Lyseshansk, Ukraine – There was a mass grave of 300 people, and I was standing on the edge of it. Chalk corpse bags were piled up in the pit, bare. Once upon a time, I was a different person, someone who never knew the scent of the wind after it passed the dead on a pleasant summer afternoon.
In mid-June, those corpses were far from the full count of civilians killed in the bombing in the area around the industrial city of Lyschansk over the past two months. A soldier casually said that they were the only ones “who had no one to bury them in a garden or a backyard.”
I light a cigarette as we look at the grave.
The smoke masked the smell.
It was rare to get such a moment to slow down, observe and think while reporting from the eastern Donbass region of Ukraine. But on that day, Ukrainian soldiers were delighted after delivering packets of food and other goods to local civilians, so they offered to move reporters from the New York Times to another location they said we should see: the mass grave.
After leaving the site, I naively believed that the tangible presence of death in the air could not follow me home – on all the roads and checkpoints separating the graves in the Donbass – to my loved ones in the western part of Ukraine.
I was wrong.
I had returned to Kyiv, the capital, to the little apartment I had been renting, washing the smoke and dust of the front lines from my clothes when I texted my dear friend Yulia: She had lost her cousin, a soldier, fighting in the East.
I will soon have to stand over another grave.
It was a familiar experience for many Ukrainians. Five months after the start of the all-out Russian invasion, the front lines of the wars mean little. Missile strikes and news of death and casualties blackened almost every part of the country like poison.
Sarhi, Yulia’s cousin, was serving in a mobile air battalion around the city of Izyum in the east. A few hours before his death, he sent his last message to his mother, Helena: an emoji of a bouquet of flowers. Then he went to fight on the front line, where he was found by a Russian machine gun.
In the Donbass, these tragedies are a backdrop to everyday life, piling up in seemingly unimaginable numbers even when completely surrounding you, an inescapable reality that feels like air in your lungs.
There is no catharsis for people who live in frontline areas. Instead, they seem overwhelmed by the breadth of what’s going on around them – as if it were an existential threat too big to do anything about. So they wait numb for what often seems to be the inevitable outcome, hypnotized by reluctance, while often forgetting that they are in immediate harm’s way.
It looked different in the West, far from the front. In the Donbass, every sudden strange noise was exactly what you thought it was: something deadly flying nearby, looking for the living.
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In contrast, Kyiv was almost peaceful. With running water, gas, electricity and the Internet, it was a far cry from the ruined medieval conditions of Lysychansk. People were playing frisbee and walking dogs in the parks, free from the rigidity of the body and the sense of dread associated with the threat of sudden death.
The series of missile strikes in the middle of summer on cities far from the fighting in the east and south was just beginning, turning daily news of civilian deaths into a nightmare: unsuspecting people – including children – explode or burn alive inside shopping malls and medical centers in broad daylight. It has left a tight knot in our stomachs, but it has not yet turned into something almost hereditary, the horror that will be passed down to sons by the survivors of this war.
Another nightmare, private, was located in my sarcophagus, closed to spare the family seeing his wounds. Heralded the arrival of the war in Lychen, a village postage stamp in northwestern Ukraine where Yulia’s family had come. There was no cannon sound or a cry from a missile, only the quiet hum of a funeral procession.
Because soldiers like Sarhi fought on the front line, the villagers still had their present and future, disfigured by war, but protected. Which is why, that Saturday morning, hundreds of them came to my parents’ yard to share the weight of their grief and take a long farewell walk with the family.
While the priest was reciting prayers to the crowd, a flock of swallows maneuvered high above us – a group of serene black spots crossing the blue sky. One flew over and sat on a wire above Sarhi’s mother, who was moaning by the coffin, perched on a pair of kitchen chairs outside the house.
I’ve seen these festivities before on duty to report, but from an emotionally safe distance to an outsider. But on that day, Yulia was shivering in the wind. So I put my arms around my best friend, as close to a person’s raw pain as before.
Hours later, when the prayer was over, Halina could no longer cry. She just spoke softly to her son, the way she used to more than 30 years ago, when he was a newborn, his face in the cradle as small as the face in the funeral photo of a smiling uniformed man holding a rocket launcher.
Finally, we made a long walk to take Sarhi from the family yard to his grave.
Hundreds of people walked with Sarhi’s father through his home village. There was a store where he might have bought his first cigarettes, and a lake in which he probably swam after leaving school with his friends.
Sarhi’s life experiences seem to hide in every corner of their village. He made the walk painfully long.
My steps that day were in harmony with the anguish of one family – but only one. There is so much in this war, that it seems far from over.
It was hard to keep my thoughts from drifting backwards over the wheat fields of the Donbass, to that yawning mass grave in Lysichansk.
There was no one present to mourn them. After the Russians captured the city during the last days of June, the 300 body bags with name insignia attached to them by Ukrainian soldiers were likely joined by several unnamed people. But I thought someone somewhere was quietly lamenting every single one of them.
Now, as I write this, others are walking the same paths of remembrance and loss across Ukraine–over city alleys and wheat fields, over ruins and broken glass, across eastern steppes and western forests, liberated villages and trenches and bleeding towns at the edge of the front line.
Before that, there will be a sunny afternoon for some of us to stop, take the hand of someone we love and leave everything and everyone we lost in the war.
But how long does it take to walk to get there?