Plumbers on the Frontline in Donbas: what is normal work in a warscape?
- By Sophie Lambroschini, researcher, Centre Marc Bloch*
Sophie Lambroschini studies how ordinary people in Ukraine experience geopolitical crisis in the their everyday lives, as part of the collaborative Limspaces project*. Since 2019 she conducts research in the Donbas, the region directly affected by the war, looking at how corporate and labor practices and networks transform at a Ukrainian company whose pipeline network supplies water to populations and industry on both sides of the front line.
What would happen if a front line suddenly divided the German industrial Ruhr region? Until these past weeks the war in the eastern Ukrainian industrial region of Donbas was largely forgotten internationally. Until these past weeks, the heavy artillery fire of the first years of the war which began in 2014 had dwindled to a lower intensity conflict between the Ukrainian army and armed formations of separatist territories supported by Russia, causing death but little front page news. For the Ukrainians living in the Donbas these past 8 years of violence have overturned regional social, political, and economic routines and lifestyles. The front line that separates the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk and Lugansk and Kyiv-controlled Ukraine cuts through a densely urbanized region of several million people. In this “warscape” – as anthropologist C. Nordstrom defines spaces characterized by social, economic, and political disruption and violence - populations strive to create some kind of order out of chaos.
Toretsk is an impoverished coal mining town in the Kyiv government-controlled part of Donbas. It is February, powder snow covers the ground and the cone-shaped slag heaps, remains of the eight mines that operated here. They define the landscape. A water pipe burst in the Artema district at the outskirts of the town a few hundred meters away from the frontline. Such breakdowns are common. Toretsk gets its water for heating, drinking and industrial use from the Horlivka pumping and filter station on the separatist side. Pipes are damaged by shelling and by the consequences of decades of crises. Water breakdowns and rationing are common. The workers of the regional water supplier Voda Donbasu (Water of Donbas) provide drinking water close to four million people living on either side of the geopolitical – and material - divide. Every Monday morning the engineers and managers of a dozen of Voda Donbasu local offices on both Kyiv-controlled and Moscow-backed separatist-controlled territories meet remotely to discuss pending problems.
Working across the frontline
That Monday morning in February the cross-frontline corporate tele-conference at Voda Donbasu was not discussing Russian troop buildups or the risk of war. The engineers’ attention was tending to the immediate: their work routine, the high number of workers on sick leave due to Covid infection and on coordinating brigades to repair damages pipelines. In Artema a main pipe is leaking in several segments and requires urgent intervention. The brigade chief Natalya is tasked with five interventions in Artema. In subzero temperatures many houses rely on the system for drinking water but also central heating. She tells her team to change and prepare the equipment. A Soviet Kamaz truck stutters to the gates of the water company, and the brigade piles into the back.
The driver of the Kamaz – he used to work for a local coal mine before it closed - maneuvers his truck through snowed-in streets to the edge of Artema. Beyond the tree line a few hundred meters away, lies the front line. The snow between the houses is almost untouched, there are few footprints and tire marks. So close to the fighting many people have moved away, either because there are no jobs or because it is unsafe at times. Working conditions are rudimentary. A Soviet-era excavator rumbles into place over a puddle of water in the snow, indicating the location of the leak. The operator of the digger positions the digger which claws its way through the frozen ground, revealing the damaged pipe about two meters below the surface. Then the team goes in – mechanics, plumbers and – if needed - a welder stands by. One technician climbs down the ladder, knee-deep in water, into the excavated hole to identify the problem, another secures the pipe. Meanwhile water is spurting out, raining on the brigade. The company doesn’t provide waterproof clothing so they come to work in whatever they bring from home. What do they wear when they do the same kind of repairs directly in the grey zone where shelling is common?, I ask. “Same thing”, one mechanic replies with a grin. “There’s only one helmet and one flak jacket”, Natalya explains.
The repairs take about an hour. Afterwards the team warms up – and dries clothes - in the cargo area of the Kamaz truck. It was refurbished into a makeshift workshop where pipes, tools, rubber boots are stored. It is heated with a “borzhuika”, a cast iron wood-fueled stove with a metal chimney cut through a hole in the trucks roof. Fantasy centerfolds, an old political campaign poster and an ashtray made of a beer can add to warmth of the stove.
We hear the clatter of shelling. “Is this a sign of growing tensions?”, I ask while we smoke. A plumber shrugs. No, it’s part of a normal day’s work. “This is what we do”.
Mundane tasks as a coping strategy
The field research that I have been doing since 2018 into everyday work in the Donbas conflict zone consistently shows how mundane technical tasks shape routines and build coping strategies. What does the current geopolitical crisis mean for people living near the hotbed of conflict in Eastern Ukraine?
Literature in crisis anthropology by scholars who have observed society in crisis through the collapse of socio-political order or war show how people try to recreate routines and ordinary life. Witnessing the life of Sarajevo under the siege, Ivana Maček calls this rebuilding of order in the chaos of a warscape “negotiating normality”, a constant reinvention of ordinary life to adapt to pervasive insecurity. Teresa Koloma-Beck analyzes how processes of normalization affect civilians as well as armed groups and provoke shifting interdependencies and shifting values. In her anthropological work in Angola, she analyzes the the “everyday” as a specific form of experience which taps into ordinary habituated conduct.
*Sophie Lambroschini directs a research project at Centre Marc Bloch in partnership with the French research Centre CNRS-Géocités and the German Center for East European and International Studies (ZOiS). The project LimSpaces. Living with uncertainty. Strategies of adaptation and horizons of expectations in Ukraine and Moldova investigates how geopolitical crisis is experienced on the ground in long lasting conflicts in Moldova and Ukraine. It is financed jointly by ANR and DFG.
Picture : Repairs underway to a broken water pipe ©S. Lambroschini
 Carolyn Nordstrom, A Different Kind of War Story. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1997.
 The United Nations coordinates monitoring and response on water issues in Ukraine https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/ru/operations/ukraine/water-sanitation-and-hygiene
 On the water infrastructure system as a whole see Sophie Lambroschini. "Water in Conflict. Five years after the Minsk ceasefire agreements, the
unresolved issue of clean water supply to civilians in Donbas. Adaptation, limitations and Outlines of Cooperation." Civil M+, DRA, 2019 https://civilmplus.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Water_report.pdf
 Maček, Ivana. Sarajevo Under Siege: Anthropology in Wartime. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
 Teresa Koloma Beck. The Normality of Civil War: Armed Groups and Everyday Life in Angola. Campus Verlag, 2012.
sebastien.vannier ( at ) cmb.hu-berlin.de