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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #385

This afternoon my friends and I visited the three Donbas cities of Siversk, Lyman and Sloviansk, all of which at some point had been under Russian occupation during the two Russian invasions of Ukraine that have taken place in the twenty-first century. It was an appalling site to behold. These three cities encircle the Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut, and they have all been the subject of fierce fighting. We started by driving from Kramatorsk to Siversk. The road was pockmarked with holes from heavy armoured vehicles and from artillery and mortar, and the bridges on the way had been destroyed so we were diverted on even rougher roads as we crossed makeshift pontoons on the roads. Every building was destroyed or bombed out and virtually nobody was living in the small settlements along the sides of these dreadful roads. The traffic thinned out to the occasional military checkpoint, a few tanks rolling past and the occasional flashy NGO vehicle apparently going nowhere in particular. I cannot emphasise the total level of destruction of everything we saw.

We drove through the shocking scene in Siversk. There was nothing but devastation and destruction in every direction. There are no shops, no people, just an occasional soldier or an old aged pensioner with a plastic bag full of emergency supplies provided by the World Food Program or one of the similar agencies. There was no mobile telephone reception in Siversk, as the Russians had blown up all the mobile telephone masts. The makeshift church that had sprung up after the end of the Soviet era likewise lay in ruins. There was nothing but devastation in every direction. We were shocked and horrified.

One thing that interested me is that there is no front line here. Anyone in principle can drive to Siversk, if you have your own hardy transport (the roads can barely take regular cars and there is no public transport; the electricity wires over the railway lines have been blown up so there are no train services either) and then, if you want, you can just keep driving to Severo-Donetsk and Lysychansk in Russian-occupied Ukraine. There is nobody to stop you: no checkpoints, no border guards, nothing. The same is true of Bakhmut: you can just turn down the road towards that Russian-occupied bombed out city, if that is what you want to do and you know the way. There is no GPS and no mobile ‘phone coverage, so you have to know the way; but there is no front line to speak of and no trenches and none of the things you conventionally associate with a divided territory. There is just an empty, hollowed out, completely destroyed city in the middle of nowhere that absolutely anyone can go to and then they can cross over into territory controlled by the Russians. This place is remote and devastated. The Russians had occupied it and destroyed it, seemingly on a whim, and then they had withdrawn to their own prior positions, seemingly on a whim, and all they had left is devastation and there is nothing there at all.

We couldn’t stop for lunch. We couldn’t stop to look around. There was the barking of a few dogs and a handful of people dotted around, but this was a wilderness and a no-man’s land and we felt absolutely deserted.

Then we retraced our steps across the diversions and the broken roads and the pontooned rivers to the city of Lyman, that had suffered a similar fate: occupation by the Russians who had destroyed everything, and then they had just left it all smouldering, burning, destroyed, burned out and ruined. The main municipal building had only a single wall left and no windows. Every apartment building was burned out or totally destroyed; the main road into town was impassable and we had to travel round a diversion to pass through the creepy suburbs and enter the city centre. The only building we found still barely in tact was a church, adjacent to the railway lines, its Orthodox golden domes still gleaming, and the church staff were living in the crypt which they kindly showed us round. My friend bought a couple of candles and I purchased an icon of St George, as a way really just of giving them some money so that they might eek out a subsistence living for a few more days with the paltry sums we donated to them. The building and the chapel were beautiful but nonetheless the ornate painted ceiling betrayed the scars of war: someone had been firing an assault rifle in there at the roof and the frescos on the ceiling were full of chips as a result.

It seems that there is a shop or two open in Lyman but such few residents as remain stay very much indoors. There is nothing to do amidst this sea of devastation; everyone has abandoned Lyman and again it sits in the middle of the Donbas region as though a ghost city, ravaged by the Russians and then left to rot. The Ukrainian flag flies but really this area has been destroyed beyond comprehension and the construction of the entire city needs to start again.

Finally we drove into the city of Sloviansk, where I had not been for a few months. The scenes of devastation were almost as shocking although there are a handful of shops open in Sloviansk and we stopped in the only hotel in town, to chat to some soldiers from the International Legion, the foreign soldiers who have joined the Ukrainian army, who were kind enough to spare us a few minutes of their time to explain their level of commitment to the cause. The Russians are sophisticated and well-motivated, they explained, and the battle with them is fierce. This war is unlike any other, in which they dig trenches while they wait for lawn mower sounds that are Russian anti-personnel drones flying overhead seeking to assassinate them. They also cower from artillery and mortars fired from just outside town. These brave foreign soldiers are fighting for Ukraine because they are professional soldiers and we left our meeting with them impressed by their bravery and dedication.

We drove back to Kramatorsk humbled, barely being able to comprehend the devastation we had seen today. The Russians are determined to destroy these Donbas cities and all for no apparent purpose. The former economic strength of the region has been reduced to zero through relentless Russian aggression and we are left staring at the consequences of their destruction. I think of those people sleeping in the crypt of the church in Lyman tonight as I rest peacefully in my bed in the comparative tranquility of Kramatorsk, and I thank God for how lucky I am.


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