At a checkpoint, Vassily smiles at our traveling companion and asks us how things are going. He has clear blue eyes and a few strands of blond hair sticking out of his hood. He can’t quite lean against the window because of the bulletproof vest that impedes his movements.
“Drugs and guns as usual?” he asks with a broad, open smile.
“Yes, we’re not set up for organs just yet,” we answer him. “But how’s the situation towards Kherson, are you going back there?” we ask.
He straightens up and signals us to pull over, like the military guards do when they want to check the trunk of passing cars. He leans back in again, “I think next week will be crucial. I’m not a general from the chiefs of staff, but I can put things together, and I see us attacking soon.”
“So, next week everyone goes to Kherson?” we press him. “I don’t think so,” he says, still friendly but more serious. “The Russians will probably blow up the bridge over the Dniper. I think we will retake the whole western part of the city, that’s true, but Kherson…”
He pauses for a moment and continues: “We don’t have as many vehicles as the Russians, and also don’t have the same number of men. We can’t manage field battles, and we can’t even afford to be entrenched front to front.”
“Yes, but this situation will have to be unblocked somehow, right?”
Vassily asks us if we know Bulgakov. “The Master and Margarita,” says our traveling companion, “Yes, and also Dog’s Heart, and then…” He pauses to think about the translation, but can’t remember the words and says it in Russian: “Bilaia Gvardia.” “Oh, The White Guard!”
“Yes, it’s just like in that novel. For the Russians, the lives of their own soldiers are worth nothing, they can send 2,000 more, 20,000 or 200,000, it’s all the same to them.”
After staring at the road for a moment, Vassily resumes his analysis, which becomes strategic and takes on dramatic tones: “I think that soon we will start to dig into positions. In my opinion, it will last at least another six or seven months.” We’re surprised by the frankness we’re hearing from a Ukrainian soldier, for the first time since the beginning of the conflict.
“Six or seven months,” we repeat, a little incredulously.
Our interlocutor nods, with an implacable expression. Before saying goodbye, he tells us: “Next time, at least try to have something illegal in the trunk.”
Vassily is actually not a military man, but a professor. Since February 24, he has been separated from his family (who are now in the west) and has been stationed on this front. He is an intelligent person and makes a striking impression in this environment, especially in the role of a checkpoint guard on the highway.
In this tragic story, he should at the very least have a role as an officer, in fancy uniform and with a white cigarette holder. He should be handling relations with the press or with diplomats, doing something befitting his culture and great humanity. Instead, he’s standing in the cold amidst a group of kids whose Kalashnikovs are slipping off their shoulders and worn-looking middle-aged men.
After all, in the White Guard, Bulgakov said that in war everything is mixed up indiscriminately, while all around us, men are occupied with shedding blood.
Once we’re in Mykolaiv, we head towards the headquarters of the Red Cross. In front of the stairs at the entrance, there is a constant line that always seems to be the same: for every person who leaves, another arrives.
On the sidewalk is a bustle of volunteers unloading vans and cars under the gaze of two black-clad volunteers who look like two members of the Hell’s Angels. Something you wouldn’t expect to see every day is bike couriers with the same yellow thermal backpack as the delivery apps but emblazoned with the Red Cross crest.
They have helmets, special clothes, some even have cycling shoes and very nice bikes from famous brands. It’s clear that they were already cyclists before the conflict. “They go to areas of the city where cars can no longer go, or where it’s difficult to get. They’re very fast,” explains Boris, one of the volunteers.
He tells us that every day it becomes more and more difficult to provide medicines, food and basic necessities, and that many return home without what they need. We ask him if he can take us to where the latest bombings took place.
“No, that’s classified information,” he replies dryly. A homeless man shouts something hard to make out, and Boris smiles: “He always does this. At night I’m at a checkpoint near the bridge. I’ve been in the police for a while and now I’m a volunteer. That guy comes and shouts at us, someone has to feed him otherwise he won’t leave.”
A young man approaches, smoking nervously. He introduces himself as a photographer and videographer and says that his wife and daughter are now in Poland. He occasionally helps out with packages for the Red Cross, but it’s not a job. They don’t pay him, he points out. After looking around suspiciously, he offers to accompany us to the sites of the attacks, as if that was the shadiest thing in the world.
It’s hard to say how much it’s all an act, or whether both Boris and the young photographer really believe that the site of a bombing that has already taken place and been photographed by reporters from international agencies is confidential information.
It might be because there’s always less and less money and the prospect of earning a bit of cash stimulates the imagination. Just as we’re about to tell him that we want to go together, Boris returns with his cell phone to show us the site of a bus depot that had been bombed recently.
In the evening, we’re almost late for the curfew. At the last checkpoint before the bridge connecting Mykolaiv to the west, a soldier straight up comes and puts a woman in our car, who had been looking for a ride in our direction. After she gets past her initial embarrassment, Natalia tells us her story.
On Saturday morning, she had found a ride from her small village near Odessa and had arrived in Mykolaiv to go to the barracks of the 79th Airborne Brigade that had been bombed a week ago. She was looking for news of her husband, who was staying there and was present during the missile attack.
They couldn’t tell her anything. “It can take six days to find a body,” she wrote on her smartphone’s translator app, since we couldn’t understand each other. A chill settled over the car. After a while – as if she was the one who needed to comfort us – she added: “They told me it’s also possible that they will find him alive.”
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