CARTA DEL DONBAS: TODA PERSONA ES UN BLANCO
por Luke Megolson, «The New Yorker» Magazine, Aug 01 2022.
Tremendo reportaje del asedio ruso a la zona este de Ucrania, por el periodista americano Luke Megolson (40), nacido en St. Louis, Missouri, autor de varios libros y curtido corresponsal de guerra en el Medio Oriente y en Washington DC, donde infiltrado entre las bandas de neo nazis que el 6 de febrero de 2021se tomaron el Congreso, filma la mejor evidencia de la asonada de Donald Trump para repetirse el plato.
Debido a su maestría en llevar el sentir humano a la palabra escrita, este antiguo devoto de la mentada revista se ha tomado la libertad, quizás por hoy no más, de reproducir íntegramente tan extraordinario modelo de literatura-verdad.
Atención con trampas de traducción propias del tema: shelling = bombardeo continuado sobre un mismo objetivo, ordnance = artillería; power lines = torres de alta tensión; volley = andanada; barrage = cañoneo concentrado; officer = policía; battering = demoler con variados explosivos, y wherewithal es billullo para emergencias como arrancar lejos.
LETTER FROM THE DONBAS: EVERYONE IS A TARGET
The Ukrainians trapped on the front lines of Russias vicious invasion.
People in Ukraine sometimes describe the intensity of shelling in simple auditory terms. A place can be quiet or loud. As the volume increases, so do the chaos, misery, death, and fear. You cannot experience such fatal noise without instinctively grasping its purpose, which is to brutalize psychically as much as physicallyto demoralize and stupefy. Nowhere on earth is louder today than the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, where Russia has concentrated its forces and its firepower since April, after abandoning its disastrous bid to capture Kyiv. Russian officials, far from being humbled by that ordeal, have insisted on their continued determination not only to seize Ukrainian land and resources but also to punish and terrorize Ukrainians and their supporters. I hate them, Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russias security council, wrote on social media in early June. They are bastards and scum, he went on. As long as I live, I will do everything to make them disappear.
When Medvedev posted this statement, I was in Lysychanskat the time, the easternmost city still under Ukrainian control. Artillery boomed and crashed. Power lines drooped across deserted streets. Not a single shop was open. There was no electricity, gas, fuel, cellular service, or running water. As my translator and I drove through empty neighborhoods strewn with rubble, Medvedevs desire, here at least, seemed to have been realized. Then, not long after we arrived, we encountered something unexpected: a group of people.
They were loitering outside a fire station on the main avenue downtown. Sheets of plywood covered the broken windows of the red three-story building. A banner reading prevent, rescue, assist hung above the entrance. A middle-aged woman with a graying pixie haircut and an incandescent smile introduced herself as Tanya. The incongruity between her circumstances and her disposition became ever more pronounced as she recounted her troubles. She worked as a cleaning lady in a house that had been bombed the previous day. Im about to haul some bricks, she said, her eyes sparkling. Tidy things up. Shed come to the fire station in search of food. Two days earlier, a Russian air strike had obliterated a community center where city employees and local volunteers had been distributing humanitarian aid.
Now theres nothing here, Tanya said.
A volley of rockets whistled overhead and slammed to earth nearby, pulverizing concrete. A firefighter opened the door and yelled at us to get inside. Stairs descended to a narrow underground corridor with a dirt floor. It was pitch-black, and during the quiet between explosions you could hear the labored breathing that adrenaline induces. Another rocket shook the walls. Then another. A woman began to weep. Mother of God, please help us, she prayed.
When will it be over? a young boy asked.
Its long this time, a man remarked.
Hold the children close.
The blasts eventually subsided, and everyone climbed back up into the light. Tanya was in the stairwell, laughing with a tall, hunched man whose eyes were gray and clouded. His name was Leonid.
Hes with me, Tanya said, grinning mischievously.
It wasnt true. Leonids wife, daughter, and granddaughter had fled to Poland at the beginning of the war, and he now lived alone. He had cataracts and glaucoma, and the drops that prevented his vision from deteriorating were no longer available in Lysychansk. Although he saw mostly amorphous shapes like everything is in a deep foghed walked nearly a mile, under sporadic bombardment, in search of something to eat or drink. At the top of the stairs, a fireman behind a reception desk gave him a loaf of bread.
Can I have another? Leonid asked.
The fireman reached into a bag and produced a second loaf.
Is there any butter?
Maybe tomorrow. None right now.
Leonid and Tanya returned outside. Tanya said that she was going to see what she could salvage from the wreckage of the house where she worked. Leonid placed his bread in a metal cart that was filled with plastic jugs. Almost everyone in Lysychansk, Id soon learn, carried containers with them whenever they moved around the citypaint buckets attached to the handlebars of bicycles, gunnysacks bulging with two-litre soda bottles, old jerricans in wheelbarrowsbecause you had to be prepared in case you came upon some water.
Another high-pitched barrage sang across the sky. I ran back into the basement. When I reëmerged, Leonid was still standing where Id left him, looking around in consternation, no doubt wondering where everyone had gone.
Whereas many residents of Kyiv were shocked when, in late February, missiles first landed on their city, Ukrainians in the Donbas had been enduring such threats since 2014. After the Revolution of Dignity unseated the Ukrainian President and Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych, Vladimir Putin dispatched troops to arm and support pro-Russian separatists in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which together compose the Donbas region. During the next eight years, more than fourteen thousand people died in a stalemated conflict, while Russia and the separatists consolidated their dominion over about a third of the Donbas. After Russian forces retreated from Kyiv, in April, they repositioned in the east, where, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told India Today, they would aim to fully liberate Donetsk and Luhansk.
This second phase of the war began the same way the first one ended: with a massacre. On April 8th, while communal graves of murdered civilians were still being excavated near Kyiv, a Russian missile armed with cluster bombs targeted a railway station in Kramatorsk, the provisional seat of Ukrainianheld Donetsk. More than a thousand people were awaiting trains to take them away from the impending offensive in the Donbas. As soon as I arrived, I saw a little girl lying there with no legs, hugging her Teddy bear, a police officer who responded to the scene told me, when I visited Kramatorsk this summer. Sixty-one civilians were killed, and about a hundred and twenty were wounded. There were pieces of people everywhere, the officer said. When someone died, we took their tourniquets off and put them on someone else. By the end, my boots were filled with blood.
The attack established a tactical precedent for the Russian military, which has prosecuted its campaign in the east by relentlessly battering towns and cities from afar. Because the Donbas borders Russia, a continual feed of ordnance has sustained the onslaught. Russian commanders, meanwhile, have learned from their fiasco in the north of Ukraine. Rather than overextend their forces with daring attempts at lightning victories, as they did around Kyiv, they have advanced in the Donbas with a plodding but deliberate implacability. Animated maps of the shifting front line show a red blob seeping westward like spilled wine spreading over a tablecloth.
Although the conflict in 2014 displaced many people in the Donbas, approximately six million civilians still lived there when Russia launched its full-scale invasion. By June, that number had been reduced by half. On my way to the region, I met with Oleksandr Stryuk, the mayor of Severodonetsk, which faces Lysychansk from the eastern bank of the Siverskyi Donets River. Stryuk had evacuated with his staff a few days earlier, after Russian artillery destroyed one of three bridges leading to the city. At that point, we had to go, he told me. We were in a hotel room in Dnipro, two hundred miles to the west, where Stryuk was lodging temporarily. He looked exhausted and stunned. Although he cast his decision to flee as unavoidable, the topic made him visibly uncomfortable and perhaps, I thought, ashamed. It was very difficult to convince people to leave, Stryuk said. He estimated that thirteen thousand residents remained in Severodonetsk, which once had a population of a hundred thousand and was now an isolated urban combat zone racked by ferocious street fighting.
Even then, it appeared likely that the same fate awaited Lysychansk. The tether connecting the city to the rest of Ukraine was rapidly fraying. Russian forces had cut off the highway that led southwest to the nearest garrison town, Bakhmut, and they were squeezing from both sides an alternative network of rutted back roads. Recently, a French journalist attempting to enter Lysychansk had been killed while riding in an armored vehicle, when shrapnel from a Russian shell pierced the windshield. A few days after I spoke with Stryuk, my translator and I followed several policemen in a soft-shell Land Cruiser along the same route, through forsaken agricultural villages and rolling green-and-yellow fields. Smoke rose on the horizon, camouflaged fighting positions had been dug into the roadsides, and military vehicles trundled back and forth: tanks, Humvees, ambulances, and trucks with rocket-launching systems mounted on the back. Here and there, enormous slag heaps from decommissioned coal mines jutted unnaturally from the otherwise bucolic landscape. On the wall of a boarded-up gas station, someone had spray-painted LYSYCHANSK next to an arrow pointing east.
The problem with farmland in an artillery war is the dearth of cover, and when we turned onto an open straightaway the Land Cruiser ahead of us accelerated to more than ninety miles an hour. A Ukrainian checkpoint stood at the citys entrance. Soldiers in flak jackets and no shirts, glistening with sweat, shovelled earth from a trench. A Russian missile would hit the checkpoint a few weeks later. Video of the aftermath shows a crater spanning the width of the road, and a smashed cargo van that had been filled with food.
The fireman who gave Leonid the loaves of bread was named Viktor. A thirty-two-year-old native of Lysychansk with a permanently furrowed brow and a weary gaze at odds with his youthful features, hed been with the department for more than ten years. His ex-wife and his son had evacuated weeks earlier, along with most of the civilian residents. But as much as a fifth of Lysychansks population of a hundred thousand or so had remained in the city. When I asked Viktor if hed considered joining his family, his glum expression deepened into an indignant scowl: What, and leave our people behind? Almost everyone has already abandoned this place.
There was a note of reproach in his voice. The number of firefighters in the Lysychansk squad had dwindled from a hundred and fifty to forty-nine. The station had been bombed three times. All but two of the engines were out of service. Russian artillery caused near-daily conflagrations throughout the city. After every fire, Viktor and his colleagues filled the engines at a nearby lake (which the Russians sometimes shelled, rendering it inaccessible). Another engine, parked outside, had been hit by ordnance; its windshield was shattered and its front end crushed. Crowds gathered to fill jugs and bottles from a spigot on its side, which was connected to a tank that the firefighters periodically replenished. Although the water from the lake was meant for washing only, many people drank it. Some boiled it first over open flames; others left glass jars in the sun, hoping that the summer heat would kill bacteria.
The firehouse had a Starlink Internet connection, powered by solar panels, which had also made it a locus for residents in search of something no less vital than sustenance: contact with the outside world. While I was talking with Viktor, a man handed him a scrap of paper. On it was a phone number and the words We are alive and well. The update was for the mans wife, a refugee in Spain. Viktor added the paper to a tall stack. Some of the notes were brief phrases scrawled on Post-its or pieces of cardboard; others, lengthy letters, in neat cursive, covering ruled loose-leaf pages. When the firefighters had spare time, they called the numbers and recited the messages to whoever answered:
I truly hope that where you are is better than where I am. Things are tolerable here, though not really. I am watering the plants.
Your girl is changing for the better . I love you very much, I miss you a lot, I feel more than ever that I want to be only with you, for all my life.
Keep your chin up, well go on living. Victory will be ours, at whatever cost. We are on our own land. Please take care of yourselves, my darlings.
I asked Viktor whether he begrudged the firefighters who had departed Lysychansk. It was their decision, he replied, adding pointedly that none of his friends had fled. We might want to, but we dont talk about it. In the face of an enemy that wished to annihilate Ukrainian identity, resistance had assumed a social as well as a martial form. The war had eroded Lysychansk to a tenacious core, but a remarkable sense of order and organization persevered. Not far from the firehouse, the last two civilian doctors in towna pediatrician and a gynecologistlived in the basement of a maternity clinic. Explosions had broken the windows and shrapnel pocked the walls. Along with a nurse, the doctors were carefully rationing a meagre stock of oats and pasta. We cant do much, the gynecologist admitted. Their medicine cupboard was depleted; without electricity, none of their equipment worked. But if we leave there will be no one left, he said.
More than a hundred police officers maintained a presence in Lysychansk. Beyond evacuating civilians, distributing aid, and supporting the military, they had forged ahead with their peacetime duties. When I visited their headquarters, a wiry man in a tank top whod pilfered the liquor section of a shuttered supermarket was being booked. The Mayor had just issued a decree ordering the destruction of alcoholic beverages in stores and retail chains. I spent a week in Lysychansk, and such frivolous bureaucratic gestures, so discordant with the exigencies of the moment, felt both poignantly aspirational and alarmingly out of touch.
The headquarters itself embodied this tension. It stood on a hill that sloped down to the river, across which dark plumes mushroomed over Severodonetsk. Artillery crossed above the roof. Each time I stopped at the headquarters, it struck me as reckless and absurd that such an appealing target should be so conspicuously situated, and I was unsure whether to understand the brazenness as a symbol of defiance or denial.
We dont have another location, the regional chief, Oleh Hryhorov, told me one morning in his office. Outside, we could hear bursts from a Kalashnikova policeman shooting at a Russian drone. In late June, shortly after I had left the Donbas, a direct hit on the building partially demolished it, injuring at least twenty officers. When I texted Hryhorov to inquire about the attack, he responded with the same unconvincing assurance that the man at the fire station had sent his wife in Spain: All is well.
Up the road from the community center that Tanya had mentionedwhere, until its destruction, two days earlier, she and others had been seeking humanitarian reliefan ad-hoc band of volunteers were still distributing food and water from an elementary school. People gathered in the parking lot, with bicycles, carts, and trolleys, beside a crater the size of a small swimming pool.
That happened a few days ago, Vlad, a pale and stocky twenty-two-year-old whose breath smelled faintly of liquor, informed me. He wore a boonie cap, aviator sunglasses, and a colorful patterned T-shirt. Before the war, hed been a d.j. for weddings and parties. Hard rock and disco, he said, were his preferred genres. His mother and his younger brother had fled to Western Ukraine, but Vlad had felt obliged to stick it out in Lysychansk. Initially, dozens of volunteers had been helping at the school; only seven remained. In one of the classrooms, boxes of bottled water, diapers, grain, and other essential goodswhich N.G.O.s and the regional government occasionally sent in convoys from Bakhmutwere stacked from floor to ceiling.
More than a hundred locals lived in the basement. When Vlad brought me downstairs, we had to use the light on his walkie-talkie to navigate dank passageways lined with cots and thin mats on the tops of tables and pushed-together chairs. Almost everyone was elderly. They sat in small groups, huddled by flickering flames. A frail-looking woman asked Vlad whether he had an extra flashlight that he could spare. He said that he did not.
The womans thin hand cupped the nub of an expended candle. She told us that she had been in the basement for more than three months. The toilets were overflowing. Wet wipes were the only means of bathing. Sometimes I go up just to breathe some fresh air, she said. Often, whole days passed underground.
Notwithstanding the conditions, the availability of nourishment at the school was a rare and precious amenity. Much of Lysychansks remaining population was concentrated in a district called R.T.I.a Russian abbreviation of Rubber Goods Factoryand it was too dangerous to walk or bicycle from there to the city center. A drought of gasoline precluded driving. Some of the marooned residents were starving. A middle-aged construction worker named Yura was the only person still regularly bringing humanitarian aid to the neighborhood. When Vlad and I emerged from the school basement, we found Yura preparing to head out. Vlad would be joining him. A large knife was attached to Yuras flak jacket and a Marlboro dangled from his mouth. The unclipped chinstrap of his off-kilter helmet only added to his air of renegade insouciance. Later, he would share with me his dubious contention that appropriately fastened headgear could snap your neck when struck by shrapnel.
He was from Severodonetsk, where, after evacuating his wife and stepdaughter to Dnipro, he had done the same work that Vlad and his peers were now undertaking at the school in Lysychansk. For the first three months of the war, the Severodonetsk volunteers had been based in a sprawling sports center and concert venue called the Ice Palace; Russian shelling had since reduced the complex to scorched rubble. Yura had fled Severodonetsk a week before the Ice Palace was razed. Artillery had already hit his apartment building twice; hed absconded in a hurry, in flip-flops, without packing any bags, after spotting Chechen fighters in his neighborhood. (Chechens loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the autocrat and Putin ally, played an instrumental role in the grisly siege of Mariupol, and are singularly abhorred in Ukraine.) Blasts had shattered the windows of Yuras sedan and dented its hood and doors, but he had driven it across the last traversable bridge to Lysychansk, with his pet Shar-Pei, Ben, in the passenger seat. Upon learning that no one was bringing aid to R.T.I., hed persuaded a priest to lend him a van and the regional government to supply him with provisions. At night, he slept at a firehouse in Bakhmut, where hed earned a reputation for both his courage and his temper. We are acting with our heads, Yura with his heart, a fireman in Bakhmut had told me.
At the Lysychansk school, Yura grumbled, Lets fucking movewhether to Vlad or to Ben, it was difficult to say.
The abbreviation R.T.I. refers to a rubber factory that opened in the mid-sixties to produce hoses and conveyor belts for coal mines. The adjacent neighborhood was constructed to accommodate the plants eight thousand workers, along with their families. In the following decades, an array of similar facilities turned Lysychansk into an industrial-manufacturing hub. The rubber plant continued operating after the collapse of the Soviet Union but shut down in 2010, because of mismanagement, corruption, and the global financial crisis. Since then, Lysychansk had struggled with many of the same difficulties afficting factory towns around the world: poverty, urban blight, and alcohol and drug abuse.
In 2014, separatists occupied Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, but Ukrainian forces soon pushed them back some thirty miles, where they entrenched themselves for the next eight years. The simmering conflict deterred investment and development in the region, exacerbating its economic plight. The areas other major employer, the coal industry, suffered as poorly maintained mines collapsed, flooded, and closed. If the assault on Kyiv featured the grotesque spectacle of wanton violence against an ancient cultural landmark turned modern cosmopolis, the tragedy of Lysychansk has consisted of multiplying the woes of a little-known city that was already marginalized and in distress. This was particularly true in R.T.I.
The road to R.T.I. dropped steeply toward the Siverskyi Donets River, then proceeded along a set of railroad tracks into a grid of brutalist apartment towers. Both lanes were gouged with mortar holes, their splash patterns fanning across the pavement. At mills and warehouses, Ukrainian soldiers fortified trenches and fired deafening cannons toward Severodonetsk. Yura parked outside a five-story residential building that looked uninhabited.
No sooner had he and Vlad opened the rear doors of the van than people started streaming out. Most were women. In February, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, had announced a general mobilization, and many men had been conscripted; others may have joined the separatists. But the gender imbalance was also connected to factors unrelated to the war. Some men had succumbed to health complications related to their labor in the factories and the mines, and a number of women, when I asked about their husbands, answered brusquely, He drank. Vlad had responded likewise when asked about his father.
Ive been fainting from hunger, a woman told him now. How is no one else coming here? We havent eaten in a week.
Im just a volunteer. I dont know the answers to these questions.
Were people, not beasts, the woman said.
Her left arm ended above the elbow. Shed lost it in 1972, at the rubber plant, when a steel roller grabbed her hand. Before the war, shed received a monthly pension of a hundred and twenty dollars; now, like all the other retirees in Lysychansk, she was unable to withdraw the payments. A rocket had cracked the walls of her building. She crossed herself and said, Its still there, sticking through the roof. We dont know when it will explode.
Another woman said, Our apartment has been shelled three fucking times. My mothers eighty-two. She has no more diapers. I want to get the hell out of here, but she has dementia.
While Yura and Vlad were unloading boxes from the van, something loud screamed down and detonated nearbyonce, twice. Everyone hurried inside. There was no basement, so we all crammed into the stairwell as a third explosion rocked the building. During the ensuing silence, one of the women quipped, Well, were used to this.
Dont joke, Yura snapped. He was peering out the doorway, with Ben standing at his side. This is how it started in Severodonetsk, he warned. Soon youll all be begging us to come and get you. But it will be too latewe wont be able to.
We have mothers who cant walk, someone protested.
You can get them evacuated! Yura shouted. There are weapons across the river that will wipe R.T.I. off the face of the earth.
No, no, the women mumbled, shaking their heads.
Another shell landed and a woman sitting on the steps, gripping a cane, began to whimper. Youre scaring the grandmothers, someone told Yura.
But this was his intention. I was one of the last to leave, he went on. You cant imagine it. Women screaming, children screaming. Total hysteriaand you cant do anything. Bam! Bam! All day long. Its not random, its systematic. They focus on a zone, and no one is left alive.
Taking out his phone, he offered to show them photographs.
Weve already seen.
You havent seen enough. There were no police, no rescuers, no medics . And youre making jokes? Fuck. Noticing someone outside, he said, Heres another old fool. Well be picking up pieces of people like this.
For a while, the women seemed chastened by Yuras diatribe, or, anyway, uninterested in provoking him. But then, after a few minutes, one of them said firmly, At least were home. Who needs us out there without money? Apartments in Dnipro are six thousand hryvniasabout two hundred dollars a month. How can we pay that? I understand what youre telling us, but you cant save everyone.
We stopped at four more buildings before the van was empty. Each had between thirty and fifty tenants, including children and infants. R.T.I. teemed with vegetation, and in front of some apartments women brewed tea with the blossoms of linden trees (a traditional remedy for anxiety), using improvised camp stoves made of cinder block and scrap metal. Others scavenged for edible plants and berries, or gathered branches for burning. Everywhere we went, residents told Yura about more places where people were in dire need: the geriatric, the disabled, the mentally ill.
Vlad had saved the last box for his grandparents, who lived nearby, in a house perilously close to the river. When his grandmother Tatyana answered the door, she burst into tears and embraced him. They were tears of relief: she had feared that we were members of the Ukrainian artillery team that was positioned at the end of their short dirt lane. Soldiers had come by several times, Tatyana explained, asking to hide their vehicles in the driveway or to shelter in the living room.
We cant get any sleep, she said. Things are whistling over our roof all night long.
You need to leave, Vlad told her.
What about the dog and the cat?
Its better to go before something happens. I can take you.
Vlads grandfather Ivan appeared. A former coal miner, he exuded the vestigial fatigue of a lifetime of toil. Go where? he said. His voice was soft but adamant. Were not going anywhere. Theyll take everything if we leave. And our garden
In the back yard, Ivan showed us rows of onions, cucumbers, garlic, peppers, potatoes, and strawberries. A bathtub contained water from a local well. He and Tatyana limited their trips there: a Russian shell had recently killed two of their neighbors in the vicinity. Part of the garden burst with roses. Ivan snipped off half a dozen of the flowersholding the clippers with four fingers, having lost one in the mineand gave them to his grandson.
A garage across the street had been flattened. A metal gate still hung on its hinges. Across it someone had written in chalk, haircuts, manicures, pedicures, perms, highlights, eyebrow tinting.
A woman in a lime-green dress emerged, wearing sandals that displayed hot-pink toenails. Shed been a hairdresser before the war. When her salon closed, shed tried to work from home. A rocket had exploded on her property. As she showed me around the debris, she spoke with a breathless, disjointed urgency that, like the advertisement on her gate, seemed off. At a certain point, she exhorted me not to film her, because she did not want any fines for operating a business without the proper paperwork.
Do you get many customers? I asked.
Across the river, we could hear the methodical decimation of Severodonetsk. Not these days, she said.
The Ukrainian-controlled corridor between Lysychansk and Bakhmut resembled the neck of an hourglass, with the two cities as the bulbs. Because the corridor was narrowing by the day and might be pinched off at any moment, we spent each night in the relative safety of Bakhmut. A few shops were still open there, and, crucially, a snack stand had continued serving hot sandwiches. In the afternoons, soldiers lined up at the window, buying meals to take back to the front. Haggard and filthy, they looked like travellers from a distant world. One man removed his shirt and adjusted the bandages that were wrapped around his torso. All of the soldiers had carabiners clipped onto the backs of their flak jackets, to enable extraction from trenches by rope.
Their vehicles were in no better shape than they were. One day, a Volkswagen van pulled up with a shattered windshield, no sliding door, and shrapnel gashes across its hood. Luckily, I was driving fast, a thirty-three-year-old soldier named Mykhailo told me. He spoke flawless English and said that he had fought in the suburbs of Kyiv. The combat in the Donbas, however, was unique. None of us has seen anything like this, he said. According to Mykhailo, the Ukrainians were so overwhelmingly outgunned that they seldom fired their heavy weapons, for fear of betraying their locations. We send two, three shells, and they send seventy. You cant move. You just sit in the trench while they shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot. They dont stop. The Russian arsenal has included thermite munitions, which rain down thousands of burning chemical pellets capable of melting steel, and thermobaric weapons, which release a cloud of fuel that a subsequent charge ignites, creating a vacuum of vaporizing heat and pressure.
The asymmetry could be confusing for soldiers like Mykhailo, who knew that the United States had committed more than five and a half billion dollars in military aid to Ukraine. Recent shipments had included M777 howitzers, which could hit a target with high precision from twenty-five miles away, and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or himars, whose two-hundred-pound warheads had double that range. But these systems had been slow to arrive in the Donbas, and their operation required special training once they did. Neither Mykhailo nor any other soldiers I met had seen an M777 or a himars. Maybe theyre somewhere, Mykhailo said, shrugging.
The mission of most Ukrainian units was straightforward: weather the blitz and hold the line. Often, that meant dying. According to Zelensky, up to six hundred Ukrainian troops were being killed or wounded each day in the Donbas. A medic at a military hospital in Bakhmut told me that she and her team had been receiving between fifty and a hundred patients a day. Were in Hell, the medic said, matter-of-factly. She added that she had become numb to the butchery, and now treated with mechanical detachment everything from gruesome burns to traumatic amputations. Indeed, she spoke with a peculiar remoteness that lifted only when she recalled a gravely injured soldier who, squeezing her hand, had asked, Do you think they knew where they were sending us?
Not accidentally, another victim of the carnage had been morale. The extraordinary esprit de corps that had gripped Ukrainian fighters during their defense of Kyiv was attenuating in the Donbas. My translator and I were staying in the last hotel still open in Bakhmut. When we returned from Lysychansk one night, four young men in civilian clothes approached us in the parking lot. They were soldiers, originally from Western Ukraine, who had been sent east as reinforcements. In Bakhmut, each had been issued a Kalashnikov, four magazines, and two hand grenades, then deployed to the front. According to the soldiers, the sole instruction that they received was not to retreat. They werent told which unit they were in or under whose command they fell. A storm of Russian shelling soon wounded three of their comrades; after evacuating them to the nearest Ukrainian checkpoint, the four reinforcements had been uncertain how to proceed. Returning to their position would have been suicide. But whom were they supposed to contact for guidance? In the end, they caught a ride to Bakhmut in a military truck, and now they were terrified of being arrested for desertion. They had shared all this with us because they wanted our advice.
Having none to give, we offered cigarettes instead.
As the soldiers smoked and mulled their predicament, one of them said, They dont give a fuck about us. He held up his cigarette butt. For those in charge, the individual soldier is like thisthrowing the butt to the ground, he extinguished it under his heel.
The engagement of ordinary citizens in the war effort was also not at all like what it had been in Kyiv. While the capital was under attack, many residents not in the armed forces found other ways to contribute: weaving camouflage nets, filling sandbags, cooking and delivering meals, soliciting foreign donations for equipment and medicine. These volunteers were often English-conversant students, artists, entrepreneurs, or white-collar professionals, and collectively they demonstrated an astounding capability to network and mobilize resources. For the coal miners, farmers, and factory workers of the Donbas, however, personal survival eclipsed all other concerns.
The extreme scarcity of resources in places like Lysychanska problem that Kyiv never experiencedinevitably widened the breach between civilians and the Army. Several people in Lysychansk complained to me about Ukrainian soldiers stealing from shops. When I visited one of the few public wells in town, a dozen or so locals were waiting around a pipe from which a thin trickle of water spilled. The halting flow had been caused by a group of soldiers, who were using a generator and a hose to pump water directly into a reservoir in the back of their jeep. Though none of the locals reproached the soldiers, they obviously werent happy. Were nobody, a middle-aged man whod been waiting his turn at the pipe for more than an hour said, making an X with his arms. As soon as the soldiers departed, the water cascaded from the pipe, and the resentful mood abated.
Each morning that we returned to Lysychansk, we found it further transformed into a military zone. Wrecked vehicles were towed into the roads as barricades. Sandbagged machine-gun nests appeared at corners and intersections. Rockets and mortars were launched with growing frequency from back yards, parking lots, and playgrounds. The painted words people live here and children appeared on doors. The accelerating encroachment of the war was amplified by a thickening pall of smoke. At times, you could not see across the river to Severodonetsk.
On one such afternoon, at the firehouse, I found Viktor telling an older woman in a black blouse that the Starlink connection had been turned off. The woman was upset. Her message was important. My translator offered to relay it from Bakhmut. The woman gave him two small pieces of paperone with her daughters phone number, the other with her sons. On each was written the same information: Father died. We buried him in the courtyard.
Amid the bushes between apartment blocks in R.T.I., Id seen fresh graves with homemade wooden crosses, and, when I returned to the neighborhood a second time with Yura and Vlad, two sisters had told them that their sixty-three-year-old mother was lying dead in their apartment. Shed suffered a heart attack during a prolonged bombardment.
We dont know what to do with the body, one of the sisters said.
After the widow left the fire station, I asked Viktor whether he had changed his mind about evacuating. He shook his head: Im staying.
A few hours later, while driving through downtown, we passed a burning house. An engine was parked outside. A woman in a striped dress stood in the street, weeping. Shed been in the basement when the munition landed. I followed a hose through the front door. Viktor stood under a collapsing section of the roof, dousing flames. He wore a helmet and a bulletproof vest over his Nomex uniform. His face was smeared with sweat and soot, and he winced against the heat.
Do you need a break? another firefighter asked him from the living room, which, strangely, had been all but unaffected by the blaze. A painting of a vase with daisies, in an ornate gilded frame, hung above a sideboard decorated with silver statuettes.
Not yet, Viktor said.
The pressure from the hose generated waves of opaque, billowing smoke, and after a few minutes he started coughing. Here, he said, handing the hose off to the other firefighter.
Viktor staggered into the living room, doubled over, with his hands on his knees. He spat, cleared his nostrils, and struggled to catch his breath. Then there was a boom outside and someone yelled, Theyre shelling!
So do we move? the firefighter with the hose asked.
Leave it! Go! Were done here!
As I ran to our car, I passed the homeowner, still standing in the street. She had nowhere to go.
A list of residents who did wish to A evacuate was being compiled from a variety of sources. Relatives outside Lysychansk contacted the municipality online; neighbors provided addresses to officers on patrol; volunteers collected information while distributing aid. An élite police unit picked up those who lived by the river, where the shelling from Severodonetsk was heaviest. One day, while I was following these officers, they stopped at a half-constructed house on a dirt road. An overgrown path led to a cellar bulkhead, from which a woman named Olga emerged with a jar of pickled vegetables and a bucket of eggs.
While Olga chased after her cat, her fourteen-year-old son guided his great-grandmother, who was blind and clung to his arm, along the path.
Be careful, theres a step.
O.K., my dear. Where are we going?
Were leaving. Mom will explain everything to you later.
Rushing to retrieve a bag of clothes, Olga stooped to remove a kettle from the cinders of an open fire. Muscle memory. It took a little while for the boy to get his great-grandmother into the van, but the whole operation, from arrival to departure, lasted approximately seven minutes. The video that I filmed during that time records the sound of thirty-six explosions.
The police deposited the familyand the catat the fire station, where they joined other residents waiting to be transported to Bakhmut. Olga told me that she had no idea where her family would go from there. She had no friends or relatives elsewhere in Ukraine. Since February, as many as three million people have been displaced from the Donbas. Most of them have lacked the wherewithal to move abroad. Those without other optionslike Olga, her grandmother, and her sontypically end up in shelters.
To ferry people to Bakhmut, the firefighters used a hulking armored vehicle that resembled an off-road bank truck. They called it the Crocodile. Id ridden in it once, with evacuees who had silently peered out the portholes as their native land slipped by. The sealed compartment was hot and oppressive, and one of the passengers had vomited profusely. In Bakhmut, the Crocodile had dropped everyone off at a bus station badly damaged by shelling. Eventually, the evacuees were told, volunteers would take them to Dnipro. What might happen after that, nobody knew.
Although the volunteers at the elementary school kept imploring people to leave Lysychansk, they seemed incapable of accepting the danger that they themselves faced. After my second trip to R.T.I. with Vlad, the d.j., and Yura, the construction worker, they brought me to a picnic area where a volunteer named Natasha had prepared an elaborate lunch for the team: borscht, spring onions, wild cherries, salo (salted pork fat), and two plastic bottles of samohon (Ukrainian moonshine), all arrayed on a wooden table under a corrugated tin roof.
Vlad and Yura removed their flak jackets, helmets, and T-shirts, then rinsed off beneath a water dispenser suspended from a tree. Urging me to do the same, Yura insisted, Its safe here. Ukrainian and Russian artillery thundered all around us; for the volunteers, though, the picnic area was a kind of magical oasis. Even Yuradespite his harangues about others being imprudentseemed to have assigned supernatural properties to the tin above our heads. This is the only place where we can sit around and have a good time, he explained, as if that alone made it less vulnerable to ordnance.
Oh, fuck, a volunteer said when a mortar landed in the fields behind us.
Wheres the mustard? Natasha asked, ladling soup into our bowls. A kindergarten teacher, shed been volunteering at the school since the beginning of the war. The mounting havoc seemed to faze her no more than a class of rowdy toddlers.
Yura passed out shots of samohon. After several rounds of toastsfor our health, for Ukraine, for the heroeshe told Natasha, If it gets too hot here, Im not asking youwere putting you in the fucking van and leaving.
Natasha laughed. I dont think my parents would appreciate that. I also have a sister here, you know, and my father-in-law . I cant leave them.
Well put them in the van, too.
Eat some salo, Natasha scolded.
A few shots later, Yura divulged that, in his twenties, hed been a driver and bodyguard for a boss who oversaw the shaking down of retail businesses. I was unsure how much credence to give thisNatasha chided Yura for telling fairy talesbut, whether or not the story was true, it underscored a deeper mystery. Why was he doing what he was doing? What drove Yura to repeatedly take risks that nobody else would take, in a city that was not his, for people he did not knowor even, it seemed, like?
Nor were his grievances limited to the old fools of R.T.I. His contempt for politicians and for the Ukrainian state writ large was so vehement that I sometimes wondered what prevented him from favoring Russia. Certainly, other Ukrainians in the Donbas felt a degree of allegiance toward their occupying neighbor. While Russian soldiers directed artillery from rearward positions, many frontline fighters were said to be local separatists; among the civilians who refused to leave Lysychansk, there were probably some who believed that Russian authority would improve their circumstances.
The recent paucity of aid had only reinforced a long-standing sentiment of alienation from Kyiv and from the West. The U.S. had furnished about a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, but very little of it had reached Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, or other frontline cities and towns in the Donbas where relief was most desperately needed. Western aid organizations, which have grown increasingly risk-averse since the global war on terror, were unwilling to operate in combat zones; at the same time, although local relief groups already existed in every corner of Ukraine, including the Donbas, few could satisfy the onerous compliance protocols and administrative criteria required to receive U.S. funding (for instance, the submission of detailed budgets and project proposals in English). Further complicating matters was a bureaucratic imperative for neutrality that proscribed U.S. humanitarian assistance for entities that collaborated with the armed forces (even though U.S. military assistance equipped those forces). The ban was a deal breaker for most Ukrainian nonprofits, whose ultimate objective was to win the war.
It was doubtful whether any of these explanations would have comforted Yura, let alone the starving pensioners in R.T.I. Most people I met in Lysychansk had reasonably concluded that they had been abandoned because they didnt matteror mattered less than their wealthier, better educated, and more Westernized compatriots in Kyiv. After a slug of samohon, Yura said, I will tell you one thing. Our government forgot about the people here.
Yet disillusionment with the government was by no means synonymous with sympathy for the invaders. A government is not a country, and Russias denial of Ukraines right to exist had made patriots of some citizens who otherwise might never have identified as such. When Yura had finally escaped from Severodonetsk, hed brought just a few possessions with him: Ben, a twenty-litre cannister of gasoline, and a Ukrainian flag.
On June 6th, Zelensky had proclaimed that the physical devastation of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk had rendered them dead cities. The comment seemed preëmptivean attempt to downplay the benefit to Russia of acquiring such wastelands. Their capture, however, would give Russia nearly all of Luhansk Province and a strong strategic platform from which to press onward into what remained of Donetsk. Control of the entire Donbas would, in turn, create an extensive occupied region contiguous with the southern cities that Russia had seized earlier in the warKherson, Melitopol, and Mariupoland also with Crimea, the peninsula that it annexed in 2014. This valuable block of territory would invest Putin with considerable diplomatic leverage in a geopolitical context.
Ukraine is among the worlds leading producers of grain, corn, and sunflower oil, but in the Donbas, which is particularly fecund, Russia has sabotaged or commandeered much of the agricultural industry, burning fields, shelling silos and storage depots, and impeding harvests. In the south, meanwhile, it has blockaded the Black Sea, preventing the shipment of millions of tons of stockpiled wheat and barley. The drastic curtailment of Ukrainian food exports has instigated a hunger crisis on a much vaster scale than the one in R.T.I. Hundreds of millions of people depend on Ukrainian staples, mostly in developing countries that were already struggling with food insecurity, on account of high prices linked to the pandemic and drought linked to climate change. In Somalia, which receives nearly all its wheat from Ukraine, at least a million and a half children now face acute malnutrition. Mass starvation also looms in Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, and elsewhere.
For Russia, the more catastrophic the global consequences of its invasion the better. While sharing a stage with Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last month, the editor-in-chief of RT explained, Once the famine begins, they will come to their senses, lift their sanctions, and be friends with us, because theyll realize that doing otherwise is impossible.
In addition to sanctions relief, Putin may also seekusing the threat of famine and the immigration surge that it could unleashEuropean support for a negotiated settlement that recognizes and secures his gains in the Donbas. There is little reason to believe, however, that any such agreement would appease him, and every reason to fear that he would exploit the opportunity to refit his military before resuming the pursuit of his broader ambitions. Every week on state-sponsored television in Russia, Kremlin surrogates advocate expanding the conflict not only to the rest of Ukraine but also to Poland, Lithuania, and other nearby countries. At the outset of the Battle of the Donbas, a high-ranking Russian general remarked that the land bridge to Crimea was necessary to facilitate a future invasion of Moldova. Russian belligerence has reached such a fervor that the chairman of the Duma recently raised the prospect of taking back Alaska. On July 7th, Putin delivered an address to parliamentary leaders in which he stated, Everyone should know that, by and large, we havent started anything yet in earnest.
Given how much time, matériel, and lives Russia has had to expend for its incremental progress in the Donbas, it is tempting to dismiss such bellicosity as bluster. Precisely because of these costs, though, it also seems unwise to underestimate Russian patience and resolve. According to polls, more than three-quarters of the Russian public support the war. On June 12th, Russians celebrated their nations declaration of sovereignty, in 1990, within the fracturing Soviet Union (which collapsed eighteen months later, after more than ninety per cent of Ukrainians voted for independence). To commemorate Russia Day this year, Putin gave a speech that paid tribute to Peter the Great, the eighteenth-century monarch who forged the Russian Empire through a series of colonizing wars, including in the territory that today is Ukraine. It was thanks to Peters audacity and perseverance in pursuing his plans, Putin explained, that Russia had cemented its well-deserved place in the world.
There was a notable escalation in shelling in Lysychansk on Russia Day. A number of new craters littered the road from Bakhmut. Our plan was to return one final time to R.T.I. The woman whod lost her arm at the rubber plant had told us that she wanted to evacuate, and we had agreed to take her to the firehouse. Shortly after we passed through the city center and approached the river, however, an ongoing barrage and white smoke rising from the roadsides forced us to turn around. I never saw the woman again.
At the school, we found Natasha talking to a man who wanted to arrange an evacuation for his ailing neighbor.
Shes having trouble, the man said. She cant even bring her water up the stairs.
Natasha wrote down the womans address in a notebook. O.K., Ive got it. Volunteers will take her as soon as possible.
Our yard is covered with debrisa missile landed there.
Tell her to prepare her bags.
She needs to persuade her husband to leave first. Hes being difficult.
Most of the elderly whod been sheltering in the basement were still there. An eighty-year-old woman named Alla told me that her sixty-year-old daughter, Victoria, was stranded in Severodonetsk. If only I could know that she was alive, Alla said, explaining why she couldnt leave. Others were reconciled to accepting whatever might come next. Some, after so much time in the basement, seemed to have become attached to a false sense of security, and I wondered to what extent their reluctance to evacuate was a more general dread of confronting the loud reality up there in the light.
At the end of one row of mattresses, a couple sat beside a wick burning in a lid of oil. Tatyana and Gennady had been married for three decades. Gennady had worked in a factory that manufactured acid-resistant pipes. Because hed been exposed to hazardous toxins, the company had permitted him to retire early. The interruption of his pension payments at the beginning of the war had left the couple destitute, and in March a rocket had immolated their home.
While Tatyana spoke with me, Gennady prepared their dinner. His beard was gray; his unbuttoned shirt hung open, and a cross pendant rested on his bare chest. Among the rations they had procured were a few spring onions, a bit of fresh dill, and some beans and pasta, with which he planned to make a soup.
Hes the better cook, especially in these conditions, Tatyana said.
In the faint light of their improvised candle, Gennady carefully chopped the dill and the onions. Tatyana watched him. There was a serene, domestic quality to the scene that felt as enchanted as Natashas picnic area: an eddy of calm, however chimerical, carved out of mayhem. You could almost forget how the world above was changing.
Shortly after 11 p.m. that night, back in Bakhmut, I was jolted from bed by what sounded like an airplane colliding into the hotel. The electricity went out. I dived to the floor. A second impact was even louder. Then there came a third and a fourth. Bits of ceiling sprinkled down, and I braced for the roof and the two stories above mine to follow. Close shelling always induces a burst of animal fright, but this was different. Its one thing to face an indiscriminate bombardment; its another to find yourselfor believe that you have found yourselfat the terminus of a warheads deliberate trajectory. We tend to think of artillery combat as remote and impersonal, but when you are on the receiving end of a strike it doesnt feel like that. It feels as intimate and vicious as any other way of killing. For me, curled up in a ball, trying to cover as much of myself as possible, the sensation was one of naked, defenseless exposure, like a snail in the shadow of a boot coming down.
After the fourth blast, I felt my way through the dark corridor to a flight of stairs that accessed the basement. My translator did the same, as did the photographer for this article. We stayed down there until dawn, then went to survey the damage. To my surprise, the hotel hadnt actually been hitthe house across the street had. Firefighters battled flames leaping from the ruins.
We need the ladder!
Amid the heaps of ash, splintered lumber, and downed trees lay a scrap of twisted green metal, several feet in length. I later sent a photograph of it to a weapons expert, who said that it looked like part of an air-launched cruise missile.
The house had been empty. Around the corner, though, three other munitions had detonated outside apartment complexes. A long projectile was lodged in the middle of an intersection, and a deep hole had been punched into a residential courtyard. Numerous buildings were riddled with shrapnel and charred from fire, their roofs caving in, their balconies smashed, their doors blown off. Whatever trees still stood had been stripped by the shock waves; lush green foliage thickly carpeted the pavement. Somehow, nobody had been seriously injured. People were already cleaning up. Two men moved heavy branches that had fallen beside a contorted swing set in a playground. Women swept away the glass; one of them wore a vibrant tie-dyed dress that contrasted startlingly with the grim surroundings.
Weve been liberated! she said, throwing up her hands.
Fuck, what a night, another woman mumbled.
The windows around the courtyard had shattered, leaving empty wooden frames within which tenants could be seen sifting through their disarrayed apartments. There was no wailing or invective. No tears. They applied themselves to the task before them with sober, communal dedication.
They knew, by now, that no help was coming.
Leaving the courtyard, we found Yura walking up the sidewalk with Ben. Though he cracked a joke about Putins having sent us a gift for Russia Day, he looked uncharacteristically shaken. He was debating whether to go to Lysychansk, where he was supposed to evacuate several people from Natashas list.
Do you think its a bad idea? he asked.
I told him that we had decided to leave the Donbas, which seemed to heighten his ambivalence. Before we said goodbye, I asked him what he planned to do.
Yura smiled. He knew that I knew what he would say.
Ten days later, the Ukrainian government ordered a full withdrawal from Severodonetsk. Shortly afterward, Russian troops crossed the Siverskyi Donets River, just south of R.T.I. On July 2nd, Ukraine surrendered Lysychansk. Continuing the citys defense would lead to fatal consequences, the general staff of the armed forces said, in a statement. In order to save the lives of Ukrainian defenders, the decision to leave was made. That afternoon, Russian soldiers filmed themselves in front of the rubble of the Lysychansk City Council, waving a Soviet flag. Not to be outdone, Chechen fighters recorded a video from the same spot, in which they cried, Allahu Akbar! Other clips posted to social media showed some residents celebrating the arrival of Ukrainian separatists.
After I last saw Yura, he continued returning to Lysychansk, right up until a few days before it fell. As Russian soldiers were entering the city, Vlad, the d.j., barely managed to escape, in an ambulance carrying a wounded man and a pregnant woman. His grandparents, Tatyana and Ivan, decided to stay. So did Natasha, her family, and the other volunteers from the school. After I returned home, I was unable to reach the pediatrician and the gynecologist from the maternity clinic, who had presumably failed to leave in time. Most of the firefighters, including Viktor, also remained.
What will happen to them? In other occupied areas, Ukrainian men have been abducted, tortured, and executed. Ukrainian women and girls have been raped, beaten, and sexually enslaved. Ukrainian children have been deported to Russia, where, the Ukrainian government alleges, forced adoptions are planned. Of course, the fall of Lysychansk has also afforded those who are stuck there a significant reprieve: now that Russian forces rule the city, they are no longer bombing it. Zelensky, however, has vowed to recover both Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, which for their residents could prove more horrific than anything they have survived so far. Russian troops have perpetrated some of their most heinous atrocities while defending population centers against Ukrainian efforts to liberate them. In the suburbs of Kyiv, paranoia about informants and target spotters contributed to the rampant slaughter of civilians.
For now, such a counter-offensive does not seem forthcoming. The moment the Russians took control of Lysychansk, they turned their deadly attention to points farther west. Quiet places became loud. On July 3rd, the mayor of Sloviansk, forty miles away, reported that the worst shelling in his city since the beginning of the war had resulted in widespread fires and half a dozen civilian deaths. Kramatorsk, whose train station had been targeted by Russian cluster munitions in April, also came under attack. On July 10th, Russian rockets brought down an apartment block outside Bakhmut, killing thirty-one tenants.
In recent weeks, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems supplied by the U.S. have begun to have an impact. According to Ukraines Ministry of Defense, the weapons have destroyed more than thirty Russian military facilities, including ammunition depots, many of them in the Donbas. As Ukraine focusses on debilitating Russian logistics, however, Russia has escalated its attacks on civilian targets hundreds of miles from any fighting. On June 27th, a Russian anti-ship missile killed twenty-one shoppers at a busy mall in Kremenchuk; on July 1st, at least as many people died in a similar strike on a residential building and a recreation center near Odesa; and on July 14th cruise missiles hit offices and a medical clinic in Vinnytsia, killing two dozen and injuring well over a hundred.
Russian ordnance also landed on Dnipro, where Yura was visiting his wife. (His stepdaughter had gone on to Kyiv.) In a text, he assured me that he was determined to go back to the front. Once again, I wondered why. Then Yura sent me a group photograph from our lunch with Natasha and the other volunteers, at the picnic area in Lysychansk. Hed had no contact with any of them since the city had fallen. The picture was taken by Natashas son seconds after an artillery round had whistled by close enough to make us curse and duck. Everyone is laughing. Yura clasps Natashas hand. A volunteer hugs Ben. You can see in their flushed, happy faces the illusion of invincibility conjured by samohon and friendship. Good people, Yura wrote.
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