As the night falls, Ukraine plunges into total darkness. It is a wartime prevention tactic to hamper the aggressors, but also the outcome of Russian attacks on the country’s power grid system. In urban areas, a bit of illumination is provided by traffic lights, so one can travel safely. But as we approach the city limits, taking the form of military checkpoints manned by the army or police – a different level of challenge unveils. Ukraine is a huge country, one can travel tens of kilometres from one city to another without coming across even a single village. Also in times of peace, this meant an absence of even a minimum beam of light. Good eyesight and robust car headlights were therefore already advisable. However, in the reality of war, they are absolutely essential.
On Tuesday late afternoon, I left Bakhmut with three of my colleagues – this was the end of our involvement in a humanitarian convoy organised by the Open Dialogue Foundation. By the time we arrived in the vicinity of Izium, it was already dark. Our off-road Nissan was coping bravely with the bumpy road, but the road suddenly ended. We halted the car near a concrete barrier, which was set up – as we soon found out – in front of an access to the bridge. The bridge was torn up and most likely blown up intentionally by the retreating Russians. As we had driven along that road that day in the morning, going the other direction, we soon realised that somewhere nearby there must be a bypass leading to a temporary crossing. Yet, such a bypass was nowhere to be found.
As I had a huge urge to urinate, I set off to scout around the area. We were in the heart of some rural settlement. On both sides of the paved road there were small huts built in a typical Ukrainian style. Even before the war, they must have looked very miserable. Our Nissan’s headlights illuminated the area a bit and I had eventually got my eyesight adapted to the darkness. I could see not only just the outlines, but the whole, crippled lumps of buildings. I saw collapsed roofs, smashed windows and bullet-riddled walls. Fallen fences, and a wreck of Lada Kopeyka, a passenger car once manufactured in the former USSR. And not a trace of a living creature around, not even a feral dog, even though they roam around the Donbas region in packs.
The village was dead and ghoulishly quiet.
I had no intention of going between houses because I had seen the ‘danger – mines’ signage during the day. I turned back, and then a beam of torchlight combed the wall of one of the buildings.
– Motherfuckers – I cursed unwittingly at the sight of the letter “Z” sprayed between the windows of a ruined house.
I got back into the car, we found our way and moved on. And I could not stop thinking about that “Z” sign for many hours afterwards. That was the way that Putin’s soldiers used to mark the “return” of hamlets and villages to their “Russian motherland”. The letter “Z” stood for: “it is ours”. Yet, this sentiment of “being ours” was typically related to destruction. The so-called Russkiy Mir brought annihilation upon many villages of eastern Ukraine. It was a total annihilation that could be described as follows: There were people – there are no people. Between Izium and Bakhmut, I came across at least four villages that were ravaged like that.
The level of death and destruction that is inflicted by the Russian army is beyond reproach. There is a term for this in English i.e. “overkilling”, which is typically used in forensic science but it can also be part of military nomenclature. The term can be used to describe warfare characterised by excessive and inadequate use of force. “Nadzabijanie” [i.e. overkilling], which is a literal translation of the term into Polish, also captures the essence of the matter. The Russians in Ukraine are just overkilling, killing again and again – both people and animals, and nature too, and all the material framework created by humans and serving them in their daily lives. The Russian army does not fight like the Western armed forces do, making efforts not to destroy, unless demonstrably necessary, the infrastructure that is indispensable for the survival of civilians. Such imperative – made possible by increasingly precise weapons – is absolutely strange to the Russians. It is strange not only because they are not equipped with precise tools. This is a consequence of their contempt for individual life, a sentiment that is deeply rooted in Russian culture. In wartime, such sentiment leads to such a setting up of the priorities that it is not the people or their belongings that count, but only the gained territory. Gained even at the cost of its utter destruction. Russia can be in ruins, it can be a wasteland – but it must be big and vast.
Inhuman, as Józef Czapski once wrote.
I am unable to comment on these photos differently. And I have lots, lots more of them….