Earlier this evening I learned that, contrary to some fables, there is no hidden Kramatorsk nightlife in which soldiers and their girlfriends hook up in bars masquerading as coffee shops. Instead everything closes on the dot of 8pm. By 7:30pm there are just bored-looking ladies staring blankly at their mobile phones in these places. Maybe they’re full of action earlier in the evening, but frankly I doubt it. This remains a military garrison town, and my own landlady has informed me that there is a 9pm curfew although I’ve never heard of that before and who knows whether it’s true. The idea of any curfew this close to the front line is a bit nonsensical; military activity takes place 24 hours a day. However this is not the “Las Vegas of Ukraine”, if it ever was - with a reputation for high-end hookers and high-end luxury goods. Although the latter are available in a selection of shops, I’ve seen no evidence of the former and there is no sense of a party or people having fun. People stay in doors because they’re afraid of all the shelling sounds.
But there are some facilities in Kramatorsk. I walked past a barber’s shop earlier this evening, together with a selection of rocket propelled grenade launchers in the window. There was a soldier with some psychological problems, or possibly just drunk, trying to engage me in mindless conversation in my hotel accommodation earlier in the evening. The landlady had to distract him from bothering me with a bit of blather on her part, as he found me strangely interesting. I certainly didn’t want to engage with him, as in some sense he looked deranged. These are all parts of the experience of spending time on the front line: it’s always full of unusual people doing unusual things. I’m trying to get a taxi for tomorrow to drive me around places in the vicinity, because the public transport options in this area are totally dire. However that seems highly problematic too. The most elementary things become excruciatingly difficult in times of war. The landlady was wailing down the telephone at some relative or friend this evening, so I hesitated to approach her; she may also have her own difficulties. Everybody’s lives are disrupted, the nuances of regularity in normal daily routines torn up and thrown to the winds. This is what war means for everyone with the misery to live through it.
I fell asleep exhausted at about 8.30pm, and then I woke up at 11pm just a few minutes ago: the sort of common slip in your sleeping pattern that you find curses front line work and living. You become exhausted due to the conditions and then you fall asleep at unusual times and you wake up again due to the anxiety. When I woke at 11pm just now, I could still hear air raid sirens in the background; I’ve never heard as many as in Kramatorsk but I think they’re all a while away. Sloviansk is the centre for Russian artillery attacks now, some 15 kilometres to the northeast, while Bakhmut, where a sort of stalled ground war over control of a city that in honesty the Russians have really won (they control Bakhmut), is about 25 kilometres away. Amidst all this military action, Kramatorsk is inevitably tense and this affects the way that everybody thinks and acts.
It’s freezing cold in this accommodation. I have an electric heater in my frankly palatial room and it’s an oil heater churning out some basic heating but when I went to the bathroom down the hall we were close to zero out there. I’ve taken a second sleeping pill (they’re very useful for front line travel) and we’ll see whether that puts me back to sleep quickly or whether it will take some time. There’s a certain sort of calm I quite enjoy that motivates me to write at these unusual hours in an environment in which everything is silent and quiet outside and I figure I am the only person awake in this city right now although that’s no doubt not entirely true. I did see people on the streets yesterday, going about their daily business much as you see these things in Kharkiv or Kherson. People aren’t always out for long but they’re trying to do some daily exercise; they’re trying to stay sane. There were some kids hanging around in the shopping mall that sells the fur coats and the high-end guns and ammunition, drinking some coffee from a single machine and chatting to one-another at 4.30 in the afternoon. They’re trying to live their normal lives despite the fact that every second car is military and every third person is in a military uniform. It’s as though they just blank it out and they don’t care.
Both Kramatorsk and Sloviansk were occupied back in 2014 and people forget about those occupations, but it seems that the brief Russian occupation of these adjacent cities a decade ago (in each case about three months or so) affected the psyches of the population in different ways. Sloviansk was more comprehensively destroyed in the battle for its recapture by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and therefore the civilian population fled in far greater proportions. By contrast in Kramatorsk the local people tolerated the occupation for a short period and then the Russian Armed Forces just tactically retreated, realising that if they could not hold Sloviansk then they could not hold Kramatorsk either. That’s why you see substantially less bomb damage in central Kramatorsk than you do in Sloviansk, I suspect, although Kramatorsk is not without its bomb damage and there have been a handful of ugly incidents in which Russian missiles and artillery have struck civilian infrastructure in Kramatorsk, the most recent of which appears to have been about a week ago in which at least one civilian was killed.
All things considered, I still don’t quite yet know what to make of Kramatorsk and I don’t know what sort of day I am going to have tomorrow. There are two options. Either I am going to spend my day wondering around shopping malls and buying luxury items, a pleasure I do not even find in Lviv and rather a boring day but at least I will get some exercise; or I will find an intrepid person with the enthusiasm to drive me around all the things I want to see in this region, including downtown Sloviansk where I have not been since October 2023; the Monastery at Sviatohirsk; and the region around Kostyantynivka. Tomorrow is going to be full of uncertainties but instead of writing I should properly now try to go back to sleep and rest. It’s icy dark and lonely in a sinister way out there, and all I can hear is more air raid sirens and more guns, and dogs wailing somewhere off in the distance. Goodnight.