There will be no miracle
This does not resemble the holidays at all. Despite the Christmas tree in a corner in the kitchen, with a Ukrainian trident on the top. The windows are covered with blankets and there are bags of sand on the stairs in the hallway. The barrack appears sleepy and empty only from the outside. The people inside are fighting for the fourth year, ready for anything. The building itself is located in the center of the village. There is a beauty salon and a second-hand shop on the first floor. A machine gunner stands between the second and third floors and does not let strangers pass. But strangers will not come here in any case. On the “other” side they know perfectly well that Ukrainians soldiers are here. The recent shelling of Novoluhansk reached here as well — a shell flew directly at the barrack but reached the fir tree in front of the building. It cut down the trunk, ricocheted, and smashed into the cars of the military. The traces of the shelling could be seen throughout the entire village — the crumbled asphalt, a broken sign on the playground, a few deep pits in the park. There are also traces of the shelling on the church wall. The windows have been knocked out in the old Khrushchovka buildings. Some have been repaired already with new glass panes but others remain cold black holes. Clearly, there is no one living in many of the apartments. A dirty white curtain flutters in a broken window. It gives the impression of someone surrendering. We walk along the streets, tracing the path of the shelling. The locals do not pay any attention to us –apparently they’re used to it. There is the abandoned nursery school, the small marketplace. The shiny black earth clings to the soles of our shoes. Last year’s grass is wet and heavy under the December rains. This year will end in two days — the fourth year of the war.
“Look,” a soldier points to a monument. ” See the imprint of a star? We asked the locals to remove it. There was even a ‘Saint George’ ribbon. We said the ribbon could remain, but it had to be repainted blue and yellow. They disagreed and simply removed it. This is in case you’re interested in local attitudes.”
It is interesting to discuss local attitudes with the military. Although their comments must always be taken with caution: not every local will dare to be honest with the military.
” Do they at least understand who shelled them?” we asked an acquaintance when we returned to the barrack kitchen. The acquaintance, a Kharkiv native, is fighting in a volunteer unit, along with her husband.
“A few understand,” she answers, “others are convinced that it is Ukrainians shooting themselves. People are different,” she adds. “The so-called local intelligentsia, the people with higher education support Ukraine. That’s the way it is.”
The past few days it has been quiet in the village. The air trembles only occasionally. “A tank,” someone comments. Nobody pays any special attention to it. The shelling is far away; there is no need to worry. The soldiers gather at the table. Guests have arrived and everyone wants to talk, everyone has something to tell. The intelligence officer relates how they occupied the villages in the “grey zone.” He remembers a farmer with whom they stayed. After meeting the military on the move, he expressed his support for the Armed Forces of Ukraine. However, he did criticize the volunteer battalions, just in case. When he found out he was dealing with volunteers he became frightened and prepared for the worst. Moreover, the volunteers had confiscated his illegal weapons. He housed the soldiers in the kitchen. “There were stocks of domestic wine on the table. Nine big pots, just imagine!” the intelligence officer says excitedly. When the volunteers left a few weeks later, the farmer was surprised to discover that his supplies of alcohol were intact. I don’t know if it affected his attitude.
Fighting for one’s country
On the way back to Kharkiv we give a ride to one of the fighters. He tells his story during the trip. He is a businessman from Makiivka, and he supported the Maidan. In the spring of 2014, people like him were being sought. He was warned by friends and managed to escape. He abandoned everything he had and moved to Kharkiv. For a long time he tried to make it to the front. “At that time people weren’t mobilizing, not even for money. Well this is why I’m here,” he says of his battalion. “In general, it’s an honor to fight for one’s country. Not every generation has that opportunity,” he adds.
He speaks without any pathos. It is clear he has pondered all of this for a long time. He speaks Russian, as do all the volunteers we have met here. The people from Kharkiv, Dnipro, the East —in short, they are spending their fourth New Year’s Eve at the front, fighting for their country.
In Bakhmut we begin to notice the New Year’s lights and decorations. That’s the way it is — the holiday ahead, the war remaining behind. Remaining behind is the black heavy soil from unharvested fields. Behind is the cold low sky over the “gray zone.” Behind are the boarded-up windows of the civilian population and the loopholes of the army barracks. Gradually we see more Christmas trees and bright advertising signs. Kharkiv in general is bathed in lights and tinsel. The streets are filled with greetings from the president and the mayor. It is hard to squeeze by in the stores and there is no room in the restaurants. Well not everyone can live through the war. The war tires out, wears out, exhausts. Especially those who have nothing to do with it. Everyone wants peace. Everyone wants shelter. Everyone wants a miracle.
But there will be no miracle. There will be war. And the only way we can survive it is together — the easterners, the westerners, the military, and the civilians. Regardless of attitudes.
Serhiy Zhadan — Ukrainian poet, writer, translator, activist