EDITOR’S NOTES: Soldiers’ faces are obscured, and names & callsigns changed to preserve the anonymity of the active soldiers who continue to fight at the front. Also see footnotes #1-6 in the GLOSSARY below, and scroll down to read #11, “The Hideout.”

War Through My Eyes #10: SIXTH SENSE

click below to access essay #10

“During the battle, my car turned into a flour sifter, full of holes,”  said the stocky, bearded soldier, with the callsign “Redhead” on his patch, lighting yet another cigarette. He smoked constantly, probably too much. “Only God knows how we made it out. Maybe guardian angels covered us with their wings from all sides.”

READ ESSAY #10

“During the battle, my car turned into a flour sifter, full of holes,”  said the stocky, bearded soldier, with the callsign “Redhead” on his patch, lighting yet another cigarette. He smoked constantly, probably too much.

“Only God knows how we made it out. Maybe guardian angels covered us with their wings from all sides.”

“We flew into that town fueled by so much adrenaline that we only regained full consciousness after the last explosions had subsided. We heard distant shots as our brothers-in-arms moved through the private sector of the suburbs, cleaning the area where there were still the katsaps that didn’t escape in time and were now hiding around in barns, basements, and outhouses.

“We had to tread through the territory step by careful step, because a missed enemy is a shot in the back. ‘We need to get a car,’ said the commander, as he inspected a pickup truck that had been riddled with bullets and left to decompose on the side of the road.

“As we surveyed the area, we saw only the charred skeletons of destroyed cars. Some were still smoking, releasing the suffocating stench of burnt rubber into the air. Breathing in the smoke left an impression of tiny stones scratching the throat. Suppressing a dry cough, I really wanted a drink of water, but my flask had been empty for a long time.

‘Boys, dear boys, come on over here!’ An old man’s cracked voice sounded from behind the fence. ‘Drink some cold water from the well!’

“The youngest soldier among us threw a pleading look at the commander, but the commander narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

‘Don’t even think about it!’ the commander said. ‘Anything can happen here. The enemy and zhdun are everywhere in this area – and if not a knife to the side, then they can slip poisoned water. Drink only from closed factory bottles. Do not take any food from the locals. A homemade donut may have a hidden surprise that will keep you on the toilet for three days!’

The soldier replied “plus in a confirmation to his commander, but grudgingly so.

‘Let’s move on. There are cars abandoned by civilians a little further on,’ said the commander, not taking his eyes off the fence from which the water offer came. ‘So try to find one that has at least a little juice left in it.’ So the boys went off in pairs in search of a car.”

The fighter fell silent as the cigarette smoldered and burned his fingers a little. He smothered it against the sole of his shoe, kneaded the wet clay with his toe, threw the butt into the pit, and carefully wrapped it up. We waited patiently for the rest of the story, and he obliged after lighting another cigarette.

“An old man, covered in ash and who could have been mistaken for a ‘hearth spirit’ came out from behind the fence,” the soldier spoke again, thoughtfully searching somewhere in the distance, as if looking back through time to visualize that episode. 

“His gnarly hands held a jar of some kind of drink that looked like a compote made from dried fruit.”

‘Drink this, boys,’ he squeaked. ‘It’s my homemade kvas. Excellent thirst quencher. My own recipe. If only you knew how we’ve been waiting for you! The orcs went from home to home, robbing, beating and mocking us. But we had faith and we waited!’

The commander threw a warning look at us and shook his head, ‘No need for kvas, it only adds to thirst. Katsaps already took everything else from you, so you can keep the kvas for yourself.’

The old man turned to face me, so only I noticed the shadow that flashed across his face, either the annoyance of the rejection, or the memory of the days under occupation.

‘Then allow me to show you something,’ his voice rasped again, ‘Over there, behind my garden, when my son-in-law heard about the approach of a russian tank column, he ran, leaving his Jeep here. You should take it for the use of the ZSU. I’ll show you where it is.’

‘Redhead,’ the commander turned to me. ‘Take Hunter with you and take this old man for a walk. Maybe there is a Jeep by some chance. But stay careful. I don’t trust this sham generosity of his.’

‘I thought the same,’ I responded. ‘Katsaps left here, leaving a working Jeep behind? Not likely. My senses tell me there is some hidden agenda here.’

‘Maybe so, maybe not – we must verify.’ The commander nervously tapped and drummed his fingers on the cover of the receiver of his AK-74 assault rifle, which he kept on the ready. 

‘If only we weren’t in such a dire need of a working vehicle, it wouldn’t be worth the risk.’

‘Lead us, old man,’ I waved to Hunter and smiled at the old man, but my smile must have been somewhat ominous, because he turned pale and just nodded silently. ‘Let’s take a look at your son-in-law’s fancy machine.’

We had to walk through his yard, then through an area covered with young weeds, ending up in a garden. The trees had not been pruned for a long time  and bore many dry branches.

‘Step with caution,’ I whispered through my teeth at Hunter. ‘I don’t like this one bit. These weeds may be hiding something from us.’ 

‘What makes you think that?’ Hunter raised an eyebrow in return.

‘Do you see a bunch of grass over there? The plot is not well-kept, everything around is overgrown, and here suddenly there is a pile of grass, as if something is hidden. I am not sure, but what is visible through the grass look very much like the tops of military berets.’

‘A bit more and we are almost there!’ The old man called from ahead. He shuffled his feet, showing us the way.

‘Right behind you!’ I answered.

‘So, let’s check that pile of grass,’ Hunter tilted his head forward and examined the area.

‘It’s not worth walking off the path, because everything there can be mined.’ I spoke with a calm tone of voice, as much as I could muster. ‘Look carefully to the right. The car over there burned down. It looks like a direct hit from The Fly.

‘I’m sick of the feeling that there may be orc bastards sitting in the bushes nearby, and here we are right in their palm,’ Hunter looked like a taut spring on alert, ready for action.

‘Calm down.’ I relaxed my shoulders, as if taking a casual stroll. ‘If they have not hit immediately, then they are waiting. Maybe they think that others are following us. Or maybe there is no one there at all, and we are worried for nothing.’

‘Hey, old man, are we there yet?’ Hunter shouted. ‘We’ve already passed your plot, soon we’ll be crossing the neighbor’s.’

‘We’re nearly there.’ The old man’s breathing was labored, but not from walking fast. He was clearly nervous.

“And then my instincts raised a red flag in my mind. From somewhere came the feeling that trouble was close. I always listened to my instincts. Maybe that’s why I’m still alive today.” The soldier extinguished another butt and repeated the procedure for its disposal, and then lit a new cigarette again.

“What happened next?” I asked, unable to bear the long pause.

“Old man ended up being a traitor, well, zhdun at least,” Redhead answered darkly. “He led us into an ambush. My sixth sense did not fail me. I stopped, as if to tie my shoelace, and then pulled Hunter down. Maybe the orcs could tell that their cover was blown, and so they hit us with rounds from their machine guns. A few bullets hit me in the chest, but the plate in the bulletproof vest sustained the blow. The old man fell to the ground as if mowed down by a scythe. In reality, no one would care about traitors. So the orcs didn’t care much about hitting him with their bullets.

Just like in Schiller, ‘The Moor has done his work, the Moor can go,’ I said.

“What an accurate statement!” Redhead nodded. 

“These traitors are needed to the orcs only as far as the mission goes. And once it’s done, as the saying goes, ‘might as well use it up.’ 

‘While we were walking, the commander had quickly turned our boys around and followed us.

‘They caught up to us right in time and crushed the bastards right there in the bushes. There were three of them. I can’t imagine what they were expecting. Maybe they thought that their guys would come back for them while they heroically held their post? But instead it turned out like in the song by their Grebenschikov:

‘The bullet’s dead–that’s it, you’re screwed,
There’s nothing to fight back with.
Let’s have a smoke, my brother-fighter,
We can’t escape this death!
Too bad, our help did never come,
They did not send reinforcements.
That’s how it goes.
They’ve left us out to dry.”

“Thank God, we all came out of this episode alive,”  said the commander, who’d been silent to this point. “This experience confirmed for us the fact that you can never be too careful in the newly reclaimed territories. Because you never know who stands in front of you.”

GLOSSARY FOR ESSAYS #10 & #11

1) “plus” is military jargon akin to the expression “Roger that!” 2) Kvas is a fermented cereal-based, low-alcohol beverage of cloudy appearance and sweet-sour taste. 3) Orc and katsap are derogatory terms for Russians. 4) The Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU in Ukrainian) are the military forces of Ukraine. 5) “The Fly” is another name for the RPG-18, a Soviet anti-tank rocket launcher. 6) Zhdun (Ждун) is a person who is waiting for the arrival of the “Russian World,” but does not openly say or show it. During the occupation, some people cooperate with the enemy, even handing over pro-Ukrainians for Russian torture.

Exploded missile casings in Ukraine

Top, soldiers with Starlinks funded by supporters’ donations. Bottom, exploded munitions casings in the Kherson sector. The country will be cleaning up this debris and the even-more-dangerous unexploded ordnance, for years, if not decades.

Evening light near the frontline in Ukraine.

War Through My Eyes #11: "Hideout"

click below to access essay #11

“What has been the most difficult memory for you?” I ask my brother-in-arms. He made himself a cup of strong coffee without sugar and sipped it loudly….You know, I’ve seen a lot,”  he took a big gulp and exhaled with force. “I was one of the first to enter Irpin, and what we lived through in Zaporizhzhya still stays with me in my dreams. 

READ ESSAY #11

“What has been the most difficult memory for you?” I ask my brother-in-arms.

He made himself a cup of strong coffee without sugar and sipped it loudly. I drank my tea, eyeing his cup with envy. The doctors strictly forbade me to drink coffee.

“You know, I’ve seen a lot,”  he took a big gulp and exhaled with force. “I was one of the first to enter Irpin, and what we lived through in Zaporizhzhya still stays with me in my dreams. Some commanders called me the Flying Dutchman for my work behind the wheel. I showed up on the scene, did my work, and disappeared again. It took some courage, you know? Not adrenaline exactly. But these parts are not difficult to remember. Other memories were more painful.”

“Will you tell me?” I looked longingly into my cup, but the power of my gaze was not enough to turn tea into coffee.

“There was a battle. Brief but savage. Katsaps retaliated so intensely with the munitions, it seemed impossible to get into the city. But we managed it. Local street fighting still went on in some places, but it was only the last of the clean-up. We were moving along the street in the usual order, until suddenly I noticed some movement on the right. A secret signal was swiftly and silently transmitted, and we scattered, taking our positions. In these cases, negligence to the smallest detail can cost you your life. And not only yours, but the life of your brothers-in-arms.

“But there was no enemy there. It was a child. A little girl, maybe five years old, wearing a green dress and torn sandals. Her hands and face were covered in dirt. Tiny fingers were clutching a soft toy with burnt paws–it was hard to tell whether the paws belonged to a torn teddy bear or a little bunny with tattered ears. Was there fear in her blue eyes? No. It was some kind of crazy juxtaposition: moments ago there were explosions here, machine guns rattling off somewhere not too far off, and here she is moving along the wall of the house with those empty eyes. Eyes like glass, you know? That’s the childhood these monsters brought, these ‘liberator’ bastards.” 

The soldier clenched his fingers tightly into a fist, crushing the paper cup. The last of the coffee ran down his hand, but he didn’t notice. The memory dug into his throat with sharp claws, blocking any access to words. This fighter wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his uniform with a sharp movement and batted his eyelashes quickly, trying to hold back tears. 

“I have seen death up close many times, close enough to feel its breath on my skin,” he finally squeezed words out of his chest. “I have lost my brothers-in-arms, I have outlasted battles that destroyed men like a meat grinder, and I thought I built up callousness over my heart that nothing could prick. But that little girl, and her still eyes.” The soldier choked on his words again. “We asked her if she was alone, but she didn’t answer. She could not speak. She only signaled with her hand a barely noticeable door under the wall of the house about ten meters away.

“At first we thought it was a hideout for the orcs* that didn’t manage to escape yet. But it was filled with people. Residents. They were packed in there like sardines. About twenty women, children, and the elderly were hiding in the cramped space of the basement. And the nauseating smell–the acrid stench of long-unwashed bodies, ancient mold and urine. They were exhausted, gaunt, and frightened. 

“They came out of the basement one by one, and we helped them, because they could barely move their bodies. I still remember their extinguished eyes, their trembling fingers, their sickly, white, flabby skin. Imagine children with the skin of the elderly, with the gaze of the elderly. At least the elderly have a full life behind them. But these babies lived no life at all. And what kind of life can they live now? Because what they’ve gone through burned them from the inside out, like some nightmarish acid.

“Our car was nearby, we had some water and snacks inside. We gave everything away to these people. Overwhelming tears rolled down their faces caked with dirt, drawing piercingly bright patterns on the muddy, wrinkled cheeks. 

“You ask me about the most difficult memory? This is it–the glassy eyes of a child and those patterns on her smoke-smeared cheeks.”

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