Outgoing, incoming, whistling, screeching and hitting.
The violence of the war hit Ukraine as Russian troops crossed its borders. The murder and death seemed to happen so quickly that it seemed almost mechanical.
Suddenly, the deadliest weapons ever used were concentrated on the battlefield and used by both sides in appalling numbers: cluster rockets, self-detonating mines, battle tanks, howitzers, thermobaric and incendiary munitions. The list goes on.
The sky over quaint neighborhoods in cities like Kharkiv or the coal mines of Donbass was an invisible kaleidoscope of death, as artillery fire from afar dominated the day after the Russian retreat from Kyiv in early April. Moscow decided to try to win by attrition.
How did it look?
Soldiers hid in the trenches, face down in the cold earth, trying to huddle into the ground as shrapnel and debris sliced through the air around them. The surroundings have turned into wastelands. Apartments were on fire and the walls of houses were cut down like post-apocalyptic dollhouses.
The dead soldiers are called 200, the wounded 300. The terms are recycled jargon from the Soviet era, when dead soldiers sent home in galvanized coffins from Afghanistan were called “Cargo 200”.
The front line is the “zero line”, and getting there means getting to “zero”, and for some – to a “meat grinder”.
Air strikes and skirmishes are rare compared to the sheer number of projectiles flying through the air, which is why soldiers refer to them as “air bombs” and “gunfights”. One soldier who spent less than a month on the front line in the east of the country never fired a shot. But his company of 106 had four,200 (killed) and 23,300 (wounded), he said.
“People can’t fight artillery with machine guns,” he added matter-of-factly.
Those in the middle, the civilians, had it the worst.
Their feelings become finely tuned. Every sound is analyzed at any time of the day. Is it an incoming shell?
They rely on split-second calculations about whether to stay or go. Run or walk. Sleep upstairs or go to the basement.
The routine is tiring, but they quickly begin to understand the acoustic differences between a 120mm mortar and a 152mm howitzer. They use words like ‘horror’, ‘nightmare’ and ‘unimaginable’ to describe their daily routine. Cold damp nights in their cellars end with the first rays of the sun.
They emerge and survey the destruction surrounding them, rejoicing that they are still alive and hoping that their neighbors are also alive.