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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #390



This morning after setting off at the crack of dawn after a clumsy breakfast of self-made fried eggs with mayonnaise, we bounded off in a cramped jeep, luggage and all, to do a bit of tourism. We thought we’d visit the Sviatohirsk historical monastery complex north of Sloviansk, but we inevitably took a wrong turning down a long bleak road with no mobile telephone transmission and we found ourselves staring at a bunch of burned out buildings in front of a destroyed bridge over the Severo-Donetsk river. On the other side of the river were the Russians; they had destroyed the small town where this bridge lay on their retreat from the territory to the west of the river, and they had destroyed every building, no matter how small, as they had withdrawn. The result was devastation. We had to turn back, and continue our route to Sviatohirsk via another route.


We found the right diversion eventually, over some more pontooned bridges and over interminable bumpy forest roads that seemed to be going through the middle of nowhere but some of these small settlements seemed to have been spared the war damage. However the village around Sviatohirsk itself has been comprehensively destroyed, its gift shops, supermarkets and hotels laying in ruins as the Russians occupied the Sviatohirsk monastery earlier in the war and then used the monastery’s elevated position in the forests to bomb and blow up the town that nestled in the valley opposite it. It is a beautiful spot and all that remains is a damaged monastery (inevitably struck by various pieces of shrapnel that chipped the building’s fine walls) and also a series of corrugated iron shacks selling the usual military clothing and bare essentials for the country’s population to survive. I didn’t get the impression that there was a huge number of tourists who ever made it this far into the Donbas and so close to Russian territory; formally, the Russians are just behind the hill and a large Soviet-era statute stands guard over the monastery as if an ominous warning that the Russians could appear again at any time.


A solitary warden showed us round the intricate inner sanctum of the monastery, a large church-like complex in which old ladies are fixing the historical tapestries in the building by ironing on the designs with simple steam irons from their homes and the few remaining monks are going over everything with cloths trying to keep it clean from the dust. Only a handful of devotees remain in the structure now. It’s all rather sad but we were offered tea and coffee and our rudimentary tour of the complex (in Russian) was very welcome after all the bumpy dusty driving and false turns we had endured to get there.


We then proceeded on to Izyum, a town almost totally destroyed in the early months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that was left with barely a single building in tact. Izyum sits at the southern end of Kharkiv Oblast and it too is close to the front line but shows far greater damage. There are very few shops or other amenities there and we felt fortified in our decision not to spend the night there; there simply would have been nowhere to eat and nothing to do with ourselves. So we drove up to the top of the hill above town looking for a series of prehistoric statutes of some alleged archeological significance but instead finding a giant Soviet monolith of some description the purpose of which wasn’t entirely clear but even the Russians had tried to blow that up. We think it was a monument to the Soviet liberation of Izyum from the Nazis in February 1943 but that fact hadn’t stopped the Russians from trying to destroy it with mortar fire when they retreated from Iyum. We never found our prehistorical statutes but we did sadly glimpse from the brow of the hill over this now destroyed town.


The only thing much left in Izyum is a series of shacks and shanty-town structures on the edge of the city that cater to the Ukrainian military who pass through this town in large numbers. This consists of a series of illicit bottle shops; restaurants serving basic food; elementary grocery stories; and of course the ubiquitous military clothing shops. We sat and ate a pizza amidst the military-industrial grime of sitting in what in effect was a giant truck park full of soldiers opposite a fake MacDonald’s sign and then we proceeded on our way.


We did have a plan to visit Kupiansk but we called it off. We had spent too much time in the day winding through back lanes and across bumpy roads, avoiding demolished bridges (including in the centre of Izyum) so that we decided to avoid adding several hours still further to see a city under siege from the Russians which is probably just an exercise in studying bomb damage very similar to those we have been looking at in previous dangers, listening constantly to the monstrous anger of the guns while seeing people living in misery and looking at blown out buildings. There is only so much you can do of this because this is the carnage of war and it infects and depresses us all in time and enough is enough. I read up enough about Kupiansk to understand what is going on there and that’s good enough for me.


Instead of visiting Kupiansk we took the last leg of the journey to Kharkiv, a hard couple of hours’ drive on a decent road but awash with heavy goods vehicles and military traffic and our indomitable driver just kept ploughing on nonetheless. We stopped for gasoline just on the outskirts of Kharkiv, about 20 kilometres from the large city’s main square, and the pump attendant showed us his intriguing collection of destroyed and burned out Russian tanks and armoured personnel carriers that line the garage forecourt. Then we drove slowly in the multi-lane traffic to a ghost ship of a hotel with smiling staff who appeared out of nowhere to show us to our aged brown silent hotel rooms just outside the railway station. Kharkiv is coming under strikes again in the city centre, so this probably isn’t the greatest of choices; but after our days of military field work and the relentless toil amidst the theatre of war, we are probably entitled to a little comparative luxury.

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