The villages in the surrounding area are a dreary shade of gray, their houses in ruins. The black, scorched fields are dotted with the tails of unexploded rockets, a lasting reminder of Russia’s occupation. No bridges were left standing in their wake. Scraps of metal from vehicles and armor litter the roadsides.
As we drive through small towns, roadblocks appear one after another. The fields are desolate and gray, and our pickup truck comes to a halt near a ditch where a civilian car lies. „We have to take a detour,“ Buryi says, turning the wheel. We have three hours left of our journey and no way of communicating with anyone. The only people moving through these areas are military personnel. The further we go, the fewer locals we see. In the last hours, we’ve only come across an old man by the road, a woman in a shawl, and some power line repairmen.
Wildlife, however, seems to be thriving – we’ve seen more and more hares, pheasants, owls, and hawks. The villages are dark, their houses missing roofs, their windows boarded up. The lamp posts have been knocked down, and their remains prop up the dreary sky. Russians were here.
It would be quicker to shed the body armor and crawl into the sleeping bag, but first, some tea and food are in order. The fatigue has taken a toll on my back, causing it to ache and my knees to feel like springs. My fingers are numb and tingling.
We make our home in a crooked house, relying on the soft glow of lanterns and candles. Adding more wood to the stove will bring a little more warmth, enough to get through the end of this day and, hopefully, the start of the next.
I had intended to write He tells of burying Her at the end of summer after a mine explosion killed her. He retrieved her body with his bare hands and brought her to the cemetery, despite being laughed at and threatened by the Buryats with their guns. A neighbor helped him to dig her grave. Afterward, he was taken away, and nothing more is known of his fate.
The old man still visits her grave. Sometimes he stands at a distance; other times, he sits. This time, it appears he was leaving her once again. Her name was Maria.
“The wheel is still lying there.”
We pass by an area where a car was recently blown up.
“The boys were lucky, if you can call it that. Both of them survived with contusions of varying degrees. They were trying to get away at high speed.”
Many territories in this area are filled with mines, and nearly every field is littered with artillery ammunition. The Russians have left many scars. PFM-1 mines are everywhere, so one must stick to walking on established, cleared paths. And still, the ground holds unpleasant „surprises,“ even in areas that seem to have been thoroughly searched.
The days drown in a monotonous routine as our hands become stained with the scent of oil, gunpowder, and fuel. Smoky clothes and weathered lips are a testament to the rigors of war. Our bodies are exhausted and depleted of vitamins and the comfort of home and family. The small, simple joys of life that once were are now gone, lost in the wake of a full-scale invasion. War is grueling work that tests the limits of everyone’s physiological capabilities.
The sound of a loved one’s voice on the phone is like a beacon of light breaking through the storm, providing a glimmer of hope. It is the light at the end of the tunnel, a reminder that there is still something worth fighting for.
What is life like after the occupation?
The school is in ruins, the library is burnt.
Sunflowers lowered their black heads to the ground.
Children run out into the streets and greet the Ukrainian military in villages where people still live.
When you see local children, everything inside shrinks. They see off our cars and we drive by.
People try to smile. It is not always possible though. It seems that the sky has fallen on their shoulders. It seems that all the weight of the earth presses them with clouds.
It oppresses us.
All of them.
Somewhere you can come across a shop connected to a generator. It takes several hours to get to the next one.
The war has not gone anywhere from here and will be present for a long time. The territories are freed from the occupiers, but the war is everywhere. It stretches with gray fogs, covering populated areas with its density so that the sun is not visible. Remains of snow are washed away by rain. This winter is not winter.
There are explosions at night. Their echo spreads for dozens of kilometers under an extremely beautiful starry sky. During the day…
An eight-year-old boy is playing football alone in the yard. He hits the ball into the goal holed with the bullets. He raises his hands up like Messi, rejoices and looks around as if the whole stadium is looking at him.
We pass by. We look at his game. My heart squeezes.
Buryi stops the car:
„Maradona, come here,“ and he gives him a chocolate bar.
I’ve been hearing more and more tales from various sources about a well where kidnapped civilians and prisoners were reportedly thrown. Despite searching, the well remains unfound. It is somewhere on the outskirts of this area.
I can’t help but wonder if the grandfather’s neighbor I mentioned earlier has met the same fate, lying at the bottom of the well in the icy water along with the other missing individuals. He is in the place which they call the well.
The kettle hums on the gas stove, casting a dim light on the corner of the room. Above the table, a drawing of a hand hangs, with a heart painted in blue and yellow at its center. This is the hand of the girl who wrote:
I give you a piece of my heart to protect you in battle.
I wish you good health. May all enemy bullets and rockets pass by you and the sun warm you.
May God bless you.
Thanks for everything..
I believe in our Victory.
You are our pride.
Come back home alive.”
I want to see dreams in color but there are none.
I fall asleep and see darkness.
The wind carries tumblewheeds down the dirt road.
The remains of a Russian soldier lie near a mined dugout. The earth has claimed his flesh and insides.
The first blooms of spring will sprout from his skull.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan