A year of war in Ukraine the anger the pain

A year of war in Ukraine: the anger, the pain and the pride. The story from the front by Paolo Giordano

The journey begins at the end: at the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Lviv, where the funerals of Ukrainian soldiers are celebrated every morning. Yesterday it was three, today two. As we wait for the coffins at the bottom of the stairs, the snow that fell during the night drips from the eaves. For a year, the deaths of soldiers have paraded the city furthest from the front lines, permeating their everyday lives. Each death helps cement a sense of belonging that was slowly forming before February 24, 2022. A nation is built just like that, on the invisible mass of its martyrs. It’s so common now that everyone, military and civilian, knows how to behave: outside the church, inside, and then outside again. Finally, from the Town Hall Square, a bus line reaches Lychavik Cemetery. While the funerals are taking place, Kateryna and I are drifting a bit.

We walk between the tombstones of Campo di Marte. I read off the dates of birth: mostly 1980s and 1990s, but it goes back to 2003. Hidden under a wreath of flowers on the tombstone of a twenty-year-old soldier are a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of Coke. I met Kateryna before all of this at a writers’ festival, but over the past year she’s become something else: an activist, a writer, an expert on combat drones and shrapnel. And for me, more specifically, a fixer writer. (… )

In the cemetery, he bends down to wipe the drips from a photograph. That’s Doc, he says, Artur will tell you for sure tonight. As a matter of fact. Artur will tell me this: At the beginning of last year, at the age of twenty-one, Artur studied journalism and, after months of underpaid internships, was just hired in the press office of a publishing house. The rest of the time he wrote poetry, with serious intentions. On the night of the full-scale invasion, February 24, he could not sleep. He prayed a long time. During the day he had volunteered at a parish, but as he prayed he realized that volunteering would not be enough for him. So, at dawn on the 25th, without any military experience, he queued up to enlist in the Territorial Defense Forces. In March he trained with other neophytes like himself, with fake wooden guns; in August he was in Donetsk digging trenches and in October he lost his first comrade: Doc.

Imagine a rectangular field, empty and flat, about a kilometer deep. Along the entire perimeter there are «posadka», thin strips of forest, three rows of trees or a little more. Artur and Cola occupy a hole at one end of the square. Your orders are to undermine the adjacent side in order to slow the advance of the Russians, who have entrenched themselves on the opposite side but are being blocked by shells from a tank that is firing wildly at their position without stopping. Due to the very strong vibrations, Artur accuses the symptoms of trauma: headaches, nausea, tinnitus. When the tank finally changes the line of fire, Artur and Cola take the opportunity to go into the middle trench.

They find the commander busy stabilizing some of the wounded. Artur is getting worse and worse, he’s screaming at him that he needs the doctor, he needs Doc, he’s screaming because he’s practically deaf. But Doc just died, along with two others. He was fifty-two and to them, most of them in their twenties, a father figure.

The tank will now fire in the center, back at them. Finally a team comes out of the village, but there are only two. Artur and Cola finally take Doc with them alone. As we picked him up, he tells me, I felt the weight of the love he had for us, I felt it physically. Then he adds: It was full of splinters.

In the first eight months of the war, Artur had not written a single verse, and there seemed to be no more room for that in his life. But that evening, with a head reddened by tank shells and minimal morale, he wrote down an entire poem that begins: «Before the frontier / save this love / that grows everywhere / like wild blackberries».