Note: I’m currently writing a non-fiction account of my time in Ukraine as a war correspondent. Following is an excerpt, detailing a battle in Mariupol last September in the days leading up to the first cease-fire, which was signed Sept. 5.
I sat on the terrace of the Georgian restaurant, one hand wrapped around my beer, which I sipped often. I was going through the beer quickly, and had quite a few as the night went on.
Out in the distance, toward the black void in the direction of Donetsk, there was a storm. It had arrived. I could hear the thunder and see the flashes of light. Yet, unlike the squalls of my youth in Florida, these phenomena were not evidence of an accident of nature, but testaments to the choices of men. The flashes and thunder were made by the clash of soldiers and their weapons.
The mood here tonight sharply contrasted with the night before. There were no families celebrating, no lovers on dates, no children running around their parents’ table misbehaving.
The restaurant and terrace were mostly empty, save for some old men sitting outside with me, watching the occasional flashes of light in the cloudless night sky. They were transfixed by what they saw, sipping their vodka or beer as the rumble of the far-off artillery and rockets washed over us like a wave calmly spilling itself on a beach. The servers looked worried. In between coming over to check on me from time to time, they sat together at a table inside, talking with serious looks on their faces.
This couldn’t be real. How could it be? I was watching, out there in the distance, the proof of battle. Yet, here I was, casually sipping a beer, feeling the light night breeze lap at my neck. A spectator to lives being destroyed while distance safely cocooned me. Detached. Observing, but not feeling. Understanding what those bursts of light and rumbles meant, but not feeling it.
I ordered beer after beer, and as the alcohol caught up I felt like the world was closing in on my thoughts, blocking out everything except for the faraway storm. Down and to the right of my field of view the lights of Mariupol’s streets twinkled in the night. I thought of all the people in those homes. What were they thinking? What do parents tell their children in such a moment? How desperate must lovers feel?
From here the war was just lightning and thunder. The people in its inevitable path were nothing more to me than twinkling city lights. I was on this perch, above it all, watching from afar as if I were on Mt. Olympus, a silent observer untouched by what was going on below. I thought about those back home who had no idea what was happening here. Hell, most of the world probably didn’t. But here, tonight, this was all the world for me. I was above it, yes. But like a plane that must eventually return to land when it runs low on fuel, I knew that my disconnected elevation was temporary.
When I had enough to drink, I called Vasiliy and told him I was ready to be picked up. Minutes later he arrived. He had the radio turned off when I got in the car.
“Back to the hotel,” I said.
We took off down the dark, sparsely lit streets. There was hardly another car on the road. No one was out walking tonight, and I only spotted stray dogs as we zipped along, descending back to town. With the radio off and in the darkness, I was attuned to the hum of the wheels, the minute creaks of the suspension and the sound of Vasiliy pressing the pedals. Noticing details that might be lost in the day and light. My mind made alert to subtle audible clues by the night and my knowledge of what was lurking in it.
“It seems tomorrow could be bad,” Vasiliy said, breaking the silence.
“Yes, it looks that way.”
He pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
“You want one?”
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all. Go for it.”
He rolled down his window a few inches, and I felt the cool night air stream inside. He lit a cigarette. Between drags he held it in the fingers of his right hand, which worked the gearshift while his left was wrapped around the wheel. Every so often he flicked his ashes out the cracked window.
“Do you have a way out?” he asked, looking at me in the rear-view mirror.
“No. Not really. I suppose I’ll find a way west along the coast if things fall apart.”
“Call me if you need. I’ll drive you.”
“OK. I will.”
“If the separatists come, they may ask questions about your passport.”
“I plan on leaving before it comes to that.”
“Yes, but when it happens, it will happen quickly. You should be ready to go.”
“Good. I’ll have my phone with me all day. Call me any time.”
“Thanks. I’ll remember that.”
Back at the hotel I undressed and lay in bed. I felt comfortable and clean in the light coolness of the sheets. My head was spinning from the beer and with questions and imagined scenarios. I wondered if I would look out the window of my room in the morning and see tanks rolling down the street along the beach. If the separatists did break through the Ukrainian lines, would they come this far? Would they clear out the hotel? What would happen to Leonid, Nataly and Veronica? Had they found a way out? How would the separatists treat foreign journalists? Would it be safer to hole up in this hotel or try to flee west down the coast? If the city fell, how would I get back to Kyiv?
I thought about James Foley for a moment. No way it could get that bad, I convinced myself.
As I lay there waiting for sleep to take me, I truly had no idea what tomorrow would bring. And I realized, despite all my persuasive bullshit, that I had no idea what to do if the worst happened.
The afternoon following the declaration of the cease-fire, Vasiliy and I visited the still smoldering battlefields outside Mariupol. We started just beyond the Ukrainian checkpoints, observing destroyed tanks and quite a few bodies.
The first place was only a mile or so beyond the Ukrainian lines. We saw them in the tree line at the edge of a field—they were separatists.
Some of the dead were ripped apart like used firecrackers. Charred, burnt and twisted. Others frozen in the way they had died like plaster molds of bodies buried by ash in Pompeii, revealing the terror of death in static poses no artist could imitate.
We pulled over on the side of the dirt road. While I had a look, Vasiliy leaned against the hood of the car. He lit a cigarette and waited.
You walk along the road and see them scattered on its sides like trash thrown from a car. At first it doesn’t seem real. Human lives so carelessly and randomly discarded. But you slowly accept what you see. And the smell. There is a smell so awful you can’t ever seem to clean it from your skin. It waters your eyes, seeps deep into your pores. You’ve never smelt it before, but you recognize your first smell of death like you’ve experienced it a thousand times. It’s an heirloom of nature, imprinted in the prehistoric leftovers of our minds.
Strangely, though, the dead are an empty fascination. There is no horror. That’s not until later. You accept what you see like you’re looking at mummies in the British Museum.
You remember that one, though. The one lying on his back with his hands frozen in death the way he held them in his final moment. Out in front, palms facing away, as if he could stop whatever it was that had killed him. Judging by the rest of him, his skin mostly burned away, half his skull missing, it looks like he did not die well. Yet, what’s left of his face you’ll always remember. Even though the skin is black and brown and the tissue warped by flames, you can still, without overly relying on your imagination, see his pain.
You think later of a Monet painting and how hard it is to know what you’re looking at from up close. The colors are just noise. But as you step away it starts to make sense. The incoherent dabs of paint coalesce into an image that you recognize and is more beautiful than if you were seeing it in real life.
Up close with the dead, now, you observe colors, shapes and smells, imprinting memories for later. Not until you’ve stepped away, by distance or time, do the dead randomly scattered in your mind like Monet’s brushstrokes form an image more painful than the one you see on the battlefields today.
But it’s just noise for now.
I walked back to the car.
“Let’s go,” I said.
Vasiliy didn’t say anything. He looked at the treeline, toward the bodies. He took one last drag of his cigarette, exhaling a long banner of smoke before he tossed the butt to the ground and put it out with the twisting heel of his boot.
“Yeah, what the hell,” he said. “Let’s get going.”