CHERTKOVO, Russia/ MELOVE, Ukraine — On the map, Chertkovo and Melove is one village, crossed by railroad tracks and a main road called the Friendship of Peoples Street. That slogan still rings true for many locals, but is being sorely tested by the animosity between their two nations, Russia and Ukraine.
On the streets, villagers speak a mix of Russian and Ukrainian without turning the choice of language into a political statement as many others did elsewhere, fueling the conflict between Ukraine and Russia since Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.
In the past, locals would routinely cross the main street — back and forth between the two countries — as border guards looked the other way. But earlier this year, Russia built a barbed wire fence along the main street, separating the village into two camps.
These days, the busiest border crossing — on a low-hanging bridge spanning the railway tracks that run alongside the Friendship of Peoples Street — looks nearly deserted.
On Friday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that all Russian males aged 16 to 60 will now be barred from entering the country — a sign that relations between the two uneasy neighbors are deteriorating further after the Russian coast guard fired upon and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea on Nov. 25.
Also last week, Kiev announced 30 days of martial law in the border regions to bolster the nation’s defenses against Russian aggression.
In truth, restrictions on Russians entering Ukraine had already effectively existed in Chertkovo for years.
In 2015, Ukraine adopted a decree requiring Russians who want to cross the border to use foreign travel passports, as opposed to internal passports used in the former Soviet Union. Few Russians living in rural areas like Chertkovo have such documents.
Four and a half years after fighting broke out between Russia-backed separatists and Ukraine troops in eastern Ukraine, only elderly women like 73-year-old Lidia Radchenko — a smiling woman in a bulky fur coat — brave the Chertkovo crossing. She has three sons living in Ukraine, while another son and a daughter reside in Russia.
“How can do you this? We used to have such great parties. We would gather in the middle of the road,” said Rachenko, who lives by the railroad tracks. “That fence is like a concentration camp.”
The once-busy crossing over the railroad tracks is empty, with just a few people coming from Ukraine into Russia, such as 54-year-old Olga Yevgenyevna and her husband. She asked that her family name not be published for fear of repercussions for her views on either side of the border.
“I’m originally from Chertkovo, and my mom lives here,” she said in Ukrainian. When she married a man from a village on the Ukrainian side of the border, moving there in the late 1980s did not seem like a dramatic decision. Now her elderly mother and brother live in Russia and can’t visit her.
“I tell my mom ‘When I die, no one will come to bury me, because Russians are not allowed,'” she said.
Before the war that started in 2014, she said “People were crossing everywhere, even on the railroad tracks. You go back and forth 15 times, no one would care. We had a market and shops, all of it was for everyone.”
Irina Vakulina, 58, dressed in a down coat and a pink woolen hat for a frosty morning, sells smoked fish and foreign-made perfume in the Russian village of Chertkovo.
“Business is awful,” she says, because after the collapse of the Ukrainian hryvna, goods in Russia have become too expensive for Ukrainians and the local train station, once busy thanks to Russian trains passing through Ukraine, now stands idle.
“Our Chertkovo has been cut off from life,” she says.
By NATALIYA VASILYEVA, Associated Press