Editor’s note: This personal essay includes graphic information about the war dead which some may find disturbing.
In Kharkiv, we used to close the curtains and turn off the lights so we would not become a target. This was our daily evening routine.
The hotel staff had told us that we had to keep the lights off, just as those who remained in Ukraine’s second-largest city did every night.
The mayor said nowhere in the city was safe – and it certainly felt that way.
On cold nights, I put on my coat, pulled up a stool on the balcony, and looked out across Kharkiv. There was a constant sound of artillery. Our hotel rooms would shake as the Ukrainians fired towards Russian positions.
The city’s dogs would bark back at the noise – loud bangs and air raid sirens. I watched anti-aircraft fire light up the sky and the amber of burning buildings in the distance.
It was a city that was being pounded by Russian forces and few dared to go outside on the streets. For weeks, I did not see children in any of the playgrounds. Instead, I saw them in underground Metro stations designed as nuclear bunkers during the Soviet era. The irony was that now, they were sheltering from the Russians, not a possible American nuclear attack.
I met six-year-old Kira, who wanted to be a breakdancer. Instead, she was in a cellar sheltering from the shelling outside in Saltivka, the worst-hit area of Kharkiv.
Kira recited poetry about the love for her mother, the constant thud of artillery outside acting as an unlikely soundtrack to her heartfelt words.
On one particular night, I struggled to sleep.
The images of dead Russian soldiers were imprinted on my mind. I asked myself why it disturbed me so much having seen so many bodies in my career. Earlier in the day, we had traveled out to some territory Ukrainian forces had retook. The small group of Russian soldiers had been pushed from their trenches. Two lay dead, their bodies ripped apart by what seemed like artillery fire. Their faces froze in time, caught in the moment of death. Their bodies twisted awkwardly, the way bodies do when confronted with wrenching pain.
They were just boys, maybe no older than 19. One had been on a stretcher, he lay face down in the soil, the back of his head blown off along with two of his limbs. The other, who had been trying to carry him to safety, lay on his back, fist now engaged.
Their bodies were unclaimed as Ukrainian soldiers took what was left of their supplies. Yes, Russia is the aggressor, but these young soldiers, sent to war on orders, were probably unaware of what life has to offer, let alone the reality of death.
Earlier, in a separate incident, Ukrainian soldiers in Kharkiv were reported to have filmed themselves shooting captured Russian soldiers in the legacy. I saw the aftermath. Charred black bodies, hands seemingly tied behind their backs, drag marks on the floor. I counted three, although one of them could hardly be described as a body. The red of their insides stood out from black burned corpses.
This is a war. Terrible things happen. And although Russia has been accused of the bulk of the war crimes, Ukrainian soldiers are not absolved of their actions.
After I told him what I had witnessed, a colleague sent me a quote by the late Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
If there is one place that stuck out for me during my time in Kharkiv, it was the maternity hospital, forced to operate partly from a basement.
Maya was just a day old and still had not felt the warmth of the sun on her skin. Amid the constant bombardment, her mother Ksenia did not ask for victory, did not ask for the Russians to be beaten. She wanted peace for her newborn. A future peaceful and coexistence. This war will continue, and as I write this, the Russians have been making slow and steady gains in the Donbas region.
It is the desire for peace that Ksenia wished for Maya that I recall. A child born into a world of war. From the shelter of her mother’s womb, to the underground shelter where she remained until it was safe enough to go outside.