A trip to Kramatorsk brings the realities of war home.
On June 23rd, 2014, Stepan Chubenko, a young 16-year-old goalkeeper with Avanhard Kramatorsk, took a train from his friends in Kyiv to his home region of Donetsk. It had been riddled with an internal rebellion by Russian separatists ever since the overthrow of Russian backed President Viktor Yanukovych in February of that year. It would be the last journey that Stepan would make. A group of the rebels spotted him on his arrival and kidnapped him straight away. Reports indicate that he was tortured in a village on the outskirts of Donetsk village before being executed with a gunshot to the back of his head. Despite frantic pleas from his family and friends, it would be another six months before his body would finally be returned to his home city of Kramatorsk for his burial.
As our train pulled out of Kyiv’s central station for the 550 km journey to this southeast corner of the country, a multitude of thoughts ran through my head. I was nervous that the war had not stopped -occasional skirmishes are taking place weekly. I wondered about how the local residents would bring to us visiting their city and what would be there for us on our arrival. It did feel quite surreal as the train sped further south. I was looking at the faces thinking about the impact that the fighting would have had on them. Then, the train pulled into the town of Sloviansk around 15km north of Kramatorsk. This town had witnessed one of the deadliest battles in 2014; I realized that we were now in the heart of the disputed zone.
Hitting the city
During the week, we had spoken to a couple of Avanhard Kramatorsk supporters via their Instagram fan page. Bogdan and Ivan, two young men from the city, had offered to meet us and show us around the hotspots. They arrived with their friend Artem, and we all entered into Kramatorsk. The city was pleasingly modern in design, with several international outlets dotted around. We walked through the main square, where the guys pointed out the buildings that had been destroyed in 2014. The rebuild was impressive, and the central government offices looked very modern. The glorious sunshine did help set a positive mood. It was at this stage that the discussion turned to their experiences of the war. All three of them had been finishing high school at that time, so they were too young to be called up to the military. However, they had witnessed trouble over those months, and it took some time before their families left for other parts of Ukraine.
As we stopped for a first beer, the conversation turned towards football. The guys shared an admiration for the supporter culture in England even if it has declined over the last few decades. We had a long discussion about pyrotechnics – they were surprised about the increased use back home. It was a great conversation until the bar owner interrupted us with his artwork. I still do not understand why he thought football fans would make great art critics, but he always insisted on us looking at his Instagram page. I was more interested in hearing that there is a good stadium in the city. The owner does not want to share with the owner of the Avanhard football club. Given all the troubles, it did seem quite petty.
Onwards with the tour, we stopped off at the stadium mentioned above in the central neighborhood. It was a sizeable Soviet bowl, with quite modern facilities. It was being used for children’s football on this Saturday morning. Before the game, we had one more stop off. It was a poignant moment as we visited a statue of the war. The city had erected a glass cover around a fallen missle. It was inscribed with the names of the fatalities of the fighting. After the tour, it was time for game day so we jumped on the nearest bus and headed out to the edge of town.
Meeting the Ultras
The ground was located in a beautiful park, with the obligatory beer tents providing tasty beverages for the punters. A good crowd was gathering in the park, and we headed over to meet the Ultra crew. I was surprised as they were all youngsters from school – the guys who had shown us around were the senior members in their crew at the age of 21. We quickly headed off to the season ticket holders entrance but with a stop off outside the away end sector. It was interesting that the two sets of supporters mixed so freely. There was little sign of trouble – but the guys informed me later that they were being careful with their words. There was a right mix of Adidas trainers and stone island clothing as the Ultras prided themselves on their British appearances.
Entering the Stadium
The ground was unique in its set-up. Although being a bowl shape like elsewhere, the primary side of the pitch had a cricket style pavilion for the players to get changed in. The near goal housed the Ultras, and several flags were adorning their sector. We found space for our own flag near the rest of them and started settling in with the spectators. As the game began, it became apparent that there was a very uneasy relationship between the police and the Ultras. Very early on, I was warned for chatting with a police officer who wanted to discuss the UK football scene. I imagine that he did not get much opportunity to practice his English down there. The fans were superb, making a lot of noise for their team, and I was very impressed with the turnout from the local community.
A moment to never forget
Nevertheless, it was at half time when I faced the full impact of the visit. While leaving the ground to grab a halftime beer and snack, Artem called me over to introduce me to Mr. Chubenko, the father of Stepan. It was a sobering reality to meet this man, who had been through untold pain over the last five years. We chatted a bit, and I began to understand the responsibility that the club has undertaken in supporting the family through this traumatic experience. We walked outside the ground, and he showed me the memorial that the club has put up in his son’s honor. His wife Stalina came to meet us then and spoke a little about how they keep maintaining her son’s memory. A book that was created to commemorate him was given to us before leaving.
Before halftime was over though, we had the opportunity to meet some of the Kharkiv fans over beers and hotdogs. It was great to mix so freely with supporters of both clubs. I was very impressed with the numbers of fans that had traveled the few hours south in the Donetsk region for this critical game. To be honest, the conversation flowed so freely that we missed the start of the second half. It is always a pleasure to meet fans from different clubs, and we look forward to catching up with the visitors on our trip to Kharkiv.
Back to Match
The second half blasted past in a whirl of songs and chants with the home supporters. I was honored by the guys. They allowed me to take the lead with the drum in some chants. It was my first time leading songs, and I felt a real adrenalin rush when I had 50 or so people follow my drumming. I have to admit that I got a bit carried away and Bogdan soon confiscated the drumstick off me. While wandering around the stadium, grabbing photos, I noticed preparations being made by fans for the grand finale of our afternoon.
BANG!!! The first firecracker goes off near our feet, and the supporters break out into loud song. Then a second, third, and fourth go off quickly, and smoke begins to fill the sector. We see disapproving looks on the faces of the police officers, but no one truly cares. Then from behind us, a smoke bomb starts letting out smoke by the gallon, creating a beautiful effect behind the goal. At the same time, the Kharkiv fans join in the fun and the stadium soon fills up with smoke in a variety of colours.
As the full-time whistle blew, fans entered the playing area to greet the players from both teams, and congratulations were shared between all. I noticed a smile on Mr. Chubenko’s face, which was nice to see. We made our way to the station for the long journey home with our heads full of many thoughts. It was great to see the club and city back on its feet after having gone through such a traumatic experience. To see the community come together to support their club competing against the rest of Ukraine was exceptional, but you could not escape the difficulties that the region still suffers today.