March 23, 2023

LESSHANSK, UKRAINE — There is a 300-person mass grave, and I’m standing on the edge of it. The chalky body bags were piled up in the pit and exposed. The moment before, I was a different person, and I had no idea what the wind was like after the wind passed over the dead on a pleasant summer afternoon.

In mid-June, the bodies were far from a complete count of the civilians killed by shelling in the area around the industrial city of Lysychansk over the past two months. They were just “people no one buried them in gardens or backyards,” one soldier said casually.

As we looked at the grave, he lit a cigarette.

The smoke masks the smell.

There are few moments like this to slow down, observe and reflect when reporting from the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. But that day, Ukrainian soldiers were so happy after delivering several packages of food and other items to local civilians that they offered to take the Times reporter to another place they said we should see: mass graves .

Leaving the scene, I naively thought that the apparent death in the air would not be able to follow me home — across all the roads and checkpoints of the Donbas graves — to my relatives in western Ukraine.

I was wrong.

I went back to the capital, Kyiv, back to my small rented apartment, washing the smoke from the front lines, and my best friend Yulia texted: she lost her cousin, a soldier, fighting in the East .

I will soon have to stand on another grave.

This is an experience many Ukrainians are familiar with. Five months after the start of a full-scale Russian invasion, the front lines of the war mean little. The news of missile strikes and deaths and casualties has darkened almost every part of the country like poison.

Yulia’s cousin Serhiy served in an air mobility battalion near the city of Izium in the east. Hours before his death, he sent his mother Harina one last message: an emoji of a bouquet. He then drove to the front to fight, where Russian machine guns spotted him.

In the Donbass, these tragedies are the backdrop to everyday life, piled up in a mountain that seems inconceivable even if they surround you completely, an inevitable reality that feels like the air in your lungs.

People living on the front lines are not cathartic. Instead, they seem overwhelmed by the vastness of what’s happening around them – as if it’s an existential threat too big for them to do anything about. As a result, they wait numbly for the often-seemingly inevitable outcome, hypnotized by indecision, while often forgetting that they are in immediate danger.

In the west, far from the front, it felt different. In the Donbass, almost every sudden strange noise is exactly what you’d expect: something deadly flying around, looking for a living person.

By contrast, Kyiv is almost peaceful. There is running water, gas, electricity and internet, a far cry from the medieval conditions of ruined Lysychansk. People played Frisbee and walked their dogs in the park without the physical stiffness and fear that accompanies sudden death threats.

The chain of midsummer missile strikes on cities far from the war to the east and south has only just begun, and the daily news of civilian deaths has turned into a nightmare: unsuspecting people – including children – bombed inside malls and medical centers To be torn apart or to be burned alive in broad daylight. It has left tight knots in our stomachs, but they have not yet translated into something almost genetic, and survivors of this war will pass on that fear to future generations.

Another nightmare, a personal one, was contained in Serhiy’s coffin, closed so that his wounds would not be seen by his family. It heralds the arrival of a stamp of war in Lishchn, a village in northwestern Ukraine from which Yulia’s family came. There was no roar of cannons or screams of missiles, just the quiet hum of the funeral procession.

Because soldiers like Serhiy fought on the front lines, the inhabitants of the village still had their present and future, warped by war, but protected. That’s why on that Saturday morning, hundreds of people came to Serhiy’s parents’ yard to share their grief and say a long goodbye to the family.

As the priest read the prayer to the crowd, a flock of swallows flew high above us – a set of calm black dots across the blue sky. One flew down and sat on a wire above Serhiy’s mother, who was weeping beside the coffin, on a pair of kitchen stools outside the house.

I’ve seen these ceremonies before at check-in, but from an outsider’s emotionally safe distance. But that day, there was Yulia trembling in the wind. So I put my arm around my best friend, as close as ever to one’s raw pain.

Hours later, when the prayer was over, Halina couldn’t cry anymore. She just spoke to her son silently, as she did 30+ years ago when he was a newborn, his face in the cradle and the man in uniform with the rocket launcher in the funeral photo. face as small.

Finally, we trek to take Serhiy from the family yard to his grave.

Hundreds of people walked through his hometown with Serhiy’s parents. There’s a store where he probably bought his first cigarette, and a lake where he probably swam after dropping out of school with friends.

Serhiy’s life experiences seem to be hidden in every corner of their village. This makes the walk very long.

My steps that day were in line with the pain of a family — but only one family. There is much more to this war and it seems far from over.

It’s hard not to let my mind wander back to the wheat fields of the Donbass, to the yawning mass grave in Lysichansk.

No one was present to mourn them. The 300 name-tagged body bags affixed by Ukrainian soldiers may have been joined by more unnamed people after the Russians took over the city in the final days of June. But I think someone somewhere is quietly mourning each of them.

Now, as I write this, others are walking the same path of remembrance and loss across Ukraine – through city alleys and wheat fields, through rubble and broken glass, through eastern steppe, western forest, Liberated villages, trenches, and bloodied urban frontlines.

In the future, there will be a sunny afternoon where some of us will stop, hold the hands of those we love, and let go of everything and everyone we have lost in the war.

But how long will it take to get there?

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