This may come out too emotional and pathetic. But in addition to the adrenalin rush and the gutsiness of our actual offensive, meeting with the locals and our impressions of them—people who had spent several months without contact, and some with out power, gas or water—was also a big deal. And their hundreds of stories, some of which you don’t even want to imagine. Here are some of the positive episodes.
I’m digging in my pack, looking for a sleeping bag and some tinned food for supper. We’re planning to overnight here. Somewhere close by, a shrill cry just about causes me to have heart failure and I hit my head on the roof.
«Haaaalyaaaaa!!! Halya! It’s our guys! Our boys are here! And they have internet! From outer space! We can call out! On Viber! Like before… hurry and come here, don’t be stupid. It’s truuuuue!»
At this, heads start popping up from behind fences, I kid you not, just like in a cartoon! People start coming from the village. Plenty of hugs, tears, sniffles, watermelons, and squashes.
«What, we can call just like that? You’d better ask people for their passports. And take down names. We could turn out to be moskali or luhandons."*
I figure if they’re offering useful advice right away, they’re definitely ours… :))
As we’re having our morning smoke, a woman quietly scurries over with a pail and a big bag in both hands. Gasping, she says:
«Good morning, boys! I’ve cooked you up some borshch and made some buns with cabbage. Here you are, have some breakfast!»
I take a good look and realize that she’s perfectly serious, not joking: the pail is full of real borshch. That’s one strong lady, running around like that with full pails.
«Thanks so much, but we have everything we need. We can even share our food with you.»
«Oh, take it. It’s fresh, homemade. I got up at five so that it would be nice and hot for you in the morning.»
We realize that begging off won’t work. Nor do we really want to: fresh hot borshch is not your spam in a can. I make one last effort to be polite:
«But you have all brought us so much. Bread, and watermelon and…»
«Oh that old she-goat! She said she was taking it to the store. Boy, am I going to give it to her. Well, if you took bread from Liuska, then take my borshch, too. No other way! Oh, that she-goat, beat me to the punch…»
I grab the pail, a whole pail! of borshch, we hug the woman, and thank her. I carry the valuable booty to the guys. The borshch is fabulous. Like mom’s. With the fresh, still-warm bread and sauerkraut buns. Everybody’s happy.
I’m reading the news. I notice that a cluster of teenagers is drawing closer to me, dressed very much like a bunch of gopniks. Slouchy shoulders, rolling gait, clean-shaven, wearing dark Adidas trousers—kind of classic. I watch them. They come up and one, the tallest of the lot, says:
«I turned 18 two months ago!»
I’m taken aback: not an opening line I’ve heard before.
«Well, um, congratulations!»
«I can show ya my passport!»
«What for? I’m not a passport agent and not the Center for Administrative Services. Do you need some kind of stamp or something?»
«I wanna join the army! I’m 18 already! Been waiting for two months. Kept thinking how to get to you guys. And here you are, you came here! Who can I show my documents to?»
I’m a bit freaked out and now I finally notice what his «support group» is carrying: a backpack, a sleeping bag, and some shopping bags. I realize that he is completely serious and has come here to enlist right here and now in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. And his gang came equally seriously to see him off. I’m a bit lost for words… His buddies interpret the pause differently:
«Take him! Oleh’s totally cool! His stepdad even did time. Those bastards took his Natashka away. She and Oleh were supposed to get hitched and we still don’t know where she is. Take him, don’t let him down! They swiped my Tavria, too, the creeps!»
I’m freaking out again…
Evening, we get up and roll out the comms. Almost immediately I get an incoming call on Viber, which I rarely ever use. I see an obviously attractive avatar: a blonde with a nice smile. Well, OK, cute blonde is very good, right? I answer the call. An angry female voice unexpectedly comes at me:
«Who's this??? Whaddaya want?»
I’m puzzled, for sure, but I’ve heard worse before:
«Well, lady, you’re the one calling me and you’re asking me who you’re calling?»
«What do you mean, ‘lady'?» The avatar really is a young woman about 20−25. «You're the one calling me!»
«Uhm…» I’m stunned.
«I've got three missed calls from you. Yesterday! What did you want?»
In a panic, I think who it is and where I might have been calling yesterday. And on Viber. A memory sparks in my brain:
«You wouldn’t be Alina, by any chance?»
«Great! Now I remember. Your father came up yesterday and asked to call you but you weren’t answering.»
«BASTARD!!! Animal! Creep! What the f? You want money for information again? Drop dead, you fucking con!!! And let your guys know, too…»
«WHOA! Alina, stop! Calm down. I’m an officer. Airborne assault. Ukrainian. Armed. Forces!»
… Silence… she almost whispers:
«Is that true?»
«Yep. He came up yesterday and asked to make a call. He said yesterday was your birthday. wanted to greet you…»
Immediately tears, crying and hysterics pour out of the phone. She believes me.
I try to calm her down for a few minutes. It works.
«Where is he?»
I figure that last night he slept in Buhayivka.
«Buhayivka? Where’s that… Wait, that’s where Auntie Lena lives!!! Yeah??»
«YURAAAA! Get dressed! We’re going! It’s Dad! The Army found Dad! We’re going to Auntie Lena’s! He’s there! They’ve liberated that area! The AFU’s calling about Dad!»
«Only drive through…»
What the heck. She’s already forgotten about me and the phone… Life’s never a bore for this Yura, that’s for sure… living with a ball of fire like Alina.)))
So there you have, a few episodes… Even a dry phlegmatic like me is sometimes moved by it all.
Oleksandr, Kharkiv Oblast
- Moskali meaning russians, luhandons meaning people from occupied Luhansk and Donetsk.