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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #387

This morning my friends and I visited the town in Toretsk, a mining town in central Donbas and a suburb of Horlivka, the principal Russian-occupied city in Donetsk Oblast outside Donetsk itself. We had been warned there had been fighting there recently, and that it was extremely dangerous. Therefore we donned our body armour with full lead plates and we jammed ourselves into a small jeep and off we drove. Our first stop was Druzhkivka, where we stopped for a coffee at about 8am, having left our hostel in Kramatorsk before 7am. Druzhkivka was the last semblance of normality we saw, in which there were a handful of shops open and we saw statutes in the city square. Even in the grim grey icy morning rain it was a pleasant enough place where we jammed into a small cafe to take coffee with a handful of soldiers. It was the last normal place we experienced in our journeys today.

The road south from Druzhkivka to Toretsk is a torrid affair, bouncing and lurching around between potholes full of water and our driver gritted his teeth as we ploughed on along the potholed roads. It was a good hour and a half bouncing down this isolated road before we reached Toretsk but we got there and with virtually no military checkpoints: just one lazy and isolated outpost on a curve before we reached a town virtually in Russian-occupied heartland. Once we arrived in the town we were overwhelmed with images of destruction. The main city square had been blown to pieces. No building was undamaged by warfare and bomb damage. There was a constant pounding of shells and mortars in the background. We clambered round the ruins of the city centre in our clumsy body armour as all we could hear were air raid sirens and incoming artillery thumps. We were just a few kilometres from the centre of Horlivka and it was clear that the Russians were giving this city everything they could. The war is hot in Toretsk, and you sensed that the Russians are spitting distance from the centre.

The number of people on the streets is few. At about 10am a drunk accosted my friend with some incoherent mumblings. We proceeded to the local church, which had been bombed out and blown to bits. We then went to the local market where a handful of staggered stalls sold a few military clothing items and a bunch of filthy old food. All in all it was a depressing site and we were lucky to make it out of there without incident. However that was only half the day’s adventures to come.

We then decided to retrace our steps and take the car towards Chasiv Yar, a town off the road between Kostyantynivka and Bakhmut. We drove down the lonely road towards Bakhmut that said “Extreme Checkpoint! Do not Pass!” In English and my friend doing the driving said he’d forgotten his reading glasses. We saw the turning towards Chasiv Yar, where fighting has likewise been reported, and the road looked like the Somme. All we could hear were relentless explosions, becoming increasingly loud, as we drove down the solid mud road with naked trees on each side, and we realised that as a solitary vehicle in the middle of nowhere we were being chased by mortars. Each thump was louder than the last one and we decided, as the car got stuck in the umpteenth pothole full of water, that discretion was the better part of valour and we turned back towards Kostyantynivka where we entered the centre of town to obtain a light lunch. The constant thumping of the guns was relentless. The railway station in Kostyantynivka has been blown to pieces just last month and the centre of the city shuts at 2pm. There is nothing open and nothing to do, and the data coverage on the mobile telephones seems extremely stretched, blacking out and then coming into service again arbitrarily. We couldn’t find anything of substance to eat, so we headed back to Kramatorsk on the main road.

What we saw on that road was likewise an extraordinary site. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are clearly getting ready for some sort of defence of Kostyantynivka, which is under constant bombardment and it seems that very few buildings have been spared. All the vehicular traffic heading into the city is something to do with the Ukrainian Armed Forces and all we could hear were artilleries and mortar, relentlessly puncturing the grey skies. At least it had stopped raining.

We returned to Kramatorsk for a burger and an opportunity to walk around the city centre, and I realised that wearing all this body armour all day I was absolutely exhausted. After a quick tour of Kramatorsk market one friend and I drove home whereupon I immediately collapsed in bed and slept for an hour. I was woken up to more artillery fire and still more air raid sirens. But more alarmingly, my third friend who had decided to walk back to our hostel heard machine gun fire on the streets of Kramatorsk. Now we’re not sure what’s going on here but either option is fairly alarming. One is that the Russians are invading Kramatorsk as I write these words and there is street-to-street fighting. Another option is that there are General Purpose Machine Guns loaded onto the back of pick-up trucks shooting down drones in the middle of Kramatorsk and those drones are out to bomb the city. Neither of these options seems particularly appealing. We are contemplating the prospect of a nice meal out this evening, a pizza: an ominous portent given that Kramatorsk was the site of a notorious massacre from a Russian missile striking a pizza restaurant and killing a number of civilians just a few months ago. And we fancy pizza.

We’re not quite sure what our plans our now. It seems that World War III has erupted on our doorsteps, and we are due to leave Kramatorsk tomorrow morning at the crack of dawn in any event - if there’s still a car and a street left when we wake up. It seems the Russian invasion of Donbas is on time, within the ten days that was predicted, and all hell is breaking loose out there. Wish us luck, and I’ll be sure to update you - even if it’s from the back of a machine gun turret.


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