On the road of life: correspondence from the front in Donbas

Paweł Pieniążek from the front in the Luhansk oblast (Donbas, Ukraine) – 05/16/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Ukrainian soldiers defend the last scrap of the Luhansk Oblast. Soon, it too may fall into the hands of the Russians.

Thick black smoke rises above the area. A Ukrainian refinery, bombed by the Russians, has been burning for several days in the vicinity of Lysychansk. The refinery is surrounded by picturesque canola fields – canola, like sunflower, is one of the key crops for the local agriculture. As in the case of wheat and corn, Ukraine has until now been a world leader in the export of vegetable oils, especially to Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

The refinery fire cannot be extinguished and it probably won’t be until it burns out. Smoke has become an inseparable element of the local landscape. It appears on the horizon at different points and from different directions.

The target here is not only the refinery. The densely falling Russian projectiles and rockets sometimes raise a cloud of smoke and dust only for a moment. Other times they cause long-lasting fires. The sky is marked with white streaks of Russian jet engines or surface-to-air missiles chasing them, from which the pilots are fleeing. They don’t always succeed: here one of the fighters launched flares designed to confuse anti-aircraft missiles, but after a moment black smoke comes from the machine. Shot down, it dives to the ground, somewhere in the direction of the forest.

The aim of the Russian offensive

In the foreground of the landscape of this place — and the vicinity of Lysychansk is the most eastern part of the Luhansk Oblast controlled by Ukraine; looking at the map, it now looks almost like a “sack”, surrounded by Russian troops from the north, east and south-east — artillery dominates. Its booming is loud and incessant.

A large part of this “sack” is already within its reach. Russian shells have just hit a Ukrainian post; in the coming days, they will reach it regularly. The command withdrew the policemen and soldiers who had staffed it until now so as not to expose them to certain death. There remained only smoldering cars and shell craters.

The recently smooth asphalt is now marked with furrows and holes left by projectiles and the tracks of armored vehicles — this is what seven kilometers of the “road of life” looks like, i.e. the last route connecting the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. And thus linking the Lysychansk region with the rest of Ukraine.

The “road of life” has also found itself in range of Russian artillery. Both the evacuation and military & humanitarian aid deliveries use this road. It is hard to believe that a dozen or so days ago this route was completely safe.

Serhiy Haidai, the head of the military administration of the Luhansk Oblast, explains to me that the cutting off the road connecting this region with the rest of Ukraine is — apart from a direct attack on Severodonetsk, the provisional capital of the oblast — the key direction of the Russian offensive in this area today. “Unfortunately, the situation is not good. But we are hanging in there as best as we can, says Haidai. “The situation changes every hour.”

It is the Luhansk Oblast — or rather the tenth of its area that remains under the control of the Ukrainian army — that has now become the main target of the Russian offensive.

I saw Donbas for the first time

When Russia launched a full-scale war on February 24, it was this region that became — initially also alongside Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv — one of the first targets of the attack.

This was due to unfavorable geographic conditions. Most of the Luhansk region was then already surrounded from three directions. In the north and east it borders with Russia, and in the south with the unrecognized Luhansk People’s Republic subordinate to the Kremlin, which emerged as a result of the war started in 2014.

As a result, in the first days of the Russian offensive, towns such as Stanytsia Luhanska, Schastia or Svatove were seized [there is a large psychiatric hospital there, which readers of Tygodnik have helped in recent years; today its employees and patients, whom we wrote about several times, are under occupation – ed.].

Then the Russians captured Kreminna, approached Rubizhne (which neighbors Severodonetsk) and broke the Ukrainian line of defense — the one held since 2014 — as far as Popasna. It was for this last city that fierce battles took place from March until the first days of May, and concluded to the disadvantage of the Ukrainian army. The defenders had to take up positions west of Popasna.

Not only experienced military men who had fought since 2014 made it to the deep trenches found there, but also novices in the profession of war, such as 29-year-old Jaroslav from Vinnytsia, who until recently worked in the Roshen food company owned by former president Petro Poroshenko. Jaroslav was a technician-operator.

On February 24, he drove his wife and five-year-old daughter to the Polish border. After returning to Vinnytsia, he himself wanted to report to the military commission, but he was pre-empted by a phone call summoning him for duty. His life changed drastically. “I shot for the first time in my life, saw Donbas for the first time and went to war for the first time,” he admits.

An ordinary infantry soldier

Jaroslav was trained as a sharpshooter. After two months, he is used to weapons and knows how to use them. “It’s already mine, well-used. But it has not met anyone yet,” he says.

However, it was not weaponry that was the most difficult element to master, but life on the front in spartan conditions: sleeping in the field, when snow was falling, it was cold and Jaroslav did not yet have thermal underwear, nor time to prepare a better earthen shelter (here they say: blindage). Or when his unit was sent to positions he couldn’t even locate. They didn’t have time to dig in properly because artillery shelled them all night. Jaroslav lay flat in a shallow foxhole and waited for it all to end.

Now, in the vicinity of Popasna, they are in well-established positions. The trenches are so deep that usually even the top of the head does not stick out. But still, life for an ordinary infantry soldier is difficult. The enemy comes close occasionally, so Jaroslav and his squad listen to the whistles and explosions. When it whistles or hits nearby, they bend down mechanically.

Jaroslav says he wanted to join the army to defend his country and his home from violence. So that inhumanity would not occur there. Such as those which the Russian army committed in Bucha, for example.

“Our motivation is great, because we do not want something like this to happen here,” says Jaroslav. “I will be helping here to make this end as soon as possible. But war is not for me.”

The mere mention of home makes him sad. Therefore, he tries not to think about when he will return. But he would like it to happen any day now.

Make friends with a shovel

There are many tired and scared faces in the trenches. On the turbulent front, it is difficult to get used to the brutality of war. Especially when you only have a rifle in your hands and you are facing invisible artillery. To boost the spirits of those who are in such a situation for the first time in their lives, soldiers from more experienced units accompany them.

“The detachment in this section of the front does not have much serious combat experience. The task of our group is not only to support them with concrete issues, but also to motivate, teach and to by example show how to behave in war,” says 46-year-old Oleh.

He is a soldier of the so-called mobile group. This is a lightly armed unit deployed on various sections of the front. Their tasks include supporting the troops standing guard there, preparing ambushes, as well as special reconnaissance activity.

Oleh was a journalist for a local newspaper in the Chernihiv Oblast for 20 years. In 2014, he joined one of the volunteer battalions. A few years later, he signed a contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine and was trained as a sapper. He emphasizes that this work requires attention, accuracy and calm. When we meet, he is pushing a wheelbarrow full of anti-tank mines. He will later place them in the earth nearby to hinder any potential Russian attack.

The main problems faced by Ukrainian soldiers include the artillery advantage on the enemy’s side and ignoring losses in their own ranks. Ukrainian soldiers often say that the Russians keep coming with no end.

“In line with the traditions of the Soviet Union, they hurl steel and cannon fodder at us,” says the commander of the mobile group, 33-year-old Roman, who has also been serving for eight years. “They try to suppress our fighting spirit thanks to advantages in equipment, artillery and aviation. But if you’ve made friends with a shovel, entrenched yourself, it’s much easier. They have a lot of ammunition, we have the same amount of time, and sooner or later they will run out of people.”

The second issue is the Kremlin’s tactics, which do not take into account the destruction of civilian infrastructure or civilian casualties.

“We have experienced soldiers who have seen a lot, but even they, looking at all of this, often say that it would be better if man had never invented war,” admits Oleh.

He believes that most sections of the front line are holding well where battles of position are taking place. “The initiative is on the side of Moscow. They strike first and determine where. They have countless options. We are forced to react to threats. I do not think that they will manage to occupy the entire territory of the Luhansk region, says Oleh.

He admits, however, that maintaining the currently occupied territories will entail significant losses not only for the advancing Russian troops, but also for the Ukrainian forces defending them.

Three categories of people

Breaking through the positions defended by Jaroslav, Roman and Oleh would bring the Russians closer to cutting off the “road of life”. The soldiers and the inhabitants of the Luhansk region who have not yet left their homes would then be surrounded.

Although Lysychansk and Severodonetsk, which make up an agglomeration, seem like ghost towns at first glance, you can meet many people in courtyards, staircases and cellars. According to Haidai, the head of the military administration, there are still over 40,000 civilians in the territories controlled by Ukraine. Despite appeals by the authorities, they do not want to leave, although their houses are often riddled with shrapnel, now without windows, with holes in the walls.

“There are three categories of people who remain. The first is the elderly: they believe that if they were born here, they will die here. The second hopes that nothing will hit their building. The third are those who are waiting for ‘russkij mir’” says Haidai. “Honestly, I cannot understand those who have decided to hide in the cellars, hoping that nothing will come flying their way.”

Haidai was born and spent his childhood in Severodonetsk. During his last visit to the city, he saw that his family property was also under fire.

How can you not believe in God?

Three people stand in front of a building in Severodonetsk, which a shell hit back in March. An older couple is talking to a neighbor who lives in a different stairwell. They belong to the first group that Haidai mentioned: they do not want to leave their hometown. They are standing right next to an old shell crater. The shock wave threw a concrete bench a few meters, ripped open the balcony and smashed windows. Although you can hear explosions and whistles every now and then, they don’t even flinch. They have been living in such conditions for over two months, so they’ve fallen into apathy. They only react when something lands really close.

“How are we doing? It stinks. We are vegetating,” says 70-year-old Halyna.

There is no water, electricity or gas in the city. They prepare food on a fire, and collect water from wherever it is available. Sometimes it is handed out by the military, sometimes a tanker will arrive. Humanitarian aid made it from time to time, but since the “road of life” started being shelled, support has practically stopped. There is an open shop in the area, but the prices are outrageous.

“If you have a pocket filled with dollars, you can go,” says Halyna.

She is already completely without cash because her retirement pension is flowing into her account, and banks and ATMs in Severodonetsk stopped working shortly after February 24.

Halyna and her husband Volodymyr live off what they receive. Everyone tries to help each other. A neighbor left them a sack of potatoes and they are just finishing eating it.

“How can you not believe in God? There were times when we were running out of food, I thought about what we would do tomorrow. And here the next day someone would bring us something, leaving us jam or canned meat,” says Halyna.

Halyna and Volodymyr do not go down to the basement because the living conditions there are not good. They sit in an apartment without windows. It is on the ground floor, so when the shells begin to fall nearby, they sit down in the hallway and wait for the barrage to stop.

Halyna has lost weight, her nerves are frayed. The only thing that keeps her spirits up is the hope that this war will soon be over. Although it is difficult to say where she draws it from, regularly hearing the bangs of artillery and looking at the surrounding smoke-filled forests.

“We somehow got used to it,” she says.

The road is scarier than the basement

There were as many as 20 people left in the next two stairwells. Most live in the basement. It is a low room in which, at one meter eighty, it is impossible to strand up. There is no light, there is however a lot of dust and dirt. There are sleeping mats, blankets, quilts, sleeping bags and pillows on the ground. Although it is warm outside and you can be tempted to wear a short-sleeved T-shirt, here, underground, everyone is dressed in jackets, fleece and hats, as if February never ended.

Dim light reaches deep into the basement. Here Serhiy teaches his 11-year-old daughter Anastasia mathematics. He uses a textbook. “I am learning to multiply and divide fractions,” says Anastasia, a bit embarrassed. “It seems to me that we learn a lot.”

I ask if she misses school. She replies that she does not particularly. Parents do not have access to the school curriculum, but there are textbooks, so they study with their daughter one lesson after one, as long as they the energy. But Anastasia was delighted when a neighbor brought her chocolate ice cream. She hadn’t eaten any in a long time.

Next to Anastasia are her mother Svitlana and 18-year-old sister Kateryna, a first-year student of philosophy at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Due to the pandemic, Kateryna was learning remotely but now, without electricity and the Internet, this is out of the question.

It is difficult to say whether this family falls into any of the categories mentioned by Serhiy Haidai. The parents are in their forties, educated and not pro-Russian. What keeps them here is the lack of an idea about where to flee, as well as a lack of money, inertia, and the fear of dropping everything and heading off into the unknown.

“We have nowhere to go and nothing to do it with. This vagueness, leaving with nothing at all, is a big liability,” says Svitlana.

“But they’re not shooting right now,” I cut in.

“The road is scary. In the basement it seems more peaceful somehow,” says Anastasia.

“Suppose we make it through all the gunfire. But what then?” Svitlana asks.

Nobody has an answer.

Svitlana does not want to let Kateryna go to Kyiv alone. Kateryna, on the other hand, does not want to leave the city alone, because her family will be in her thoughts all the time. And so the whole family keeps each other in the basement, leaving themselves no way to escape.

They still hope it will all be over and life will return to normal.

Despite almost three months of shelling, the turmoil of war may just now hit Severodonetsk with full force. And if the “road of life” is cut off, there will be no chance of leaving. ©