Outgoing, incoming, the whistle, the screech and the bang.
The violence of war descended on Ukraine when Russian forces surged across their borders. The killing and dying seemed to happen so quickly that it almost felt mechanical.
Suddenly, some of the most lethal weapons ever used were massed on the battlefield and unleashed on both sides in appalling quantities: cluster rockets, self-detonating mines, battle tanks, howitzers, thermobarics and incendiary munitions. The list goes on.
The skies above the quaint neighborhoods of cities like Kharkiv or the coal mines of the Donbas were an unseen kaleidoscope of death as artillery fired from a distance ruled the day after the Russian retreat in early April from the Kyiv area. Moscow had decided to try to win by attrition.
What did that look like?
Soldiers cowered in trenches, pressing their faces into the cold earth, trying to shrink into the ground as shrapnel and debris cut through the air around them. Neighborhoods were transformed into wastelands. Apartments burned, and the sides of homes were sheared off like post-apocalyptic dollhouses.
The dead soldiers are called 200s, the wounded 300s. The terms are repackaged jargon from the Soviet era when dead soldiers being sent home in Zinc-lined coffins from Afghanistan were called “Cargo 200.”
The frontline is the “zero line,” and going there means being sent to “zero” or, to some, “the meat grinder.”
Airstrikes and gun battles are rare compared with the immense amount of shells flying through the air, so soldiers call them “aviation bombs” and “rifle battles.” One soldier who spent less than a month on the front line in the country’s east never fired a shot. But his company of 106 men had four 200s (killed) and 23 300s (wounded), he said.
“People can’t fight artillery with machine guns,” he added matter-of-factly.
Those caught in the middle, the civilians, have fared the worst.
Their senses become finely attuned. Every sound, at all hours of the day, is analyzed. Is it an incoming shell?
They rely on split-second calculations about whether to stay or go. Run or walk. Sleep upstairs or head to the basement.
The routine is exhausting, but they quickly begin to understand the acoustic differences between a 120-millimeter mortar and a 152-millimeter howitzer shell. They use words like “horror,” “nightmare” and “unimaginable” to describe daily routines. The cold damp nights in their basements end at first light.
They emerge and survey the damage around them, glad they are still alive and hoping their neighbors are, too.