A Ukrainian city on the brink of disaster breathes a skeptical sigh of relief

MARIUPOL — The sounds of war began yesterday afternoon as a whisper. Today the concussions of artillery and rocket fire rattled windows in Mariupol.

It seemed for a while that all was lost, and the pro-Russia rebels were poised to break through the Ukrainian lines and overrun the city. People were packing as much as they could into their cars and fleeing. Restaurants were shut down. The streets grew empty.

And then, as if ripped straight from the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front, the sounds of war went silent. A cease-fire had been signed.

Passing drivers honked their horns. People cheered in celebration and strangers hugged each other. It was like New Year’s times a million.

In Minsk, Belarus — more than 700 miles north of Mariupol — Ukrainian and Russian politicians reached a deal to stop the fighting. And then, in an instant, armies of young men stopped shooting at each other.

The absurdity of war.

Tonight I’m back in that same seaside bar from a few nights ago. It’s another beautiful night with an easy breeze. I’m drinking beer again, and the same awful techno covers of American songs are on the radio. It’s as if the last few days are imagined.

But I can’t stop thinking about what tonight could have been like.

It all started yesterday at 4 p.m. when pro-Russia rebels, supported by heavy artillery, Grad rockets and tanks, launched their attack on Ukrainian troops entrenched on the outskirts of Mariupol.

The rebel fighters deployed from their stronghold 45 kilometers east of Mariupol in Novoazovsk. Ukrainian units responded by deploying heavy artillery to the area and bombing rebel positions with fighter jets.

Despite stiff resistance from the Ukrainian side, by lunchtime today it looked like the city was going to fall.

The streets grew quiet as people retreated indoors. The sounds of explosions and gunfire grew louder, and plumes of smoke from the fighting were visible from the seaside. The question on most everyone’s mind was, “Should I stay or flee?”

Some with children decided it just wasn’t worth it to stay.

I called my friend Nataly, who has a three-year-old daughter, to ask if she was OK. She told me she was going to her husband’s grandparents’ house a few dozen kilometers west of the city down the coast.

“It’s not so good right now, “ she told me. “The sounds of explosions are getting louder, and it’s scaring me.”

She was worried about her husband, Leonid, who had to stay in Mariupol to close down his business. The young couple wants to avoid becoming refugees, so Leonid is doing what he can to shift his business from Mariupol to Kiev. But he thought he would have more time before the fighting started, and so he made the impossible decision to send his wife and daughter away without him. He chose to stay in Mariupol alone, knowing what was probably about to happen here, rather than flee without a way to provide for his family.

The harsh realities of war.

Tonight Mariupol breathes a skeptical sigh of relief, but I think back to the feeling of a hurricane on the horizon. I wonder, “Has the stormed passed, or is this only the eye of the storm? Is the worst still to come?”

I have been in warzones before. As an Air Force pilot I deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have covered the Afghanistan war as a journalist. I am familiar with the sound of things blowing up and the image of soldiers moving to the fight.

But up until now the human experience of war for me has been limited to interacting with soldiers who have trained for combat and go into it willingly. Yesterday and today I experienced war in a completely new and alien way.

I saw the worry on the faces of a young couple as they decided to part ways amid the threat of invasion. I’ll never forget that. It adds another layer to the absurd tragedy of war that I had never felt before.

To watch the streets empty, to see the look of apprehension on the faces of people passing by. To look into the eyes of a stranger and shake our heads in mutual disbelief as the sounds of an artillery barrage tear through the late summer breeze.

“Is this really happening?” our eyes say to each other.

And the style of combat in this war is something with which I am unfamiliar.

Tank battles, heavy artillery, long distance rocket attacks — this kind of combat is fucking terrifying.

But the terror is short lived, and the cease-fire appears to be holding. The bars are open tonight in Mariupol. Across town young brides and grooms are getting married, following through on ceremonies put off by the fighting.

Life goes on.

Yet out there beyond the city streets, far away from the cheesy music and the embraces of newlyweds, the scars of the last two days of battle are still smoldering. After the battle ended today, I went out to where the fighting had been to see what war really is.

The bodies of hundreds of Ukrainian and rebel soldiers dotted the freshly stilled battlefields. These were the bodies of men who did not die well. Not by the mercy of a gunshot to the head or the heart. Some had their bodies ripped apart by the concussion of artillery blasts. Some were missing limbs. Some with their insides spilled in the earth around them. Others burned to death, trapped inside the steel coffins their tanks became. Quite a few died in the way they desperately clung to life — bodies halfway out of their ruined vehicles with arms reaching out hopefully, or splayed on the ground in fetal positions. All young men. And all of their lives ended today. The convenient forgetting about why they died begins tonight.

And still, as Mariupol celebrates, as I write these words, many more scared and tired young men wait in trenches and in tanks poised to once again release the dogs of war.

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