Outgoing, incoming, the hiss, the screech and the pop.
The violence of war descended on Ukraine as Russian forces crossed its borders. Murder and death seemed to happen so fast it almost felt mechanical.
Suddenly, some of the deadliest weapons ever used were concentrated on the battlefield and unleashed on both sides in appalling numbers: cluster rockets, self-detonating mines, tanks, howitzers, thermobarics, and incendiary munitions. The list goes on.
The skies over the picturesque neighborhoods of cities like Kharkiv or the coal mines of Donbas were an invisible kaleidoscope of death as artillery fired from a distance ruled the day after the Russian withdrawal in early April from the Kyiv area. Moscow had decided to try to win by attrition.
How did that look?
The soldiers cowered in the trenches, pressing their faces into the cold earth, trying to shrink into the ground as shrapnel and debris sliced through the air around them. The neighborhoods were transformed into wastelands. Apartments were burned and the sides of houses were sheared off like post-apocalyptic dollhouses.
Dead soldiers are called 200, wounded 300. The terms are repackaged jargon from the Soviet era when dead soldiers being shipped home in zinc-lined coffins from Afghanistan were called “Cargo 200.”
The first line is the “zero line”, and going there means being sent to “zero” or, for some, “the meat grinder”.
Air raids and firefights are rare compared to the immense number of projectiles flying through the air, which is why soldiers call them “aircraft bombs” and “rifle battles”. A soldier who spent less than a month on the front lines in the east of the country never fired a shot. But his company of 106 men had 4,200 (dead) and 23,300 (wounded), he said.
“People cannot fight artillery with machine guns,” he added matter-of-factly.
Those caught in the middle, the civilians, have fared worse.
Your senses become finely tuned. Every sound, at every hour of the day, is analyzed. Is it an incoming shell?
They rely on split-second calculations on whether to stay or go. Run or walk. Sleep upstairs or head to the basement.
The routine is exhausting, but they quickly begin to understand the acoustic differences between a 120mm mortar and a 152mm howitzer. They use words like “horror,” “nightmare,” and “unimaginable” to describe daily routines. Cold, damp nights in their cellars end at first light.
They emerge and survey the damage around them, glad they are still alive and hoping their neighbors are too.