The metal sheets of the shed which is being used as a garage are banging loudly against the frame of the door, vibrating incessantly. Oleskandr comes out of a side door with his smartphone in his hand to look for a signal, and when he sees our white car on the side of the road he says, “Put it inside, if the drone comes back it will bomb you for sure!”
He makes a sign to Dmytro, a tall man in a blue mechanic suit with faded writing on the back of which only “Ukrainian” can still be seen and a green woolen hat lowered over his left eye. Dmytro struggles to remove the large nail that has been driven sideways into the lock of the garage, and when he manages to do so, he grabs the iron handle just in time and the door opens like a sail unfurling, looking at every moment like it might collapse down into a pile of debris.
There is a tank at the far end of the garage, with the turret pointed straight at us. Another mechanic signals for us to enter quickly and then helps Dmytro close the door. The adjoining room is full of ammunition in large cylindrical cases, arranged on the floor side by side. Dmytro rubs a pink paste between his black hands and invites us to go through a door on which the words “Putin is fucked” are written. Behind it, a gentleman in his 60s in a mechanic’s uniform with a white Mexican-style mustache and expressionless eyes has already put a ceramic kettle on the wood stove.
The room smells of burnt wood and smoke. There are boiled potatoes in a pot with little water and a dried up chicken next to it. There are no windows, and the little light creates an intimate and dramatic atmosphere. On the beds are Kalashnikovs, and at the far end, a shielded green neon light reveals wooden trunks. Two soldiers sitting across from each other are talking in low voices, and we do the same. We wait for our coffee and take some pictures while the mechanic watches the stove. Then we go out for a smoke and find Oleksandr returning from a patrol.
“The other day,” he says, “the Russian military shot at a car just up the road from here, near Posad-Pokrovs’ke. They didn’t ask for papers or anything, they just shot him.” He frees the Kalashnikov from his belt and leans it against the wall, holding it by the barrel: his hands are so big that the barrel looks like a straw. Above our heads, the ceiling is bent downwards and we can see the reinforced steel. It was hit by a mortar the day before, but “it’s holding up well,” say the soldiers laughing.
Oleksandr wants to show us a video of the attack. In the clip, there are columns of smoke all around where we are right now, and one can hear the roars of artillery fire, distorted, coming through the smartphone speakers. “Wait,” he says, and plays us another clip of two elderly men singing “Happy birthday” with a baby in their arms. It’s his youngest child, and he just turned one year old; his in-laws threw that small party for the little one, since his wife is also serving with the military somewhere further north.
A few meters away, there is another building, this one with windows, where some of the men eat their meals. Here at the Luch outpost there are two teams taking turns day and night to guard this section of the M14 highway, the one that in peacetime led from Mariupol to Odessa via Kherson and Mykolaiv. Now the M14 is one of the main routes of the Russian advance towards the west, near the Black Sea coast.
The stretch from Mykolaiv to here is paved with the remains of Grad missiles and other wreckage, much of it charred. On the roadside, artillery craters break up the monotony of the uncultivated fields, and from time to time we come across a burned-out, completely black military vehicle. As a soldier had told us at the checkpoint on the way out of town, “further on, you have to go slowly, because the road is full of wreckage, but if I were you, I’d be going fast.” Russian drones make frequent incursions here, and there is no one on the road, neither in front nor behind us. The strong wind carries yellowish plumes of dust over the fields, suddenly rising up and then dissolving into nothingness and returning to the earth.
There are soldiers in the courtyard of what used to be something like an agritourism establishment. We approach them with our passports in full view to ask if we can continue on to Posad-Pokrovs’ke, and a big man, more than six feet tall, crosses his forearms and says “Niè” – the Russians are there. He is not one of the civilians armed by the war effort, nor a militiaman of the territorial battalions, but a professional soldier with equipment that is clearly more sophisticated than the other forces that are fighting for Ukraine in these weeks. As we turn the car around, we see into the open-air hall that probably hosted the summer lunches of the patrons, and we catch a glimpse of two heavy machine guns hidden behind a large camouflage net, the kind with wheels and protective shields for the gunner, and a tank between them.
Sudden bangs and a black cloud just a short distance away remind us of the chilling warning from the soldier at the checkpoint. On the way back, as we slow down to check if there is anyone on guard at the Luch outpost, we see the barrel of a rifle rising up on the left side of the road. From a camouflaged ditch, Oleksandr and the mechanic with the white moustache come up to greet us. Oleksandr smiles and raises his arm with the closed fist in a salute; the other man just stares at us.