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The Fishermen of Donetsk

by Justin Robinson, translated by Grigorii M.

© copyright Justin Robinson  email:

My Ukrainian friend Oleks climbed into my car grinning and began speaking Russian as I drove; I understood little. He pulled out his mobile and announced his message to his phone application and after a thoughtful pause - a translation was read back in English in a mechanical voice, without his boyish enthusiasm: “I have been looking forwards to this day ever since you proposed it”. He nodded and I concentrated on the road ahead but I could sense the warmth from his real voice.


I explained as best I could we were going trout fishing and I would need to teach him how to cast and it may not be easy. In fact, this is a British tradition that goes back hundreds of years and we even like the fact it is not too easy. We will need to put some of the fish back. He was completely astonished – how could we put trout back in the water? What would his friends say if they heard this? What would his wife say if we put the fish back!


And my few words of Russian and Ukrainian could barely help our communication. I was annoyed he had not remembered more from his English classes. Had he not learned the words in his tiny notebook? In fact, why was he using such a small notebook – “Get a bigger notebook and learn your words, Oleks!”


Then he said something about Donetsk and I struggled to understand as I drove. The phone app read out in tones without emotion: “Twelve men from our villages in Donetsk where we lived have now been killed by this war. In the last few weeks.” He nodded again as if the application had done its job properly. He wasn’t smiling now. Nor was I. This was a really dreadful statement. Twelve men and their families.


I was upset and I thought about stopping the car. I managed to say that I was sorry to hear this. Very sorry. It was very sad. Sad? What stupid or clumsy words we find in moments of tragedy! And then I knew I could not say anymore as I was getting emotional. I felt someone had punched me in the chest but I drove with no thought about fishing. The car drove itself and we sat in a kind of miserable silence. I have no idea why Oleks needed to tell me then.


This sixty-year old man, shorter but built very strong, his face nevertheless full of youthful energy. We eventually drove to a dirt road and arrived at the lakeside, an oasis of green pine trees and silver water gleaming like steel in the chilly sunshine. He was expecting a fishing trip, not tears. The lakes were stocked with some new fish but it was hard to tell if I would be able to teach how to cast a fly the way we needed.


He had spent his national service in Siberia with the Red Army, he had damaged his body in accidents and worked the coal mines of Donetsk for years where the men are extremely tough. But so many of his generation had succumbed to drink or cigarettes. He had brought an extended family of seven as refugees to England but he and his family and been forced from their home in 2014 so his war was already eight years long. And he had arrived in the United Kingdom with barely two English words.


We walked up the centre of an island in the middle of the lake and I found a wooden fishing platform where he was less likely to get snagged by the bushes behind him. Oleks followed behind solemnly with the landing net swinging over his shoulder just as my children once did when I showed them how to fish for carp in their early days. In those days, my boys put my daughter in the landing net.


I demonstrated a few basic moves and wondered if he really was strong as he had a lazy action in his casting but he did seem to understand the timing was important and his fly landed about twelve feet away which was actually a very good start. I had told him to put his phone away and I was firm and grumpy and tapped his arm and he screwed up his face in concentration as I moved his shoulder and straightened his wrist.


Then we waited as the fly, a weighted nymph, sank slowly into the dark water and there was no sound except the constant rustling of branches. I took a step back and started to look at the surface of the water for signs of moving fish.

“Justin!” Oleks shouted  . I looked up and his line had straightened and I could tell immediately a fish was tugging on the other end. It was all instinctive but he was quite calm – now the fish knew there was trouble and tugged back even harder trying to pull Oleks in or wriggle off the hook! His rod bent into the water as he held on. I showed him how to let some line go when the fish pulled hard.  And he learned fast although I noticed one thing - he never stopped laughing and chuckling as he fought the fish and gently drew it back into the net.


And then, to my disbelief, I was taking a photo of a man from Donetsk with a trout leaping in the bottom of his net and an absolutely delighted smile on his face. But that is a small part of the story I want to tell you.


As the morning wore on, Oleks got on WhatsApp with his next fish and introduced his fish to a friend. Perhaps in Donetsk. Imagine if you are in range of the front line in Ukraine and you have a few moments to be jealous of a friend fishing in Oxfordshire. In the afternoon, we circled the water and I found a better location. We both steadily caught fish as other people arrived. Although other fishermen caught fish, I hardly stopped putting fish back or helping Oleks land his own fish. British fishermen began asking Oleks for advice – he had to waive them in my direction.


Even by my own standards it was a special day. I lost count after twenty and he caught eight and we kept four larger fish and killed them humanely to cook and eat. I knocked them on the head with the weighted stick or “priest” as we call it. And then, when we were both tired, we were back in the car and Oleks was talking in Russian and a few words of English and hardly bothering with his phone. I barely understood except that he was happy.


So he was now a conquering hero going home to his wife Olena who should let him into the house because he had fish for dinner. Olena works extremely hard, almost always has a welcoming smile for everyone, and I think it was her idea to travel to England. I already knew she can catch fish too. To say Oleks is a “lucky man” is an understatement.


And then there was Olena, amused by the fuss of landing four large trout each well over one kilo - onto the kitchen table, and then sliding them into the sink for a messy rinse. They looked huge with their tails and heads sticking in all directions. I took a sharp knife and cut them open like a surgeon. I showed Oleks how I prefer doing it to remove the blood in the backbone and be sure to remove the heart up near the head. My hands covered in blood and gore, I then washed and cleaned the sink and Olena found me a towel. She was laughing and said she would have her boys deliver a few trout to other women refugees. 


When I arrived alone back at my house, I heard my phone ding with notifications but I was tired and lay on my sofa with my eyes closed. My mind kept coming back to the twelve men who had been killed, men I had never met but lived in the Donetsk region and would have fished the River Donets and lakes growing up as children or young men. I thought also about twelve wives and children. Twelve parents and other family members. And the misery of twelve families in a war which had already claimed so many tens of thousands of lives.


Then I noticed Olena’s text: “I am very grateful to you for the happy eyes of my husband. Well, we had a wonderful dinner today.” And there, in the message was a photo of a baked trout with homemade sauce and vegetables. And I thought about making one person happy as some small consolation. Making one wife happy when others could not be. It was her words “happy eyes” that touched me.


He was probably still talking about the adventure. Driving her a little crazy, I expect. Then I noticed other messages on my phone. There were more photos of grilled and baked trout from other women living in Oleks’ English village who had received a fish or been invited to dinner by others. Several wives now dining together on fresh trout and Oleks now a fishing hero. And generous thank you messages for his English guide.


So I could do nothing for those twelve wives from Donetsk but we had helped cheer up these Ukrainians in England. And I thought none of my fishing trips ever had that kind of significance. And I must really thank Oleks for this. I also thought it was such a strange thing, really unusual, that we caught so many, many fish. Was it possible that those twelve dead men from Donetsk, their souls at least, did they remain with us all day long after Oleks paid tribute to them. Were they hoping we would do well, encouraging us to focus our minds and by doing so we were carrying their blue and yellow flag in our hearts? I had such thoughts.


But even that was not the end of this story. Some weeks later, I learned Oleks shared some of our videos of him catching fish on social media. They were shared again in Ukraine - fishermen and their families viewing the English way of catching trout. And the unbelievable fact that we don’t bring all the fish home but put most of them back in the lake.


So, we gave the living fishermen of Donetsk something else to think about for a few moments. Something different from this war. It was possible for them to laugh with Oleks at scenes from a world where fish may get a second chance at life. And from this country - where Oleks and his family from Donetsk were getting their own second chance.

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