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


Monday, 5 January 2015

Ukrainian sleep walk: blundering into a people's war

Well, it's happened again. I got side-tracked from the Carpathian sheep walk. In a way, it's no diversion at all, because many Romanian shepherds went to Ukraine with their flocks. From eastern Romania, they trekked in stages across the southern Ukrainian steppes, dropped down into the lush Crimean peninsula, walked east beyond Mariupol and around the Sea of Azov to the Caucasus. Some even got as far as Iran. So Ukraine is part of the story. But if that link still sounds weak in a blog dedicated to transhumance, I don’t care very much, because what's been happening in Ukraine right now is too devastating to ignore. 

Weeks after risking their lives to fight corruption at home, the citizens of this beleaguered country have been defying death again. 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 Kiev 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 Kiev 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 Kiev, 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 Kiev 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 Kiev 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 Kiev, 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 Kiev 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 Kiev, 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 dealing 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, even if we could? And do we trust Renat Akhmetov when he declares his patriotic feelings for Ukraine? Do we condemn Ukrainian soldiers who are stopping his aid convoys at checkpoints on the borders between Ukraine and the separatist regions because they know a lot of the supplies are being stolen and sold in rebel held areas?

These are some of the questions hanging over Ukraine – and over the rest of us, if we want to make a difference.

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-British-French film, is in the final stages of production: I will post an update as soon as I can.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Melancholy lady

Viorica lives in a handsome two-storey house in a quiet lane on the south side of Sălişte. In the centre, the fine old village – which became a town in 2007 - has a veneer of civic self-importance, but there are no such pretentions here. There are many such back streets in Mărgineni villages and each one is different. To my westernised eyes, the streets and the houses and the people who inhabit them look at ease with their identity. Even now, few of these lanes and alleyways on the edge of consciousness are asphalted. It’s amazing, or rather worrying how proprietorial I feel about these places. When a jeep or a motorbike screams up and down the tracks, I feel that they are the intruders. This may have something to do with the intolerance of middle-age. Or it could be that these old-fashioned settlements and their mountainous surroundings are extraordinarily beautiful. Whatever the reason is, my short experience of the ‘slow lane’ in Romanian villages makes me want more.

This particular house is detached and has good proportions. It also has the tall boundary walls which you find almost everywhere in traditional Transylvanian homes. But here it’s said that gospodăriile were built like fortresses because the shepherds of Mărginimea Sibiului wanted their daughters to live in total seclusion while they were away with the flocks. Not even a peephole was allowed. There were certainly none in these walls.

It was around 4pm in early October. The sun was starting its leisurely descent to night. Long shadows slanted off the blond stone, plaster and stucco edifices on either side of the lane, which sloped gently down and away from us, zigzagging as it went. On the upper side, a few hundred yards away lay the village boundaries with hayfield and forest. Darkening to black, the thick trees had so far held on to their leaves in spite of the lateness of the year.

Ilie rang the bell a few times. Eventually we heard footsteps coming slowly to the gate. A woman’s voice called out, ‘Cine? – who is it?’ Fingers struggled with the catch, pulled the door open a crack. A good-looking woman stood before us. She could have been in her 70s. She wore a nondescript floral dress that fell decorously below her knees, and sensible, lace-up shoes. But what struck me most was the grief on her face.

Viorica listened patiently to Ilie’s tactful explanation as to why we were there. As he spoke, she relaxed and drew herself up; her old Mărgineni dignity kicking in. ‘I’ve already told my story’, she said, her voice crisp and pleasantly rasping. She was not rejecting us, only tired. She opened the door wider, and we slipped through the barricades.

We got her name and a page of her recollections from Toma Lupaş.  What we read was short and tragic. I was hoping that by talking to her, I’d be able to appreciate better what her memories of her family’s life in Russia meant to her.

It may be seen that I was raking over old sores. But the more I delved, the more astonishing and moving these Romanians’ Russian tales became. Having struggled against oppression at home (in the sense that until the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, Transylvania was dominated by Hungarian and Saxon landowners, leaving most peasant farmers - who were mainly Romanian - out on a limb, a situation which Miklos Banffy recognised in his great trilogy about the period), the shepherds risked their lives and endured incredibly harsh conditions, first in Dobrogea and then abroad, to improve their families’ chances. Many did grow wealthy and there was a period of about 50 years when things looked rosy. In Bolshevik terms, however, the rich shepherds from Romania were kulaks, enemies of the people. From 1917 until the Second World War, and for totally different reasons, they were vilified and hounded again. Those who returned safely to Romania during this time were soon plunged into the horror of Romanian communism and most of the gold stashed away from their glory days in Russia was taken by the Securitate (Romania’s secret service).  

To western sensibilities – or do I mean British? - shepherds are not supposed to be lords of mammon. The Jewish and Christian King David’s pastoral background was an indication of his meekness and concern for others, not his power. This is one reason why Gigi Becali [a flashy and vulgar Romanian politician and football club owner who claims to come from shepherding stock] looks like an aberration; his behaviour is not only offensive to polite, educated society but his vast riches get right up the noses of the old, landed, conservative ruling class [in which countries?] whose opinions about who should enjoy wealth and power and who shouldn’t go back to the 18th century at least.

In one way Becali has vindicated the rights of working men (never mind his attitude to women), but in another he insults them. People have questioned the legality of how he acquired his huge fortune. Some admire his incredible cheek and for them he is a kind of Robin Hood, but in most terms, he is not ‘decent’. Is it any wonder that Nicolae Petruţiu and Toma Lupaş wrote with such vehemence about the moral probity of the ciobani mărgineni. In Romania to be a shepherd used to mean you were a national icon but in Gigi Becali the shepherd’s image has been horribly distorted. I was starting to understood better why the Mărgineni appeared to be so closely-knit, and why they felt so beleaguered. But the question of Romanian nationalism is not even so cut and dried as that.   

We walked towards the house. Viorica's yard was actually a small orchard with low roofed, open-fronted barns enclosing its further side. There was no sign of any animals. The L-shaped area was generous for a town garden, measuring about 90 x 60 feet at its longest. It looked as though the grass had not been cut for weeks, and there was no sign of the pretty, sweet-smelling flower borders that I’d arrogantly come to expect. Large, bare patches on the walls of the house showed where the plaster had come off. The evening shadows had fallen right across the yard, leaving no trace of warmth. 

‘My nephews have promised to cut the grass’, Viorica told us. It was embarrassing that she felt the need to apologise. ‘They cut wood for me when I can get them to come here; I can’t do it for myself any more – I have to rely on others for everything.’ She heaved a deep sigh at this sign of failing energy and turned away, beckoning us inside. We climbed a few concrete steps to the first floor of her house; underneath was a cellar, following the layout of many traditional Romanian homes. On one side of the first floor was a verandah that was enclosed with windows. Outside the windows there was a long, flat cill wide enough to carry some red geraniums and one or two vigorous house plants in pots. They brightened the gathering gloom and Viorica smiled when I praised them.

Her kitchen had pistachio green walls and felt chill. There was no fire. Viorica had not been expecting us and I imagined she was saving her fuel for a rainy day. I decided to leave everything to Ilie who had sensed the delicacy of the situation and seemed keen to take the lead. While Viorica began her narrative, I pulled out my recorder and switched it on. In my haste I forgot to double click the record button which made me lose a minute of her introduction during which she told us that her family was from Vale, a mile or so away to the east of Sălişte. It means the same in English but you pronounce it the Latin way, as in Ave atque Vale. I was lucky to have Ilie to refer to, and it was another bonus that Mrs Popîrţan spoke so clearly (although even then I didn’t always understand her). Her articulacy showed me once more that the ‘peasants’ of Mărginimea Sibiului’s war-time generation were well-educated and proud of it.  

‘My grandad on my mother’s side was with the sheep in the Crimea...’, said the voice, husky now, though whether from emotion I couldn’t tell. She held herself with dignity and I reminded myself that we were asking her to revisit memories that were probably painful and which she had already written down recently for someone else. ‘...and my bunicu (grandad) on my father’s side was in Bessarabia.’

 ‘My mother’s father came home just before the (1917) Revolution – he and my uncle got together with some other Romanians, two brothers who were also from Vale.’

In her statement, she said that good pasture was plentiful in Crimea, so her grandfather rented his land instead of buying it. Because the climate was also mild, they didn’t have to do transhumanţa any more. 
‘They took it in turns to return to Vale once a year. After the Bolsheviks came to power, the borders closed and grandad couldn’t go back to Crimea. But his oldest son was still there; he was married.’

That was Ioan Stirimin, whose unfocussed gaze stared so intensely from the sepia photo Toma had shown us. We looked at my copy of it, and I noticed how formal it seemed as he faced the camera together with his melancholy, dark-haired, beautiful Russian wife and serious little boy. In the photo, Ioan had a strong nose, a broad forehead, slightly receding hair brushed down flat to his head and a splendid handlebar moustache. He wore a shirt buttoned tight up to his neck and a rumpled suit that looked as though it had seen better days. His wife – we still don’t know her name - wore a coat or tunic with a wide collar; this too was buttoned high. Knowing what we did of their lives, the picture made them seem defensive.

 ‘We didn’t hear anything from him at all until the Second World War started. I think it was in 1942. Mamica (mummy) had a letter from him. It said he was a translator in the Romanian army.’  Toma had a photo from this period too: there was Ioan in a suit next to three Romanians in uniform. His hair is grey and his moustache has gone but the shirt and suit could be the same ones.

‘He said he wanted to be repatriated. So my mother helped to get his papers and he returned. He was with his Russian wife; they had a little girl of four. That was in ’44, before the Armistice. My uncle was very ill; after six months he died, and when the Russians came - Săliste was evacuated in ’44 for about a month - his wife took herself and the child off with Russians. She didn’t speak Romanian and I didn’t know anything about her...’ Viorica explained that Ioan had married twice; she didn’t know what had happened to the beautiful girl with the soulful face or to the little boy from that first marriage.  

The evacuation was news to me but not to Ilie, ‘Da, da, da’, he replies, understanding, fascinated. ‘And your uncle and grandfather, beforehand, did they have many sheep?’

Da, au avut multe oi, foarte multe – many, many sheep.’ Her emphasis reminded me of a conversation I’d had a couple of weeks before in Timişoara with a Romanian professor who was obsessed by the derivations of words. He told me that the ancient Latin word pecus, a flock, used to be an indication of a person’s wealth as in the English pecunious. The 19th and early 20th century flocks of Crimea would have been too.

‘And when did your grandfather first go to the Crimea?’

‘I don’t remember; the girls (my mother and aunts) were young... He was one of seven children; the oldest ones took themselves off to Russia, to the Crimea.’

‘You don’t know the name of the place?’

‘I don’t know; it will be on the stamp on that photo that I gave to Tomiţa (Toma Lupaş)... I don’t know because I was too young, all I remember is that my granddad had problems with his stomach. I’m not sure how he got home but maybe he had to swim across the Nistru (River Dniestr); perhaps he swallowed the freezing water and the cold went to his stomach.’

‘Right, so was he avoiding the borders so as not to get caught?’

‘Yes; and my uncle stayed behind with the sheep; I don’t know if they were taken by the Whites or the Reds; we knew nothing about him, but grandad couldn’t go back’. Her story was full of broken shards. In the statement she gave to Toma, Viorica said that the Bolsheviks or some of his hired hands had stolen the sheep – she used the word jecmanit which my dictionary translated as ‘fleeced’ – and legal documents which proved his ownership of them as well. I had to piece the bits together like a conservator mending a shattered antique vase. [Sometimes the pieces didn’t quite fit.]

‘Grandad brought mummy home because he wanted to die in his own country. He’s buried in Vale.’

Da’, Ilie sympathised grimly. His own family had left Russia much earlier than Viorica’s and had avoided these horrors. He looked down, reflecting on life’s tragedies.

In a statement that Viorica published two years later, she said that Ioan Stirimin had married for the first time in 1925, and his son had died at the age of six or seven. He remarried in 1938, had a daughter with his second wife, and it was this family that Ioan brought home to Romania just before he died.

The story kept taking different turns.

‘The brothers Suciu from Vale; after the Revolution, they went to America’. This was another strand of the Transylvanian shepherds’ exodus: a lot of them went to the United States (some went after escaping from the Soviet Union) and introduced brânza to the people of Montana.

‘After two years, they came home. There were four people from Vale in Crimea. One of the Suciu brothers married a cousin of my mother.’ [Was that Paraschiva Roşca?]. Her precision helped to bring the reality home but tantalisingly I still couldn’t patch the bits together.

Paraschiva had taken advantage of her generosity towards the bookish Dumitru to help Ioan Stirimin get home during the Second World War, that war which Romania waged for personal reasons with the Soviet Union and then changed sides. (?) When Ioan told his family in Vale that he wanted to get out of Crimea, she went to beat on the vice-governor’s door. That’s how in the spring of 1944 the Stirimins from Vale and Sadu were waiting for him on the platform at Sibiu’s railway station. But he was very ill from the terrible conditions he’d suffered, and in the autumn of the same year, aged 54, he died.

‘My father was from Sălişte but granddad was from Vale’. Again that sense of pride in where you come from: many of the older generations of Mărgineni still have it and Viorica was no exception.

Interested for his own sake as well as mine, Ilie got back on the shepherding case, ‘So what did they do in Crimea? Did they concentrate on sheep?’

‘Yes, yes, sheep. Before the Revolution, many Romanians had a very good situation in Crimea, each person had about a thousand head.’ Less than the 20,000 recorded in mid-19th century Mărginimea but still a sizeable flock by anyone’s standards.

‘What kind of sheep were they? Merinos?’ Pronouncing it the Latin way, Ilie guessed well: it was from their life among the Russians that Romanians learnt that the old Spanish breed produced better wool than the sturdier, dread-locked Ţurcana.

‘Who knows...’ Viorica is not a shepherd and anyway it was before her time. But the probing brings results.

‘One of dad’s sisters stayed in Bessarabia. She married a Săliştean out there. We knew nothing about what happened to her for many, many years. Then we had a letter from them; a grandson came here, and we went to Bessarabia to see matushka. We got out at the Gara Basarabeasca and they were waiting for us with a horse-drawn carriage. And even there, there was a Săliştean; he had a restaurant’ she laughs at the irony and Ilie joins in – these Mărgineni get everywhere.

At this point Viorica Popîrţan pulled out yet another strand of the tale.

‘His sister/cousin? Paraschiva and her husband [Dumitru Şandru] were shopkeepers in Sadu (another Mărgineni village). In the same comuna (district) lived a poor family with 12 children. Their father was a furrier. One of the kids, called Dumitru, had an agile mind and he loved reading. Paraschiva and her husband helped him get through school and my father prepared him for university [so what did her father do?].

In 1944 Dumitru was a university lecturer in Bucharest and during the war, he was vice-governor of Transnistria. He used to visit Sadu from time to time. Paraschiva and my mother were good friends and used to see each other a lot. Knowing that her brother was desperate to leave Crimea, mummy begged Paraschiva to ask Dumitru to intercede on his behalf. He arranged everything and a month later, Ioan came home by train. But he was very sick by that time, and he died the following autumn.’ 

Visibly upset by confronting so many sad stories at once, Viorica changed the subject: ‘You are from Sibiu?’ she asked Ilie.



‘Yes, I’ve been retired since I was 50’.

‘What pension do you get? 50%?’

‘I wish’, bridled Ilie, thrown onto the defensive, ‘Poveşti - That’s just lies!’

He stretches a little and looks at me.  It’s time to go.

Na bine – OK’.

(For more information about Romanian shepherds who migrated to Russia, please visit these pages on my website.) 

Friday, 26 September 2014

Maidan, bye bye

The courteous man in the crisp, short sleeved shirt made room for me next to him. Speaking excellent, slightly accented English, he helped me pay the right fare in the crowded bus from the airport to the city centre and asked me where I was from.  

“Ah, you are very British”, he said when I told him, still flustered from flying into Kiev for the first time in my life. “Take it easy, breathe slowly.” After a few moments, he tried again.

“What do you do?” 

“I´m a writer”, I said airily, “I write about sheep”. 

“Oh, that´s very noble”, my companion replied, with the hint of a sneer.  So I asked him in return.  

“I´m Russian, a journalist actually. I´m on my way back to Moscow. I was covering Wimbledon in London and I´ve just been in Spain for the golf.”  

He leafed through the Ukrainian newspaper that someone had left on his seat.  

"The EU economy isn't doing too well these days." 

I took in his tan, his smooth good looks and his simian smile. 

A few days before I´d finished Anna Politkovskaya´s searing account of corruption and brutality in the Russian state. This was a bizarre way to start my Ukrainian stopover.  Anna Politkovskaya had given her life for the truth and here was this hack talking about golf.

Oleksii met me in the street.  He was a tall, straight and slender man in his early 30s.  His face was pale but his eyes were burning.  I had found him on airbnb, and had arranged to stay one night at his flat on my way to Georgia.  He showed me the modest but spotless room in his equally spotless and modest home. Then he suggested an impromptu tour of the old city centre because “it would be a shame to miss it”. 

It was already dusk in the Maidan but the barricades were still there, along with the Christmas tree covered in placards, the rousing slogans painted onto the walls of tall buildings, the khaki tents and the tyres.  The subdued street lighting made the vast interconnected squares seem even larger than they were.  Without traffic to pollute it, the air was fresh.

“It was so quiet here in the spring”, Oleksii told me.  “It was the first time I had ever heard a nightingale sing.”

It was quiet now: a few people were still using the tents, but Oleksii said they were mainly tramps. My eyes fell on noticeboards carrying photos of the missing and the dead. One showed a man holding a cat in his arms; he looked to be no more than 35, and he was laughing straight at the camera.  

It was hot on that 6th of August night.  A couple of guys with bare chests and wearing camouflage trousers had ducked under a café umbrella in front of us near the composite portrait of Bandera, Ukraine’s controversial freedom fighter*.  Many of the young men had gone to fight separatists in the East.  Although he had been to the protests every day, Oleksii had not joined the fighters in Donetsk and Luhansk because he had been recovering from an illness that had left him bed-ridden for four years. 

When he offered to take my photo in front of a pile of tyres, it felt as though I were feeding on carrion. Hundreds of people had died here earlier in the year, and now we were moving through a carapace: the revolution was elsewhere, MH17 had crashed only three weeks beforehand, and whatever that Russian reporter had been doing, I was an intruder too. 

We left the Maidan and walked on.  We passed heroic Soviet statues that punched the air under arches of rainbow neon, and were deafened by karaoke bars.  Oleksii brought us to a halt at a parapet overlooking the Dniepr River.  The sky was quite dark by now and the river looked like an indigo inland sea. 

Walking back to Oleksii’s flat, I saw a pile of scrap metal.  It had a sign beside it, that Oleksii translated. It said “Excuse the inconvenience, we are rebuilding our country”.

We crossed a road where, in February, snipers had mown down protesters.

“I saw people dropping to the ground for no reason”, Oleksii told me.  “We heard shots, but didn´t connect them with killing.  We had no idea what was happening until we saw the tv pictures.” 

“Who was doing the shooting?” I asked.

“The secret police.” He had no doubts.

A few minutes later, we came to an avenue of handsome, floodlit buildings.  Oleksii pointed to one of them, which had a magnificent, curved and pillared façade: “That was the first women’s college in Europe.” 

Oleksii told me he had qualified as a doctor but abandoned the profession to study business because medical salaries were so low.  He was married and his wife was still at work when I’d arrived. 

After booking my room, I had found them both on facebook. They had posted a video tour of Kiev’s famous sights with themselves as the guides.  They appeared in each location wearing smiley masks made of bright yellow plush.  In war you have to find happiness wherever you can.

If I had been confused as to Ukraine’s status within Mother Russia, Oleksii put me straight.  “My country has a very long history”, he explained. “Archaeologists have proved that there were people living here 35,000 years ago, and DNA tests show they have the same genes as modern Ukrainians.”

I had tentatively mentioned Kievan Rus and the Grand Duchy of Moscow, having read that Kiev was considered to be Russia’s birthplace. 

“Kiev was here long before Russia”, Oleksii averred.

We came to more recent topics, the cloudy, push-me, pull-you situation that had developed since Ukraine declared its independence, in 1991.   

“NATO and the EU are our only hope.” He wasn’t starry-eyed about the EU, but saw it as the better of two evils.  “All I want is a decent future.  We have a chance, there are millions of us, not like in Chechnya or Georgia.  But first we have to win the war.”  

Back at the flat, Oleksii showed me the tidy bathroom, and the minute kitchen where he would make my breakfast before I left the next morning. “Will you be up in time?” I wondered, always the anxious traveller.  “Oh, yes, don´t worry: I´m not working during the day right now because Tanya and I have been collecting money to buy medicines for our wounded soldiers in the east.  We´re planning a six-day round trip by road to Prague to buy Celox, and other stuff which we can´t get here.” Celox is a blood coagulant, good for emergency surgery.   

When I gave him a donation, he looked surprised, then grinned for the first time that evening: “It´s our first British contribution.  Don´t be afraid: we´ll use it well.” In a rush of confidence I told him about reading Anna Politkovskaya´s book, which had never been published in Russia or Ukraine.  Oleksii looked confused, then understood. “They killed another campaigning journalist a few weeks ago”.

I must have been one of the last foreigners to see the Maidan in its revolutionary clothes. The next day, the authorities started stripping them away. 

As the Ukrainian International Airlines Boeing lifted from the runway on its way to Tbilisi, the passengers clapped. My neighbour crossed himself.  I wondered what the man I´d met on the bus was doing, or writing about, now. Covering some other, well-funded sporting activity perhaps, while a handful of his fellow journalists, brave to the point of suicide, were picked off for getting in their president´s hair.  

*Black, white or somewhere in between?  Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) was a leader of the Ukrainian independence movement.  He was born in the period when Ukraine was still under Austro-Hungary.  He declared Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union in 1941, eight days after the German army invaded the USSR.  Although the Germans incarcerated him and liquidated several members of his family, Bandera has been vilified for anti-semitism, for causing thousands of Polish deaths, and for collaborating with the Nazis.  He was murdered by the KGB.  According to a 2009 poll, two-thirds of Ukrainians believe Bandera was a force for good, and a third think he was very bad.  

Further reading:

Anna Politkovskaya on wikipedia

Anna Politkovskaya's book, Putin's Russia

Robert Legvold on Putin's Russia, a failing democracy

Update on the Pussy Rioters

Euromaidan press for the latest news from Ukraine


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Tracking Romanian shepherds in Georgia

So far, without much luck: all I've got to go on is a book called 'Oieri margineni in Crimeea si Sudul Rusiei', a collection of memories, documents and photos charting some of the adventures that befell shepherds from Marginimea Sibiului, an enclave in the southern Carpathian Mountains, when they migrated east with their sheep.

One of the maps in the back of this great little publication has a big yellow stain marking the diaspora.  It began in about 1870 and lasted until Stalin put an end to any aspirations of prosperity the Romanians might have had.  Their move to the east was only one example of Carpathian shepherds' long-distance transhumant journeys, but while it lasted, they not only used the winter pastures available on the northern and eastern coasts of the Black Sea, but settled there as well, establishing farms and families in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, southern Russia and Georgia. Some of them went further afield, reaching Astrakhan, Azerbaijan and even Iran. 

I first heard about the phenomenon in 2007, and I've become rather obsessed by it, as though those particular pastoralists were heroes of some kind.  It's a tricky argument to maintain.  Shepherds are usually pragmatists: they'll go where they can find better, cheaper pastures, following economic principles not romantic ones.  There's a difference between sheep owners and hired shepherds, and nowadays the latter often live like dogs.  Yet talking to transhumant shepherds in Romania has revealed something else.  Masters and employees often relish the freedom and fellowship of the road and they have a relationship to their animals that belies mere functionality.

Over the past two and a half weeks, I've been travelling through Georgia following some of the clues in Toma's book.  There aren't that many, in fact the only concrete fact I have lighted on is that Stefan Nanu of Tilisca went to Georgia at some point, either while he was working as a hired shepherd, or afterwards, when he became some sort of fixer, or a businessman.  We know he tried to intercede on the Romanians' behalf with Kalinin, pleading the shepherds' cause so they wouldn't lose their hard-won wealth to the steely Soviet state.  We also know he wrote letters home to Tilisca, and they are still in his family's possession.  But when and for how long he went to Georgia is a mystery.   

Helping me in my quest has been Devi Asmadiredja.  Half Sundanese (Indonesian), half German, Devi deserves a book to herself.  She's been living in Georgia for the last three years, during which time she's learnt to speak Georgian and Chechen and has established herself as an intrepid mountain guide.  Devi loves the shepherding life, and thanks to her, we've been chasing up any leads we can find - names of people and villages mostly - to justify that yellow stain leaking into the space between the two chains of Caucasus Mountains.

Our best hope on this trip was finding out that there are two villages with names exactly or nearly the same as margineni ones.  Both are in Javakheti, south-central Georgia, near the Turkish and Armenian borders.  Hearing the word 'Tilisca' made me jump out of my skin: it was one of Devi's friends who mentioned it casually, as a place near the town of Akhalkhalaki.  Devi and I hot-footed over there by marshrutka (minibus), a journey of 15 minutes costing roughly 50p each way.  Consusingly, the windscreen bore the name 'Dilisca' in Cyrillic letters: I still don't know which is the correct spelling.

Letters apart, I could hardly contain myself, but everything went rather flat when we met a 70 year old farmer from the Georgian Tilisca, or Dilisca.  He was said to know everything about the place but told us he'd never heard of any Romanians there.  On the contrary, it had been an Armenian village since Armenians were expelled from eastern Turkey in 1830.  Before that, it was a Georgian one, with a history leaping back to a misty past that didn't seem to have room for Transylvanians.  A family of Armenian folk singers that runs the Cultural Centre in Akhalkhalaki told us that Tilisca comes from 'tiliscari' which is a Georgian word.  It means 'the door of the morning'.  If only it had opened. 

We didn't make it to Vale, the other place with an identical name in Marginimea Sibiului, but a Georgian historian agreed with my hunch that the direction of influence could just as well have gone in reverse, with Georgian names being taken to Transylvania, not the other way round.

Both countries have a strong Orthodox Christian tradition, and in the late 17th century, Bishop Antimos, a Georgian from the southern region of Samstkhe, was invited by Prince Constantin Brancoveanu to visit Wallachia.

In 1694, Antimos was installed in Snagov Monastery, in the forests near Bucharest.  He founded a printing press and commissioned a lot of other monasteries, before being exiled to Mount Sinai for fomenting trouble.  Antimos supported Wallachia's struggle for independence from Ottoman Turkey and the Greek Phanariots who had a stranglehold on Romanian politics after Brancoveanu and four of his sons were murdered by the Sultan in 1711.

If there is a wider connection between Georgia and the Romanian principalities, Antimos could well be one of the keys.  But there are other links: eastern Romania and the Caucasus were once part of Cumania, a Turkic polity that ruled a large area to the west and east of the Black Sea for several hundred years after the Roman empire ended.  Cumania gets its name from the Caucasian Kubans, whose forebears came from Syria.  There is a fortress called Cumania on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains.  Coman is a well-known Romanian Christian name.  One of the Romanian sheep farming families I know in Marginimea Sibiului traditionally gives the name Coman to one of its boys in each new generation.

Why start with Georgia, when there are firmer accounts of Romanian shepherds settling in the northern Caucasus, Crimea and eastern Ukraine?

Maybe it's just a coincidence of names that made me want to start there:  St. George being the patron saint of England, who may have got his horse-riding attributes from the Sarmatian knights who careered over Caucasian pastures and sent their chivalric traditions to western Europe, Ghita the Romanian shepherd whose spring walk I followed, and whose name is short for Gheorghe, a beloved godfather whose name was George...  It comes from a Greek word for farmer, or someone who works the land.  Georgians are famous for their practicality - they are born farmers.  It had to be Georgia. 

And now it's nearly time to leave, saying goodbye not only to the first stage of what I hope will be many other Georgian journeys, but also to the other travellers I've met here: adventurous young things who have been stopping off in Tbilisi for a few days - or sometimes weeks - while crossing entire continents on cycles, motorbikes, by hitching, on horseback or in a tuktuk (that one was Romanian!).  Fearless of political or psychological propaganda that might persuade others to stay at home and cover their heads, they've made me want to get up and go even more. 

And then there is Devi: her story, and her struggle, are for another time, and would be told better in her own words.  Without her help, I'd have got nowhere, without even the small progress made so far.  I wouldn't have met Kists (Chechens of Pankisi), Ossetians and Svans in their own homes, I wouldn't have shared chips and onions with the shepherds of Patara Khanchali, or met Ani, a German woman who's working with destitute villagers to give them new ways of making a living from their land and their skills.

Without Devi and her imperious subversiveness, I wouldn't have hitched lifts with Turks and Georgians, spent nights in an abandoned workmen's cabin or sleeping on a verandah with the Caucasus Mountains for my curtain.  I would have missed the protesters who want to stop a seven-storey hotel being built in Vake Park.  It's unlikely I'd have found myself under a lime tree in the dusk sipping wine with its maker who showed us the ceramic pots that he'd buried two metres in the ground, copying the ancient fermentation method in which everything is chucked into the mixture and left there over winter: grape flesh, skin, seeds, stalks and all.

Sadly we didn't make it to Tusheti this time, but I'm saving that up for cooler weather, and when my blisters have healed.

I could have done without being marched through the streets of Devi's favourite village in 40 degree heat 'to show to my friends what a tourist looks like', and I got a bit hot under the collar when she kept ordering me, with mock-Germanic severity, to 'SIT DOWN'.  Without her warnings not take photos or notes in sensitive situations, I might have more accurate records of people who've been living on the edge, caught in a no-go area which the outside world regards with suspicion - or doesn't regard at all - and whose daily lives are fraught with difficulties.  She was right: it could have been dangerous for everyone if my journalistic greed had got the better of me.  Learning about other people's lives, and understanding their points of view, is about listening patiently, not just clicking camera buttons.  As I think about buying stamps for last minute postcards and packing my gear for my early morning flight, I know that without Devi, I wouldn't have got nearly so far, and I wouldn't have had so much fun. 

For more information on my search for Romanian shepherds in the Caucasus, visit this page and follow the links.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Protest for a free world

Look for pastoral on google, and you'll find the pages are all about religion.  There is a link between that kind of pastoral care and looking after sheep: it's all over the Bible and figures in the Koran as well, but the way priests talk about tending their human flocks can sound too lofty by half.  Of course I had it in mind when I started this quest for transhumant sheep farmers - you know, simplicity, dedication and goodness.  But the more I think about it, what I was after was examples of decent humanism.  People who really want to look after our world.  Not The Good Shepherd in a frock.  Still I think it's a shame that farming is becoming ever more impersonal and profit-driven, and when you see real shepherds, like the ones in Romania leading their grists on transhumance, it's hard not to make connections with archaic leaders of souls, many of whose names have vanished, leaving us with a few well-known ones, such as Christ and Mohammed.  It's not just their long cloaks that do it, but the patience, dogged or otherwise, to stick with the caring role.

I'm holed up in soggy Pembrokeshire, unable to join my friends in the Carpathian Mountains for the moment, but have taken heart from Romanians like Matei Budes.  He may not keep sheep, but he and his colleague, Bogdan Palici, belong to a voluntary organisation called Vira which is leading a campaign that truly cares for the world.  Vira is based in Barlad, eastern Romania, near where Chevron wants to frack.  Since February 2012, Vira has been informing the public about the true implications of having shale gas exploration on their land.  They are clear about the consequences of using the cocktail of chemicals that are needed to extract the gas.  They know that there is a danger from irreversible water, air and soil pollution, especially in a region where many people live directly from the land.

Inspired by the hardy resistance of the Salvati Rosia Montana campaign, Budes and Palici have made a documentary film about the demonstrations against the gold pit that took place last September in Bucharest.  It was a sensational turnout: thousands took to the streets to conduct a peaceful protest, and hundreds linked hands to encircle Romania's parliament house - a photo in The Guardian newspaper (23rd September 2013) caught them in a joyous moment, as though they were dancing round a May pole (for an article about the protests in The Guardian, see this page).  Here's a link to a clip from the film, Toamna Romaneasca (Romanian Autumn):


And here's a link to a recent article about Vira:


It's a chain reaction.  Here's another link in that chain, this time to Terra Mileniul III, a Romanian NGO that since 2009 has brought more than 70 non-profit organisations together, all of them working for a more environmentally friendly, less greedy, future:


This is so encouraging.  Historically, Romanians have been criticised for bending their necks before the sword, for allowing Communism to corrupt their souls, for giving way in order to survive.  Of course, it wasn't as simple as that - and the flurry of new books describing Romanians' political resistance shows how wrong that judgement is - but since 1989, the young and determined who care about their country's future are not standing idly by.  It's ages since I heard a Romanian say, 'Ce sa facem?' ('There's nothing we can do about it'), when questioned about why they put up with bad government.  We could do with more of them here.

Quiet by comparison, Pembrokeshire is certainly not free of corruption, or anti-corruption protests.  It is also famous for its environmental campaigners, its green 'shepherds'.  Satish Kumar, the editor of Resurgence, used to live here.  John Seymour wrote some of his books about sustainable living at his house in the Gwaun Valley.  The self-build housing project, Lammas, which gives plots of land to people who want to make their own eco-houses, is based in Pembrokeshire.  So are Brithdir Mawr and Fachongle, communes that help people who want to escape the rat race.  In the pretty coastal town of Newport, there are the Eco Centre Wales, which is campaigning against fuel poverty, and the Real Seed Catalogue (sourcing and selling traditional but vanishing breeds of vegetables).  Not a bad place to be, even if it isn't Romania, and even if shepherds don't lead their sheep to pasture any more.

Later: Idly grazing in cyberspace, keen to return to the nub, I found this reason for being terribly excited about the modern uses of sheep: they can eat the grass under those monotonous rows of panels in solar farms.  The piece is from an on-line magazine called Grist, or a Beacon in the Smog, but was written for the New York Times in July 2014, and, hallelujah, it's funny too.    

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

After the sheep's tails

Romania seems too far away.  The likelihood that I'll be able to make a speedy return is not great.  The winter here has felt long, cold and wet.  It has also been sad because it brought the death of one of my heroes, the travel writer, Michael Jacobs.  Michael began his writing career as an art historian but got so absorbed in the way other people live that he abandoned academe for the road.  Spain and South America were his favourites but he went more or less everywhere.  One of his first books was about artists' colonies, and that brought him to Baia Mare and the Nagybanya School in north-west Romania.  I was lucky enough to meet him in 1993, shortly after my first trip to Romania, and he not only gave me loads of contacts but put my name forward to write the Blue Guide.  Michael was a kind, generous, funny, wonderful person and his vanishing, after a short illness, came as a huge shock.  

Yesterday I sent a text to Ghita wishing him well on the spring road.  The shepherds should have left their winter quarters on the 1st of April.  But I'm out of touch: my last news was that Ghita had opened a cheese shop in Bucharest, and who knows but he is travelling the world in his new-found guise as Ghita Ciobanul.  I can't believe that fame will change his character: he won't let it go to his head, and if he does, his friends will tease him to bits. 

Living without a regular fix of Romania is hard, but I have spent the last six months writing - and rewriting - an article for Pastoralism Journal.   It's called Dupa coada oilor (After the sheep's tails), and is an analysis of the way transhumance has developed in Romania and a look at its contribution to cultural and agricultural life.  You can find it here:   


After submitting the piece, I found some of George Monbiot's articles on rewilding the countryside, and his comments on overgrazing by sheep.  He says that the people who say that grazing animals help preserve biodiversity are only interested in 'flowers and butterflies'.  I don't think they are that simple, but George Monbiot claims that there are too many sheep on our British hills.  There are never fewer than 20 million, I heard the other day - in a radio broadcast about Philip Walling's new book, Counting Sheep - making our national flock the largest in the EU.  So do 80 million-plus high-heeled trotters compact the ground and cause flooding, as George Monbiot says?  Somehow I can't help feeling that concrete does more harm, but the prospect he brings of reawakening people's appreciation of nature, and fighting the commodification of the natural world is a great one.  

For more information about my searches for Romanian shepherds who migrated to Russia and the Caucasus, please visit this page and follow the links.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Ghita Ciobanul on the BBC

This is the text of my piece about Ghita and the shepherds broadcast on 13th January 2014 on the BBC radio programme, From Our Own Correspondent:

On a dank Monday evening some weeks ago, a Romanian shepherd called Ghita left home with his sheep. He wasn't in a lorry but on foot, accompanied by several angajati, or hired men, some shaggy dogs, and seven donkeys loaded with gear. Ghita was off on his autumn transhumance, heading north for his winter pastures. It would take him six weeks.
Ghita the shepherd
For a country whose defining myth revolves around shepherds, Romania isn't all that keen on its pastoralists. The Ballad of the Little Sheep (Miorita) tells of a herdsman who lets himself be murdered by two rival shepherds even though one of his lambs, who has miraculously acquired the power of speech, warns him in advance. Miorita is sometimes taken as a metaphor for Christianity, another way of showing Christ's courage in turning the other cheek. It's also said to mirror the experience of the Romanian people who have endured numerous invasions, occupations and humiliations without, it is claimed, ever losing their identity.
When Romanians were agitating for independence in the 19th Century, Transylvanian shepherds were seen as the rugged pioneers of the nationalist movement. Long before then, they had established shortcuts over the Carpathian Mountains to seasonal grazing in what is now Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, the Caucasus, southern Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Poland and the Czech Republic. Having crossed from Hungarian and Habsburg lands into Ottoman Turkey and Russia, they returned home to their more isolated communities with information, ideas and ambitions fired by the world outside.
Shepherd driving sheep
A shepherd's CV has to offer some crucial USPs: caringness, self-reliance and dedication. He - and it's almost always a he, although in real life women did the same job - is synonymous with the kindly ideals of Christianity and for that matter Islam - but for all that, he is a humble, often solitary, sometimes rootless figure.
During Communism, certain Romanian sheep farmers did rather well. People still talk about Mr B from Poiana Sibiului who asked Ceausescu's permission to buy a helicopter. Mr B's flocks were hefted over several mountains, and he argued that being able to fly would let him keep track of them more easily. His request was refused, but Poiana is famous for other reasons - many of its shepherds built luxurious mansions at a time when most people had to stand in queues to buy food and lit their homes with 40 watt bulbs. Inaccessible to big machinery, many mountain farms escaped collectivisation, and the men and women who commuted there from the less exclusive plains, spoke of "going to America".
Like farmers worldwide, Romanian flock masters enjoy a good grumble. But things have got tough for them since 1989. Once guaranteed, prices for wool have plummeted. Although there is an international market for Romanian lamb, and sheep's cheese sells well, "slow food" has not made enough of a difference to the shepherds who find it healthier - and cheaper - to walk their sheep to far away winter pastures rather than keep their animals inside.
Shepherds resting
With its origins in the Bronze Age, if not earlier, transhumance is a form of semi-nomadism. It sounds romantic but in the past, Romanian shepherds occasionally resorted to transporting their animals by train, something they could never afford to do now.

Romanian shepherds still look archaic. They wear a long sheepskin cloak called a cojoc or sarica. With the shaggy fleece on the outside, it's also their bed, so when shepherds call the cloak their house, they aren't joking. When they sleep at all, it's outside, in all weathers. The hired men earn between 200 or 300 euros a month. They also receive daily meals, work clothing, and a cigarette allowance.
Romanians are generally learning more about their shepherds thanks to television.
In August this year, a well-known phone company* began an advertising campaign that highlighted real people doing real jobs. One of them was Ghita.
Dressed in his cojoc and rimless pot hat (another must-have piece of shepherding rig), sitting by a campfire and dancing with sheep, Ghita Ciobanul, or Ghita the Shepherd, has taken Romania by storm. Ten days after the phone company put him on Facebook, his page had clocked more than 200,000 likes. A month later, they had doubled.
In the past, Ghita has had to move his sheep illegally, during the night. Given the hazards of crossing Romania's rapidly urbanising, motorised countryside, it's the only way. Accidents and shootings have cost him scores of sheep and many dogs. Maybe this year, thanks to his new-found celebrity, Ghita will be luckier.

*Vodafone: but I think Vodafone should pay its taxes, and if you agree, see this link: http://action.sumofus.org/a/vodafone-tax-dodging/?akid=5701.863102.vCD__-&rd=1&sub=fwd&t=2

You can hear the audio version via this link; it should work for over a year from 13th Jan 2014:

Another airing on the World Service, 7th March 2014: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01t399s 

For more information about my search for Romanian shepherds who migrated to Russia and the Caucasus, please visit this page and follow the links at the bottom.