When you realize that every bullet does not have your name on it, or that artillery pieces were not sent to a target at the back of your head, you can start losing your perspective on what it is to be in a war zone. The moment you can differentiate between outgoing and incoming fire, you get a level of arrogance that makes you think you can survive better than others – that some higher power or just luck itself is on your side.
I remind myself that in Donbass, childhoods are spent in bunkers, coming up for air only to fetch water. There are babies born on cots in crowded basements with the percussion of outgoing and incoming fire instead of Brahm’s Lullaby. I have to remember that pre-pubescents become so familiar with the sound of explosions and gunshots that they find the silence deafening.
Crawling over boxes in the back of the cargo truck when the Grad (artillery) came in and Sergiy Plotnitskiy pulled me by the hand and caught me as I jumped down from the bay doors.
A little blue car had come zipping up the road and stopped to speak to us a few times. In it were two armed men in camouflage; partisan fighters, a sort of grassroots, local militia of men armed to defend their homes (think: the arbaki in Afghanistan). Sergiy pushed me into the little blue partisan car, and gave me a wave. He would stay behind to fix the truck, for better or worse.
I don’t think I ever gave Sergiy enough credit – his demeanor is one that I would call cheerfully brave. He’s the kind of man that you have to force to take a break, or else he’ll work and work until he collapses. In this case, he’d stay in the artillery corridor to get the yellow elephant truck going again while the rest of us rush to safety.
Due to lack of seating, I was in an awkward position of splaying across people’s laps, my elbow propped at the center console, legs tucked against the rear window. The partisan driver looked over his shoulder, saw me and cheerfully said, “HELLO!”
Then he hit the gas pedal and the little blue car went speeding down the bumpy road.
The front seat passenger was playing with an unloaded pistol, chortling to himself all the way.
All around us was the melodic conversation of war – the three round bursts of kalishnakovs firing on one side, the response from the other, and the Grads and mortars that volley back and forth like a tennis ball that bounces from one court to the other.
We got out at a bus stop several miles away. A place that was “normalna”, or okay. Safe enough for us to wait. It was concrete, mostly enclosed and a possible bomb shelter. And we waited. We waited for that little yellow truck to come over the hill with Sergiy’s smiling face.
We watched rushing cars, tiny little beat up things with bags and boxes tied to the roof of fleeing families. They stopped when they saw partisans, and were waved on through or their papers and trunks were checked by our new armed friends.
In the boredom, I began to sing to myself (Paolo Nutini’s “Iron Sky”, which is delightfully appropriate for the situation in Ukraine) then paused when I heard an unusual sound. It was laughter.
Lithuanian actress Žana Puodžius, a member of BLUE/YELLOW, was laughing and sitting on the bus stop bench cross legged, feigning that she was waiting for the bus. Then she commented of the situation, “Oh… this is shit. Thank God for partisans.”
She had an infectious sense of mischief – the kind one feels when you escape with your life. It feels like you’ve just gotten away with something, which is why many people, after the dust of artillery settles, can double into fits of laughter and yawps of “I’m alive!”
It affects both soldiers and civilians; in the rainbow of the passing storm, there is joy.
Read on to Part 3: Žana and Yuliya