Aug. 30, 2022
By Artem Chekh
The New York Times
IVANKIV, Ukraine — Recently, one of the companies in our battalion returned from a mission in eastern Ukraine. When we saw our comrades a month earlier, they were smiling and cheerful. Now they don’t even talk to each other, never take off their bulletproof vests and don’t smile at all. Their eyes are empty and dark like dry wells. These fighters lost a third of their personnel, and one of them said that he would rather be dead because now he is afraid to live.
I used to think I had seen enough deaths in my life. I served on the front line in the Donbas for almost a year in 2015-16, and I witnessed numerous tragedies. But in those days the scale of losses was completely different, at least where I was. Each death was carefully fixed, investigations were conducted, we knew most of the names of the killed soldiers, and their portraits were published on social networks.
This is another kind of war, and the losses are, without exaggeration, catastrophic. We no longer know the names of all the dead: There are dozens of them every day. Ukrainians constantly mourn those lost; there are rows of closed coffins in the central squares of relatively calm cities across the country. Closed coffins are the terrible reality of this cruel, bloody and seemingly endless war.
I too have my dead. In the course of the conflict, I’ve learned of the deaths of various friends and acquaintances, people I had worked with or people I’d never met in person but with whom I maintained friendships on social networks. Not all these people were professional soldiers, but many could not help but take up arms when Russia invaded Ukraine.
I read obituaries on Facebook every day. I see familiar names and think that these people should continue writing reports and books, working in scientific institutes, treating animals, teaching students, raising children, baking bread and selling air-conditioners. Instead they go to the front, get wounded, develop severe PTSD and die.
One of the biggest recent blows for me was the death of the journalist Oleksandr Makhov. He already had some military experience, and knowing Oleksandr’s fearlessness and courage, I followed him attentively online. I used to visit his Facebook page and was happy to see new posts: They showed he was alive. I focused on his life as if it were a beacon in a stormy sea. But then Oleksandr was killed, and everything fell apart. One by one, I got the news about the deaths of those I knew.
I forbade myself to believe that I and the people I love or like will survive. It is hard to exist in this state, yet accepting the possibility of one’s own death is necessary for every soldier. I started thinking about it back in 2014 when, not yet holding a weapon in my hands, I already sensed that one day I would be able to wield one — and so it proved. In the 10 months I spent on the front
line near Popasna, in the Luhansk region, I thought often about death. I could feel its quiet steps and calm breathing next to me. But something told me no, not this time.
Now, who knows? Currently my service takes place on the northern border, where I patrol part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It is safer here than in the east or south, although the proximity of the autocratic Belarusian leader takes a psychological toll. Our unit’s task is to prevent a repeat of the events of March, when the northern part of the Kyiv region was occupied and the enemy shelled the outskirts of the capital with artillery.
I’m ready to get into any hot spot. There is no fear. There is no silent horror as there was in the beginning, when my wife and son were hiding in the hallway of our Kyiv apartment trying to somehow calm down or even fall asleep amid the excruciating howling of air alarms and explosions. There is sadness, of course: More than anything in the world I just want to be with my wife, who is still in Kyiv with my son. I want to live with them, not die somewhere on the front line. But I have accepted the possibility of my death as an almost accomplished fact. Crossing this Rubicon has calmed me down, made me braver, stronger, more balanced. So it must be for those who consciously tread the path of war.
The death of civilians, especially children, is a completely different matter. And no, I don’t mean that the life of a civilian is more valuable than the life of a military person. But it is a little more difficult to be prepared for the death of an ordinary Ukrainian who was going about her life and was suddenly killed by Russian roulette. It is also impossible to be prepared for brutal tortures, mass graves, mutilated children, dead bodies buried in the courtyards of apartment buildings, and missile attacks on residential areas, theaters, museums, kindergartens and hospitals.
How to prepare yourself for the thought that the mother of two children who hid in a basement for a month slowly passed away before their eyes? How to accept the death of a 6-year-old girl who died of dehydration under the ruins of her house? How should we react to the fact that some people in the country, as in occupied Mariupol, are forced to eat pigeons and drink water from puddles at the risk of catching cholera?
To quote Kurt Vonnegut, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death. But encounters with death could be very different. We want to believe that we and our beloved ones, the modern people of the 21st century, no longer have to die from medieval barbaric torture, epidemics or detention in concentration camps. That’s part of what we’re fighting for, the right not only to a dignified life but also to a dignified death.
Let us, the people of Ukraine, wish ourselves a good death — in our own beds, for example, when the time comes. And not when a Russian missile hits our house at dawn.
Artem Chekh is a soldier, writer and the author of “Absolute Zero.”