation with one of the witnesses. He asked to forgive him for not interfering and saving Stepan. He also said: ”Your boy behaved with dignity. He did not cry and did not beg for mercy”, Stalina Chubenko says.

The witness did not know the names of the killers, only their nicknames: Kerch, Zhora and Buba. They were militants of “Kerch” battalion of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. The parents of the goalkeeper of the junior football team “Avant-garde” managed to determine the real names of those who had killed their son themselves by monitoring fighters’ mass and social media, speaking with local people.

The Ukrainian investigation and investigation in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic also confirmed that the killers of Stepan Chubenko were Vadym Pogodin (born on 16.01.1971, “Kerch”), Yuriy Moskaliov (born on 03.08.1969, “Zhora”) and Maksym Sukhomlynov (born on 16.05. 1984, “Buba”). They were sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in November 2017 in Ukraine. A few months before that Pogodin was detained by INTERPOL request in Yalta, but then he was released. According to the Ukrainian police, now all three fighters are on the territory of the Russian Federation. The Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine assures that they have provided all  necessary for their extradition documents, but the Russians do not hustle to search for the killers of Stepan Chubenko. If Pogodin, Moskaliov and Sukhomlynov are detained on the territory of Russia not by INTERPOL request, they should still be returned to Ukraine according to the laws of the Russian Federation.

Stiopa was buried on 8 November 2014. His parents still do not know when exactly he was killed: on the headstone made in a form of a football field, the date is 27 July, but probably, he was shot later. His “mother-steel” organised the most honourable farewell for her son she could: it was in Kramatorsk House of Culture with open microphone, hundreds of people and piles of flowers. “I understood”, Stalina Chubenko says, “that I would not organise a graduation or a wedding party for my son, I would not come to the baptism of his children. All I could do was to organise an honourable farewell”.

“Either steel, or aluminium”

In Stepan Chubenko’s room in ex-barrack in Kramatorsk nothing has changed during the last few years: his teenager bed, a desk, books and posters. His “mother-steel” has organised a mini museum here to remember her son, and  his trusty dog Bim sleeps on his bed instead of Stiopa.

Stalina often shows videos with her son on the old computer to journalists and Stepan’s friends who often come with a visit: Stiopa is being taken from the maternity hospital, Stiopa is at school, Stiopa is reciting a poem… I have never seen such a big family video archive, it seems that Victor Chubenko, the head of the family,  always had a camera with him. Stalina says: “Maybe we subconsciously felt that something terrible would happen, and because of that we tried to make videos with Stepan on any occasion”.

Stalia has almost nothing left from the year of 1992, when she first met her husband: her mother died before the war, and her father, Vyacheslav Mykhailovych, died several months ago. Stalina went to his funeral to Russia, though her husband was afraid that after all those events she could be detained at the border. But it was OK. The woman tries not to speak about life in Ukraine with her relatives from Rostov region as it was with her father: before Stiopa’s death they could argue rather emotionally, but now they try not to mention the war.

“I think if you love somebody, love to the end, if you start doing something – finish it. I could not avoid going to the Russian Federation to say goodbye to my father, could not stop looking for my son on the occupied territories. I cannot keep silent now, when his killers are free and Moscow has no plans of arresting them and sending them back to Ukraine. There are no semitones in my life: I am either as solid as steel or as soft as aluminium”.

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