LOBACHEVE, Ukraine—War is absurd sometimes.
The SUV clambered along the pothole-speckled dirt road, which was now more mud than dirt in the wake of melting snow and spring rains.
The driver, a 30-year-old Ukrainian soldier named Andriy, held a pistol in his steering hand as he navigated through no man’s land near the separatist-controlled city of Luhansk. He had a green balaclava pulled down over his face.
Another soldier sat in the front passenger’s seat, and sitting beside me in the back was a 19-year-old woman, a civilian volunteer named Ivona Kostyna.
Ukrainian military vehicles never travel alone through no man’s land due to the ever present threat of ambush. So a pickup truck painted in camouflage trailed us. A soldier manned a machine gun mounted in the back bed, and five other armed soldiers rode in the cab.
As we approached the village of Staryi Aidar, a horse appeared. It was brown and looked beautiful as it galloped alongside the SUV. No one said a word; we just watched.
The horse cut toward the SUV. We could hear it whinnying and huffing as it crossed from side to side, licking and biting at the windows.
“Its mother was killed by artillery,” the soldier in the front passenger’s seat finally said. No one replied.
The horse trailed us for a few minutes. Andriy honked the horn to shoo it away, but the horse wouldn’t leave. Eventually Andriy stopped, threw open his door, and shouted something in Russian.
As the horse trotted away, Kostyna said: “Is this real life?”
We drove through the no man’s land separating Ukrainian and combined Russian-separatist military positions near the separatist-controlled city of Luhansk. The soldiers called it the “gray zone.”
The early March sky was overcast, and the day was drawing to a close. The fading light dimmed the few colors of this desolate landscape. Many trees were still leafless, and the fields of grass were still brown from the winter. Bare earth, if there, had turned to mud.
The sun probably was setting, but no colors of sunset suggested it. The world just got grayer and darker.
We passed villages that were equally bleak. The standard of living in rural Ukraine is not above many third-world countries, and the ebb and flow of daily life, except for a few modern trappings like electricity and cell phone service, probably haven’t changed much in the past hundred years.
Livestock and stray dogs freely roamed the dirt roads. Most homes had an outhouse and a small plot of land for growing vegetables. Discarded building materials and piles of burning trash randomly dotted village streets.
The war was there, but not in your face. Its clues were subtle and easily overlooked.
Every now and then you’d see a wall pockmarked with bullet holes, or the wreckage on the side of the road of a vehicle destroyed by a separatist improvised explosive device. A stone cross at one crossroads marked the spot where a separatist ambush had killed a group of six Ukrainian civilian volunteers last summer.
“That one killed two civilians,” the soldier in the front passenger’s seat dryly remarked as we passed a black scar and a pile of twisted metal on the side of the road. It was the site of a separatist IED blast.
“That one killed three,” he said a moment later as we passed the site of another roadside bomb.
The more obvious trappings of the Ukraine war, like the trenches and the tank barriers and the soldiers hunkered down inside hardened shelters, were absent here in the gray zone. This was the war’s palette, where the primary colors of war and peace blended.
And it was like that at other places along the 200-mile-long front lines in eastern Ukraine.
I remember driving to the front lines outside the village of Pisky last summer. I watched children swim in a lake as we drove over a bridge just a few miles from an artillery-ravaged wasteland.
I remember a soldier in uniform waiting on the side of the road with a girl, who I assumed to be his daughter. She had on a backpack, and he held her hand as they waited for the school bus. You could hear the artillery from where they stood. The war was only about 5 miles away.
I remember a youth soccer match in Mariupol on a rainy day in April 2015. Parents sat in the bleachers as their children played. The concussion of artillery from a battle in nearby Shyrokyne was loud enough to send ripples through puddles like that scene in “Jurassic Park.” But no one seemed to notice. The sounds of war had become as normal as distant thunder.
I remember my first train ride to Mariupol in September 2014, just days before a tank battle on the outskirts of the city. I shared a sleeper berth with a mother and her infant child. In the night I woke to the sound of the infant cooing and the mother softly singing.
A strange way to go to war, I thought, and very different from the C-17 and C-130 rides I took to Iraq and Afghanistan when I was an Air Force pilot.
It’s not the tanks, the soldiers, the anti-aircraft missiles, or the artillery that seems so absurd. You expect those things. But what you can’t seem to wrap your mind around are the vignettes of normal life, which seem increasingly out of place the closer you get to the war.
Your senses are in dissonance. It’s like when someone flashes you a card with the word “red” written in blue ink. If you quickly read out loud what’s written, you’re likely to say the word “blue.” In this war, your subconscious and conscious selves are similarly at odds with one another.
It just doesn’t compute to see children playing amid the din of artillery. You watch in awe as a soldier, a boy, really, cradles a kitten in a basement on the front lines while dust rises and things fall off the rattling walls as artillery zeroes in on your position.
And the laughing. That’s hard to explain, too, especially to someone who’s never been to war. When the line between life and death is at its narrowest, laughter always seems to be the most natural, automatic response. The trembling hands and the thousand-yard stares come later, after the danger is over and reality sets in.
Earlier, before the encounter with the horse, we had visited the village of Lobacheve, inside the gray zone.
A river bisects the town. Ukrainian forces control one side; the other side is separatist territory. About 200 civilians still live in Lobacheve, and the opposing camps agree to short daily truces to allow civilians, including children going to and from school, to cross the river by ferry.
We arrived in the town during one of these daily truces. As we dismounted the vehicles on a road that ran parallel to the river, the soldiers drew their weapons and took up a defensive formation around Kostyna and me. They weren’t worried about artillery, but they treated the threat of snipers seriously.
The war on this part of the front lines now mainly comprised sniper potshots and small arms gunfights between Ukrainian patrols and combined Russian-separatist reconnaissance units.
The Ukrainian soldiers said artillery attacks tapered off in September after both sides renewed their commitment to the Minsk II cease-fire. However, combined Russian-separatist artillery, mortars, and tank shots were daily occurrences at other spots along the front lines near the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, about 100 miles from Lobacheve.
We walked down a slope to the ferry dock. Across the river we could see several separatist soldiers standing among red flags. A Ukrainian soldier raised a hand and waved. One of his enemies returned the greeting.
On the separatist side of the river, two people stepped out of a white SUV and walked to the water’s edge alongside the separatist troops. They wore the blue and white body armor characteristic of monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, the multinational organization charged with monitoring the Ukraine cease-fire.
“The OSCE is here, so the separatists will behave,” Andriy said. He held a Kalashnikov in his hand and had a pistol holstered on his chest.
‘Worse Than Death’
Four Ukrainian soldiers congregated on the dock, enjoying the novelty of being able to act casually in a place where they usually would be exposed to lethal sniper fire. One lit a cigarette and stood quietly looking across the water at his enemies, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
These soldiers were part of an elite intelligence unit in the Ukrainian army’s 92nd Brigade; some had served on the front lines for almost two years.
Almost all of these soldiers had killed in combat, and all had seen comrades die. Consequently, they have little empathy for their enemies, despite the common ethnicity, language, and cultural history they shared.
A veteran of the 92nd Brigade, Andriy Kozinchuk, told me that when he fought on the outskirts of Luhansk near the city of Shchastya in 2014 and 2015, the Ukrainian soldiers would keep one grenade tucked in their body armor in case they were mortally wounded or captured.
“The worst thing for us, worse than death, would be to be taken prisoner,” he told me. “So the grenade was to take ourselves and hopefully a few of the enemy out.”
Returned Ukrainian prisoners frequently recount being tortured while in the hands of separatist forces. And a May 2015 report from Amnesty International detailed instances of separatist soldiers arbitrarily executing captured Ukrainian troops.
Yet, despite the bad blood, Ukrainian and combined Russian-separatist forces in the war zone maintain communications and sometimes negotiate ad hoc truces.
At the Donetsk airport in the winter of 2014-15, amid the war’s most brutal, close quarters fighting, the two sides periodically agreed to an “hour of silence,” during which unarmed officers collected the dead from the battlefield. Often, during these brief truces, the opposing officers would come face to face with each other.
“The hardest part was seeing the enemy and not being able to kill him,” a Ukrainian soldier who fought at the Donetsk airport said.
The OSCE monitors turned and walked back to their vehicles. And like that, the truce was over. Soldiers on both sides of the river scattered like leaves in the wind, seeking cover.
“There’s a sniper there and there,” a Ukrainian soldier said to me, pointing to the left and right toward the opposite shoreline. He positioned himself behind me and raised his chin to beckon me forward.
“Time to go,” he said. “It’s dangerous again.”
We walked up the sloping riverbank back to the road where the vehicles waited. On the way we passed a man who lived in Lobacheve. He shook the Ukrainian soldiers’ hands and thanked them for protecting the village.
“Most of the people here are glad they don’t live in the LNR [the Luhansk People’s Republic, one of Ukraine’s breakaway territories],” Andriy said.
“We’re fighting for the hearts and minds of people, not the bodies of people,” another soldier added.
A Dark Comedy
As day gave way to night, we left no man’s land and re-entered Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Kostyna and I bade farewell to our military escort. She and I reunited with the rest of our group—a team of civilian volunteer psychologists and combat veterans, including Kozinchuk, who were counseling deployed soldiers about the symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
We made a brief stop at the Ukrainian trenches near Shchastya, where units of the Ukrainian army’s 92nd Brigade were dug in and on watch. Then we continued on, leaving the war behind.
On the car ride out of the war zone, Kozinchuk and I discussed the absurdity of war.
With an occasional laugh and while shaking his head in a gesture of wide-eyed disbelief, he shared some of his wartime experiences.
He told me about a gunfight in which a Ukrainian soldier killed a separatist fighter who was wearing a brand new uniform. The Ukrainian soldier, Kozinchuk explained, had to buy his uniforms secondhand off the Internet, and he needed new pants—so he changed into the ones of the separatist he had killed.
A few minutes later, a mortar mortally wounded the Ukrainian soldier with shrapnel. As he lay dying, and with his friends frantically, vainly tending to his wounds, the soldier grimly remarked: “Two men are going to die in these pants today.”
“War is a dark comedy,” Kozinchuk said.
After a couple of hours on the road, we arrived in the city of Severodonetsk. The city of 100,000 had briefly fallen to combined Russian-separatist forces in July 2014. It was now under Ukrainian control, and only a few battle-scarred buildings offered clues to the fighting. Cold War relics of the Soviet Union were more ubiquitous than reminders of the combat from a year and a half ago.
We stopped at a microbrewery restaurant for dinner. Speakers belted out American pop music, and some customers who had had a few too many were on the dance floor.
Tapping into my Neanderthal Russian skills, I laboriously ordered one of the house beers and a steak.
To which the waitress answered in perfect English: “And how would you like your steak cooked? I suggest medium.”
After dinner, I excused myself and tactfully weaved around the dancers on my way to the bathroom.
I splashed water on my face and looked in the mirror. A few hours’ drive, and here I was. I could hear the bass notes of the Coldplay song “Paradise” through the walls. The music, the beer, the steak, the smell of soap from the dispenser—it was all suddenly familiar, as though I was at a TGI Fridays or Chili’s back in America.
The war wasn’t even a rumor here. Not anymore. We were off the palette, out of the blending intersection of war and peace. Things were black and white again.
We were out of the gray zone, and the war just didn’t seem to exist, even though one could drive to it in the time it takes to watch two episodes of “House of Cards.”
This war is absurd, I thought.
Or maybe, like every war, this one is just a symptom of something far more senseless.