People in Ukraine sometimes describe the intensity of shelling in simple auditory terms. A place can be “quiet” or “loud.” As the volume increases, so do the chaos, misery, death, and fear. You cannot experience such fatal noise without instinctively grasping its purpose, which is to brutalize psychically as much as physically—to demoralize and stupefy. Nowhere on earth is louder today than the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, where Russia has concentrated its forces and its firepower since April, after abandoning its disastrous bid to capture Kyiv. Russian officials, far from being humbled by that ordeal, have insisted on their continued determination not only to seize Ukrainian land and resources but also to punish and terrorize Ukrainians and their supporters. “I hate them,” Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, wrote on social media in early June. “They are bastards and scum,” he went on. “As long as I live, I will do everything to make them disappear.”
When Medvedev posted this statement, I was in Lysychansk—at the time, the easternmost city still under Ukrainian control. Artillery boomed and crashed. Power lines drooped across deserted streets. Not a single shop was open. There was no electricity, gas, fuel, cellular service, or running water. As my translator and I drove through empty neighborhoods strewn with rubble, Medvedev’s desire, here at least, seemed to have been realized. Then, not long after we arrived, we encountered something unexpected: a group of people.
They were loitering outside a fire station on the main avenue downtown. Sheets of plywood covered the broken windows of the red three-story building. A banner reading “prevent, rescue, assist” hung above the entrance. A middle-aged woman with a graying pixie haircut and an incandescent smile introduced herself as Tanya. The incongruity between her circumstances and her disposition became ever more pronounced as she recounted her troubles. She worked as a cleaning lady in a house that had been bombed the previous day. “I’m about to haul some bricks,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “Tidy things up.” She’d come to the fire station in search of food. Two days earlier, a Russian air strike had obliterated a community center where city employees and local volunteers had been distributing humanitarian aid.
“Now there’s nothing here,” Tanya said.
A volley of rockets whistled overhead and slammed to earth nearby, pulverizing concrete. A firefighter opened the door and yelled at us to get inside. Stairs descended to a narrow underground corridor with a dirt floor. It was pitch-black, and during the quiet between explosions you could hear the labored breathing that adrenaline induces. Another rocket shook the walls. Then another. A woman began to weep. “Mother of God, please help us,” she prayed. [Continue reading…]