A short drive from Ukraine’s southern border, hundreds of Russian troops guard a vast Soviet-era ammunition depot in Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria.
This depot, these soldiers and this pro-Russian separatist region are under increasing global scrutiny.
In the past few weeks, accusations have flown between Russia, Ukraine and Moldova over alleged plots to destabilise Moldova, and warnings about the potential for conflict to erupt here again.
Moldova’s prime minister, Dorin Recean, has said Russian troops should be expelled from the region, amid warnings from President Maia Sandu that Moscow is planning to topple her pro-western government.
Russia, meanwhile, has been talking up the threat of a “false flag” attack by Ukrainian forces – and warned that any attack on its troops in Transnistria would be seen as an attack on Russia itself.
Many western analysts point out that Transnistria could provide Russia with another entry point into Ukraine, forcing Ukrainian troops away from other areas of fighting.
So Transnistria – controlled by pro-Russian separatists since Moldova’s civil war in 1992 – is being closely watched globally, but also by those much closer to home.
The warnings and threats about fresh conflict here hang heavy over the village of Molovata Noua.
This is a tiny Moldovan enclave, jammed up against Transnistrian territory and separated from the rest of Moldova by the River Dneister.
If residents of Chisinau feel vulnerable, residents of Molovata Noua feel completely exposed.
Many of the older men here fought pro-Russian separatists for this land 30 years ago. They’re wondering now if they’ll have to fight here again.
On Friday, veterans of that conflict gathered in Molovata Noua for an annual pilgrimage across the line of control into Transnistria, to honour those who died.
Two dozen men in military fatigues, bright medals on their chests and darkness behind their eyes. Among them, 62-year-old Vlad Untila.
“We’re lucky that Ukraine is defending us at the moment,” he said, “but if it kicks off in Moldova, we’re ready to defend this territory again.”
Their convoy of cars makes its way down the deserted dirt road from Molovata Noua into the breakaway pro-Russian territory – crossing into enemy territory as they did three decades ago.
“See how they look at us,” Vlad growls, as his car approaches the Russian checkpoint.
A gaggle of armed soldiers eye the convoy, as it carries men in Moldovan military fatigues into separatist territory, turning a blind eye to this eye-catching annual ritual.
“Look around you,” Vlad says, “this is where we fought – it was all a battlefield.”
Now the narrow dirt road cuts through the silent countryside, flanked by brown fields and broken winter trees.
“It’s hard because I feel I’m in my own country,” his friend Constantin joins in. “It’s my own land, and yet I can’t walk freely here.”
A short drive beyond the checkpoint, hidden in brambles by the side of the road, is the first stop on the pilgrimage – a simple blue cross made from metal poles.
It marks the spot, 31 years ago, where a local mayor was killed. The veterans gather round with a garland of flowers and a plastic bottle full of wine, to toast their fallen comrades.
They follow the trail of pale blue monuments dotted through this territory, repeating the ritual at every stop, honouring their comrades, siblings, and friends.
“We were both snipers,” Vlad remembers, at the spot his friend Vasea was killed. “They were shooting at us from that hill over there, from a tank. One of the shrapnel fragments hit him in the neck. He fell to the ground and died in my arms.”
As the veterans pass a local Moldovan school, pupils come out to greet them, led by their headmistress Tatiana Rosca.
“There were big battles here in 1992,” Tatiana says. “And there are still deep wounds in the souls of the people. We’re very afraid: we know what war means and we don’t wish it on anyone.”
One of her pupils says she’s ready to take up arms if conflict erupts again, as her father and grandfather did 30 years ago.
But loyalties here – as in the rest of Moldova – are complicated by history, geography and economics.
Here on the other side of the River Dniester, the pull of Moldovan identity is set against the pull of subsidised Russian gas from Transnistria.
The economic gulf with the rest of the country has widened since the start of the war in Ukraine, after Moscow cut gas supplies to Moldova last year.
“I’ll be honest,” the mayor of Molovata Noua, Oleg Gazea, told me. “It’s very difficult to convince people that life is better in Moldova when they pay a fraction of the price for gas here.”
“We can’t talk about freedom and a better life, and at the same time tell them to go across the river and pay 30 times more for their bills – they’ll tell us: are you crazy? But there’s a hidden price [to the cheap gas] – it buys their support.”
Some people here firmly believe that Moscow is not a military threat, but an economic ally – and that president Maia Sandu is the one provoking a war by moving closer to the West.
“Transnistria is really sticking up for us,” 59 year old Maria Ursachi tells me.
“But Moldova is a disappointment. People are afraid to come over the river to talk to us: they have a border control post there and they check our bags. Chisinau doesn’t see us.”
Arriving back in Molovata Noua, the veterans end their pilgrimage in the village square by laying red carnations at a memorial to the frozen conflict here.
In the years since they fought the pro-Russian separatists, their children have grown up alongside Russian soldiers, Russian language and Russian economic support.
“We older men will still form the heart of any resistance”, Vlad tells me, “even with the involvement of younger men.”
Memories of the past, that linger in this tiny Moldovan enclave, are being sharpened by growing fears for the future.
Source – BBC News