Picture credit: Pierre Crom/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The illusion of normality in Nikopol

Determination and death on the front lines of Ukraine

On a sunny spring morning in Dnipro, I take a minibus to Kramatorsk, a city in the Donbas region of Ukraine. It’s packed with stern-looking soldiers making their way to the front line. They don’t sleep or talk, but they all chuckle when our driver makes a loud histrionic phone call to his “Mama”. The road ahead is long and shimmering, cutting through endless fields of green-eared wheat and freshly shooting corn.

With the sands of time running out for this city, it feels all the more important to witness it now

Kramatorsk is only twenty-five kilometres away from Chasiv Yar, a city being pounded to dust by the Russians. According to one Ukrainian special forces soldier, Alex Matiash, the USA’s $61bn weapons package has arrived too late to save Chasiv Yar. He estimates that Kramatorsk will be under Russian occupation by the end of the summer. With the sands of time running out for this city, it feels all the more important to witness it now.

We stop at the military city of Pokrovsk where half the soldiers disembark and local women get on. One woman is wearing a t-shirt with the message “Take More Adventure”. She complains about the broken armrests to the driver who retorts that she should take a taxi next time. The soldiers laugh again, enjoying the banter. The road through Pokrovsk has been scarred by missile strikes and you feel it in your bones through the rickety minibus like you’re a pea trapped in the rolling drum of a washing machine. We pass an increasing number of armoured vehicles. There is a billboard of scantily-clad women with a phone number below.

Finally, a hill gives way to Kamatorsk nestling in the valley. At the bus station, I ask a taxi driver to take me to the site of the former Ria Pizza restaurant where two Russian Iskander missiles struck on 27th June 2023. A comedy of errors ensues when he takes me to the new and thriving Ria Pizza on Kramatorskyi Boulevard, so I try to communicate with him by making explosion sounds. He shows me a translation on his phone that says, “Do you want a reaction to the explosion?” and I eagerly agree.

The bombed Ria Pizza has barely changed from 2023. It’s almost a living museum. The corrugated roof creaks as it seesaws in the breeze. The branches of fir trees are growing in around it as nature takes over. Pigeons traverse the steel frames where the awnings used to hang and weirdly a coat-hanger swings back and forth. In the shade, there are black roses, fluffy unicorns and photos of the thirteen victims, including the writer Victoria Amelina who died of her injuries a few days after the attack. Passersby keep filming the tributes on their phones.

But Ria Pizza wasn’t the only building destroyed and the extent of the damage is jaw-dropping. In a nearby window, you can see the legs of an upside-down chair as if the whole world was turned on its head that day. Everywhere, insulation hangs down in frayed silvery shawls and wool tumbles out like Jason’s Golden Fleece. Debris from ceilings is suspended on wires like animal shapes on a child’s twisted mobile.

The grassy overgrown parks are, however, a sign that the war is now raging out of control

Kramatorsk itself is quiet in the sunshine, the cafés largely deserted. Vasilya Stusa Street is lined with chestnut and willow trees meeting in a leafy arch. At intervals, young soldiers in civvies stroll along the road arm-in-arm with their girlfriends, ignoring the ringing sirens. In these moments, Kramatorsk resembles a city of young love, the Paris of the war-benighted east. The grassy overgrown parks are, however, a sign that the war is now raging out of control. 

At the train station there is another shrine of stuffed toys, this time for an infamous missile strike on 8th April 2022. Sixty-three civilians including nine children were killed in the blast. On the platform, I hear a reverberating explosion from a few kms away. 

The train back to Kyiv is packed with soldiers on their way back to their families. Compared with this morning, the mood is light, laughter circulating with the smell of beer. The average age of Ukrainian soldiers is forty-four and the unfit soldier in my compartment climbs up to his bunk as awkwardly as a crab. The Ukrainian President Zelensky signed a law in April that lowered the minimum conscription age from twenty-seven to twenty-five to boost Ukrainian forces and add a much-needed injection of youth.

I meet Alex Matiash at my hotel restaurant in Kyiv. He’s been granted a precious couple of days leave for Orthodox Easter and arrives with his family and a logistics officer Volodymyr in tow. He’s particularly anxious to spend time with his friend Volodymyr as “we don’t know if we will be killed or not.” Currently, Alex is training new recruits in northern Ukraine and when I ask what skills he’s teaching them, he replies with a rueful grin, “how to stay alive.” 

“Elephants” is the term he uses for inexperienced troops, so-called after the hose on old-fashioned gas masks. He’s resentful that he’s been serving in the army since the war began. He feels that Zelensky should have mobilised more elephants from the beginning instead of “treating us like little kids, telling us everything is going to be okay.”

“Why do I have to serve more than two years,” he asks, pointing to the lithe waiter, “when people like him are serving in restaurants? I’m forty-five now. I’m a businessman. I wasn’t born to be a soldier any more than he was.” He nods furiously at the TV screen which shows a Ukrainian celebrity chef. “And look at him. Why is he on TV? He should be feeding soldiers.”

Volodymyr adds that joining the army doesn’t automatically mean going to the trenches or in his own words, “the dirty hole of the war”. There are other jobs as, behind every frontline soldier, ten people work in catering, refuelling, medicine and engineering. Volodymyr shows me the Cossack earring in his left ear. The Cossack tradition was that a first or last-born son wore the earring as a sign that he was to be protected more than the other warriors. It’s clear that Volodymyr wears it as a talisman. Both he and Alex are prepared to be called up at one hour’s notice if Chasiv Yar is overrun, but in spite of this need for more soldiers, Alex would prefer the minimum conscription age to stay at twenty-five. “Early twenties is too young for war,” he insists before revealing that he has a personal stake in the recruitment laws. His own eldest son is twenty-four.  

I ask Alex about his predictions for the war. He envisages two likely scenarios. “The first is realistic,” he says. “A frozen conflict. Russia rebuilds for five years and then attacks us again.” His wife, Tetyana, however, finds his view more pessimistic than realist.

“If Russia starts another war,” continues Alex, “the problem is the experienced soldiers like me will be called up first. The best die first. But I have hope,” he argues in his second scenario, “that the war will destroy the Russian Federation.” He explains that the war is not about land, as Russia has already leased out their own Siberian lands to China for logging. “For Russia, the war is about looking strong.” He trusts that Europe will step up soon with more weapons and support, though he feels that “Europe is too distracted by their own immigration problems to see the true scale of what’s going on.”

While Kramatorsk’s future is perilous, day-to-day life is more dangerous in other cities. I head with my translator, Oleksiy Stoyanovsky, to Nikopol as we’ve been granted permission by the military administration to visit. At a police checkpoint, we follow a waiting car into the city. Oleksiy points out the dark leafless trees along the road thanks to the pollution and aridity of this industrial region. There have been serious water shortages since the Kakhovka dam was destroyed by Russia in June 2023.

In Ukraine, the illusion of normality is everything

We stop by a hillside school overlooking the sandbanks of the freshwater Kakhovka Sea. The Russian-occupied Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant is only six kilometres away and the six nuclear reactors loom in a topaz haze above the opposite shoreline like the Wizard of Oz’s palace in Emerald City.  A representative of the administration, Mykhailo, takes us into a school basement which has been transformed into an underground shelter a vast complex designed to provide more safety during aerial strikes as well as some anti-radiation protection. Tanks of drinking and technical water line the corridors and, even though the air is cold and clammy, there is heating and ventilation. The children’s wooden desks look surreally small in the huge spaces. All teaching is done online at present and, although the school principal hopes “to hear the laughter of children” in September, it’s highly unlikely they will return due to the ongoing artillery strikes. She sometimes gives online lessons from this shelter to show her pupils that the school is functioning. In Ukraine, the illusion of normality is everything.

Outside, almost every apartment block has broken windows. A curtain waves in the window like a white flag, but the city has not capitulated and, with its new concrete bus shelters, it’s girding itself for long-term war and more hardships. We drive along the riverside where you can spot the bombed houses by their new paler roofs. Mykhailo suddenly urges Oleksiy to drive faster as he checks the air alert warnings. It is unwise to loiter by the river and the rumble of a lone shell in the distance confirms it.

Back in Kyiv train station, there is an alternative departures board. This board features cities now under Russian occupation: Sevastopol, Mariupol, Melitopol, Berdiansk, Kerch, Luhansk, Simferopol and Donetsk. Lost cities. It’s hard to think that Kramatorsk may soon be joining their ranks. As for Nikopol, Oleksiy calls it “a phantom town”. Nikopol’s railway station has been closed for over a year. 

Ukraine is being eroded little by little while the West watches on. David Cameron recently upped British aid to £3bn a year, but much more support is needed. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians continue to recruit. At the beginning of the war, billboards showed young heroic soldiers against idyllic blue-sky backdrops, but the mood has changed and grizzled soldiers line up on posters like they’re appearing in a new Netflix series on war. On one poster, a soldier is fighting vampiric skeletal monsters as if starring in “Night of the Evil Dead”.

In Kyiv life is thankfully stable. The impression is of a nation in control. The cafés around us are buzzing and elderly vendors are selling spring flowers on the street. Women skip along Maidan Square selling blue and yellow bracelets for the war effort. For now, the only objects falling from the sky are the gently spinning sycamore seeds.

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