They say that in those instances your entire life flashes before your eyes. They say that time slows down, as if in slow motion, and that the moments become drawn out and filled with thoughts. They say that you are left with just a few seconds for one last prayer, that you have time to dedicate a thought to your loved ones or utter a last minute useless curse. In actual fact the truth is more lackluster: suddenly you hear a high-pitched whistle, your head turns to the sky ad you realize that everyone around you is screaming with terror. You don’t have time to realize anything because two seconds later the explosion knocks you over.
We spent a night in Spartak’s separatist trenches, in the northeastern outskirts of Donetsk, under the bombings of Ukrainian heavy artillery. We spent twelve hours filming the true entity of this forgotten war which Europe continues to ignore but which every day regurgitates death, horror, destruction. We stared directly into the face of what nobody wants to see and we are here to recount it.
Donbass: The War continues. Why is no one talking about it?
Man has a great attribute: the ability to adapt to any situation – even war. Spartak’s shack is constantly under the fire of kalashnikovs and automatic weapons, but after half an hour you beign to get used to it, whether you like it or not. In this area artillery follows the logic of a table tennis match: one side shoots first, then after
a few minutes’ pause, the other side shoots back. In the middle of the table, ground soldiers huddle up to their posts. Theirs is a rat’s life: their chow consists of a bowl of “kasha”, a tasteless buckwheat porridge. To relieve sleepiness and exhaustion soldiers often resort to amphetamines, while all alcohol is strictly prohibited. Going out on patrol, guard duty on the front line, sniping beyond the trenches, scrambling to shelter: this is the daily routine amongst the rubble in Spartak. The commander confesses to us: “If it were up to me, I would assemble my men this very night and I would lead them to assault the Ukrainian trenches. I might die, but at least I would die like a man and not like a rat”.
Talking to the soldiers is no easy feat: we do what we can with the aid of a small pocket dictionary. None of them speak English and obviously we only know a few words of Russian. One of them shows us a photo of his newly born son. His hands are blackened by earth and soot, as are those of all his comrades. The smell of gun powder hangs in the air, the awful stench drilling up your nostrils and into your brain. It is hot, all the men smoke nervously. One of them tells us about two of his colleagues who died down here only a few nights ago. Miming an explosion with his hands we understand that the youngest had his belly wrenched open and bled to death, his guts splattered on his boots. “Apocalypse”, he smiles and pats us on the shoulder. Well, we certainly can’t say he’s wrong.
As night falls, the situation becomes even more tense. The table tennis match picks up rhythm: the snipers slowly return to their shelter. The heavy artillery steps in,
making the walls tremble, filling the air with shards and chewing up corpses till they are unrecognizable. Then comes the true exterminator: a gunshot is nothing compared to a 152 millimeter grenade. Suddenly a dialogue from an old Kubrick film, “Paths of Glory” comes to mind: “Tell me this,” one soldier asks another, “Aside from the bayonet what are you most afraid of?” “High explosives!” he replies. And the other, “Exactly! It’s the same with me! Because I know it can chew you up worse than anything else!” Today finally we can grasp the full meaning of that line: it is before our own eyes.
At around nine in the evening, we put on our helmets and bullet proof vests to go out on patrol towards the remaining trenches. The route is very short. We walk in pitch black, tripping over the rubble, taking the dug-out path in single file. We hear the bullets whistling past our heads while the militiamen next to us repeatedly recite their litany. “No lights, sniper, no lights”. We reach a sort of observatory, on the first floor of a rundown building. The scene we are faced with is both wonderful and terrifying: the entire horizon before us is lit up to daylight by endless bursts of lightning. They look like fireworks but obviously they are something else: a blazing shower of bombs falling ceaselessly on the tragically torn area of Donbass .
When at war, the black of night is a strange travelling companion. Soldiers love darkness because it protects them from enemy eyes. But at the same time they fear it: anything can surface from obscurity, and in general it is nothing good. The blackness was unexpectedly slashed open at fourteen minutes past ten at night, as we sat at the garrison desk, interviewing one of the militiamen. All of a sudden the air was pierced by an extremely powerful hiss. We saw the face of the boy opposite us distorted into an indescribable grimace of terror. We jumped to our feet and lunged over the bunker threshold. As we toppled down the concrete stairs, an unimaginable blast pounded our ears. The air moved bringing with it a powerful shower of incandescent shrapnel.
It is absolutely impossible to describe the moments that followed. The bombing lasted a total of three hours,until half past one in the morning. We saw some of the militiamen burst into tears. Others crouched on the floor, as if seeking protection in the most remote underground corners. Some screamed, while others more just stared into emptiness.
Fortunately our video camera remained on, allowing us to record the daily tragedy of thousands of young men like us, in the eternal trenches of Donbass. The following morning, as we finally surfaced into the sunlight we discovered that our stronghold had been showered by a barrage of 152 millimetre ammunition. One of the shots had landed only ten metres from us carving out a hole at least two metres wide in the tarmac. We picked up the shards: some of them were as big as our fists
As we walked back home, ironically shrouded in the early morning light, we thought back to the famous words by Ernest Hemingway: “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.”. The young men of Spartak have probably never read “For whom the bell tolls.” But maybe they don’t need to.
Photos by Alfredo Bosco www.alfredobosco.com