ONE DAY IN DONBAS
by DARRAN BRENNEN 2022
Illia could not distinguish the debitage of a bombed home from the lurching remains of a garage any better than a smouldering church steeple from the charred shell of an office block. His quiet yet revered little town was the pit of a weeping wound. So much had changed in fifteen weeks, he thought, feeling an old weightlifting injury in his lower back as he tensed his shoulder, balancing another 155 GH 52 APU (a 43-kilogram Howitzer shell). During the first month, he’d been buoyed by the outpouring of support from across the world. It all seemed fictional now. Playing Call of Duty online had made putting on the flak jacket and helmet exciting. He was better at virtual war than most, but his heart was jumpier than a noob’s now, yet his thumbs worked well enough to fly the drone. This is the real shit, and there’s no respawn. Maybe Hollywood made it seem like having America on his side guaranteed an easy win. That confidence was waning. With how gruesome his thoughts were, he didn’t long for Yana’s touch, he’d hurt her now, eventually.
Men say war turns what is good into a sickness that is only cured by more war because surviving is close to being God when you cheat The Reaper at his own game. For a nobody, you feel special, then supernatural; God’s power is given to you even if only in a barrel. It doesn’t take long at all for war to become a sickness.
In his cigarette smoke he foreshadowed himself on a hospital bed with no legs and taking his last breath. Apparently, a landmine would take him out. The Russians had turned every town east of the river into a minefield bar their crossing points. He could have cried. He lit another smoke instead. It was all gone. The people. The houses and cars. The life. The love. Yana and Adnan were probably dragging their suitcases from house to house looking for a home somewhere in Europe, trying to find safety and sanity and love again in all this madness. At least they had money to travel and could eat a little, most couldn’t afford to and remained in the inferno.
Yana should find somewhere new, maybe in Ireland. It’s a safe country and as far from Russia as you can get before the Atlantic Ocean. She can marry an Irishman with some money, I allow it. He will take care of Adnan for me as I am taking care of us all. “Come on, Putin, already. I’ve almost finished my smoke. Where are you?”
“He’s a pussy who keeps changing his story. He’s sleeping on his stolen money and hiding in his stolen castle.”
He laughed with the men about the enemy leader’s apparent senility, a relief equal to a good sobbing cry. Not that the men cried but they now held that familiar distant look in their eyes as if they were there; boys again fighting back watery divulges. Three months before they were supermen, now they were bottled emotions; waspish still but creaking from too many sleepless nights and being shaken by endless shelling. All that mattered was itchy eyes from the acerbic smoke and a jumpy heart draining the little energy that remained, that they somehow found each day; each minute. Time had become an oddity, too, that could go backwards then jump forwards: Is it last Tuesday or next Thursday? Are we in East Donbas or South? It’s bad luck to borrow from tomorrow.
Once more, he moved the same pile of Howitzer shells, too many times to count, remembering Yana and Adnan. He himself was no longer in that family picture; an ordinary single guy again. Honestly, he only truly loved making industrial-house music on his laptop and skating in the park before all this. Not really a family man. She loved them both so much. He’d forgotten, he’d been planning a cycle trip for them once Adnan was five, in the good air in summer, to see Ukraine. Not now; not how ugly she looked.
Things were not how he imagined either; war was not cool. It was personal, too, wishing for the assassination of one man, Vladimir Putin. He volunteer before being conscripted because his grandfather fought the Nazis in WW2, and killing invaders on Ukrainian soil was a God-given right and an honour to save his home and Yana and Adnan, wherever they were. Now, he longed for it to be over, but there was no end in sight. According to his commanders, they would have to fight them back for years. Another Palestine. Another Sudan. Another Syria. Another Yemen. Ukraine now just another battlefield. His entire region was a ruin where in the summer, when he was young, he ran to the coalmine each evening and chuckled with his father about his black face and white teeth. They’d race to Kazeniy Torets River and dive in fully clothed. They fished for carp the size of a man’s hand and canoed when the river swelled and formed rapids. Now it was the winding front that kept Ukrainian territory from Putin’s insane ambition. The shelling was so loud fish swam to the bottom to hide, or oil and chemicals from destroyed factories leaked into the river further south and poisoned them all there.
He’d been assigned as a general dogsbody when not flying the expensive American targeting drone. His unit was battle-hardened after fighting trench warfare with pro-Russian, Russian-backed separatists in Donbas since 2014; eight years, three months, three weeks and three days before he joined them. They’d learned how to fight and survive, and for that commanders expected them to push the Russians back hard. Every day they drove the Howitzers from one end of the snaking river to the next, stopping the enemy’s advance across. In his unit of one-hundred-and-twenty-four men they’d started out with, only eighty-one remained. Many had diminishing morale due to Ukrainian artillery being a prime target for Russian commanders, but worse was the civilian bodies found executed in the streets with their hands tied and the increasing number of old people they encountered slowly dying in basements. They refused to eat or drink so the younger ones could survive on the dwindling supplies (running water in Donbas was cut off). These people had laid down, waiting to die and nothing could change their minds. Also, most of the soldiers were worn low by the daily grind of hiding the artillery and the exertion of raiding missions while suffering chronic insomnia. When a man can never relax because he worries about heat-sensing drones flying over in the night and sending the bombs, it hits him hard.
If he could only fish for a while. Just sit peacefully by the slow-flowing bend in the river and allow himself a moment to forget the deathly smoke billowing from his peaceful town and the distant thunder, the snaps of gunfire, the maddening ringing in his ears, his petulant body always wanting to quit, the stinging cuts on his fingers, the heavy itch in his eyes and constant desire to empty his bowels even when there was nothing in there. Maybe the commanders were wrong and the war wouldn’t drag on. People would return and rebuild and they could eat a good meal and rest, but it didn’t look likely. With Putin bent on shaping history, he would be stuck in the army indefinitely.
It wasn’t super-regimented like he imagined, the commander in charge was less demanding than Yana (she was right to be, though). She wouldn’t recognise his endless hard work, she’d be proud. He’d shaved off his beloved flicked fringe and his skin fade was all over. Hair products and beard shampoos and wanting to look good for Yana seemed dumb now. What was all that madness of superficiality and trying to get famous on Tik-Tok? Normal things felt unnatural. Not that war was normal, not yet.
As he piled the last shell next to the French 52-calibre Howitzer, a self-propelled artillery system, his commander appeared. “Artillery is Putin’s God of War,” he said. The commanders liked to say that to remind the men of the enemy’s superior numbers of launchers and their mid-range missiles, to keep them sharp and motivated. Dead man’s ground, he called it: if a man thinks he’s sure to die he fights harder and longer.
But for how long? You could be killed by small arms fire but that is extremely unlikely in this war. Death from explosive remnants, drones and airstrikes is also possible but very rare. Landmines are worrying depending on where you are. Then you have sniper fire which is the second most likely way to be killed in this shit-storm. A high chance, yes, but shelling far outnumbers all the rest (unless you’re east of Donbas where the mines are everywhere).
Artillery was Putin’s weapon of choice as Russian soldiers didn’t have to get as close as they did. It not only destroyed strategic targets and wiped-out towns in minutes it battered a man’s will to keep fighting. Such relentless shelling was maddening. “It’s like fighting Mike Tyson,” he’d say, in moments of levity. “Except there is no referee and the rounds are infinite—or until they run out of munitions.” It was a fight to the death that the Russians had advantage in due to their longer reach. The enemy’s ability to out-range them was almost laughable in that it could feel futile to keep sneaking close to get a hit when you considered how nerve-racking and tiring it was. He imagined the Russians sitting back and laughing about that one because to artillerymen, range is king. The only counter was to bug out from a firing position (move rapidly) as soon as a fire mission was completed on a target. But it chipped away at the men to know the enemy had barely broken a sweat! With Russian radars tracking the shells back to their source, remaining undetected resulted in prolonged sketchy efforts to evade them. Only good knowledge of hiding places kept them alive, if on the move. It was endless! Moreover, the Americans feared sending long-range systems like Himars in case Ukrainian commanders went after targets inside Russian territory, which might spark WW3.
It was a sick joke made worse by drones locating them just when they were starting to relax and have a laugh: We spend hours most evenings hiding the artillery under trees. The men would be sitting on munition boxes, sandbags, the cold ground and having a rare moment to themselves. They’d be smoking or eating and thinking of family and BOOM! Right beside you. An erupting volcano of Ukrainian earth, black smoke and flying rock, right where your water bottle was a second ago. Men would start running everywhere. Anywhere. But where? Like, why? Shelling is relatively indiscriminate when you hide in buildings. They bomb anything that moves. So you think, is over there the safer spot or will you be luckier where you are? When you have no energy, and the shelling is spread over a wide radius because your battalion holds up in pockets to avoid clustering into an easy target, you figure sitting in the spot you are is as favourable as running for cover.
They called him Buddha for how he would cross his legs and sit in a mediation pose as Hell arrived. He’d be too spent to move and sad about beautiful Yana being given refuge by sex traffickers and Adnan forced to sell drugs. God, they are refugees.
Some of the other men started taking the Buddha approach to shelling because he hadn’t been hit, but most ran around like little kids released from school into a playground. If you can quieten the thunder, which is possible once you went deaf enough from it, men looked like boys during shelling; frightened, who would never be children again except for reliving those moments of bombardment. Shelling and the memory of it takes you back to when you knew nothing but what you didn’t know; how life was still a million pieces of chaos circling around you and you had no idea how it could all work out okay, you know?
How have we survived again?
He smoked and always tried not to look like every muscle in his body was constantly, uncontrollably trembling. He had been this way since that first shelling of Severodonetsk months before. His laugh was ironic now and he winked, and the men winked back and laughed. “Fuck you, Putin, I’m still alive.”
The shattered trees made the ugly black scar on the land into something resembling the farmer’s fields of gold that were there before the shelling. The whole region looked the same: desolate, depressing and discombobulating: Is it last Tuesday or next Thursday yet? Am I near Kramatorsk or Horlivka? Am I still inside me somewhere? I can’t be me anymore. Even if I live through this, I will have sacrificed so much of what I was. I have let the good go; I am becoming nothing. It would be better to die after we win. Hopefully soon as I’m tired of this. How can I return to my loves with what I see and think? In fifteen weeks, I have gotten used to men’s insides being outside. I trembled at the sight of blood, now I have forgotten twenty-four years of a life. Three months to change me into less than dirt. She kissed me so deeply but that feels no more than a cigarette now; no more special than silence or the gentle flow of a river, and that’s not that much at all. So much has changed in so little time.
He tucked a sandbag under his backside and sat on a munition’s box and took out a pack of cigarettes and winked. A man winked back. Brothers without names. The Boys. The Remembered (yet, The Forgotten). The Good Fodder; the last defence and the first for a new, more dangerous Europe. “…and after a global pandemic. Fuck man! If there is a god He must be mad. Sorry Yana, She must be mad.” They were smoking in heaven’s waiting room and it felt like they were already there for a moment. “It’s so peaceful.”
“The boys hit the supplies again, we can smoke a while now.”
“Can a woman be as good as a cigarette?”
“Give me both and I’ll die happy.”
Despite fighting with honourable intentions, something had changed that he doubted could be set back to normal. He laughed at the sky. “Putin is making us wait today, huh. They are there, I know it. The shelling should have started.”
“It’s a sick joke to let us sit and relax this long. There’s probably a drone up there watching us, better we keep moving, keep busy.”
“Or maybe we taunt him by not doing what he wants, huh?” he said, staring at plumes of grey and black smoke supporting a chalky-blue slab of cloud on the horizon. “They must be waiting on supplies. We got lucky.” He gazed mindlessly at the sky that resembled a recycled painter’s canvass; a dirty white surface. A lifetime of creation had been erased, he thought, the old things once so loved scrubbed out of existence. But some things cannot be erased. The pieces of truth that persisted or insisted to remain were there: the faint shape of an old cottage, or a girl’s dress painted so lovingly it refused to be removed. There was the family dog, just a tail, an ear and four paws. He saw an American SUV parked at the new supermarket that had so much choice, now just the vehicle’s frame and the store’s crumbling signage remained. “Come on, Putin, we’re waiting.” In a gold-lined cloud (or was it the swirling, spiralling smoke from his bombed town?) he saw the travelling fair that had come before the invasion. His four-year-old son, Adnan, blonde and always happy, loved riding the big wheel. They had seen their whole town from above and it made them want to see all of Ukraine. Adnan sat in between Yana and him and cheered up after a bad toothache. Would he still smile? He imagined Yana’s face so sad and broken for him hiding in a ditch like he did most days. There was what looked like a bathroom mirror in a silvery cloud right above him; the door of their old medicine cabinet, where he obeyed Yana finally and wiped down all his grooming products until spotless, like she did. She was a bit of a neat freak but it was her only fault. Otherwise she was a perfect wife who had made their first house a loving home, better than his mother ever did when he was young.
“Hey, send up the drone,” a man said, with a survivor’s bravado, cupping a smoke from the wind and lighting it. “See if they’re near,” he said, flicking a match as if the constant threat of physical annihilation was nothing.
He told him the drone was charging but had enough juice for a twenty-minute scouting mission. After a cool but clearly nervous conversation, he took it from the back of the truck, removed it from its charging unit, folded out the limbs, fired it up, grabbed the remote in his dirty, scabby fingers and wiped his leather fingerless gloves on his mucky combats. The cuts on the tips of his thumbs made it painful to control and he worried he’d let the men down as he sent it shooting into the sky.
Just a sky again.
On the small screen he saw what lay ten kilometres across the river. “A battalion of tanks,” he said, and sucked on the butt of his smoke hanging from his chapped lips. “No artillery.” He wiped dirt from his eyes and licked his thumb clean and spat. Other Ukrainian battalions had blown all the bridges and the Russians were using floating pontoons which could get them across in under an hour. “Pontoons. The tanks are going to cross. The intel was correct.” As he flew the drone closer to the Russian tank battalion, he took it higher and zoomed, making the black and white landscape pixely. “No movement. They won’t cross now. If we attack we’ll have to move again.” The little flashing power bar told him he had less flight time than imagined, and he landed it and put it back in its charging unit.
The break from shelling allowed the men to rest. Sleeping while sitting up was normal when you were so tired. He woke to silence and a few snores. His bulletproof flak jacket felt tight on his chest and the sound of the worn Velcro expanding and contracting made him think too deeply about breathing and dying. He loosened the straps and decided to take the weight off his body for once to savour the stillness.
It was intoxicatingly dark and still and quiet bar the ringing in his ears, which was muffled due to him slowly going deaf. No crickets lived there now. No birds had stuck around to sing to him. No frogs. No foxes. No weasels. No field mice. No squirrels. No owls.
No mosquitos! How could that be?
This was the ultimate sign that war is wrong. Wrong or right didn’t come into it, he thought, sitting up and listening for the distinctive growl of tank engines. There was nothing. He got up and walked down to the riverbank, using a torch to find his way, in case his hearing had gotten so bad that he hadn’t heard them setting up the pontoons. Nothing! Could it be a rare night when the enemy didn’t try to cross the river, he wondered, or were they out of shells? The regular attacks on Russian supply lines had been working a treat. One billion Euro a day the war was costing Russia, apparently, all paid for by selling oil to not only China, India and other big buyers but also Europe, who were supposedly supporting Ukraine. Demoralising was not the word, he thought, more like infuriating and confusing and upsetting. Thinking too much about that could break you down and wear you out.
Surely it was a trick, though; the enemy is sly, it pretends to be weak.
His battalion had slept because of exhaustion and not through choice. The enemy had let them. Maybe the Russian commanders were as unsure about this war now. Maybe they’d have a night’s rest for once in all this endless madness. He allowed himself to believe it. Something of his old self tried to return; a feeling inside that used to say everything would always work out if he stayed positive and kept working hard. It always did once upon a time.
How much more can I take? How can wars go on for years? Where do men find the energy and will to keep fighting? He’d have to now, he knew that. The human spirit amazed him. Even the Russians amazed him. Not Putin and not the commanders, he thought as he lit a smoke, but the men themselves.
As he imagined brotherly faces sleeping across the river, a dull sound arrived in his ears retrospectively. Is it last Tuesday? Is that pain in my chest an echo of next Saturday’s bruise or was that
Thursday’s sniper shot?
It sounded like sniper fire but without reverberations due to the thick air.
Distinctive in its singularity.
All around him there was movement. The faint outlines of the remaining trees and shells of buildings were rising into the moonlit sky. It had not been an explosion because he could still hear the river lapping at the shore. Am I falling?
Then he was wet. Soaking. Bobbing. His face savoured the refreshing water for a moment and he wanted to take a breath. With the instinct to roll over he knew he was face down in the river and the pain in his chest wasn’t an echo from next Saturday’s bruise: Not a landmine but a sniper got me. I guess I don’t have the power. A sniper’s bullet will rip through flesh and organs like a knife through butter, especially without a flak jacket. No surviving it, but I don’t regret removing it. The peace is what I will remember as I go.
He rolled onto his back and shouted, “Fuck you, Putin. You will never win,” and closed his eyes and thought of Adnan and Yana on that last day at the bus station when he couldn’t stop kissing them and looking at their faces. So innocent.
Where are they now? Are they okay? Yana is more a survivor than me. Stay strong my love!
His duty was done, he’d promised them what was required of a man; he’d defended home or what was left of Donbas and Ukraine.
What more can a man do, a boy really, when war turns him inside out?
A powerful wind blew across the land suddenly. “Nature has had enough of you, Putin, you Hitler you!” He smiled and imagined the enemy’s regret for crossing whichever God railed against the injustice of another fallen good man. “God, I give my life to see him in the cold, wet ground with me. All the world knows it, he desires history to remember him and nothing more. Such Cowardice. Such shame he must hold.”
A tear arrived to warm the river water in his eyes. He remembered his town in the summer when the wind made Yana’s blonde hair dance and the gentle rain turned Adnan’s eyes into wild, glittering things of deep wonder and purity…