There is something about the destruction which soon makes it feel uninteresting. Maybe because ruins by and large are similar, or maybe because without the people who once lived in them they are transformed into – literally – lifeless shells that all tell the same story. Even the landscape, Donetsk, seems to lose its meaning as we move through it: eternal curtains of trees; huge fields of dead, black sunflowers; identical (to the point of confusion) mountains of slag. Soon the monotony takes on a particular quality: in almost all villages, however badly damaged they may be (a column of white smoke from a chimney in the chill of the morning may be the only sign of life), you often catch sight of, first, an elderly woman wrapped in bundles of clothing, pushing a cart across a frozen dirt road, and, second, a couple of stray dogs skulking about in the ruins. It’s like standing in front of a cheap animation, the same images repeated over and over. But in a week or a month or three that same dying village can suddenly become important enough for people to die defending it.
The front line around Bakhmut is still more or less static, but hard battles are fought here. ‘But’ may be the wrong word, incidentally. The front line is static precisely because the battles are so violent, the Ukrainian defence so stubborn. The Russians attack again and again, most of them Wagnerites, mercenaries sometimes recruited from the prisons of Russia. ‘We call the people of the first wave donkeys,’ a Ukrainian soldier tells us. ‘They are completely green – no bulletproof vests, loaded with ammunition. The second and third wave pick up the ammunition. Then there’s the fourth and fifth wave. They are more experienced. And so it goes, wave after wave. The tenth or eleventh wave will take the house.’
The territorial gains are incomprehensibly minute if you count the cost in human life. The dead pile up (literally). The wounded who are not rescued freeze to death at night. A battle for a building can go on for days; a battle over a staircase can last for hours.
‘There are so many of them that we grow tired of killing.’
The front is closer now. There are fewer civilians on the village streets, and more soldiers in the Ukrainian army’s light brown uniform, with its digital camouflage pattern. The stretches between the roadblocks are shorter, the checks more thorough; there are ever more rusting wrecks by the side of the road. (In a ditch, a single tank turret, the object soldiers call a ‘lollipop’, because that’s what it looks like when the target explodes and the turret whirls up into the air.) Bridges over the icy rivers have long since been destroyed. We slow down; the road descends to a pontoon bridge, shaded by leaning concrete slabs.
The traffic now is almost exclusively military, vehicles of various kinds, most of them originally civilian, marked with white crosses. We are closer still. (Over there, an abandoned trench line filled with the detritus of war: bullet casings, empty cigarette packs, plastic bottles, Russian army supply boxes, parts of uniforms. Something – maybe a black balaclava? – hangs from a tree. Some fallen tree trunks look like a game of pick-up-sticks.)
We are there. Almost there. The frosty village street is empty. Any vehicles are either hidden or parked under a roof. (A recent wreck of a lorry shows us why.) We hear voices but see no one – the soldiers are hiding in one of the buildings that still has a roof. An armoured personnel carrier rattles by at great speed; the soldiers, in full combat gear, are crowded on top. One of them makes the shaka sign and smiles. Then they’re gone. What is termed the front is – emptiness. Visually speaking. It is, instead, a landscape made of sound: under your feet a carpet of noise, all around you a wall of cacophony, above you a sky of thunder.
They watch the sky anxiously as they work. It’s blue. But not summer blue or azure or clear blue – the sky is a cold blue, a metallic, cold blue. The only cloud you see is haze from missiles detonated over the Russian line. And earlier: a puff of white smoke with a wavy tail. A guided robot of some kind shot down another airborne entity of some kind, perhaps a Russian drone.
The men watch for these drones. They can see far on a day like this. Russian kamikaze drones target heavy equipment. And the Ukrainian equipment is undeniably heavy, and old – this howitzer is almost a museum object, inherited from the Soviet era, but it will have to do. The men haul it into position, watching the sky. They are in a hurry. The first shell is loaded. Someone has written a message on it: ‘From Igor for Dmytrivka’. It’s fired. At this proximity the sound and pressure waves are simultaneous. A yellow cloud of dust whirls up.
The field is flat, the horizon so distant as to feel eternal.
This is a war of artillery, an unexpected return to the shape of the First World War – and the Second – fought, not least, on this ground. These are the bloodlands, layer upon layer of battlefields and forgotten mass graves. ‘Artillery is the god of war,’ Stalin said, or may have said. The Soviet army used that tactic, and the Russian one after it. All resistance was to be annihilated by shells, hammered into the ground.
The Ukrainian army medic confirms the tactic: ‘I can’t give you exact figures, but about 90 per cent of all wounds are from explosives. The most common injuries are from the blast, and the pressure waves – burst eardrums, but often lungs are damaged too, and the inner organs, the guts. We give first aid to the wounded, stabilise them, then we drive them to the military hospital in town. Some of the badly wounded are transported all the way to Kharkiv. We see all kinds of injuries, terrible injuries.’
A question: Do you get used to it? Answer: ‘Most people get used to it in two weeks, maybe a month. After that it’s routine, a job to do. You learn not to engage emotionally. But sure, you can still feel it if you get someone to hospital and a few hours later he’s gone. We all feel it, and suffer from it, but to varying degrees and in different ways.’ The medic climbs back into his German military ambulance, engine running, red crosses painted out (‘The Russians target ambulances’).
A vast amount of ammunition is fired. During the great summer offensive of 2022, the Russian army fired some 50,000 shells a day; the Ukrainians some 7,000. (By comparison, the US produce around 15,000 a year.) By autumn, the Russian volume of fire decreased noticeably to about half the previous amount, a temporary reprieve. Both sides run out of ammunition from time to time, and (at least as important) the barrels of many Ukrainian artillery pieces are simply starting to wear out.
Artillery war is seldom described. It lacks dramatic quality: it’s monotonous. The protagonist can do little other than hide in a hole, hoping for luck. The antagonist is an invisible, untouchable force, far away. There is no combat, no one to outsmart, simply a collision between human beings and explosives. And explosives win, whenever they touch human beings. The end is not pretty. A grenade splinter as light as a gram can kill, almost without trace; a splinter of two grams can cut off a hand. A grenade exploding nearby can decapitate, shear off arms and legs, cut a person in two, turn a body inside out, transform it into a mix of guts and limbs, an empty sac of blackened skin, cut it into tiny pieces (the catalogue of obscenities ends here), turn it into vapour, make it disappear without trace.
Question: What do you do then? The military doctor who is the head of the medical station explains: ‘Sometimes we don’t even have a finger or a pair of legs to test for DNA. Then it’s a question for the courts. If the circumstances are known, and the person is gone, the court can declare death with a year’s delay from the day it happened. That’s routine. The ordinary deaths are worse. Like at New Year. That was particularly bad. It’s my task to document, to write death certificates, but also to photograph the bodies. Many of them were so young. Can you imagine sending a dead eighteen-year-old home, and only a part of the body is in the coffin?’
‘The two most important tools in this war,’ someone says, ‘are the drone and the spade.’ The drone to see what’s happening, the spade to dig a hideout. Digging the trenches was quick in this place – the trench is deep and narrow, as it should be. The men dug and hacked through a metre of fertile black soil to the light-grey Donbas clay underneath. Parts of the wall are secured with tree trunks and the ammunition is kept in a separate place, behind an earth blind. A thin layer of brush makes a roof, filtering the January sun. What took time, the group leader tells me, was the bunker. Two weeks.
A covered side tunnel leads to the bunker. The door is a coarse grey blanket. Behind it, down a few steps cut into the clay soil, is a room. The low ceiling is made of thick tree trunks, the floor is covered in canvas; the walls are clad in silver thermal blankets.
The air is stale, but it’s unexpectedly warm. There is a single lamp by the entrance, powered by a petrol generator which also provides electricity for chargers. On the right, a few planks on an ammo box makes a kitchen: sliced bread, teabags, instant coffee, a half-eaten orange, a white mug with the words you make my heart sing. (The word ‘sing’ is crossed out, replaced by ‘beat’.) On the floor some foam camping mats, sleeping bags and backpacks. Clothing, uniforms and carrier bags hang from nails on the walls. There’s a pair of green Crocs on the floor.
The place is in immaculate order. That’s true above ground, too. All rubbish is carefully collected, even cigarette ends, which are thrown into a bright-green Russian ammunition tin. The space has to be immaculate, otherwise six grown men couldn’t coexist in nine square metres underground.
Question: What is the worst thing about living in a bunker? Vasyl, thirty-five, used to work for a flooring company, and is married with two children: ‘It isn’t too bad. You get used to it. How long it takes depends on the person.’ Serhij, forty-eight, is a building engineer, divorced with an adult daughter: ‘Hygiene can be an issue, keeping clean. Rats and mice are a problem.’ Slava, fifty-one, previously unemployed, is unmarried: ‘It’s not frightening, but it’s harder at my age. The young ones support me.’
They have lived in this bunker for two months now. Earlier they were further south, on the Kherson front. These men have been fighting since the beginning of the war. Just one of them has had leave in the last two months. But they seem curiously unbothered. ‘We have to do this. We must defend ourselves.’ Dirty grey smoke rises from the horizon near Bakhmut as we speak.
The spades are piled by the side of the trench. The drone is up. The platoon commander, Robin, is twenty-four, a professional soldier with a girlfriend in Odesa. He bends over his iPhone in the trench, following the live feed from the drone. The phone is propped against a box; an ordinary tablet beside it is running the program that calculates the heavy mortar’s firing range. The drone is a civilian DJI Mavic 3. The battered old mortar, on the other hand, dates from the Soviet era.
They fire. Slava runs, carrying a bomb from the blind through the trench to the launcher. He holds the sixteen-kilogram object in front of him as you might hold a wet child. Robin wipes some dirt from the iPhone. The target is hard to hit. It’s a group of Wagnerites who have dug themselves into a slope, near a ruined house. Robin speaks to the drone pilot, watches the bombs explode in real time, corrects the aim, corrects again, fires. It’s a hit.
In one way, this sounds abstract, in another it’s all too real. On the high-res images captured by the drone you see what the bombs actually do. People collapse, crawl across the ground, writhe in pain. A dying man beats his left arm repeatedly into the crumpled ground. Seen on an iPhone it looks like a bizarre TikTok clip.
There are rumours about a great Russian offensive starting soon (someone calls it ‘the big show’) with regular troops, fresh brigades, new equipment – or at least only semi-aged. The Wagnerites are finished, some say literally so. It’s hard to get anyone to say much more. There is no excitement in the air, maybe because the men are used to living in a world of rumour, uncertainty and silence. Maybe because they have been fighting for so long, fighting even as the Russians arrived with their best troops, their latest tanks. Robin: ‘There is no war without loss, and this is far from over. But give us the tools and we’ll finish it.’
A slow, hesitant morning comes to life. The day is warming up. Someone puts out some sausage and water in a tin for the ginger cat. Medics crowd the farmyard, smoking. The atmosphere is one of nervous expectation. It’s over now, yesterday’s empty hours on the foam mats in the small house, windows covered and repaired, rooms heated by a wood-fired stove. It’s an unavoidable cliché: war is mainly waiting. Everyone waits for something or other; for orders or news or transport or for some imagined thing; waiting, at times without knowing why or what for; waiting impatiently or with boredom, with anxiety or without much reflection.
Yesterday the medics played with their phones or slept. But today something is happening at the zero line – the Ukrainian term for the front line. Something big. Everyone can hear it. I repeat: the landscape of war is an acoustic landscape. And sometimes sound is the only reliable information, the only one that does not underrepresent reality. The normal background noise of thunder and boom has tightened. We hear the drawn-out sound of a rocket salvo landing – WOMP WOMP WOMP WOMP WOMP WOMP – and so on. (Imagine forty such womps, one after the other, with a second or so in between: a deep, unpleasant sound you feel as much in your stomach as you do in your ears. It can make even seasoned veterans fall silent in the middle of a conversation, and turn their heads towards the sound as though out of respect.)
Soon it’s clear that tanks are involved, too. (The noise of tank fire is easily identifiable: BOOM–VOOM. The discharge is followed almost instantly by the sound of the hit.) Then the ripping sound of machine guns and automatic cannons rise through the clear and chilly air, indicating that the infantry has left the trenches and are moving through no man’s land.
This is the front west of Kreminna, a little town in the Luhansk region which the Ukrainians have been trying to recapture since late autumn, and which the Russians have defended energetically. The men talk about ‘the forest’ – no place names are mentioned – but everyone seems to understand anyway. Today the Ukrainians are attacking, again.
Military vehicles tear back and forth along the dusty village road. A drone is shot down from the blue leaving only a grey-white puff, soon dispersed by the wind. Someone says it’s not good to have so many vehicles parked close together. It draws the attention of the Russian drone pilots. But judging by the noise, all ambulances will be needed today: the military-green Dutch one, the boxy Danish one, the Norwegian one, so new it hasn’t been repainted yet, sygetransport still written on its side, and the all-terrain vehicle bought with private donations from Sweden. Walkie-talkies jump to life; shrill voices pour out.
The first transport of the day, a dusty black Nissan Warrior, stops in front of us. Three wounded men are assisted out: glassy eyes, grimaces, a bloody, swollen hand. But they can all walk to the waiting Norwegian ambulance. Next transport: a badly wounded man. The same glassy eyes, a bandaged head, a torn and bloodstained uniform. The alarm is sounded for three more casualties, then one more. The cat circles around broken glass and cigarette ends, sits down to lick her paws in the sun. The explosions seem not to concern her. It’s only when two jets pass over the roof, shooting rockets shaking the ground, that she is suddenly gone. The edge of the road is covered with the litter of earlier days: identity tape, bloody surgical gloves, an army hat with a hole in it, a camo glove on top of a crumpled golden trauma blanket.
Tinny radio voices announce ever more wounded soldiers. Now ten are coming, no, twelve, no, fifteen. A report comes in: a group of medics from another unit have hit a mine. In the forest. Shouts, questions – silence. No, no fatalities. Only light wounds. The thunder and bangs in all registers reach a crescendo. The Russians are counter-attacking, and the mood darkens.
The medics line up by the road, pull on fresh surgical gloves. Many injured men are coming. How many? ‘A lot.’ First a dark green all-terrain ambulance streaks past in a cloud of dust, then brakes, followed by a sand-coloured armoured personnel carrier stopping abruptly with a squeak. An unconscious man is carried away. A group of wounded men are helped out of the armoured vehicle and into waiting ambulances, which depart one by one.
A half-naked young man with dark hair and a short beard is left on the grass by the side of the road. His skin is pale, almost alabaster. On the right side of his chest you can see five or six tiny, jagged entry wounds. Grenade splinter. A female medic in camouflage and a protective vest finds a black body bag in the ambulance and unfolds it with a practised flick of the wrist. Her hair, put up, is coming loose. Her face is smeared with red – as it would be after giving a bleeding soldier mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
One of the medics takes the feet of the dead man, two others take the arms. The body is manoeuvred into the sack. The medic closes the zip, crying quietly. The others have just lifted it up when an older soldier – short and sturdy with grey in his beard – runs up. He gesticulates, begs. After a short hesitation the men lower the bag to the ground. The medic zips it open and the fallen man’s face emerges in sharp profile, paler still against the black plastic – a pietà image. There is nothing frightening about the dead: they are just silent and pale and very still. All their pain and anxiety have been transferred to the living.
The older soldier kneels, touches the face of the dead man. ‘Vadym, Vadym!’ A group gathers. ‘My brother, don’t die!’ The medic kneels, speaks with him quietly, puts her arm around his shoulders. ‘Vadym, my brother!’ Two others help the man to his feet, gently lead him away. He has blood on his face, his features have somehow dissolved, his eyes are staring, unseeing. The body bag is carried away. When all the wounded have been driven off one of the medics brings out a bucket of hot water. They scrub out the ambulance. Red water runs down the road, staining the frozen sand. The medic has stopped crying. Her face is clean, her expression is resolute and she has rearranged her hair.
What might you call that experience of jarring contrast, which is such a common part of the witness literature of conflict and other catastrophes, and also of so many other stories of adventure, survival and homecoming? More concretely: the experience of returning home and understanding that life there has carried on as normal. A metaphor? An archetype? A narrative theme? Or is it just a basic premise of life?
To travel at night from the front-line zone, to leave the horizon of flaring lights, is a journey towards inattention. The dark, unseen landscape envelops you in a cocoon. The meaning of words, of songs playing on the car radio, emerge, clarify. But when you drive into some small town beyond the range of Russian artillery the contrast startles: the sudden lights, the sharply lit shop windows are visually shocking.
Imagine that light can be so . . . light. To travel through a blacked-out city, by contrast, weighs you down more than it shocks you. No street lights. Traffic lights blank. Moving through the dark valleys between high-rise silhouettes is eerie, no matter whether the lack of light is caused by yet another Russian missile attack or a planned shutdown of the grid. Only a few pale yellow rectangles are faintly lit, and you get the feeling that all of it could be the digital backdrop of one of those dystopian Netflix shows, a few lost people huddling behind those windows.
But it’s easy to exaggerate the drama. Ukraine is a large country, and in most towns life goes on almost as usual. There is electricity, water and heating (mostly). The trains leave on time, as do the trams, and in the morning, when curfew ends, rush hour chokes up the roads just as it always has.
The malls are filled with shoppers. They may have to walk up the escalators, which are permanently turned off, but they can find all they need in the shops. Restaurants and bars, too, are full of people, young men and women doing what young men and women have always done. But in a second everything can be undone; because Russian cruise missiles and ballistic rockets can reach all parts of the country.
To hold on to normal life, despite everything that has happened, is happening, or could happen – is that an act of defiance or an act of denial? Or is it both?
Even in a town like Kramatorsk, so near the front that the thunder from Bakhmut is audible day and night, and where heavy Russian rockets and missiles fall most days, people refuse to be frightened. Men and women on their way to and from Arbat, the little shopping centre in the middle of town don’t, on the whole, walk faster when the sirens come on, reverberating between the buildings. And when the howling starts at night, a dissonant choir of sirens, very few retreat to the bomb shelters. ‘It’s a lottery,’ someone says, with resignation.
The contrast between what goes on at this moment, over there and the home front’s reversion to normal life is crystallised by an image of a hospital for injured soldiers. On the one hand, the ward is quiet and peaceful: low voices, eighties pop from a CD player, a PlayStation 4, the smell of microwaved pizza from the canteen off the corridor. On the other, there is a constant parade of men (and some women) of all ages, in tracksuits, on crutches, in wheelchairs, with walkers or walking frames.
People without legs or arms, or without parts of legs, arms, hands, faces or eyes. People whose bodies were destroyed on the battlefield, learning to function again, with the help of prosthetic limbs. It’s hard, and painful. The veterans’ faces are sad, their eyes hard and dull. Most of them move cautiously, trying out new limbs. One man has lost both legs. He is in a cold sweat, staring, licking his lips. He definitely does not want to be photographed. (When he has learned to walk, he says, he will return to battle – and he is not alone.) Another rubs the stub of his arm while rocking back and forth. Phantom pains. There is a queue for the smoking room. All soldiers smoke, even those who normally don’t.
There are no official figures on Ukrainian military fatalities. (Such statistics are normally not released during war.) Western sources estimate that the Ukrainian combat casualties is around 100,000 soldiers – killed, wounded, taken prisoner or simply disappeared. During the Russian summer campaign against Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, Mykhailo Podolyak, a close adviser to President Zelenskiy, admitted that between 100 and 200 Ukrainian soldiers were killed every day. So even if the Russian casualties are far higher (attack is always riskier than defence) it is obvious that the Ukrainians are paying a horrifyingly high price for this war.
Signs state that the ward is for injured soldiers only, and that members of the public are not permitted. The purpose is not to hide the wounded, but to protect them. Many of them don’t want to be seen, much less photographed, in this state. Most of the doors to the hospital rooms are closed. The whole ward has forty beds. As soon as a patient leaves, someone else takes their place.
When the war is over; when nature has healed; when craters and trenches have grown over and all the rusty tanks have been smelted and turned into Teslas or roof beams; when the last fallen soldier has been found and buried with full military honours; when the ruins have been rebuilt or torn down to make way for new, more attractive housing; when a new generation who were not part of it, and whose memories are virginal, empty, grow up; when there are no material signs and when people begin to forget, these men and women will still be here, and their marked and broken bodies will remind us of how terrible this was.
For those who have lost an arm or a leg or part of their face the physical injury is all too obvious. But what about the mental wounds? ‘Practically everyone who is admitted has some form of psychological trauma,’ a soft-spoken neurologist says. ‘They are in shock from the pain and their experience, and they shut down. They often become mute. It can take three weeks for them to speak again, and then they can be angry, raging against their fate. The most difficult part, psychologically speaking, is getting them to come to terms with their injury, to think about the future, and start training with a prosthetic limb. Everyone has some kind of PTSD; most of them become depressed, or even psychotic, though that is rare. We don’t have our own psychologists on the ward, but we do have volunteers who come and help.’
Svjatoslav is twenty-six but looks younger, with large brown eyes and a short beard, wearing a striped T-shirt and cut-off jeans. Before the war he was an engineer with Siemens in Ukraine. His left foot is gone, and he moves the stump incessantly, not because of phantom pain, he is over that, but because the muscles have to be retrained, reshaped for the prosthetic limb.
‘It happened on 10 October at the Kherson front, a fine sunny day, warm, seventeen or eighteen degrees. Our orders were to find a new passage to the river – the old path was under fire. On the way there we found and disarmed a mine, but it turned out there were two, and on the way back I stepped on the other one. It was a PMK, the size of a tin of shoe polish. There was a sudden bang, I was lying there and saw that my boot was gone. This is the worst thing that could happen, I thought. I think I was more scared of being an invalid than of death. I have seen so much of it. Guys without arms, legs, faces, eyes.’
The war can often seem strangely distant, especially in western Ukraine. Then there is yet another reminder. A funeral procession is making its way down the road. The snow-clad tops of the Carpathian Mountains are visible in the distance. At the head of the procession is a police car, blue lights flashing, next a black van adorned with the text heroes never die in Ukrainian; after that a line of civilian cars, then a bus, all with their warning lights blinking, many draped with Ukrainian flags. Traffic comes to a standstill, people drive onto the hard shoulder and turn on their hazard lights in response. Many of them leave their cars, bare their heads. When the procession rolls past they make the sign of the cross. We are on our way to Boryslav.
In the black van is the body of Oleksandr, forty-six. Before the war he was a mechanic. Like many of the people who live in the foothills of the Carpathians, he loved being out in nature. The same day the Russians invaded Ukraine he volunteered to join the army. He fought for eleven months as a foot soldier. Thursday 26 January he and his platoon were on the Kreminna front, near Yampil, the medics’ village. During the night there was a probing attack, and by dawn the Russian artillery was firing with everything they had. Yampil, and Oleksandr’s platoon, were ‘covered’ (as the Ukrainians say) with grenades and rockets. The bombardment was relentless, and then the Russians attacked in force. Oleksandr rang his mother, Lida. ‘Mum,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t look as though I’ll survive this.’ An hour later he was dead.
The procession drives into Boryslav under a grey sky. There’s a slalom slope with a ski lift, empty and quiet. People – men and women, old and young – line the road, and when the van with the coffin rolls past they fall to their knees in the patchy snow.
The coffin, draped in a flag, is carried into a small chapel by six uniformed men. A statue of the Virgin Mary guards the entrance. The mourners crowd in, so many that some have to stand outside in the icy mountain wind. Someone struggles to manoeuvre a large stand of plastic flowers through the door. The priest’s portable speaker is badly connected, and the sound cuts in and out when he sings a hymn.
Usually, funerals here are conducted with open coffins. But in this case that wasn’t possible. Oleksandr was killed by grenade splinters to the head, one of them going through an eye. Of the twenty men in his platoon, sixteen were wounded that Thursday, three were killed, and only one survived unscathed. When the priest has done what he has to do the mother is the first to approach the illuminated coffin.
Lida is in her sixties, and dressed in a dark purple jacket. She takes a tentative step towards the coffin, then stops, weeping, covering her mouth and nose in an attempt to control herself. She closes her eyes, keeps them closed, and when she opens them again she is looking at a black-framed photograph of Oleksandr propped up on the coffin. He is in combat uniform, a powerful shaved head. His gaze is serious, or perhaps tired. There is no hint of a smile.
The sky is grey, the temperature hovers around zero. The left side of the five-storey block of flats has collapsed, and three floors have folded on top of each other like an accordion. The communal staircase is sooty, the steps covered in ash, plaster and glass. The flat is an empty shell. Vjačeslav, forty-nine, is a stocky man dressed in a black jacket, baseball cap, trainers and blue jeans. He is home on leave.
This was his flat. His mother, eighty-one, lived here, too. ‘I wasn’t here. I rang on 11 March, and a Chechen soldier answered her mobile. Later a neighbour said she had been killed the day before, on the Thursday.’ In what was once a kitchen I can see a wall-mounted dish rack, now bent out of shape. Near the window the heat was so intense that some glasses have melted into surreal, Salvador Dalí-like shapes.
Vjačeslav points to a stain on the floor. ‘We found parts of her here,’ he says matter-of-factly. This building, and others nearby, are ruins, impossible to rebuild. A crew has already begun to demolish the block next door. As we drive out of the area our translator points to a square in the plaster on one of the neighbouring buildings: ‘That’s where the Banksy painting was. Before it was stolen.’
Sun, empty harvested sunflower fields. The lorry with its Grad rocket launcher is parked behind a narrow line of trees. The brick-red Bakelite lids on the back of the rocket pipes shows that they are loaded. The lorry itself is in good shape, with only minor damage. (‘None have been killed,’ one man says. But they have lost five Grad trucks like this one since the war began.) The battery commander, Roman, a dour man, forty-nine years old, wears blue body armour. When the conversation moves on from military matters and the situation in nearby Marinka, he comes to life. ‘The most common psychological problem is this thing, the fear of death. You have to break free of that burden, you don’t need it. The fear of death is a chain, it’s a prison. What I tell people depends on the individual, of course, but the fear is often, in some complicated way, connected to various problems people struggled with before the war. I try to find out what those issues were, what was wrong. Often, it’s some form of guilt. We are so much more than just our bodies.’
His mobile rings. It’s time to fire. Within minutes the first rockets are launched: tails of fire shrinking to bright dots in the cold blue sky.
Fog, temperature around zero. Visibility is only a few hundred metres. ‘A good day to be a soldier,’ says Orest, a Ukrainian officer, one hand on the wheel. ‘Not much shooting. A day to rest, to wash clothes, to go shopping in the nearest village.’ This seems to be true for civilians, too: along the road we see quite a few people, many of them elderly, cycling or on foot, carrying heavy shopping bags.
We lose our way in the fog, and suddenly we are alone: no vehicles, no people, nothing. Orest is not much bothered. ‘These villages are all alike,’ he says in passing. Some Ukrainian soldiers wave, we stop, talk. Orest turns the vehicle and we drive back the way we came. ‘What did they say?’ we ask. He shrugs. ‘That we were on our way into the Russian lines.’
We stop near a seemingly endless field of blackened sunflowers. It is like a gigantic Anselm Kiefer installation, the countless bent petals illustrating a world of death and nothingness. ‘The field was mined by the Russians,’ Orest says, hands in his pockets. ‘The value of the harvest wouldn’t cover the cost to clear the mines. That’s why they’ve left it like this.’
Everything is grey, grey. Even the sound of explosions takes on a subdued grey tone.
Before the war this was a thriving middle-class area of new, low-rise flats. Anton, thirty-five, is a copywriter. He shows us the remains of what was once his home: a study in the phenomenology of destruction. ‘This was my Xbox. That was my computer. They were on the floor above, but the floor collapsed.’
‘I think it was my PlayStation.’ He touches the brittle thing with its cover of burnt white plastic. ‘Yes, it was.’ He brushes dust and debris from his hands. By the wall are some rusted bedsprings covered in fallen plaster: ‘That was my bed.’
He seems curiously detached. Some bulging side of something – what might it be? ‘The fridge.’ The stove is still recognisable, and so is the dishwasher, buried under a pile of broken crockery and brick and plaster. He pulls the sooty front of it open. ‘And there are the dishes,’ he says, more curious than sad. We climb out the same way we came in, through a blown-out window. Anton is still pointing things out: ‘And that was my motorbike.’ His voice darkens. ‘I have nothing now. Everything I owned has been destroyed, everything. I don’t mind the things. I can get a new TV and a new motorbike. But what makes me furious is that my daughter has lost her home. And that the Russians killed my neighbours. The Russians were under cover over there –’ he points to the forest – ‘and shot at anything that moved on the road. We found people dead in their cars afterwards.’
When he sees all the junk thrown into his garden, covering the little juniper bush he planted with his daughter, he suddenly becomes very upset. The bush was meant to protect the home, a miniature tree to decorate at Christmas. He digs into the mess, lifts and pulls, doesn’t give up until the juniper is free and properly staked. We leave, driving past a large, empty supermarket, blackened by fire. ‘That’s where I used to go shopping,’ he says quietly.
Some snow is falling, it’s minus one or two. There’s a smell of oil, diesel and, yes, cold steel. It’s striking how large and ugly and dirty they are, the tanks. As a species. So too this one, number 664. There’s snow on the long gun barrel and front armour. The engine room is covered in dirty duvets. ‘Firing takes up maybe 5 per cent of our time. Less so now, because we need to save ammunition and we mustn’t wear out the gun barrel. The rest of the time we fix the tank, inspect it, service it. All the time. That’s why a tanker’s uniform is black. It’s dirty work.’
Ihor, twenty-six, huddles with cold. As the gunner his place is to the left in the turret. The heavy latch swings open and reveals a hole with a mess of cables and boxes and buttons and dials. ‘You don’t think about how tight the space is when you are in battle.’ He smiles faintly, and points to the left side of the tower: the tank has recently been repaired.
‘We were in battle with Russian infantry. Long distance. We had shifted our position twice already and drew up to a third place to fire again. Then we felt a deep thud and a huge bang, very deep, bass. We didn’t know what it was. So we withdrew, then we saw that the reactive armour on the left side of the tower was gone. Later we found the parts of one of those Russian AT missiles stuck on the back of the tank. We were lucky.’
He shows some photos on his phone. ‘I am used to the war now. It took . . . two months. But I worry about my brother, who is a tank driver too, and my mum and dad, who are back in our village. The Russians occupied it for a month, and they were too busy to torture anyone. But two people disappeared, and an acquaintance of mine was found executed in a trench.
Question: How do you keep in touch? ‘My brother and I communicate via WhatsApp. I talk to Mum and Dad on the phone. In the beginning they would call eight or ten times a day, and in the end I had to tell them, “Listen, I am trying to fight a war here!” ’
There are feral dogs everywhere, packs of at least two, quite often four. They move quickly, anxiously, as though constantly on the road to some distant goal known only to them. They are only rarely aggressive. Many are obviously family pets whose owners have fled or been killed. There is a golden retriever, over there an Alsatian and some sort of terrier, and there – a sad sight! – a dachshund.
Cats seem to cope with life at the front better. They are egocentric and solitary creatures, witnessing the downfall of civilisation with equanimity. Many of the cats in this ruined village look suspiciously well-fed. It is known that cats eat cadavers, but so do dogs, and they don’t look so well. Maybe rats and other feline prey thrive in the mess of destruction. Later, in a warm, well-furnished bunker, we meet a grey tabby cat lazily basking on one of the rough wooden bunk beds. We ask his name. ‘Sardine!’ the gloomy sergeant says, lighting up. ‘He keeps the mice away.’
Roman is well built, quick thinking and confident; has that aura of invincibility, as though he will come through it all without a scratch. He doesn’t wear body armour. (He points at ours, laughs: ‘These are mainly for psychological effect.’) Later, waiting for the next transport of wounded soldiers, we talk in the warmth of the small house. He is resting on a pull-out chair-bed, mobile phone in hand, comms radio by his side.
‘Sure, I miss my wife, and daughters of course. I don’t like war. But to get through it mentally you have to accept it; accept this strange life and everything it brings. You have to separate from your civilian self. We won’t be soldiers our whole lives, but now that’s what we are; it’s our duty to be soldiers, and to be professional. If you accept that, your life will be easier. Sitting around feeling homesick will just make you unhappy. Just unhappy. Don’t think too much, don’t become too emotional. That can be dangerous – it breaks you down. It’s important to find a balance. Imagine it like this [he demonstrates with his hands]: a globe. Up in the north: no emotions; down south, all emotions. Best thing is to stick near the equator. It’s important to always keep a bit of empathy inside. But if you can’t stick by the equator: go north! Then it’s better to be hard, a bit cold . . . There is a logic to all this. When I leave the war, I’ll leave it completely. That’s important. Completely. It’s a big problem, soldiers bringing the war home. I hate uniforms. I will go home, and I will leave all this, everything I have experienced, behind.’
In the background we hear the sound of boiling water and a quiet snapping from the warming stove. Every now and then an unseen heavy artillery piece is fired from the hill behind the house, and the door shakes a little. Otherwise nothing much is happening.
It is strange how quickly the brain learns to distinguish sounds, even in an urban environment. The cry of the sirens; the heavy thud and short shake that signals a missile hit in another part of town; the shaking windows which means that this time it was closer; the early-morning rattle over the rooftops indicating an Iranian kamikaze drone, a sound which may be new but which still lacks a certain menacing quality – the Ukrainians call them ‘mopeds’, because that is the noise they make.
But here is a new sound. BRRRRROP. BRRRRROP. An automatic cannon, firing nearby. We leave our plates and run outside. The sky is light grey. The wide Peace Square by the neoclassical Palace of Culture is suddenly empty. BRRRRROP. But where is it coming from? A large city is like an echo chamber. Silence. Nothing. (Quick amateur analysis: ‘Light air force cannons shooting at low-flying targets; it must have been a cruise missile.’)
We go back inside and resume the conversation and the meal – Ukrainian pizza with pickled cucumbers. BRRRRROP. BRRRRROP. Another cruise missile. On the street corner: emptiness. (A quick, even more amateurish analysis: ‘That doesn’t sound like a normal ZU-23, the sound is . . . lighter. Could be a German Gepard.’) Silence. Nothing. Back inside. BRRRRROP. BRRRRROP. Again, we can’t see anything. More cruise missiles fly over us. Fast as arrows. We eat our pizza.
It’s hard to discern the logic behind the Russian missile attacks. Targeting the Ukrainian electricity grid is probably the most considered strategy in the Russian war effort to date. But even if those attacks cause considerable problems for the Ukrainians, they seem to be able to solve them, with their customary talent for improvisation. But to send a missile costing, say, £3–4 million, to a residential area to kill an old lady and her cat feels incomprehensible. One senses a bureaucratic machinery where attacks are carried out against a certain place in order for someone to be able to report that an attack has been carried out. Or perhaps it is simpler than that. Perhaps this aimless killing is not a means to an end; it’s an end in and of itself.
During the night, the usual sirens. Early the next day we drive to Sloviansk. Outside a large warehouse of some kind, the road is covered in millions of tiny glass splinters glistening like sequins in the low morning sun. When we return that afternoon the asphalt has been swept clean.
You can hardly pass a cemetery without catching a glimpse of a grave for one of the fallen, adorned with a large Ukrainian flag. But this is a military cemetery. The first impression is just of flags, flags everywhere. A grey day. The only sound, even though there must be forty or fifty people here, is that of flags flapping in the cold wind. People walk in small groups, talking very quietly. Most of them meander up and down the paths of flags and portraits and crosses, a muted cry signalling that they have found the person they were looking for.
Most of the graves are new. Majestic plastic flower arrangements are still wrapped in cellophane, the graveside offerings of bread, chocolate, cigarettes or sweets are untouched. A woman in a fur hat is tidying up a grave with a toy spade. A tall young man with a sparse beard lights a cigarette, sits down on his haunches and places it on a grave covered in red carnations. He stands up, staring into the steel-grey sky.
‘That one over there,’ he says, pointing at a grave behind us, ‘he was a cool guy, funny. Everyone called him Morzi (the Walrus). He was a Javelin operator at Bakhmut, the beginning of June. He destroyed two Russian tanks, one after the other, and he was about to stop the third one when the battery malfunctioned. A Russian sharpshooter got him. That was 4 June. This –’ he points at another grave – ‘is Black. He was a machine-gunner, using one of the heavy ones, a Browning. He disappeared. No one knows what happened. Then his body was found, identified, and yesterday he was buried. He wanted to come back as a hero, and he did, but not as he would have wished.’
The photo by the grave shows a serious young man in uniform. The man we are talking to is breathing heavily now. He sinks down to his knees, steadies himself on the sandy ground. ‘We are paying an enormous price for this war,’ he says, gets on his feet and starts to walk away. He doesn’t want to talk any more. ‘I can’t explain, can’t explain how it feels.’
In the upper part of the cemetery four newly dug graves are waiting for coffins. They are like narrow deep wounds in the dry and crumbly earth. You want to look into them, but you feel you can’t.
Photographs © Paul Hansen