Ukraine on foot: Two friends find what unites and di­vides

Kyiv Post - - Lifestyle - BY HANNA ARHIROVA

Two friends from the city of Lviv in west­ern Ukraine can boast of hav­ing first-hand knowl­edge of the whole coun­try.

First-foot, ac­tu­ally, be­cause the two walked across a large part of Ukraine, from west to east.

It took Olek­sandr Brama, a 29-yearold theatre di­rec­tor, and a 30-yearold ac­tor An­driy Buchko over six months to travel from Ukraine’s west­ern edge, the town of Chop, to the war front in eastern Don­bas – mostly on foot.

The friends de­cided to take videos dur­ing their 1,500-kilo­me­ter trip and to make them into a doc­u­men­tary called “En­ter UA” to show­case Ukraine. For them, the jour­ney was in fact a piece of re­search into their home­land.

“The gist of this ex­per­i­ment was to see how Ukraine was chang­ing with ev­ery city and vil­lage. We were look­ing for some­thing com­mon to all Ukraini­ans, which would be deeper than eth­i­cal, re­li­gious or so­cial dif­fer­ences,” Brama told the Kyiv Post.

They came to a con­clu­sion that “every­one is like a unique planet,” and peo­ple have to learn how to re­spect this di­ver­sity, and each other.

Long jour­ney

Buchko and Brama saved up Hr 225,717 ($8,615) for their trip: they in­vested Hr 150,000 that they had earned from a the­ater per­for­mance in Lviv, and raised Hr 75,717 through the Big Idea crowd­fund­ing plat­form. Us­ing the money, they bought a cam­era, a drone and other equip­ment they needed for the jour­ney, and gave them­selves a monthly bud­get of Hr 3,000 (about $115) to spend on food and other daily costs. They didn’t plan to spend any­thing on ac­com­mo­da­tion, as they ex­pected ei­ther to stay in a tent, or at the homes of any­one will­ing to put them up for a night.

The two set out in early June from Chop, which is lo­cated on the bor­der of Hun­gary, Ukraine and Slo­vakia. They say the first part of the jour­ney, across the west­ern Ukraine, was the least stress­ful, as the lo­cal way of life was fa­mil­iar to that they were used to.

Volyn, Chornobyl and eastern Ukraine were quite dif­fer­ent, how­ever. They reached Volyn Oblast in the north-west of Ukraine by Oc­to­ber. Ini­tially they had planned to fin­ish the trip by then, but the jour­ney was tak­ing longer than ex­pected be­cause film­ing and charg­ing their equip­ment had slowed them down sig­nif­i­cantly.

“Black metal and noire,” is how Buchko and Brama de­scribed this re­gion, lo­cated near the bor­der with Be­larus.

First of all, they found the area to be “quite iso­lated” be­cause of poor in­fra­struc­ture. The roads in the re­gion are gen­er­ally bad, they said, but some have been com- pletely de­stroyed by il­le­gal am­ber min­ing, which was an­other thing that shocked them.

The re­gion is very rich in am­ber, but there is no leg­is­la­tion to reg­u­late its ex­trac­tion. The un­con­trolled il­le­gal min­ing of the sub­stance is lead­ing to an eco­log­i­cal catas­tro­phe in the re­gion, be­cause the min­ers cut down trees and make wa­tery pits in the ground to har­vest the am­ber.

Af­ter Volyn, they went to the Chornobyl Ex­clu­sion Zone in Kyiv Oblast, around the Chornobyl nu­clear plant, where a re­ac­tor ex­ploded in 1986, poi­son­ing the area with ra­dioac­tive fall­out. They spent a week there, liv­ing in aban­doned houses, where they found a lot of let­ters. The let­ters helped them “see what was in­vis­i­ble,” Brama said.

"Trav­el­ing through the dead vil­lages, we imag­ined what life was like there all those years ago," he said.

Vis­it­ing Don­bas

Their next des­ti­na­tion was eastern Ukraine. There, the two, who had never been to the Don­bas be­fore, wanted to see what life was like in the cities lo­cated close to the front­line of Rus­sia’s war on Ukraine. It was win­ter al­ready, so they gave up the idea of go­ing on foot. It was too cold to live in a tent, and the couch surfing ap­proach was not work­ing for them in the eastern cities. Buchko and Brama switched to trav­el­ing by bus, and stayed ei­ther with peo­ple who had heard about their project through Face­book, or with sol­diers.

They vis­ited the port city of Mar­i­upol, Kostyan­tynivka, Bakhmut, and Avdiyivka, lo­cated in Donetsk Oblast, and were amazed how dif­fer- ent life was there com­pared to what they were used to in Lviv.

“The at­mos­phere we found there was very sim­i­lar to that of the ex­clu­sion zone in Chornobyl,” Buchko told the Kyiv Post. “The at­mos­phere there is post-apoc­a­lyp­tic. It’s like a zone with its own rules — dead vil­lages, the fields cov­ered with wild grass. The houses are quite de­stroyed, and the empty lands are trans­form­ing into an area for loot­ers. It is an anal­ogy that ap­pears at the emo­tional level, as a mix of dif­fer­ent feel­ings, such as fear and dis­com­fort.”

Af­ter spend­ing a month in the eastern cities, Buchko and Brama re­turned to Lviv in Fe­bru­ary.

“Now I just re­mem­ber the pos­i­tive moments about this ad­ven­ture, all the hard things that we had to over­come have dis­solved in my mem­ory,” Buchko said, adding that for a while they were “too over­whelmed with ev­ery­thing we had ex­pe­ri­enced,” and couldn’t share sto­ries of the trip even with their fam­ily and friends.

But Buchko and Brama are now ready to share their ex­pe­ri­ence, so they are work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary per­for­mance that would com­bine screen­ings of their videos, and a theatrical play. The bud­get for the per­for­mance is Hr 700,000, and they are still Hr 200,000 short and look­ing for fund­ing. How­ever, they plan to present “En­ter UA” by the end of the year in Lviv, and say they are in­spired by the peo­ple they met on their trip.

“In­di­vid­u­al­ity and di­ver­sity are ex­actly the things we tried to doc­u­ment. Still, there is one fun­da­men­tal thing which unites us – ev­ery one of us wants to be happy,” Brama said.

Olek­sandr Brama (L) and An­driy Buchko pose for a pho­to­graph near the road sign at the bor­der of Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in west­ern Ukraine in July. (Cour­tesy)

Olek­sandr Brama holds a cat on his shoul­der in Rzhyshchiv, a city in Kyiv Oblast, in De­cem­ber. (Cour­tesy)

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