First the whiz and then the explosion a second later. One after another. One after another.
I was hiding in an underground dugout — it would be difficult to call it a bunker: no solid entrance door, no proper stash of food and water. The walls were wooden and there were two sort-of beds, a couple of rugs and some wooden chairs. The place was untidy with phone chargers and military clothing — helmets, flack jackets. There were a few cookies and some chocolate bars. Home for Ukrainian soldiers on the front line.
The artillery sound got louder. “Every day is like that,” Denis Gordiev, a platoon commander in the Ukrainian Army, told me cheerfully. I’d come with a few British journalists to Pisky, a village roughly six miles from occupied Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. It was late April and Russia had already shifted to the second phase of its war, pulling back its forces near Kyiv and escalating its attacks in the east.
“They are trying to break through,” Lieutenant Gordiev calmly explained. “First it’s artillery and then tanks.” He served us tea.
For weeks I have been crisscrossing Ukraine reporting on the war. I’ve learned that war can sound very tidy when it’s described with words like “phases,” “offensives” and “territory,” but it’s not tidy. The front line may stretch about 300 miles, up through the Donbas in the southeast to the city of Kharkiv
, but where does the war stop? It has no clean edges where it ends and normal life resumes.
I’ve met people who’ve lost everything they had, women with children who have nowhere to go, children whose bodies are broken and whose lives are changed forever. I’ve interviewed the relatives of the tortured and killed. I have seen displacement, injury and loss everywhere I’ve visited until I have stopped believing that there are any people or places left in Ukraine that have been untouched by this war.
Russia can say all it wants about “phases” and its territorial objectives, but my whole country has been changed along with everyone in it.
A few days before Pisky we’d stopped in Kramatorsk, a city about 60 miles north, where shelling is a daily threat. About a week earlier, a rocket attack had destroyed a train station and killed at least 50 civilians, many of them women and children; they were waiting for an evacuation train to what they thought, or hoped, was safety.
“It was horrible,” a policeman told me. “People were lying without hands and legs. Everyone was crying for help.”
The police officers I spoke to had been some of the first to arrive at the scene. While we were talking, their radio crackled: “Attention to all patrols … go to the shelter. It’s shelling.”
We ran with them to an underground shelter as the sound of impacts grew closer. Only when we’d gotten underground could we relax with green tea and dark humor.
Now Pokrovsk, a couple of hours south of Kramatorsk, is the last place where people can catch a train out of the Donbas. A half-empty train runs every afternoon from there to western Ukraine. But many people have already left; the few who stay are mostly too old or too afraid to leave.
Before Kramatorsk we were in Zaporizhzhia, in the south. (One of our many visits to Zaporizhzhia.) The war was there too, mostly in the shape of the injured and the displaced, but sometimes in the form of cruise missiles. People flee to Zaporizhzhia from Mariupol, more than 100 miles east, where Ukrainian officials estimated in April that about 20,000 people been killed since the start of the war.
I met 11-year-old Milena in a children’s hospital in Zaporizhzhia. She had been trying to escape Mariupol with her family in a car when they came under Russian attack. She was shot in the face. When I saw her she was attached to a ventilator. She opened her eyes for a moment and immediately started choking and had to be sedated.
In the bed next to Milena was Masha, a 15-year-old girl who had been walking with her mother near their home in Polohy, a city between Zaporizhzhia and Mariupol, when a shell exploded 10 feet away, injuring them both. Shrapnel shredded Masha’s right arm and broke her shoulder; her right leg had to be amputated above the knee.
Milena is a lot better now, but the scars on her face won’t let her forget what she has lived through. Masha is getting rehabilitation in Germany; she also will not be allowed to forget. Lots of other children are sitting in Ukrainian hospitals with their stories untold, desperately needing help.
Zaporizhzhia, Kramatorsk and Pisky used to be places with their own cultures and complexions. Before the war, when I thought of Zaporizhzhia I’d think of the beautiful Khortytsia Island on the Dnipro river, or the ZAZ Zaporozhets, an iconic car built during Soviet times. Kramatorsk and Mariupol were the gates to the rest of the Donbas. Pisky used to be one of the richest villages in Ukraine, where the houses were fancy and the cars were expensive.
Now when I think of Zaporizhzhia I think of Milena’s struggles to breathe and Masha’s pain. Kramatorsk is the horror of the train station. Pisky is Lieutenant Gordiev with his cheer and his tea.
While we were in Pisky, Lieutenant Gordiev gave us a tour outside the dugout — with no helmet on — and showed us weapons sent by the West. He explained that the NLAWs, or short-range anti-tank missiles, were very easy to use. But they need a lot more of them. Mostly they were working with leftovers from Soviet times and Molotov cocktails.
After Pisky we headed west toward Dnipro. Three days later Lieutenant Gordiev texted me: The Russians were trying to get through again. “Everything is all right,” he wrote, as cheerful as before, “but not everyone survived,” he added. They planned to stay and hold the position. “Russia will stop where we will stop it,” he wrote. When he says “we” he means Ukraine.
In the early 2000s, records say, 2,160 people lived in Pisky. I don’t know how many were there before the invasion began. But by the end of April, the soldiers told us only 11 civilians remained, mostly old people. Another family left more recently, after a direct artillery hit destroyed their house and left some of them wounded. There is still a sign on their gate that says, “Family lives here,” but they’re not there anymore. I hope they’re somewhere safe.
Tanya Kozyreva is a journalist in Ukraine, formerly at BuzzFeed News. There she worked on the FinCEN Files project, a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for international reporting.
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