Ukraine: Life at the Front
Photo by Jim Kovpak
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Avdiivka, or Avdeevka as it’s called in Russian, is about as close to the front as one can get in Ukraine without falling into a foxhole or getting shot. In fact, it’s not merely on the front line. It occupies a salient, though a shallow, angular one pointed toward rebel-held Donetsk. Thus Russian artillery ranges the entire town, including the massive coke and chemical plant that serves as the town’s main employer and, during the winter, its lifeline.

Getting to Avdiivka isn’t nearly as easy as traipsing around towns like Kostiantynivka or Slovyansk, so I had to do a lot of research prior to my trip. One of my close friends, a veteran correspondent, strongly advised me to skip Avdiivka on account of the daily, or more accurately, nightly shelling that the city endures. He explained that apart from a few issues with some rebel checkpoints, Donetsk would be far safer than Avdiivka. But when the Donetsk rebels’ press service stopped responding after I’d followed their instructions for accreditation, Avdiivka was my best shot at getting the kind of story my colleague was looking for. After all, everyone I’d talked to had warned me of the danger. How could I not go? I found an NGO that would lend us body armor and helmets, brushed up on the procedure for responding to indirect fire, and started making arrangements. 

From what I had gathered, one key point was getting a driver who was not only willing to go, but who also knew the proper route to take. Otherwise, there’d be a risk of getting fired on as the front line doesn’t show up on your basic GPS navigator. We did get lost a couple times, but apart from the numerous checkpoints the ride was uneventful. This part of Ukraine is characterized by rolling hills and seemingly endless fields of sunflowers. If you didn’t know why the Ukrainian flag is blue and yellow, just look out the window in these parts. The beauty of the scenery is somewhat marred, however, by the horrible condition of the road itself.

Our first stop in the town was at the massive Metinvest coke and chemical plant to meet with our contact. Younger Americans, especially those who aren’t from the Rust Belt, would find this massive installation quite alien. With its own cafeteria, hospital, and a shop out front, it seems like a miniature city in its own right. The analogy isn’t too far off the mark either — during the winter the plant sheltered numerous civilians who were without water or heating, or whose flats had been destroyed outright. 

Initially we spoke to the official in charge of the plant, as its owner and his delegate were away on business when we arrived. We discussed a little about the plant’s history and its capacity, before being given a long safety briefing about the procedures to follow if we were to take a tour of the facility. However, there was a decision we’d have to make- according to our original plan, which could best be characterized as “get out before the shelling starts,” we could either tour the factory or see the town itself to survey the damage. For us the latter was the obvious choice. Thus we packed into a company van with our guides and started down the road toward the residential part of the town. As we were in a hurry, we’d left our body armor and helmets with our original driver. 

It didn’t take long to notice the damage from direct hits on some industrial buildings that flanked the road into town. Another key indicator of artillery bombardment was the lack of windows. They were boarded up, covered with plastic, or just plain gone.  Despite this, however, what we could observe on the streets looked rather ordinary. People walked about with their groceries or rode bicycles. In spite of the daily shelling, people weren’t darting about from cover to cover Sarajevo-style. 

After a short trip we arrived in a neighborhood consisting of five-story Khrushchevka buildings, not significantly different from the one in which I spent five of my nine years in Russia. They took us to a particular building that had obviously sustained considerable damage and was in the process of being restored when we arrived. We were allowed to go inside, though we had to dodge the busy workmen left and right. We carefully headed up the stairwell and I noticed that two flights of stairs had been damaged so that they seemed to sag in the middle. The last flight of stairs was gone, so workers had replaced it with long wooden planks. On the way up, we saw metal doors bulging outward. I inspected flats which had suffered hits to their kitchens and bathrooms, their floors covered with debris. 

  • Abandoned apartment.
  • Shattered balconies.
  • A ruined residential building facing the front line.
  • The cutest thing you'll ever see in a war zone.
  • Shell of a rocket in the courtyard of the coke and chemical plant. 
caption author

While we were in the stairwell we had a chance to interview one of our guides from the factory to learn a little more about how people dealt with the war. He explained that he actually had a flat in rebel-controlled Donetsk. Like many people in Avdiivka, he had acquaintances, friends, and neighbors on the other side of the line, and people on both sides kept in contact via phone or internet to share warnings about possible shelling or to check up on their property. Like many workers with families in Avdiivka, our guide had sent his wife and children to a nearby, safer town, where he could see them on weekends. 

On the topic of safety, I was getting a bit concerned about the time. We’d arrived in Avdiivka at least an hour late due to an unplanned stop and getting lost on the way. The sun was starting to go down, and it seemed to me a sort of ticking clock. Time was important because we had another site to visit. In this case it was a restaurant called Café Brevno. 

We had been told about the restaurant earlier, at the factory, when our guides mentioned that it had been hit by a shell which killed three of the staff. The restaurant’s grill was outdoors, and its tables were located inside little huts, presumably intended for private get-togethers. This layout reminded me of the Biblos restaurant in Artemivsk. We first chatted with a middle-aged soldier who was drinking a beer alone by an outdoor table, and then we spoke to Yana, the rather young-looking manager of the establishment. With her smartphone she showed us a photo of the damage the establishment had sustained. The shell had hit the grill area, which explained why the victims had been members of the staff. Yana said that she herself had been in the same area twenty minutes earlier, but had left to get something when the place was struck. 

As it was getting late, our guide from the factory offered to let us spend the night in their bomb shelter, a bunker I’d heard about from another journalist who’d visited the town. She took us back to the courtyard outside the plant’s admin building and asked us to wait while she made the arrangements. As we milled about in the little park-like area, I noted an odd, cylindrical metal object which had shattered the curb encircling one of the lawns. Radiating out from this object was a splash pattern of indentations in the asphalt. Given that plus the diameter of the object, and the damage to the façade of the nearby admin building, it was clear that this was an exploded rocket, most likely BM-21 Grad, a popular multiple rocket launch platform descended from the WWII-era BM-13 Katyusha. In WWII and some other 20th century conflicts, the ability to launch massive rocket barrages against large enemy formations was ideal. In the 21st century, where populations are far more urbanized, these rocket launchers with their ability to plaster entire grid squares in the space of a few seconds become murderous. As it got darker outside, the remains of the rocket served as a reminder that we were not safe; they could hit us here too. 

Our guide reemerged from the admin building to deliver some bad news — the bomb shelter had no room for us. We’d be staying in the factory’s hospital, nearby. The front of this narrow, multi-storied building faced the town, so theoretically the rebels could put a shell or rocket right through one of its windows or through the walls as they were not reinforced. The head nurse, who was now living in the hospital as she’d been bombed out of her flat, led us upstairs and introduced us to an officer in charge of a contingent of Ukrainian soldiers who assisted in security around the plant. I don’t remember seeing a single one in uniform. 

Photo by Jim Kovpak

As an odd aside, we ended up watching TV with some of the Ukrainian soldiers, and the experience was surreal. All the channels were Russian outlets. We saw some of Interni, a medical-themed comedy series starting Ivan Okhlobystin, who apart from his raving homophobia had also once expressed extremely violent opinions towards Ukrainians. Next we saw the news from Russia’s POV on Rossiya 24, and finally we caught a glimpse of rebel TV on a network called simply Novorossiya, which was showing The Devil Wears Prada. After we’d cleared out of the break room, we headed back to the ward that served as our accommodations for the night, and I fell asleep on an incredibly hard hospital bed situated next to an ultrasound machine. 

The night passed uneventfully, at least for us at the factory, and in the morning we headed over to the town council building to see them give out humanitarian aid and plastic to replace broken windows. Apparently while the factory had been spared shelling that night, the town had not. Residents, mostly elderly, came in to report how many windows they’d lost and the city workers would cut the plastic sheets from a large roll. 

Minutes after we arrived I was standing outside the building, maybe a couple kilometers from the frontline positions, and I began to hear the crackle of small arms fire, followed by what sounded like heavier caliber machine guns. So far nothing I hadn’t heard before. Then the tempo quickened and the small arms were joined by explosions and much heavier weapons. So this is what battle sounds like. After missing out on the experience in the army, here I was experiencing it as a civilian. What is more, after living over 9 years in Russia I was now in the sights of Russian artillery. The irony.

The feeling was a bit strange. I expected to feel fear, excitement, something, but instead I felt as though I had to coax myself into being concerned. It was all so…normal. The behavior of the town’s residents certainly reflected that mood. These weapons were being aimed at live people, and given our position they were theoretically aimed at us as well. The rebels knew exactly where the town council building was and had hit numerous buildings around it multiple times. Therefore putting a shell into that parking lot was well within their capabilities. In spite of that, I could only perceive the danger in an intellectual sense. It just didn’t feel real enough, as if I couldn’t grasp the severity of the situation. Looking back I think there was something exhilarating about it, but it wasn’t what I expected and it wasn’t fear. Perhaps it would have been different if I’d witnessed a shell exploding nearby, but fortunately none did. The battle continued as we went upstairs and interviewed the Ukrainian colonel who served as the military authority in the city alongside the civilian mayor. He explained that fighting during the day was a rarity these days. As he was doing so, there was an extremely loud boom from outside, almost as if on cue. He gestured toward the window and said, “Well there, you see?” 

We had a walk around the city to observe the damage, mostly shattered balconies and windows, during a lull in the fighting. In the process, we ran into Yana from Brevno with a couple of her young staff outside a closed shopping center. After saying hello we continued on our way and came across a bizarre scene: At the end of a heating pipe was a sort of shanty town made of boxes and pet carriers. Cats and kittens scurried about. Inside one of the cat carriers we saw a mother cat nursing a litter of kittens whose eyes had probably opened very recently. As we approached, more animals gathered, including two puppies. My colleagues began petting the cats and puppies as two elderly residents came up and explained how the townspeople had pitched in to build this shelter for the homeless animals and to feed them. It was built on the pipe for warmth in the winter. As this was going on, the battle started again. As before it began with small arms and graduated to heavy artillery. All the while, we photographed and played with the kittens and puppies.

Later on when the battle had died down again, the colonel invited us to lunch at the factory’s cafeteria, and then he drove us as close to the front lines as we could go, showing us the last Ukrainian checkpoint. Once again we didn’t have our body armor with us, but at this point we asked ourselves why we should wear it if nobody else had armor. The most notable landmark near the front was a pair of residential buildings, their broadsides facing the front line, which had been ruined by rebel artillery. He explained how the buildings had been pounded with artillery roughly a month before we showed up and the whole thing had been captured on video and posted to Youtube. Hallmark of a 21st century war.  

We had been invited to stay another night in Avdiivka, this time in the town itself, but a change in my colleague’s schedule meant that he had to cut the trip short by a day. Spending time talking to the ordinary people, as well as the public servants, one couldn’t help but feel some sort of survivor guilt. They experienced sleepless nights in basements, power blackouts, lost their water supply, and yet we were able to just hop in a taxi and go back to Kostiantynivka and relative peace. One thing I remember hearing from several people, including the mayor, was how nice the town had been before the war. One worker invited us to come back when Avdiivka once again had peace.

And that may be where the guilt comes from. Since the beginning of a new ceasefire on 1 September, Avdiivka has had peace. The school year started as usual and the remaining children in the town attend their classes as they did before the war. The better things get for the people of Avdiivka, the less interesting it is for journalists. Thus the city will go from the headlines back into obscurity. I doubt any of the residents will regret that, however. 

Jim Kovpak is the founder of Russia Without BS.

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