Recently one of our battalion companies returned from a mission in eastern Ukraine. When we saw our comrades a month earlier, they laughed and were merry. Now they don’t even talk to each other, they never take off their body armor and smile at all. Their eyes are empty and dark as dry pits. These fighters have lost a third of their personnel, and one of them said he would rather be dead because he is now afraid to live.
I always thought I’d seen enough deaths in my life. I served on the front lines in the Donbas for nearly a year in 2015-16, witnessing countless tragedies. But at that time the scale of losses was totally different, right where I was. Each death was carefully recorded, research was done, we knew most of the names of the fallen soldiers, and their portraits were published on social media.
This is a different kind of war and the losses are, without exaggeration, catastrophic. We no longer know the names of all the fallen, there are dozens a day. The Ukrainians constantly mourn the dead; there are rows of closed coffins in the central squares of relatively quiet cities across the country. Closed coffins are the terrifying reality of this brutal, bloody and seemingly endless war.
I too have my dead. Over the course of the conflict, I learned of the deaths of several friends and acquaintances, people I had worked with, or people I had never met in person but maintained a friendship through social media. Not all of these people were professional soldiers, but many had no choice but to take up arms when Russia invaded Ukraine.
I read obituaries on Facebook every day. I see names that look familiar to me and think that these people should continue writing reports and books, working in scientific institutes, treating animals, teaching students, raising children, baking bread and selling air conditioners. Instead, they go to the front, get injured, develop severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and die.
One of the biggest recent blows to me was the death of the journalist Oleksandr Makhov. He already had some military experience, and knowing Oleksandr’s fearlessness and courage, I followed him closely online. I visited his Facebook page and was happy to see new posts: they showed that he was alive. I focused on his life as if it were a beacon in a stormy sea. But then Oleksandr was killed and everything fell apart. I received news reports about the deaths of people I knew one by one.
I forbade myself to believe that I and the people I love or like will survive. It is difficult to exist in this state, yet accepting the possibility of your own death is necessary for any soldier. I started thinking about it back in 2014 when, still with no weapon in my hands, I already felt that one day I could wield one. In the ten months I spent at the front near Popasna, in the Luhansk region, I often thought about death. I could feel her quiet steps and calm breathing next to me. But something told me: no, not this time.
And now, who knows? My shift is currently on the northern border, where I patrol part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It is safer here than in the east or south, although the proximity of the autocratic Belarusian leader takes a psychological toll. The task of our unit is to prevent a repeat of the events of March, when the northern part of the Kiev region was occupied and the enemy shelled the outskirts of the capital with artillery.
I’m ready to get into any trouble spot. There is no fear. There is no silent terror like in the beginning, when my wife and son hid in the hallway of our apartment in Kiev and somehow tried to calm down or even fall asleep amid the unbearable noise of air raid sirens and explosions. There is sadness, of course: more than anything in the world I just want to be with my wife, who is still in Kiev with my son. I want to live with them, not die at the front somewhere. But I have accepted the possibility of my death as an almost established fact. Crossing this Rubicon has made me calmer, braver, stronger and more balanced. So it must be for those who consciously walk the path of war.
The death of civilians, especially children, is quite another matter. And no, I don’t mean that a civilian’s life is more valuable than a soldier’s life. But it is a little more difficult to be prepared for the death of an ordinary Ukrainian who was busy with her life and was suddenly killed by Russian roulette. It is also impossible to be prepared for brutal torture, mass graves, mutilated children, corpses buried in the courtyards of apartment buildings, and rocket attacks on residential areas, theatres, museums, kindergartens and hospitals.
To quote Kurt Vonnegut, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be a plain old death. But encounters with death can turn out very differently. We want to believe that we and our loved ones, the modern people of the 21st century, no longer have to die from medieval barbarian torture, epidemics or detention in concentration camps. That too is part of what we fight for: not only the right to a dignified life, but also to a dignified death.
Let us, the Ukrainian people, wish ourselves a good death, for example in our own bed when the time comes. And not if a Russian missile hits our house at dawn.
© The New York Times Company