August 13, 2022

UKRAINE IN THE DARKNESS, OR NOTES OF A MADWOMAN

Over 1,800 kilometers in two days from Lviv to Ochakov and back. Before the war, it would have been a great trip to the sea. Today there are roadblocks all along the way, destroyed buildings, roads, blown up bridges, and scorched earth covered with minefields.

When I went on a trip, it was supposed to be a change of scenery for me, an attempt to switch gears, but instead, I received shock therapy. Lviv, Ternopil, Khmelnytskyi, and Vinnytsia, at first glance, have a few signs of war. As everywhere, roadblocks are installed at the entrances and exits. The central part of Lviv is more reminiscent of the city during, for example, the Christmas holidays, except without the traditional fair. There are many Russian-speaking people, the number of beauties with silicone lips and eyelash extensions has increased several times, and the population of pets of all possible and impossible breeds has increased, from “aristocrats” with a respectable pedigree to direct “two-terriers” in fancy overalls.

The flow of civilian cars, as in the first days of the war, has significantly decreased. From time to time, cars with ‘children’ stickers come into view, but more often you see ‘volunteers’ stickers. Trucks with humanitarian aid move in an almost continuous stream. Less often, military convoys, the number of which increases as they approach the places where hostilities have continued or continue. Intercity public transport has significantly decreased. You will hardly see the once familiar buses.

If the quality of the road surface and the lack of traffic jams on the track allows you to move quite quickly. Then one of the first difficult obstacles becomes the famous Letychiv. From the checkpoint, the road turns into a slow ride, though the local fish market is still working, and no one has canceled the fishing.

Neat old blue trams, equipped with validators, drive through Vinnytsia with enviable regularity. But the first clear signs of war appear near Uman. A destroyed gas station, and a little further, the “Pheasant” cafe, of which only a couple of walls and the name remain. But it is quite obvious that these objects were not the goal of the occupiers. A little further, a cut-down forest and land plowed by shells. By the way, this happened on the first day of the war – February 24. One of the shells hit the central part of Uman and warehouses, one of which is near the village of Rozsishki. It was then that the roadside cafe “Pheasant” was completely destroyed.

The closer to the Mykolaiv region, the more such “greetings” from the so-called “brothers”. The number of roadblocks is also increasing: sometimes they are local self-defense or security forces, sometimes reinforced by the National Guard or the police. There is also army personnel. They are easily distinguished by their dress, uniform, various weapons, and the way they hold them.

Documents at the ready all the way. Sometimes after the words “volunteers” and “from Lviv” they simply wish you a safe journey, and sometimes they ask you to show the contents of the trunk and not so much to make sure that you are not carrying something illegal, but to try to pick something for themselves.

On the road, you have to pay attention to the messages to choose where to go next. Most of the bridges are destroyed, and you turn to rural or field roads to look for crossings, which are marked as “rivers” on the map. At each roadblock, one question is always asked, “Where are you going?” And when, having changed the direction, we decided to move not to Kropyvnytskyi but to Voznesensk, one of the inspectors only after a long pause said, “Well, have a good trip!” The traces of the war became more and more visible: hedgehogs, concrete blocks, broken old buses that were used as barricades, dugouts, tough guys in vests with AK-74s, and loading docks filled with stores. And on this background, is a tombstone by the road. You know, they are sometimes placed where someone died in a road accident. I look, and the face is very familiar. It is the pseudo-president of an unfriendly state in the north, Oleksandr Lukashenko. A modest plastic whisk, everything according to the customs.

According to the plan, we were supposed to visit the guys from the 80s, leave them what we ordered, and get to Mykolaiv, where we planned to spend the night. It was extremely difficult to move without a navigator – most of the signs were removed, and we had to be very careful, especially at intersections.

In fact, I had no idea where and how we would go. A super-volunteer couple agreed to take me on a “trailer”. I promised to entertain them along the way and had my little volunteer task, which was more important to me than anything in the world because I felt somehow involved in something really important. But after the phrase “let’s go to Voznesensk”, all my sociability and talkativeness evaporated somewhere, I hardly uttered a single word, but began to write down what I saw. Voznesensky district became my personal, perhaps the biggest test in my life, a shock therapy. We crossed its border on April 2, at approximately 5:30 p.m. Little by little, it started to get dark, and all the roads we drove earlier were just innocent flowers.

Obviously, it is worth explaining what is wrong with Voznesensky District. Exactly one month before this trip, on March 2, probably in the afternoon (in the morning we were still talking on the phone), my husband Viktor, a fighter of the 80th Airborne Assault Brigade, died here from a sniper’s bullet. He passed the anti-terrorist operation in 2014-2015 (almost unscathed, except for a concussion and PTSD), and on February 24, the first day of the war, he and his brigade went to the South of Ukraine. I had to guess about the direction because he hinted that he was moving to “Shirokii Lan”. As it turned out later, this was not true. He told me to guess where they sent him. And the information about where the battles are taking place only became puzzles that were missing. Victor’s war lasted exactly one week. During this period, the brigade in Mykolaiv Oblast suffered heavy losses. And you shouldn’t accuse me of revealing a “state secret”, it’s enough to walk through the Lychakiv cemetery, not to mention the funeral processions that went to towns and villages.

As soon as we crossed the border of the district, the text of the obituary immediately appeared in front of our eyes, “We inform, with sorrow, that your husband Dudar Viktor Vasyliovych died on March 2, 2022, Voznesensky District, Mykolaiv Oblast, Ukraine. Cause of death: acute blood loss. Traumatic hemothorax”. The funeral procession itself was brought only on March 6, for another four days there was hope that there was simply no connection, that he was about to call and make a joke in his usual manner, something like, “I can sleep under a pine tree or eat in a hat.” Traditional, “I miss you, I love you, I kiss you,” and also, “I’m here for a long time.”

Probably, it was on March 6 that my own war began, a real one, which continues to this day and is not like others. Despite my profession, I no longer follow the news, I don’t have an air-raid warning program on my phone, and I don’t go to bomb shelters. Instead, I’m looking for where I can put my hands to work – sorting humanitarian aid, packaging medicine in bags, carrying something almost across the country very necessary for someone. I knew that I was just a burden to real volunteers on the road, but it reset me, and I will be forever grateful to them.

So, when I was in the Voznesensk district, I was constantly looking at all the details behind the car window, trying to imagine how and where it happened. On the road, they drove past a market of garden sculptures, among which a dinosaur towered. There was something almost post-apocalyptic about this picture. Some disgusting garden gnomes, even more, disgusting plaster fountains, and a dark green dinosaur, possibly a tyrannosaurus. I kept trying to imagine where it could be installed. In the garden? Park? On the lawn? Until recently, the Rashist equipment drove here, the remains of which I saw from time to time.

Voznesensk itself is an unattractive place. Low-lying houses, as if someone is trying to push them into the ground, often of a disgusting blue color, the same fences, in some places destroyed by shells. Outside the city, the picture is even scarier. There are fallen trees on the right and left. You have to drive in a snake as the road itself is completely destroyed by heavy military equipment. On both sides of the road, there are inscriptions of “mines” from time to time. Only rabid pheasants cross the road with enviable regularity. Heavy fighting is evidenced by a broken checkpoint near the canal, not the kind at the entrances to cities, but solid concrete blocks. A little further, a rubber sneaker, someone’s underwear, and some other things that are already difficult to see. Perhaps there was a temporary military base here. The road itself is black with war, and the sun is setting lower and lower and it is becoming more and more difficult to move. Road signs with a limit of “50” seem to be mocking us because the maximum that can be squeezed out on a continuous off-road is “40”.

It becomes obvious that covering another hundred kilometers to Mykolaiv is an impossible task. The only solution is to spend the night in the former district center, where our boys were taken to rest. A decent hotel turned into a military base. All rooms of the building are filled with paratroopers, most of them are already sleeping. Those who didn’t get a bed lie down on a mattress on the warm floor. There is a decent coffee maker in the hall. The owners hospitably treat us to coffee, but only a Lviv resident can handle the miracle of technology, i.e. a coffee maker, who willingly jokes about it. Caffeine, which is bubbling in the veins, will not let you fall asleep, but the extreme fatigue makes you at least go horizontal.

Massive paratroopers are happy like children, getting chocolates or trying on new tactical sneakers. And the flag with the inscription describing where the Russian warship should go becomes almost the best gift. One of the boys immediately runs up to me with a marker and, with a naive smile, asks me to write something on the flag. With difficulty, I write, “From Lviv with love”. Do you remember the famous movie “From Paris with Love”? And someone was sent a real cradle. Every now and then, someone offers candy. Against the background of all this “dry” variety, a local man, 50 years old, is dissonant. I never asked what his name was. For a good hour and a half, he entertained us with stories about local self-defense, how they gave battle to the invaders, and how in a matter of minutes they spun up enemy equipment. Military roadblocks had to be set up because, after raids by local Rashist tanks or armored personnel carriers, they could only be scrapped and not used against the same enemies who attacked them. He told about those who almost met the “brothers-liberators” with bread and salt, and then howled from “brotherly love”. This local was happy to say that thanks to the valiant 80s, he learned the word “ass” and that it’s not even a motherfucker. As a qualified philologist, she confirmed this information and talked about the unofficial scientific direction of “stupid science”.

It was here, in the Mykolayiv region, that I realized what real darkness is: no external lighting, no windows lit up, except for the already mentioned hotel. Little by little, Morpheus began to steal from everyone. I closed my eyes on the bed and said to the guy who was sitting next to me on the chair, “I’m not sleeping, but I won’t move under any circumstances.” After some time, I heard how he braked me by the shoulder: “Walk quickly, I’ll show you something!” Like a soldier, I quickly jumped into my sneakers, tied the laces, grabbed her jacket, and ran up the stairs to the second floor of the hotel. “Look what’s here!”, a very handsome paratrooper smiled, pointing to the couch spread out in the hall. I don’t remember if I even said something. I just fell over and covered myself with a jacket. For some time, I listened to snoring in the next room, and how another paratrooper was thrashing hard in his sleep. The door was hung with underpants and tactical shirts. But everything was clean and washed. There was no traditional smell for such places.

The driver woke me up around seven o’clock. Quick shower, and we set off for Mykolaiv. In the afternoon, everything did not look so terrible. The town didn’t seem so ugly anymore, and there was even a more or less decent road. My mood was completely different. Shock therapy paid off. I hugged several boys goodbye and then wondered why I didn’t ask any of their names. Only the next day, I realized that I just don’t want to know this in case one of them suddenly dies. I already have a long list of those whom I think about every day, who are at the front today. Some are already in the hospital. Let them remain just cool guys that we happened to meet on the road. Young, beautiful, real terminators. It’s not scary with them. I could follow them into fire or water.

Mykolaiv was the next destination. Even when I was just setting off, my friends asked: “Are you going to see Kim?” I joked, “I’ll try. If that suddenly happens, I’ll take a selfie!”

The weather that day was so-so. A strange trio was walking through the morning streets, where mostly owners walked with their dogs. We realized how strange we look when we paid attention to our own shoes% boots, sneakers, and flip-flops on our bare feet. The desire to go to the embankment turned out to be impossible. Barricades, roadblocks, barbed wire, hedgehogs, and armed guards in the area of ​​the local administration. On the other side, the street resembled something similar to normal life: a cafe, a nightclub, maybe even a strip club, although in some places there was unremoved glass from broken shop windows and garbage cans piled high with paper cups. Kim was nowhere to be found.

We completed the task. One of the soldiers turned out to be a Drohobych resident, so he was very happy when he heard the Lviv dialect. The last destination was Ochakiv. On the way, the sky turned black, and in the distance, windmills could be seen, which, as if nothing had happened, continued to rotate their blades. Huge drops of rain began to thump loudly on the windshield, but in a moment, the sun appeared, and the rain continued for some time, becoming blinding.

Ochakiv itself, of course, does not stand out for its exquisite architecture, but the sea and ships smooth out the first impressions. The “automatic” gates of the base are opened with the help of a guard and a string tied to them. Dogs are dreaming everywhere. One local lady even allowed a selfie to be taken with her, and then she quickly ran up to the already considerable kitten and licked it. He was peacefully basking in the sun, ignoring his mother’s attack of tenderness.

It was April 3, Sunday. Shortly before our arrival, Russia launched a missile attack on Ochakiv. People were killed and wounded in the city, and explosive objects were left on the streets.

Soon our car turned around, and we set off in the opposite direction, this time through Odesa. For inexplicable reasons, I was unable to complete my volunteer mission, which was supposed to take place in Ochakiv, so I drove to Lviv with my package upset. There was a feeling of own worthlessness. But as soon as we left the Odesa ring road, it became clear that the thing that I was shaking all the way like a priceless diamond would be taken from me.

South Palmyra was covered with thick black and gray smoke. The oil depot was burning, which was also hit that day, and our eyes were not looking towards the Black Sea, but towards the fire. While waiting for the courier (forgive me, because I still don’t know who I had the honor of talking to), I bought a bottle of dry red Italian wine at the gas station. Something I wouldn’t pay attention to earlier made me happy in an instant, and after I also gave the package, my happiness knew no bounds. The feeling of an accomplished mission and a bottle of wine, which I had already imagined poured into real glass wine glasses, made me feel proud of the accomplished mission and free. April 3rd in my personal calendar was the first day since March 6th when I never cried and felt something completely new, the need, the opportunity to do something important. For as long as I can remember, I have never been involved in anything except journalism, and lately, it has become completely uninteresting and unnecessary for me – no, not for people, for me. It turns out that I can do without constantly reading the news and shouting: I have already joined the site.

This is my personal war. I used to believe that I had to fight on the information front, but now it seems to me more important to package pills in bags or separate shampoos from shower gels for our soldiers. I know, war can be different – a shell flies into your house or your own child dies in front of your eyes, or like in Bucha you have to carry out the corpses of civilians tortured by inhumans, see ten-year-old children raped, and see some “smarty” write on Facebook that this causes hatred, and hatred is bad. In times of war, especially when you are on the side attacked, it is difficult to maintain tolerance, composure, and neutrality. I saw a lot of people, especially in Western Ukraine, for whom the war is still too far away. They are not interested in what you are talking about. They are discussing some diets there or what to buy for Easter. Sometimes they look down guiltily when they look at you or ask, “How are you? Are you holding on?” And you don’t have an answer to these questions, because you have a different idea about war and losses. You know that there, somewhere near Kyiv, in Mariupol, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, or near Popasnaya, which is razed to the ground, some have nothing to eat, cannot keep warm, and instead of electricity, have candles and matches. Canned food, a warm blanket, or shoes brought to them make their life almost happy. They will never be what they were, but today they are happy because their city was freed from the invaders, even if it was completely destroyed. Tomorrow, we will all roll up our sleeves and rebuild. Workers and intellectuals will mix concrete together and stand by the machines. And you are happy that you helped pack the car with help and know that somewhere there is a person who will get the oatmeal cookies that you put in the car.

Meanwhile, we left Odesa and headed towards Lviv. It was not much different from what it was in the opposite direction. We spend more time driving in the dark, there was less traffic, Vinnytsia was covered with snow, in Letychev we did not have to stand in a long line between checkpoints, and storks that had recently returned walked through the fields, between Khmelnytskyi and Ternopil the sky was fabulously starry, and it seemed that the war was not in Ukraine, this is a kind of parallel reality.

As soon as we arrived in Ternopil, it turned out that there was no way we could fill up the gas tank because the city had just been hit. The night was getting thicker, and Lviv was getting closer. I don’t know why, but the Self-Defense Forces or Teroborons (cholera knows them) became more and more strict at the checkpoints and more meticulously questioned where, from where, and what you were taking. In one of the villages, the roadblock was surrounded by wooden hedgehogs. But very serious security guards checked our documents with an impeccable performance of the duty assigned to them.

We almost got into trouble in Lviv itself, where a policeman lectured us that we had no right to move at this time (it was somewhere around two in the morning). However, he was reassured by a piece of paper handed to him by the driver. I had no chance of getting home, so I had to spend another night in the office, but with the feeling of having accomplished a very important mission. Again, I pondered for a long time whether what I had to see was a real war, or maybe it is, after all, that everyone has their own mission. I thought about those guys from the Armed Forces, especially the one who “surprised” me with a sofa and I regretted not asking his name. He would be another one on my long list of people I think about and pray for every day.

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