Fragments from a War Diary, Part #55
The early morning journey from Sloviansk to Kharkiv was arranged, as has become typical, in a somewhat cryptic way. I contacted an unknown lady and we proceeded to have a terrifyingly complicated conversation exclusively in Russian. After a few minutes of this I could not cope any longer and I asked that we switch to written messages in Telegram. She was arranging a “bus”, she told me, to collect me from Sloviansk bus station at 6:00am and the “bus driver” would meet me. So I set off from my hotel in the pitch black on foot at about 5.15am (there are no taxis in Sloviansk), tripping over curbs, dogs, craters in the road etcetera, in order to make it to the bus station to meet my bus driver.
Of course it was not quite like that; the bus was actually a troop carrier full of soldiers, and my bus driver was wearing military fatigues. I suppose he could have been a bus driver and I suppose that the bus fare I paid him could have been legitimate. Anyway, I was the only person on this transport who was not a member of the Ukrainian Armed Forces taking leave from the front line for whatever reason, and although we all proceeded in stern silence for the entirety of the trip it was an essentially benign environment and a harmless journey. The military checkpoint on the the edge of Donetsk Oblast border stopped us, seeing we were a group of military personnel, and demanded to see everyone’s papers. He was uninterested in me, once he saw I was a foreigner; what he wanted to see was the documentation permitting these specific soldiers to leave the front line for the relative civilisation of Kharkiv. As far as I could tell, these soldiers were mostly suffering from injuries of various kinds. One was severely emaciated. Another had his hand wrapped in thick bandages.
One thing I did learn from these soldiers is that the entirety of free Donetsk Oblast is apparently dry. The entire region is populated almost exclusively by soldiers and the Ukrainian Armed Forces High Command do not want them getting drunk when they are serving on the front line. Hence the very first stop once we had left Donetsk Oblast was a bottle shop, where everyone could stack up on their choice of liquor for the trip to Kharkiv. In Izyum, the first settlement you reach in Kharkiv Oblast heading north from the Donetsk region, a small town of corrugated aluminium shacks has established itself on the outskirts, near the diversion that takes traffic around town. Traffic has difficulty navigating the centre of the city due to extensive shelling and aerial bombardment damage that has taken out a major road bridge. This shanty town serves as a series of coffee shops, ad hoc bars, grocery stores and informal restaurants for the huge numbers of soldiers travelling up and down the road to and from the front line.
In the course of this journey I was able to see more clearly the extent of the devastation that has been inflicted upon this part of the country. There is no building along this road that has not suffered significant war damage. I do not know whether there are any functioning petrol stations in free Donetsk Oblast but I did not see any. Everyone seems to fill up their petrol tanks in Izyum. Izyum itself is every bit as devastated as Sloviansk, as before the Ukrainian Armed Forces pushed them back the Russians had occupied territory within shelling range of Izyum and it appears from the maps I have seen that a very small part of Kharkiv Oblast is still behind Russian lines. So although you might be able to get a beer in Izyum, there is not much else there. As with Sloviansk, the vast majority of civilians appear to have fled from Izyum and the town is now home only to soldiers on active duty.
As my driver continued along the long straight roads amidst the serenade of blown up bridges, wrecked tanks, military transport, eating the hamburger I had bought at the aluminium shacks (it almost made me throw up), I reflected that it was perhaps fortuitous that I had cut short my visit to Sloviansk. I had received two indications that the transport I had previously arranged for my return to Kharkiv might be problematic, and I tend to work by instincts and my instincts were telling me to leave early. That’s also why I changed out of my combat pants into jeans before I travelled to Sloviansk. If that was you, thank you, Madam, and I will remember you the next time I ride the Kharkiv Metro to the Pereulok (the Russian word for a small street). As to the offer, I think I agree.
Much of the devastation between Kharkiv and Sloviansk seems to be a decade old. The burned out tanks I saw were not recently deployed. They had been by the side of that road for years. However evidence that the front line used to be extremely close was also evident. There are minefields in every direction, and the signs indicating the minefields are recent. My guess is that the Ukrainian Armed Forces were anticipating a possible attempt by Russia to retake Sloviansk and then encircle Kharkiv from the south and west at the same time as approaching the city from Russia via the north and east. In the end those things never happened, and Sloviansk and Kharkiv remain firmly in Ukrainian hands.
The soldiers I was with were quite relieved to be away from the front line in Bakhmut 45 kilometres southeast of Sloviansk, in which the conditions are by all accounts very difficult. Bakhmut is the site of street fighting with no end in sight, as snipers and gunmen shoot at one-another from adjacent buildings. In so precarious and dangerous an environment, advancing even one block is an extraordinary victory but it does not seem to be happening. The most we can say about the situation in Bakhmut is that with Western support, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are keeping the Russian troops, with superior numbers and far higher quantities of ammunition, firmly at bay. That is testament to the bravery and determination of the Ukrainian soldiers, and the Russians have stalled in Bakhmut: something which keeps the whole of northeastern Ukraine free and at relative peace.
I have an unexpected free day. I have chosen a small and attractive hotel in the centre, for a change of pace and scene, and I will spend the day catching up on errands such as cutting my hair and buying new shoes. I may wonder round the shops, and look at some sites, at my leisures. Kharkiv is a beautiful city, notwithstanding the extensive war damage one can see around each corner. And, of course, I will do some writing. I go back to work, with all the adventures that my entail, tomorrow.
Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.