DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) – Fields of sunflowers burnt brown under blue skies are ready for harvest — but artillery and rocket attacks are stopping farmers in east Ukraine’s frontline villages from gathering their crops.
Ukraine is the world’s biggest exporter of sunflower oil, with more than half the global market, but fighting between separatist and government forces has left fields strewn with mangled metal shell casings and torn up clumps of mud.
On the dirt road between Vilkhivka and Zuevka, about 50 kilometres east of the flashpoint city of Donetsk, an unexploded rocket sticks javelin-like in the earth and unharvested sunflower fields sway in the breeze.
Rebels in the area accuse the Ukrainian army of indiscriminate fire, with villagers staying close to home, ready to hide from the shelling in their basements.
“We’re not stopping the local people from harvesting their crops but they’re too scared to come out,” says local rebel commander Vasiliy Petrovich as he drives past the sunflower fields, without a farmer in sight.
The sunflower is Ukraine’s chief oilseed crop, generating export income of $3.28 billion in 2013 according to government figures.
Analysts say overall yields in Ukraine will remain high despite the conflict, with the sunflower seed crop totalling more than 10.2 million tonnes this year compared to 11 million in 2013/14.
The Donetsk and Lugansk regions of eastern Ukraine account for just 15 per cent of the country’s total sunflower seed production. But those regions are facing a 20-30 per cent crop loss, according to analysts at UkrAgroConsult, although the majority of harvesting is going ahead.
However, it will be the smaller farmers who are too scared to harvest or have nowhere to sell their crops who suffer most.
“I think that small farms will go bankrupt this year and next year they will not plant crops,” says Yulia Garkavenko, head of oilseeds and vegoils at the consulting agency.
Beside the main road leading east towards the city of Shakhtarsk, a combine harvester scythes through a dry brown sunflower field, sending a cloud of dust towards the rebel checkpoint just a few hundred metres north.
The crop is as good as previous years, says 51-year-old farmer Alexander Abashin after stepping down from his tractor cab.
“But of course the situation is different from before. For a start we have no place to sell the harvest, so right now we’re storing it in the warehouse,” he says.
“It’s all because of the fighting. It’s brother against brother, it’s unreal. We need a ceasefire, we need to be able to work to earn money to feed our families.”
Despite the ceasefire agreed on September 5, fighting has continued, and at least one sunflower seed processing plant has been forced to close, underlining the precarious situation for foreign firms working in the east.
US-based agribusiness Cargill halted operations at its Donetsk plant in early July citing the heightened tensions in the area, with the factory then occupied by armed men.
Rebel fighters manning a checkpoint on the main road in front of the factory stopped AFP reporters from driving closer. But black smoke could be seen spewing from the factory across the surrounding sunflower fields, with a fire there reportedly burning for more than a week.
The chest-high sunflowers – symbols in Ukrainian folklore of fertility and unity – have made an incongruous backdrop to five months of bloodshed in which more than 3,200 people have been killed.
Camouflaged gun-toting rebel fighters have been pictured manning positions among the flowers, and after the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17 in July rescuers combed the bright yellow fields around the village of Grabove for body parts.
The flowers have also brought rare moments of joy – in Ilovaisk, a pro-Russian separatist working to clear unexploded mortars and rockets from the railway line stops and laughs out loud when he sees a wild sunflower growing beside the rail, giving it a thumbs up and exclaiming in English: “Super good, very good!”
Back on the road between the frontline villages, the bearded rebel commander shouts at the driver to stop as explosions a few hundred metres in front of the car send plumes of smoke mushrooming into the air.
“Grad!” he calls out, referring to the multiple rocket launching system frequently used in the conflict.
With the smoke still drifting, the fields become quiet – except for the rustle of brittle brown sunflowers hanging their heads.