Here in Ukraine, it is early June and the air is still frigid as the early evening twilight has begun to fill the sky. The darkness rolls in heavily and lazily, like a fat person in a Walmart motorized shopping cart. It moves sluggishly along the streets and alleys, bringing vapors ashore from the Sea of Azov. The fog obstructs your vision and impedes your movement, much like that oversized motorized cart operator. 

Shyrokyne, once a popular seaside resort village, is now decorated with the marks of combat. Vacationers and commerce have been replaced with soldiers—most of them volunteers. These men and women hold the line for Ukraine against the looming Russian threat, which resides but a football field away. Here, they are unevenly dispersed amongst the village, where anyone could realistically be anywhere, in any building. If something went really wrong, you could really only know for sure if they were friendly if you were to see their faces.

The Ukrainians keep you guessing. They wear a collage of uniforms, mostly counterfeit copies and donated surplus from various nations around the world, making it impossible to identify friend or foe at first glance. In this obscured landscape, Ukrainian and Russian forces linger in scattered pockets throughout the abandoned structures and streets of the village. The area is not marked, meaning there is no clear zone of combat. There are no walls, no obstacle belts, nor signs that truly signify what area is controlled by whom—only a few hills that buffer battered resort buildings, a creek, the sea, a few roads, and a pocket of buildings that are hugged by a valley in the center of the village.

This pocket of buildings has become a default no man’s land, yet much uglier in scale than the flatland scenes imagined from a World War One battlefield. To stand in the stench of it and feel the universal, yet all-becoming vibrations of steady indirect fire, to see that the lines are obstructed by Lucifer’s jungle gym, is overwhelming. In the midst of it, scattered throughout the center of the village, are tight corners, mined approaches, unexploded ordnance from persistent shelling, random firing positions, observation posts, resting ruins of collapsed structures, as well as the resilient concrete and steel Soviet-era buildings now shuttered and locked with steel plates and bars.

The remains of a wagon rests in the scarred streets of Shyrokyne. Image courtesy of the author.

Found in the middle of the pandemonium are civilians, many of whom have been reduced to medieval living standards and now rely on their few animals, gardens, and the goodwill of soldiers for food. These people have been trapped by the disgustingly corrupt Ukrainian system and a war they personally do not give a damn about. The civilians on the battlefield in Shyrokyne are primarily senior citizens who lack a place to go or refuse to leave what little they have left in this world. They have also been disenfranchised by a government relocation program that has left many of their contemporaries economically and socially marooned in the capital, Kiev. Their damning choices are to either die abandoned in the capital five hundred miles away, or at home as a casualty of war.      

Surrounding them, from the hills over the valley, are disruptive hordes from Ukraine and Russia. The scene these opposing sides have created is a battlefield unto itself—beyond fiction. The landscape is exactly what one would envision following a battle of attrition between factionalized warlords in a post-apocalyptic landscape who are running a war with well-armed and motivated civilians with little to no military experience.

In random locations around the valley, a haphazard security perimeter has been established. As a non-unified front encircles the valley, the flood of violence is loosely held in place by an assortment of well-known, frequently fired at but often missed fighting positions. These positions are shakily controlled by a mixture of varying commanders and intermittently rotated troops who operate entirely independently of one another, none of whom have much interest in communicating.

They bring with them apprehension and opposition to even the mere thought of improving their fighting positions, fields of fire, or defensive lines. There is most certainly a disdain for how to operate tactically, like real soldiers, beyond the scope of a YouTube video tutorial or something seen in a movie. This is where reason comes to die. Simply the thought of knowing without ever learning trumps having done any training. This is what civil war looks like: The bold and the foolish are armed to the teeth, their heads pumped with nonsense about how they’re all heroes. Yesterday they were students. Today they are soldiers. It is that easy. They are then rushed to war before they remember reason, to play their part in a scene that is set for a farcical dark comedy. Most of them are a bigger danger to themselves than to their enemy.