Ukraine’s Forever War
KYIV, Ukraine—On May 13, an artillery shell fired from within separatist-controlled territory landed in a residential neighborhood of Avdiivka, a front-line town in eastern Ukraine.
Three women and a man were standing outside the home where the shell hit. Elena Aslanova, Olga Kurochkina, Maria Dikaya, and Oleg Borisenko.
They all died. Two children became orphans that day.
That same day, the Eurovision Song Contest finals were held in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Tourists from around the world had flocked to the city for the event. CNN published an article hailing Ukraine as “Eastern Europe’s best-kept travel secret.”
Two weeks later, Eurovision is over and the tourists are gone. But the war is still there, still killing people, as it has for more than three years.
On this day at the end of May, there is a collage of sights and sounds on the Maidan, Kyiv’s central square and epicenter of the 2014 revolution, which overthrew the pro-Russian former president, Viktor Yanukovych.
The Trade Unions Building, which was torched during the revolution, flanks the Maidan. Now, the ruin is covered by an enormous fabric facade that bears the phrase, in English, “Freedom is Our Religion.”
On the open expanse of the square, fire jugglers thrill onlookers. Artists draw charcoal caricatures while their subjects giggle. Mustachioed Cossacks in vyshyvankas smash coins with wooden clubs to the delight of crowds. Cranky babushkas sell rolls of toilet paper adorned with the likeness of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Out of work actors in panda, zebra, and Minnie Mouse costumes pose for pictures with tourists, and then deftly ask for a few hryvnias.
A background din accompanies the carnival-like spectacle. A teenage guitar player performs rock songs by the Ukrainian band Okean Elzy. A nearby drummer bangs out solos over a backup track of American rock songs blasted from stereo speakers. At another spot by a fountain, a karaoke singer croons “Come Undone” by Duran Duran.
Hardly a whisper of the war in the east, or the revolution that played out here on the Maidan three years ago.
And that’s when you notice another sound. An ethereal chanting in a language you don’t understand. But something about it catches your attention, as if it doesn’t belong among the rest.
As you search for where the song is coming from, you pass by something you’ve never seen on the Maidan before. A white rectangular display. On it is a calendar for May with symbols for how many Ukrainian soldiers were killed or wounded on each day.
Almost every day leading up to this one is marked in some way.
In small clusters, pedestrians stand in silent revelry before this modest reminder of the war still raging in the east, six hours by train from Kyiv, in which 10,000 people have already died, and more die almost every day.
They read the words on the display, written in both English and Ukrainian:
Every God-given day
Whether we work or study
Out on a date or go to the movies
Hike in the mountains or rest at the seaside
Has been paid with blood, with lives of Ukrainian servicemen.
2,600 Ukrainian soldiers have sacrificed their lives.
9,700 got wounded.
For the past three years
This is the price
We paid for every single day we lived in peace.
And then you see where that chanting was coming from.
At first you notice the crowd. A mix of soldiers in uniform and what looks like a normal sample of Ukrainian society—teenagers, millennials, those in early adulthood and middle age. And a few with gray hair.
The crowd seems to orbit around a still mass in the center. You walk closer to see what it is and then you see the casket with the dead soldier in it. His white face looks like a statue. His arms are folded over his heart and his body is covered in flowers.
You’re there to see this just as the two soldiers on either side lift up the casket and carry it down the stone steps of the Maidan to a waiting van.
An Orthodox Christian priest leads the chanting. He swings a metal orb that emits a cloud of incense. Another man carries a cross with the dead soldier’s name on it—Vitalyi Zinoviyovych Muzhenko. He was 30 years old.
A young woman is crying. No, more than that, she is sobbing. Her chest heaving, she gasps for breath. Uncontrollable grief. Real heartbreak. Your eyes grow moist, too.
The soldiers are composed, but their faces are like stone and their eyes are focused on something that only those who know war could ever see. They are not here, but back there, in the war.
There are women in military uniform, too, and they stand at what looks like parade rest as the coffin is loaded into the van. Chests up, proudly, hands folded behind the back, feet planted wider than the shoulders. Their faces are as hardened and as composed as any man’s. This war has required a mobilization of Ukrainian society that includes the country’s sons as well as its daughters.
You remember one 22-year-old soldier from your time on the front lines in Pisky. Her name was Julia. She went by the nom de guerre “Black.”
With her camouflage pants cut off at the knees, her silver and black metal earrings, and her long black hair pulled back into a ponytail, Julia raised her Kalashnikov to the ready and squared her shoulders to the sounds of a nearby gun battle, while you scrambled for cover.
Julia stood, stone faced and in the open, her cheek against the stock of her rifle, ready for battle, as the bullets popped and zipped overhead.
Courage, after all, has little to do with sex, or age. Strength is not made in the muscles, but in the mind’s ability to function in the face of fear, and in its ability to suffer.
Your ability to deal with war is as invisible and unpredictable as the biological ability of mountaineers to adapt to high altitude.
You either have it or you don’t. And there’s only one way to find out one way or the other—a soldier has to experience war, just like a climber has to sip the thin air of a Himalayan peak, to find out whether or not you were born with the gift to survive on the edge.
Back on the Maidan, the crowd follows the casket as the four soldiers carry it down to the van. Loaded, the van doors shut. A few hugs—an arm with a clinched fist wrapped around the back of a comrade. A few warrior handshakes—hands clasping forearms.
Then, the van with the casket inside is gone. The funeral quickly scatters like a fog burning off, blending into the crowd on the Maidan.
The Real War
Here in Kyiv, the war means waving the flag. It’s wearing blue and yellow plastic bracelets, banning Russian social media sites, and a sad shaking of the head at the news of death and destruction from the east. But that’s not the real war.
If you want to see the real war, you should go to the military hospital on Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard. There, sitting on the benches in the shady, tree-lined courtyards, young men who are too young to buy a beer in America. Some are without the leg or the arm they lost in the war. Some are wounded in ways you cannot see.
You remember visiting your friend, Nemo, which is his nom de guerre, at that military hospital last year. He was shot during a battle outside of Luhansk, a separatist stronghold in the east. As he lay helpless from the bullet wound, a grenade had exploded nearby, spraying his body with shrapnel. He was in bad shape.
You remember Nemo from your time on the front lines as the strong, athletic soldier with short-cropped blond hair and tanned muscular body who built a gym in an abandoned garden where he would casually do sets of dips and pull-ups as the artillery rained down around him.
You remember one night, when you were in bed in the basement of the abandoned house in which the Ukrainian soldiers took shelter from the rockets and the artillery. Your eyes were closed, but you weren’t asleep yet. Someone came in the room. It was Nemo. He put a blanket over you.
The bullet entered through Nemo’s hip, shattered his pelvis, traveled up through his abdomen, destroying his colon, intestines, and lodged in his liver. Now, a plastic bag collects his digestive waste.
You remember what he said to you at the hospital, when you put a hand on his pale, thin shoulder as he lay in the hospital bed, the nurses tending to his ruined body.
“Droog,” he said in Russian. Friend.
Nemo was wounded on July 18, 2016—519 days after the Minsk II cease-fire went into effect.
You left the hospital that day, almost one year ago, and re-entered Kyiv’s bustling city streets and you felt like the war was a secret inside of you. It still feels that way.
It was like that for you, too, coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, you remember.
The veterans are back living with their families, working at their old jobs, hanging out with their old friends. But in their minds, they’re still in the war. Even if they don’t go to it anymore.
The artillery, the rockets, the snipers. The trenches, the minefields, the fortified, artillery-blasted villages along the front lines. It’s all still there. So are the nights sleeping in the dirt, the same bland food over and over. The Arctic cold of winter on the Eurasian steppe, which broke the armies of Nazi Germany and Napoleon Bonaparte. The spring thaw that turns the fields to mud and bogs down the tank treads and the tires. The stifling heat of summer, when soldiers wear flip-flops and shorts to combat and leave their sweaty body armor vests and helmets out to dry in the sun, leaving white streaks of salt on the Kevlar. And fall, when the trees lose their leaves and you have fewer places to hide from the Russian drones.
It’s all still like that, out there in the east. The war goes on and on.
But Ukraine is not a country at war.
The war in Ukraine is confined to the 250 miles of front lines of the Donbas. Its effects are limited to a swath of territory that extends as far as the range of the weapons used. Less than an hour’s car ride from the trenches you’d hardly know there was a war on.
The war is a destination. Once you’re at it, you’re in it.
A cease-fire, called Minsk II, was signed in February 2015, but the war never really ended. Of the war’s overall death toll of 10,000 people, about a third have occurred since the cease-fire went into effect.
Today, the fighting has devolved into a static, long-range battle mainly fought from trenches and fortified outposts. Soldiers hardly ever see whom they’re shooting at. Most civilian casualties come from artillery and rocket shots, landmines, and IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
Some front-line towns like Marinka and Avdiivka have become otherworldly places where children go to school amid daily shelling and sniper shots. Where outdoor markets go on during the daylight hours, while at night people hunker down indoors like there is a monster on the loose that only comes out after dark.
For those living within its grasp, war has become a way of life. About 1.7 million Ukrainians have fled their homes due to fighting, becoming refugees in their own country. But for many Ukrainians living in the war zone, it’s not economically feasible to pack up and leave their homes. So, they choose to live amid the violence rather than become homeless and without work in some new town or city safely distant from the front lines.
The Other War
Past the Maidan, you walk along Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boulevard, until you turn right onto Mykhaila Hrushevskoho Street at European Square and continue up to the intersection with Petrivs’ka Alley.
Here, in 2014, lines of Berkut special police arranged like Greek hoplites beat their billy clubs against their metal shields as they advanced in lockstep toward the protesters. And when that didn’t scatter the unyielding crowds, they opened fire with shotguns.
Today, there are white silhouettes of bodies painted on the ground where protesters died.
From the intersection you walk up a steep path into the wooded Mariyinsky Park. Then, off to your right, down a steep, tree-studded slope, you see a protest gathered in front of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine building.
The crowd of a few hundred people is massed in front of a line of concrete barriers behind which National Guard soldiers stand at the ready.
From your spot in the park, you stop, watch, and listen. Down below, someone on a megaphone is unleashing a diatribe about government pensions, corruption, and how the post-revolution government has been a disappointment.
Ukraine is not just fighting against Russia and its proxies in the Donbas, after all. There is another war for the country’s democratic future being fought in Kyiv’s government halls.
In front of you stands an old man in a soldier’s uniform. His left arm against a tree, his right hand is cocked on his hip.
“Where is our democracy?” the voice on the megaphone down below implores.
The old man slowly shakes his head. As if he has seen this all before.
Just a hundred meters away, along a brick path in the park, beside a small grassy space where children play and artists paint, buses with tinted windows are parked in a long line. Inside, police in riot gear sit waiting.
Nearby, at a Soviet-era outdoor stage, children sing with flower garlands in their hair. Proud parents in the bleachers hoot and holler and clap their hands like their team just won the Super Bowl.
Then, around a bend, you arrive at the plaza in front of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. There is a protest about reforming customs laws. A protester bangs on a metal oil drum with a pair of wooden sticks. Behind him, a crowd waves blue and yellow flags.
You remember a protest at this same place in August 2015. You watched in horror as a protester, who was a veteran of the war, tossed a hand grenade at a police line in front of the parliament building, killing four National Guard troops.
The protest in 2015 was against a key condition of the cease-fire, which requires Ukraine to amend its constitution to decentralize government power away from Kyiv. Moscow had a hand in drafting the cease-fire’s terms. Consequently, some Ukrainians, and many military veterans, consider following through on the decentralization measures to be a tacit capitulation to Russia. Especially because the war hasn’t ended yet.
On this day, almost two years later, the crowd is much smaller than on that deadly day in 2015. Yet, once again, a metal barricade blocks the front of the Verkhovna Rada, behind which police officers and National Guard troops stand observing the crowd.
The man on the drum moves up just a few yards in front of the police line, as if tempting them. He bangs away, louder and louder. The police officers and troops stand firm, but do nothing to stop him. You watch for a while, and then you turn to leave.
You’re close to home and it’s getting late. You think, for a moment, that here in these quiet, tree-lined streets you can switch it all off and forget about the war until you return to it tomorrow, or the next day, when you choose to write about it again.
You stop to have a beer at your favorite café around the corner from your apartment.
Inside, a young man in a military uniform, who looks like a boy to you, is sitting with a young woman. They are holding hands across the table. He is whispering to her. Tears run down her cheeks, which leave lines of streaked mascara.
The war touches life lightly, like a feather. You don’t see it unless you look for it. But it’s always there.