I am sitting in the balcony of my room on the tenth floor of the Ukraine Hotel in central Kyiv on July 15. It is one of the oldest in the capital city. Before me, the wide and beautiful landscape of Maidan Nezalezhnosti is bathed in summer light. The weather is warm and comforting. The Maidan is also known as Independence Square. A huge victory column stands there. It was built in 2001 to commemorate Ukraine’s independence from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991. Atop the column stands a statue of the goddess Berehynia, holding a branch of guelder rose in her hand. To me, the statue looks like an angel, spreading her wings to take flight in the boundless blue sky―asserting a sense of freedom, an epitome of the Ukrainian spirit.
The Maidan has seen many a revolution. It was witness to the Orange Revolution in 2004, which started as a movement of collective anger against corruption and poll rigging. In 2013-14, it saw the Revolution of Dignity, a mass protest against then president Viktor Yanukovych and his sudden decision not to go ahead with a European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement. More than 100 protesters were shot dead, allegedly by assassins and authorities.
The Revolution of Dignity was a turning point in Ukraine’s fight against Russia, and what started at the Maidan has had a ripple effect across the country. Today, more than a year after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Ukraine is still offering stout resistance. This June, it launched its counteroffensive, regaining ground and making advances on its eastern front.
Ukrainians want to detach from anything Russian or Soviet. The victory column was built in place of a statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, which was dismantled. The Ukraine Hotel was earlier known as Moscow Hotel. To my right flutters the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag atop the International Centre of Culture and Arts. Beyond the building, I can see two arches on the horizon―one across the river Dnipro on the left, and the Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian People on the right. The latter has a crack―painted, not real―in the middle, symbolic of the split in Russia-Ukraine relations.
A wailing sound rends the air. It is the air raid siren. And, I am jolted back from history to the present―I am in a country at war with Russia, the world’s most powerful military nation after the United States of America. The tenth floor of my hotel can be a target of a Russian supersonic missile or an Iranian Kamikaze Shahed drone that Russia is using now. Thanks to Ukraine’s air defence system, backed by the west, Kyiv is safe, for now. But one in a hundred bombs evades the system and hits civilian areas.
However dauntless I think I am, frankly, I am scared. As fear creeps in, adrenalin kicks in, and I am on alert―just like I was when I approached the western border to enter Ukraine from Poland a day ago.
JOURNEY TO UKRAINE
I had flown from Delhi to Warsaw, the capital of Poland, on July 14 and then taken another flight to the Polish town Rzeszów, 85km from Ukrainian border. Vehicles have queued up on both sides of the Krakovets border crossing in Ukraine and I have to wait for hours to get clearance from both Polish and Ukrainian guards. Uncertainty plonks itself firmly in my thoughts: new country, unpredictable situations; can I get to the reality without falling into narratives; can I get back alive to tell this experiential story? I am a bit worried because nothing goes as planned in conflict zones.
To quieten the chatter in my head, I strike up a conversation with Vova, my car driver. Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat it’ plays in the car as we rush in the curfew hours. Vova had driven from Ukraine to pick me up from Rzeszów airport. He was late by six hours! I had spent three sleepless nights for travel to Ukraine―from Bengaluru to Delhi to Warsaw to Rzeszów. So I was feeling irritable that I had to wait for six hours at a deserted airport.
Perhaps sensing my annoyance, Vova was hesitant to talk to me. But I told him that waiting was part of my job. I recalled how I had waited for five hours at the Erbil airport in Kurdistan while on my way to Syria in 2019. At least, I was not held captive in Rzeszów, as I was at Erbil! Besides, my time at the airport had also given me a preview of the war in Ukraine.
The airport was buzzing with military activity. NATO’s air defence system was deployed at the airport. Military transport planes from several European countries were parked there. The Europeans were there to train the Ukrainian military in the latest weapons they had given. While I was at the airport, the only people who arrived were defence personnel from various countries.
Rzeszów is the main hub for military transportation to Ukraine, as the airspace over Ukraine is closed for civilian aircraft. US President Joe Biden and former UK prime minister Boris Johnson took train from Rzeszów to Kyiv. Rzeszów is also the gateway for journalists, aid workers and Ukrainian refugees to enter and exit Ukraine.
Why did I not take a taxi or train from Rzeszów? Well, train tickets are sold out soon after reservations are open, because people who fled Ukraine in the initial months of the war, fearing annexation, are now returning, confident of Russia’s defeat. I could not take a taxi, as Poland has banned its cars from entering Ukraine. With my camera equipment and personal luggage, taking a bus was not a viable option. So, Vova’s car it was.
Vova is short for Volodymyr. A farmer, he drives cars to sustain his family. War has made his life worse, what with no tourists to ferry. After we pass through the passport control at Krakovets relatively smoothly, Vova stops at the first gas station for coffee and refuelling. At a shop in the gas station, he gets me a new phone connection. A Kyivstar SIM card purchased over the counter without providing any documents! This is the first of many surprises I would get in Ukraine. As we drive further, the car’s headlights offer me my first glimpse of Ukraine’s narrow and sometimes curvy roads. At 2am, we reach Lviv, a town 70km from the Polish border. Only a few streetlights are on in Lviv―to avert detection and bombing by the Russians. The days are as dark as the nights here, as the town is mourning the dead.
LVIV BUT NOT LET LIVE
Lviv in western Ukraine was believed to be a safe haven for people fleeing the war from eastern Ukraine. It came under missile attack just ten days before I arrived on July 15. A Russian missile had missed its target―a military academy―and hit an apartment building near Stryiskyi Park in central Lviv, killing 10 people―nine women―and injuring 40. As I visit the area, I find workers clearing debris on the top floor. Candles are still being lit below the victims’ photographs kept in a park in the residential complex.
According to Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi, it was the biggest attack on this peaceful town since the invasion began. Maksym Vyshnianchyn, a 24-year-old software professional, lives at Stryiska street, just a kilometre from the park. “At 3am, I woke up hearing a heavy explosion, and my windows were shaking,” he recalls. “Fear of missile attacks is increasing even in Lviv.” There is a map of Europe with no Russia on it on a wall in his house. Maksym, in his anger, had cut out Russia. According to Ukrainian authorities, 10 Kalibr missiles were fired from the Black Sea that day. Seven of them were shot down by Ukrainian air defence systems. The others hit civilian structures and other sites.
I met Anton Baida, a Russian language speaker from Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine, on a train to Kyiv from Lviv. He had moved from Kharkiv to Lviv, looking for a safe place in the first week of the war. Three days after the missile strike on July 6, there was another air raid alert of a missile attack. He rushed to a bomb shelter along with other residents, but Ukrainian forces shot the missile down.
As the train moves further towards the east, fear and danger go (and grow) hand in hand. Anton shows me the town of Bucha from the train window as we near Kyiv. Bucha, he says, was the face of Russian brutality in Ukraine. Before Bucha was recaptured by Ukrainian forces last March, civilians were killed on the streets and their bodies left to rot and women were raped by Russian soldiers.
CALM IN KYIV, BUT “THIS IS A DIFFERENT KIND OF WAR”
The war has left its mark on almost every city. Yet, there is a sense of calm in Kyiv. Billboards of soldiers of the feared Azov Brigade and other units, urging the youth to join the army, dominate the streets. The anti-tank hedgehogs that lined the streets of Kyiv during the first month of invasion have been moved to a corner. People can move freely during the day―no frisking in shopping malls, no metal detectors at public places (except railway stations). But they are not allowed on the streets without a valid reason during curfew hours (12am to 5am). Since I arrive late in the night, my room keys were with the security guard as no receptionist was working at that hour. The war’s impact on Ukraine’s hospitality industry is telling―only a dozen of the 300-plus rooms at the Ukraine Hotel are occupied; the parking area is empty; the restaurants are deserted and the foyers unlit.
During the day, when the air raid siren goes off, people fish out their phones and look at apps like Povitryana Tryvoha that give them location of a possible attack. It can be a missile fired from a ship in the Black Sea or a MiG-31 taking off from an airfield in Russia. Air raid warnings are announced on radio and TV, interrupting songs and soaps. Everything is on pause then―shops are closed; people stop and take refuge. Some carry mats and chairs when travelling with children or pets, and stay put in metro stations and bomb shelters till the warning is withdrawn.
Myke and Victoria, with their war rescue cat Mars, settle down with a laptop on the ground at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti metro station, as the air raid alert is raised for two hours. Children lie on mats and play video games or watch YouTube videos, even as parents fret over the ruthless game of world politics.
I call Mridula Ghosh, columnist of THE WEEK in Ukraine, to meet her. She is a professor of international relations at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and is fluent in the Ukrainian language. She wakes up to my call. Mridula, who lives on the higher floor of an apartment, was up all night, following an air raid siren. “I have seen drones being shot in the sky from my window,” she says. “It has become a routine for people of Kyiv to stay awake until early morning, anticipating air raid warnings.” Her sleep cycle has changed since the war. She is worried about me going to the frontline. She keeps telling me, “Please be cautious. This is a different kind of war, just remember that.”
And, I can see the difference as I walk along the streets of Kyiv. I have been to war-ravaged countries before. The streets would be dirty and filled with debris, and the eyes wary. The shops would run out of essential items, and there would be a power crisis and a fuel crisis. And then there is the worst thing a war could break―a nation’s spirit to revive and thrive. But not in Ukraine.
In Ukraine, which is in the middle of what is considered the largest conflict in Europe after the World Wars, the streets are clean, the parks bloom with flowers, and the boulevard restaurants and shops are open. Buildings damaged in Russian attacks are repaired within weeks. There are no empty shelves in supermarkets. The fuel stations are up and running, and there are rarely any power cuts. But it is the people and their unwavering spirit that strike one the most. Their love for their country is almost tangible. “We don’t give up, you know,” says Nadiia, a shopkeeper and follower of the Hare Krishna movement.
It is Sunday [July 16], and I step out onto Andriivska street. Before the war, the street was teeming with Ukrainians and foreigners. Now, there are hardly any people out, and they are mostly Ukrainians. It is their way of keeping up a semblance of normalcy. At the historic Mykhailivs’ka Square, captured Russian armoured vehicles gather dust in front of the golden-domed St Michael’s monastery.
These vehicles marked the success the Ukrainian armed forces have achieved. Now, they have become a different sort of monument for the Ukrainians. People take selfies and paint graffiti over them―abuses for Russia, and praise for Ukraine. Ignoring boards saying ‘no climbing on vehicles’, people, especially children, climb over the charred tanks to explore inside. Dinylo, 13, gets into a T-72 tank, looking for discarded shells. “I am looking for bullet shells to take home as a memento of Ukrainian heroism,” he says. In war times, finding optimism is crucial, and you take it in any form it comes.
If only I can borrow some optimism along with the bulletproof jacket, helmet and the first aid kit lent to me by the Press Freedom Centre in Kyiv, before my road trip to Kharkiv.
With more and more journalists dying at the war front in Ukraine, UNESCO donated 125 safety kits through the NGO Reporters without Borders, which works for safeguarding journalists around the world. Oleksandra, who works at the Press Freedom Centre, shows me how to use the tourniquet to stop bleeding in case of bullet or shrapnel injury. “I wish you do not need to use this anywhere,” she says, while demonstrating the use of each item in the first-aid kit. “But as a precautionary measure, I am showing you how it works.”
I already had 17kg of photography equipment crammed in my backpack, and now I have another 10kg of safety equipment to carry. I wonder: “Will I be able to run with all that weight in an emergency?”
As I hit the road to Kharkiv on July 17, I get a better view of Kyiv―a sprawling city with newer apartment buildings coming up on its outskirts. The signboards giving directions to Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities need a fresh coat of paint, as they were effaced to confuse Russian soldiers. As we drive along, the cityscape gives way to a colourful and, at times, undulating landscape. And, all you see is field after field of wheat and sunflower. Agricultural products are Ukraine’s most important exports; it is the world’s top exporter of sunflower meal and oil. From far, the yellow fields under a blue sky resemble the Ukrainian flag.
WAR SCARS IN KHARKIV
As I near the eastern city of Kharkiv, 490km from Kyiv, the number of civilian vehicles drops with every kilometre. The road is dotted with olive-coloured cars with a plus sign on them. These cars, donated by Ukrainians to the army, now ferry soldiers to the frontlines. There are pickup trucks, too, carrying sleeping bags, guns and personal items of soldiers.
My travel companion for Kharkiv is Dimytro Laishko, a friend of my interpreter Yehor Konovalov. Yehor could not join us, as he was on assignment with American photojournalist Paula Bronstein on the frontline. Dimytro takes me to a restaurant in Poltava, and I get my first taste of traditional Ukrainian cuisine. While well-wishers back home were worried about my meals, I was relishing galushka, which is similar to momos.
As we drive further, I can sense a change in the air―the calm in Kyiv seems like a distant dream, as the telltale signs of war and destruction become more visible. On the way, we give a lift to villagers. One of them is Iryna Semivolos of Litvinyvika village. Accompanying her is Kiril, her 15-year-old Chinese Crested Dog, with barely any teeth left and eyes clouded with age. Iryna is going back to Kharkiv, where she has a home. She had escaped to Litvinyvika during the Russian invasion. As we drop her off in the Saltivka area, she offers us cucumbers grown on her farm and a smile.
Saltivka is the most affected area in Kharkiv, as it was among the first to face the Russian army that came from Belgorod. And, that attack has left its imprint on the suburb―artillery shelling has destroyed almost all the buildings here. A few homes that are still standing have had stopgap repairs, with cardboards hiding holes. School number 134 has been reduced to rubble, but its students still come here to play. Sophia, 13, shows me what is left of her classroom. It will take years to rebuild Kharkiv.
I remember watching the fierce fight in Kharkiv on television. The first Indian to die in the war was from this town. Naveen Gyanagoudar, a medical student originally from my home state Karnataka, was killed in Russian shelling in March 2022; he had stepped out to buy food.
Rocket attacks are still reported in Kharkiv region. The Osnova train depot, located in a densely populated area, was attacked the night prior to my visit. One person was killed and several goods trains destroyed. The depot resembles a train accident spot, with derailed goods carriages. It is my first experience of a fresh attack on the frontline. The Grad rocket has made huge craters on the tracks, and the workers are busy filling them. The windowpanes of neighbouring houses are without glass, which shattered owing to the impact of the attack.
Defence equipment is usually transported by rail. And, Russia possibly attacked the depot to halt the supply of equipment flowing from the west to the frontline. Either it missed the target or it launched the missile on false information.
I finally meet Yehor and Paula at a restaurant in Kharkiv. A native of Kharkiv, Yehor has been working with journalists ever since the war broke out. He is all of 23, but the war has aged him beyond his years. Paula is amazed to see an Indian photographer come all the way to cover the war. We talk about Danish Siddiqui, the Indian photographer who died in Afghanistan while covering the war in 2021. Paula was in Afghanistan when the Taliban was advancing towards Kabul. She left when they were about to capture the Afghanistan capital. At 69, Paula has seen wars in many countries. Before leaving for Kyiv, she has a word of advice. “Be extra cautious. This is a crazy war, not like other ones,” she says, hugging me.
GOING IN BLIND IN KRAMATORSK
That night, Yehor and I drive to Kramatorsk, nearly 200km from Kharkiv, which has become a hub for journalists to access the frontline in the Donbas region in the east. So far, I have travelled 1,500km just to reach the warfront.
We reach Kramatorsk at midnight after a two-hour drive, crossing numerous checkpoints in Donetsk region. It is pitch dark, and I feel disoriented for a while. As if I am being led blindfolded, not knowing where I am or where I am going.
But I have Yehor with me. A doll, resembling Russian President Vladimir Putin with a noose around its neck, dangles from the rearview mirror of his car. Yehor is a Russian-speaking Ukrainian from Kharkiv. He learnt English through a US-sponsored Ukrainian leadership academy programme. His parents and three siblings now live in Switzerland as refugees. Yehor is not allowed to exit Ukraine, as he falls in the 18-60 years age group that could be called to serve in the war. He wanted to join the 47th brigade of the Ukrainian army and had given the recruitment test. But he was told that they had enough candidates and that he would be intimated about the next recruitment. His grandparents live in Crimea. He visited them just before the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Yehor is mad at Putin, just like any other Russian speaker I met during my stay here. “Putin thought we will welcome his forces with flowers and hugs,” he says. “We are Ukrainians. Ever since the war began, I have only spoken in Ukrainian. This is the biggest intelligence failure for Putin. Only a small percentage of people here support Russia. The rest love Ukraine and we will fight for Ukraine’s sovereignty.” The Putin doll plays dumb and continues to dangle. Yehor’s car is full of army patches he received as gifts from the various battalions he met as a translator and fixer. The patches are a badge of experience, and that means I can rely on him, even blindfolded.
The next day, I wake up to an air raid siren. Unlike in Kyiv, the siren in Kramatorsk does not stop after a few seconds. It is continuous, and deafening if you are at the town centre. And then you hear the blast, muffled by distance. The siren and blasts become my daily alarm, but with no control over when it goes off.
A walk through Kramatorsk is riddled with risks, especially air-borne. On June 27, a missile attack here killed 13 people and injured 61. Two Russian Iskander missiles landed on the Ria restaurant in the town centre that was quite popular with soldiers and journalists. Russia targets public places frequented by soldiers who come to town for shopping and relaxing, and so we have to be extra cautious when we are near soldiers at supermarkets or restaurants. Pro-Russia people in the region are known to leave telephone tip-offs on soldiers’ gathering. Based on these tip-offs, targeted missiles are fired from Russia. The attack on Ria is cited as an example. Sadly, it is mostly the civilians who pay a deadly price.
Like many towns in the Donbas region, Kramatorsk is a typical USSR town with large roads and long, but not too tall, apartments. Soviet-era Lada, Zaporozhets and Moskovitch cars fill the streets. Like any other small town along the frontline, it is now teeming with soldiers in olive-coloured vehicles. They are here either to shop for essentials before heading back to the frontline or to smoke sheesha or have a drink.
There is no hint of fear in any soldier I see on the street; all they carry is motivation and determination to defend Ukraine. And, that feeling is shared not just by Ukrainians but also by people from other countries who have joined the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine. Earlier, they would fight as a separate battalion. Recently, they were roped into different battalions, but under the legion’s command. I am particularly curious about Indians fighting for Ukraine. Imagine my surprise when I find out that there are three! (story of Indian soldiers on page 70)
HUNKERING DOWN IN A BUNKER
“Welcome to the Donbas,” shouts Vadim, 36, a tall and well-built soldier from the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, over the roaring sound of his pickup truck. He is picking me up from Kostyantynivka and taking me to the frontline trenches where his mortar unit is stationed. The position was recently recaptured from Russian troops. Owing to its proximity to Bakhmut, which Ukraine is trying to recapture, the area sees a lot of artillery action. Bakhmut and surrounding areas are hot spots now. After the withdrawal of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group from Bakhmut, regular Russian forces have taken over, and a fierce fight with machine-guns and mortar firing is on.
The asphalted road ends after a few kilometres from Kostyantynivka, and now it is a bumpy road, filled with craters, ahead. But that does not discourage Vadim from driving at Mad Max: Fury Road speed. I glance at the speedometer, but it is broken. A lot of cars wear a beaten look, with many parts missing or not working, owing to the rough roads and frequent visits they make to the trenches and back.
Vadim sips on an energy drink, oblivious of the speed or his passenger. But there is a reason for his speed―he does not want a Russian drone to drop bombs on us, or a surveillance drone to give away our location for artillery firing.
The Russians have adopted the Ukrainian technique of using consumer drones to drop bombs. “If you want to survive, you need to drive fast like a rally driver,” shouts Vadim. I have been an avid biker and have had my share of extreme journeys, but I have never been on a roller-coaster ride like this before. And with a bulletproof vest and helmet on, and holding two cameras, a heavy backpack and two GoPros and a zoom H5 audio recorder attached to my camera’s hot shoe, I am not sitting pretty either.
As we near the trenches, we are greeted by the picturesque Ukrainian landscape of sunflower and wheat fields. But all the appreciation I had for it earlier evaporates as the heat meets us from the continuous shelling by tanks, artillery guns and mortar from both the sides. There is a heavy explosion, and Vadim shouts, “That’s an incoming!” He can make out whether it is an incoming or outgoing shell, just from the sound. Vadim goes full throttle as we near the Russian positions.
Four kilometres from the trench, Vadim asks me to switch off my phone. As we reach a wooded area from the open plains, he drives straight into a bush. “Once we are out of the car, we should immediately run into the woods,” he warns, adding that any delay could get me killed. He tells me to follow in his footsteps; one misstep, and I will be stepping on land mines placed by Russians. According to a report in The Washington Post, Ukraine has the most land mines on earth now and it will take decades to clear them.
The path to the trenches is marked by green plastic tapes, tied to thorny branches of wild bushes. Only this path is de-mined. As we sprint uphill, Vadim shows me jackets of dead Russian soldiers and used metal cups. A few steps further, a wooden box of unused Russian ammunition lies under a tree. As we arrive at a newly made trench, where Vadim’s mates are hiding under a bunker covered by timber, soldier Shasha emerges and greets me with a handshake and a hug. He updates Vadim about the tasks for the day―digging new trenches and making space for new mortar position.
I can hear nonstop explosion sounds all around me. The sounds are from artillery and mortar rockets being fired from both sides. My breathing becomes heavy, partly because of the running and partly because of the adrenalin rush I feel on being just 800m from the Russian side where a bomb can land on you any moment. I try to stay composed and talk to the confident young fighters, with cigarettes in their hands. Cigarettes and energy drinks keep them going.
A long, narrow tunnel dug by the fighters takes you to a wider bunker area, which feels more like a burrow. You cannot escape Ukraine’s summer heat even inside a bunker. There are only a few necessary items, like a communication radio unit, water bottle, toothpaste, bed and blankets that are spread on cots made of freshly felled timber. In a few other bunkers I visited, I found Elon Musk’s Starlink routers, and the internet speed there was better than what I have at my home in India’s IT city, Bengaluru. That’s why I say this is a different war. You can make card payment in frontline cities, the internet speed is top-notch and there is no dearth of supplies in supermarkets; only thing is that a missile could land near you!
As we run back towards the vehicle, Vadim takes me to another trench midway. A decomposed body of a Russian soldier in army fatigues, possibly a fighter recruited by the Wagner Group, lies abandoned here. I was in Moscow and Bashkortostan Republic’s Ufa city in 2015, a year after the annexation of Crimea. During that trip, I met Bashkiris, Tatars and Chuvashs in the villages. They had no connection with politics. I wonder if this Russian soldier could be related to them. As the rotting smell of the dead body gets to me, I rush back to the vehicle.
That’s the disgusting feeling of war touching my senses. I ask Vadim why that soldier was killed. And, he says that captured Russian soldiers have the option to surrender and when they do, they are treated with dignity as prisoners of war. Though many have surrendered, a few choose to or are forced to fight till death.
As we drive back to Kostyantynivka, I remark, “We won the biggest trophy.”
“What’s that,” asks Vadim.
I reply, “Being still alive to tell the story.”
He laughs out loud and gives me thumbs up.
The 3rd Assault Brigade, started in November 2022, plays a major role in defending and at times advancing in the constantly changing positions in Bakhmut. I meet Gerich (call sign, not his real name), the commander of the brigade’s mortar unit. He and his team members resemble the Azov fighters in attitude and physique―tall and well-built.
Gerich asks me what people in India think about Ukraine. I tell him that before reading up on Ukraine and meeting its people, I thought that Ukrainians and Russians were alike. “Though there are a few similarities,” I continue, “there are a lot of differences in the way you think and live. I hope my story will give an understanding about Ukraine in India.” Gerich seems happy to hear that, and when I tell him that I am a biker, he offers to take me on a Quad bike to the frontline the next day.
I am in Siversk, which is surrounded by hills. A pickup truck loaded with machine-guns in the back pulls next to an empty field. Three army men get down, one of whom is Sova, 22, who joined the army just out of college like many young Ukrainians. Sova has no real battle experience, but he is eager to learn how to use his machine-gun. His two seniors have brought him here to give a crash course in handling it. A makeshift shooting range has been built, about 6km from the frontline.
There are several such shooting ranges along the frontline. In half an hour, Sova learns about holding posture, managing the rebound after firing, and how to aim and shoot while lying flat on ground. That quick tutorial seems to have boosted Sova’s confidence. As he and his seniors leave, another truck pulls in and a few more soldiers alight. They all seem to be experienced warriors, who have come here to fine-tune their skills with rocket-propelled grenade. The impact of the firing here is only borne by the trees, their charred and broken branches the only casualty. But that is not always the case.
German television DW’s cameraman was wounded in a Russian shelling at a shooting range in Druzhkivka in Donetsk. On hearing it, Yehor and I look at each other with disbelief and relief. “We just escaped by a day,” says Yehor. We had visited the shooting range the day before the shelling. All we had witnessed was an incoming artillery rocket exploding in the distance and creating a mushroom-like cloud of dust. Italian journalists and their translator whom I met later in Lyman showed me the bruises they suffered while escaping the shelling at Druzhkivka.
I visit the artillery unit of 10th Mountain Assault Brigade ‘Edelweiss’ in an undisclosed area near the frontline, a little far from Siversk. A D-30 howitzer manned by a team of three soldiers is stationed in a bunker inside a wooded area. The team waits for an order from the command centre, which uses drone or intelligence input to identify a potential impact zone that may be a Russian position, a tank or an ammunition depot. This sometimes can also be a suspicious vehicle moving beyond position.
Once the team gets the coordinates via radio, they run towards the artillery, remove the camouflage mask net, and set the coordinates by changing the position of the barrel and direction of the artillery. Then they load the ammo and shell, depending on the distance and desired impact to the target. Once loaded, they immediately fire the artillery. The ammo exits, making a deafening noise, and disappears at lightning speed. Within a matter of seconds, it hits the target, 12km-15km away.
At times, an experienced soldier can predict the speed of the vehicle, and time the firing in a way that it can take out a moving target. On the frontline, such firing is common and can be heard at all times. That’s why I have to be careful about what information I reveal about the locations I have visited, or it could lead to Russians attacking those places with artillery firing.
IN NO MAN’S LAND: “RUSSIAN SNIPERS ARE WATCHING US”
The damage incessant artillery firing can do is on display at Blagodatne village and the nearby town of Velyka Novosilka in southeastern Ukraine. The occupied city of Mariupol is not very far from here. Continuous shelling has destroyed the buildings in Novosilka. The walls of the town administration building are now rubble. The glass windows of a housing complex are shattered, and only signboards of a café and a supermarket remain. Only a few houses show signs of human existence.
There are no such signs in Blagodatne village, just 3km from Novosilka, as all the houses have been destroyed. What is a village without its people? It is a ghost village. I see a few pets, left behind by their fleeing owners, and I see life. But no light.
As we drive further, the sights and sounds only get worse. The village, after being occupied by Russian forces for long, was liberated after an aggressive offensive by Ukrainian army. Liberation hangs heavy here though, as artillery firing continues. Even the dogs cannot rest easy here, as they jump at the sound of every explosion.
Yehor and I are being driven around in an army car. I ask Viktor, the driver, if I can get down to take a few pictures. “Walking on village roads is dangerous as the place is heavily mined,” he says. I stay put in the car and ask Viktor to wait for a few minutes till I finish taking videos. He points to a line of trees some 600m to the east, and says, “That is the Russian position. Russian infantry men are in the trenches, and their snipers are watching us.” If we spend a few more minutes here, he adds, we could be either shot or bombed.
A few minutes ago, we had just visited the Ukrainian trenches to the west of Blagodatne. Ukrainian snipers had demanded angrily that I delete the photographs I took of them, as they did not want their identity to be revealed. And, that is when it hits me―I am in no man’s land, in the middle of the line of fire between Ukrainian and Russian positions. I am staring at danger from all sides: sky artillery, drone bombs, sniper shots from the woods and land mines below. I ask Viktor to leave immediately. And, Viktor, who is in his mid-50s, steps on the gas.
Yehor later tells me that we were in the grey zone―a place even soldiers from both armies do not want to go. I ask him why Viktor took us there despite the danger, and he says it was because he was ordered by his commander to take us wherever we wanted to go!
War room in Novosilka
In Velyka Novosilka town, one of the few buildings still standing has been turned into a war room for the 20th Separate Special Purpose Brigade. The basement room, which looks more like a bunker, is an ideal place to oversee battle operations in the nearby zero line. No civilians, apart from residents, are allowed into Novosilka, so an army vehicle picks me up from Bohatyr, a nearby town.
As the pickup truck moves towards the command centre, stars glow bright in the dark sky. While gazing at the stars, I notice a long trail of light shoot across the sky. For a moment, I think it is a comet. Seeing me starstruck, the driver Yuroslov says, “It is a bomb, possibly a Grad rocket fired by Ukrainian army heading towards a target at the Russian position.” Talk about star-gazing in conflict zones. Yuroslov is a Soviet war veteran who fought in Afghanistan. As we near Novosilka, he tells me to put my phone on airplane mode.
It is midnight when we reach the command centre. We are welcomed by the commander of the brigade, codenamed French. The centre is as busy at night as it is during the day. Most of the room is occupied by cots, on which a few soldiers are asleep post their shift. A table and machine-guns occupy rest of the room. A big TV screen, streaming live infrared visuals of Russian positions, is mounted on a wall. There is also a detailed map of local farm fields. The visuals of the Russian positions are captured by drones flying at night. They look for any movement of Russian soldiers so that they can activate the Ukrainian snipers hiding in the woods. The visuals on the TV screen also help the drone operator in the bunker.
Alex, 23, a telecommunications graduate, is handling the screen operation. As he gives instructions to the drone operator over the walkie-talkie, he looks more of a teenager playing a war-themed video game. Suddenly, a Russian soldier appears out of a bunker, and the command centre goes into an overdrive. People who were resting come close to the screen for a better look. On Alex’s guidance, the drone flies closer and zooms further, but soon the soldier disappears and there is a sigh of disappointment in the room.
While Alex works in the army as command centre operator, his father, Sergiy, 46, works in the same brigade. A special forces veteran, he fought for Russia in Kosovo. While he speaks of what Russia has done to Russian speakers in Ukraine, his eyes turn red. “Fighting spirit is in my blood,” he says. “My ancestors were from Russia, but they have killed Russian speakers here in the name of liberation. We will win this war.”
As the night progresses, commander French frequently comes to the communications table to oversee the operation. When something goes wrong, he screams into the walkie-talkie in Ukrainian, which is Greek to me. Seeing French at work and being in a war-ravaged town, I am reminded of war scenes from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. French says he works all day and night to see Ukrainian forces advance in this region. Apart from managing the command centre, he has other responsibilities like relocating the units and extraction of snipers from zero line.
Before sending me towards the Ukrainian position, French eyes my armoured flak jacket and helmet with PRESS written in big, white letters. With displeasure writ large on his face, he asks, “Do you really want to get shot? Russians deliberately target journalists.” He then does what we Indians call jugaad―takes a paper box of Millennium Hazelnut Chocolate and tapes it on my helmet. Now, instead of PRESS, my helmet reads ‘Millennium Golden Nut’!
Intelligence and information alerts from command centres such as this play a crucial role in the ongoing war. Reconnaissance and surveillance done here helps to give commands to artillery, mortar and missile units to strike the targets in Russian positions. The Grad rocket I saw in the night sky on the way to this centre could be one of the launches initiated by a command centre like this.
Now almost all brigades fighting on the frontline have drone units, comprising young geeks who are good at flying “first person view” drones. The drones drop the bombs and confirm the impact using its camera. There are different kinds of drones used for different purposes: drones that do visual reconnaissance; drones that assist to engage and execute assault by heavy weapons; bomb-dropping drones; and night vision drones. After the attack they also have live visual proof of the damage inflicted on enemy targets. That is how the world saw footage of attack on Russian tanks and armoured convoy in Bucha in the early days of the war.
As I leave Velyka Novosilka, I notice a monument for World War II heroes. And, here the monument is not just reminding us of war, but experiencing war first hand―the monument was damaged in shelling.
A funeral to remember
Lyman town, too, wears a deserted look. Continuous shelling has destroyed 80 per cent of the Soviet-era apartments in the town square. Factories, bridges and railway lines have been destroyed. The only people here are those who cannot escape on their own―the elderly. Lyman was occupied by Russians at the beginning of the war. In the counteroffensive mounted in Kharkiv last year, Ukrainian forces reclaimed the town. Now, it is a major military hub to access the frontline, just kilometres away.
Among the ruins, Ukrainian medics have set up a stabilisation centre. It is kind of a field hospital to receive and treat wounded soldiers from the frontline. For strategic and security reasons, I am not allowed to mention the street name or describe the centre’s exterior. Inside, I am greeted with gut-wrenching scenes. A field medic, with a shrapnel wound, has been rushed in from the frontline. His army uniform is soaked in blood. His upper arm has been tied with a tourniquet by soldiers on the frontline to stop the bleeding. Since he can walk, he is immediately taken to the operation room. Medics wash his wounds with a disinfectant, and bandage his wound.
In severely wounded cases, army medics at the stabilisation centre cut open the uniform of the soldier and examine him for injuries. A volunteer removes the soldier’s belongings from his pockets and puts them in a plastic cover. The used clothes are put in another plastic bag. Both the bags are tagged with the soldier’s name and handed over later. After shrapnel or bullet removal, the soldier is transported in an ambulance for further treatment to army hospitals in Slovyansk or Kramatorsk.
Natalia, a medical assistant, is a native of Ivano-Frankivsk of western Ukraine. The 48-year-old has been living in Spain for 20 years. But she came back to Ukraine to serve in the stabilisation centre, leaving her husband and daughter behind. “Unfortunately we are not God,” she says. “But I can do anything to save the life of a soldier in my capacity.” She adds that the ‘stabilisation point’, as Ukrainians call it, also gets shelled sometimes.
I visited two stabilisation points―one in Lyman and another near Siversk in the Donbas region. I spend the whole day witnessing what war could do to the human body and mind. “We are treating the heroes defending our country,” says Dr Oleg, chief of a stabilisation centre. “And I feel proud of what I am doing. There are instances where I have received the same person twice or thrice. That means the fighters are not sitting at home after recovery but heading back to the battlefield.”
The stabilisation centres I visited are using materials donated by organisations like the Indian Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. Dr U.P.R. Menon, an Indian doctor-turned-businessman, heads the IPMA. A Ukraine resident since 1980, he has been a vocal supporter of the Ukrainian cause. The IPMA has donated bandages and medicines worth $9 million to the Ukrainian army.
But these stabilisation points can do little to stop the deaths at the warfront. On July 20, David Yakushyn, 22, was killed during a fight near Lyman. Two other fighters from his 127th brigade also died. A violinist, he would play the instrument for his mates on the frontline. At his funeral service, held at St Michael’s church in Kyiv on July 28, his sister and other mourners are inconsolable. Only his mother, with a yellow-and-blue stole around her neck, seems strong.
The staff and students of R. Glier Kyiv Municipal Academy of Music, from where he recently graduated, play music in his honour. His battle-hardened fellow fighters touch his coffin before bidding him adieu. As his body is taken for burial, ‘Slava Ukrainia’ and ‘Heroyem Slava’ (glory to Ukraine and glory to the heroes) ring through the hall. These are battle cries I heard all over Ukraine. As the Ukrainian counteroffensive started in June, the number of deaths is also increasing. Such funerals are becoming a regular thing.
At the Maidan in Kyiv, the Ukrainian flag colours pop out. A part of the lawn on the right side of the Maidan is reserved for placing small flags in memory of fallen soldiers by relatives and friends. They write the soldier’s names and stick the flag in the ground. Alina, mother of a fallen soldier, searches for the flag she placed a few weeks ago. After a few minutes of searching, she locates her son’s name on a flag, and her eyes well up. She kisses the flag and holds it close to her chest, as if hugging her lost child.
The war has made families pick sides and turn against their own. As I leave the Sapphire hotel in Kramatorsk after witnessing the war firsthand, Yuri, its 54-year-old caretaker, comes to say bye. We never had a conversation before because of the language barrier. I open Google Translate and ask him about his life here. He says that his relatives live in Russia, and that his nephew is fighting for Russia.
As we are about to leave, it starts to rain. “Sometimes when it rains while I am leaving Kramatorsk, it feels as if the sky is crying and telling me not to leave these people alone,” says Yehor. I nod. “Every time, I leave from here alive, I feel I am gifting life to myself,” he adds.
As my journey comes to an end, I feel at home for some strange reason. Ukraine did not treat me like a foreigner, except at the immigration, military checkpoint and the hotel. People were friendly, especially soldiers who hugged and praised me for coming all the way to tell their stories. They also appreciated how I had dressed like a combat-ready soldier. In various brigades, soldiers gave me their army patches as an acknowledgment of my work. One soldier even gave me his tourniquet as a gift. These soldiers are not just relying on the government for tactical support; most of them are raising money on their own to buy protective gear and other essentials. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s popular quote―“I need ammunition, not a ride”―represents the spirit of every Ukrainian fighting for their country.
I was touched by the indomitable spirit of the soldiers and the resilience of common Ukrainians. And, their ability to find humour, too. There is a joke among Ukrainian soldiers. They say the Russian army may be the world’s second strongest army. But in Ukraine, they are in the third place―first is the Ukrainian army, next is the Wagner Group’s army and the third is Russian army!
In this age of AI, where you can create images of war without risking your life, it is all the more essential to tell experiential stories. For no AI can recreate human touch. I wish to return here, not to cover the war, but as someone visiting family and friends. Language was never a barrier to connect with these brave hearts. Emotion was enough.